It has been said that if you want something done, ask a busy man to do it. That’s because most busy people (if they are successful) have created a system that allows them to be more productive than the average person, despite being very busy. As a CEO of a nine-location building products distribution business, a CEO of a real estate holding company, and a board member of four for-profit companies and one nonprofit organization, people frequently ask me how I get so much done. Below are my top ten productivity tips:
- “To- do” list. I don’t use a standard to-do list. After reading First Things First by Stephen Covey, I created a four-grid spreadsheet that I use as my time planner. The four grids are important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important and urgent, and not important and not urgent. I update the spreadsheet every day before I leave the office so I begin the following day organized and ready to go. I also look hard at the spreadsheet every day for things that I can delete or delegate. Also, by reviewing it every evening before leaving the office I’m not surprised to see my tasks for the next day.
- Work first on the “important and urgent” tasks. Sometimes it’s tempting to knock off some small easy tasks from your to-do list but if you want to be highly productive you need to force yourself to complete several items from the important and urgent quadrant each day before you complete any of the easy tasks.
- Set deadlines and start dates for tasks. Once you have done that, track them using the Microsoft Outlook Task feature so that you don’t forget due dates. Once I put the due date for a task into Outlook, I don’t have to remember it. It pops up when I need to begin working on the task.
- Follow-up on the things you delegate before they are due. If you wait for a project to be delivered to you on the assigned due date, you may end up disappointed because the person you delegate it to may have forgotten about it. I typically send a reminder halfway between the date I assigned a task and the due date to make sure that the task hasn’t been forgotten.
- Handle things only once. I don’t get a lot of paper mail anymore but if I need to respond to something I get in the mail I try to respond to it immediately. If I can’t I set up a task in Outlook and scan the paper into my computer and then file it in my “to be responded to” Outlook file folder. With emails I need to respond to I do the same thing as above.
- Block out time on your calendar to do key tasks. If you have a major project to do, block out some time on your calendar and when that time arrives, turn off your phone, close your door (if you have one), and buckle down on completing the task as soon as possible.
- Document everything. I don’t rely on my memory. After meetings I send an email to all the participants documenting what was discussed. That way if there is ever a disagreement about what was discussed in the meeting, there is a written record to review. I do this even for phone calls if what was discussed is important.
- Disable your emails from popping up in Outlook and on your smart phone. Before I did this, I would be working on something and an email popping up would distract me because I would, many times, respond quickly to the new email instead of finishing the task I was working on.
- Avoid paper files. I scan all important documents into my laptop computer so that no matter where I am in the world, if our attorney, accountant, insurance broker, etc., needs an important document, I can forward it immediately rather than rooting through a file cabinet.
- Have an agenda for meetings. If you are chairing a meeting, provide an agenda ahead of time so that people can be prepared and so you can stay on schedule. Meetings without an agenda tend to wander aimlessly and accomplish very little. If you aren’t chairing the meeting, ask for an agenda and don’t go to the meeting unless you get an agenda. Your time is valuable … don’t waste it on a meeting without an agenda.
Jim Sobeck is president of New South Construction Supply, West Columbia, S.C., and author of the Biz 101 blog at jimsobeck.tumblr.com. You can get his book "Business 101: Lessons From the Trenches" at Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.