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Productive Days Don’t Happen by Accident

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

74% of people report leaving the office without having done the important things.

Think about your average weekday morning. How does it start? Phone notifications? Email? Scrolling? The news? Checking the markets? Responding to IMs? Writing out everything you wanted to accomplish?

How you start your day is often how it will continue. Letting yourself be pulled in multiple different directions first thing can ruin your chances of getting the truly important things done.

No, the answer is not to meditate, reflect, or express gratitude. Those are helpful rituals to boost energy and center you, but they don’t guarantee a productive day. To feel accomplished and in control of your time, you need a strategy. And a strategy is not a well crafted to-do list or a tighter schedule.

Michael Porter, a famous Harvard Business School professor said: “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it's about deliberately choosing to be different. The essence of strategy is choosing what NOT to do.”

To guarantee yourself a productive day, start by defining what is not important and where you won’t spend time. While the world is calm and fresh, pause and create a Not Doing List for the day ahead. This is your daily mini strategy session.

Try this: before you dive into anything else, SIMPLIFY the day. It only takes 5 to 10 minutes. Find a quiet place with no devices (you can even do this in the shower). Mentally walk through each hour. Visualize yourself in meetings, building PowerPoints, reviewing data, emailing, IMing, presenting, making lunch, coaching, sitting in one-on-one meetings, and so on. You can even describe the activities out loud. As you do this, ask yourself the questions below. This will help you pinpoint where the day might go off track. You want to determine upfront what will eat your time away and hold you back from the important things. Questions to Help Simplify the Day:

  1. Are these activities really going to get me closer to my goals?

  2. Who might waste my time or zap my energy?

  3. How might I get distracted?

  4. Where might I over-invest my time in certain activities today?

  5. Can I outsource or delegate anything I might spend time on today?

  6. If I knew 3 things wouldn't get done today, what would I choose those to be?

When you spot something that might be a poor use of time, make note of it. Write it down. This becomes your short NOT DOING LIST for the day. If you’re truly committed to this, keep it with you throughout the day. Cross off items as you skip, dodge, delete, and avoid them. Even finding ONE thing could give you 30 minutes back to do more important work. You can also track your progress. Try using a Google sheet. List out the days of the week and track how many hours you win back. If you’re analytical, you can go wild with setting goals and measuring yourself. Remember, simplify the day BEFORE it starts - before you’re pulled in multiple directions. Doing it after you check your phone, send some emails, or get into the first meeting is too late. You’ll already be distracted and not focused on the right things. I do this before I even take my phone off airplane mode from the night before. Try embedding this practice for 21 days. That’s how long it takes on average to form a habit. Starting with this acute focus on what doesn’t need to happen will free up the time and energy you need for the hard important things. You’ll be able to turn off at the end of the day feeling accomplished with lower anxiety.

"I've never lost a game, I just ran out of time" – Michael Jordan

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