How to maximize productivity and get the most out of your week
There are a million articles out there on work-life balance, how to make time for yourself, and how to ensure you still get to see your family from time to time. This is not one of those articles. Maybe I’ll write one at some point. For now, I’ll stick to the strategies I use to maximize productivity at work to hit my goals. Here’s how to get the most out of each and every week.
Every Monday we all start with a fresh slate, and a laundry list of things we’d like to accomplish for the week. Unfortunately by Tuesday, a million extra things have come up. There is usually an urgent priority for our bosses. Our computer blew up/network was down/systems failed or we’ve been derailed by some unforeseen obstacle. While we had great intentions of accomplishing all 35 things on our list by Friday, it just isn’t possible unless we don’t sleep for the next three days.
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When the rubber meets the road
When this happens, many of us get overwhelmed. It seems like the options are either to throw in the towel, or not sleep for the next three days. Although I’m all for hard work, the above scenario of weekly wrecking happens all too often. If I never slept I’d burn out in less than a year. Alternatively, throwing in the towel and not doing anything would likely get me fired. So I’ve come up with a few strategies to meet in the middle, combat the crazy and tackle my to-dos. If you’ve faced this problem before you’ve come to the right place, so keep reading!
Planning 101 – start at the top with an annual view
The key to solving this issue and staying on top of your tasks is a healthy obsession with prioritization, which I do on an annual, weekly, and sometimes daily basis. I know this seems like overkill, but in the fast paced world weeks and even months can slip by before you realize you’re behind on something, so for me, starting at a high level is critical. In my job we get annual goals that hopefully tie to a bonus at the end of the year. The goals are based on key initiatives and business needs, so it is easy to use these goals to lay out the year according to deliverables.
Make an annual plan
In January, I typically get an annual calendar and map key deliverables for my initiatives in each month. I choose due dates where they naturally fall in the business cycle, or by spacing the other tasks out appropriately throughout the year. This is my “macro” calendar that helps me plan at a weekly and monthly level. It’s important to take this high level view so you can see if you’re really behind on any key items. If a goal needs to be started by March to complete by the end of the year, and you realize it hasn’t kicked off in May – it’s easy to see you’ll really need to hustle if you want it done on time. This annual planning also helps space out tasks so that you don’t end up with all your critical deliverables in one month of the year.
Doubleclick – work your way down by initiative
Usually multiple smaller tasks make up one big deliverable – so it’s important to drill down into smaller chunks of time to ensure your big goals get accomplished. I do this with – you guessed it – priority lists. I take my big deliverable and break it down into smaller tasks that I put on a priority list. This does a couple of things. One: it allows me to break down something that may seem daunting into smaller pieces that are easier to accomplish, and two: it allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment as I check off pieces of the list.
While I may not complete the big task for awhile, I’m still able to feel motivated and like i’m making progress in the short term. Finally, I keep a running weekly to do list the helps me set the priorities for myself and my team, which is where it’s easiest to combat the craziness that happens day to day.
The day to day – how to stay caught up and re-prioritize
First thing every Monday I have a recurring appointment on my calendar with “weekly priorities.” Based on upcoming tasks I create a document that guides my week and is flexible as needed. I create a list of “hot priorities” — or things that MUST be done that week.
Below that list are the “upcoming priorities,” or things that need to be done within the next two weeks or longer. The upcoming priorities may also be really important, but the important thing that distinguishes this section of my list from hot priorities is that nothing here will be delivered this week. Freeing myself to focus my efforts on the hot items is liberating and really allows me to push things through.
One of my best bosses gave me the advice that I could only get six “hot” things done per week. It’s possible to get a million emails or smaller tasks done, but not possible to overload the hot deliverables. I also have a section on this document called “to discuss” which is a list of items I need to discuss with my boss. Key items I need feedback on or discussion topics go here so I can quickly reference them when we meet. Here’s what my weekly documents look like:
- First Priority
- Second Priority
- Third Priority
- First Priority
- Second Priority
- Third Priority
- Fourth Priority
- First topic
- Second topic
- Third topic
The Hot List
Depending on your career, the number of hot items you can tackle will change, but I can usually get one big deliverable with a few smaller tasks done while keeping up with the day to day – never going beyond my magic number in a week. This magic number is critical to understand as it is how you’ll communicate what you can deliver and when. If I commit to delivering 35 things each week, and once the week blows up I’m only able to deliver 10, my bosses typically wouldn’t be very happy. Although I finished 10 things, they’d wonder where the other 25 were that I’d promised.
This brings up another important point. Keep a few hours (at least 1-2 a day, and a few bigger chunks if possible) on your calendar free each week. If you’ve scheduled every 30 minutes of your day for the entire week, there’s almost no room for error or for the immediate tasks that pop up. Unless you don’t like sleep or seeing your family, this creates a recipe for disaster.
Get alignment on what you’re doing
Finally, once I have my weekly list, I make sure my boss is aligned to what I’m working on that week. This way, we don’t have any miscommunication and ensure critical milestones are hit on time. It also allows for re-prioritization if something else comes up urgently. Once all the shifting has occurred for the week, I take some time on Friday afternoon to look at my calendar for the next week. If anything got bumped from the current week, it has to go to the top of the list the following week. Although this may seem like a lot of work, it really helps me stay on top of my projects and ensures that my team and I are all working on the most important tasks at the right time.
To summarize – here’s a list of my tips & tricks to prioritize while at work:
- Start with an annual priority list & map deliverables out by month
- Break down key initiatives into smaller tasks that are easier to accomplish
- Create a weekly document that includes hot priorities and upcoming priorities
- Don’t commit to any deliverables beyond your magic number
- Align on priorities and discuss critical action items with your boss weekly
If you have any other tips to conquer the crazy I’d love to hear them. And if you try out my weekly prioritization I’d love to hear if it works!
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