Increased personal productivity is on everyone’s wish list these days. There are deadlines to meet and goals to achieve but so little time. Working harder to get more done is a common approach which either leads to limited progress or complete burnout. And then we end up blaming ourselves for lacking the drive to pursue our goals.
I can tell you from experience that it is not always a lack of motivation that’s stopping you. More often than not, it’s not the WHY but the HOW that is the actual root of the problem.
And over the last few years, I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning the HOW. In my journey, I found fundamentals from various technical fields and professional disciplines that could be applied towards personal productivity. As always, I experimented with some and adopted the ones that worked best for me.
Here are my top 5 personal productivity techniques to help you simplify work and go after those big goals in life:
1. S.M.A.R.T Goals
The problem is not setting big goals for yourself. Big goals are great. They give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But most of us set goals that are too vague or ambiguous. These won’t land you anywhere.
And there’s a simple way to fix this. Whenever you set a goal for yourself, just ask yourself if it meets the SMART goals criteria. This is a technique from the field of project management that translates wonderfully to personal settings.
SMART stands for:
- Specific: The goal should target a specific area of improvement or answer a specific need.
- Measurable: The goal must be quantifiable, or at least allow for measurable progress.
- Attainable: The goal should be realistic, based on available resources and existing constraints.
- Relevant: The goal should align with other business objectives to be considered worthwhile.
- Time-bound: The goal must have a deadline or defined end.
My experience has been that defining your goals so clearly forces one to introspect and question the validity of those goals. It may sometimes feel hard or even unnecessary but this is a way to examine your purpose. It has the added benefit of providing you with a direction when previously you seemed to have none.
2. Mind Maps
So you have a goal in mind but you don’t know where to begin. Or you have a 1000 ideas running in your head but you’re not sure if you can arrange them in an organized manner. This is when you need the power of visualization. It’s no coincidence that we have long used visuals to make sense of the world around us – be it cave paintings, engineering diagrams or mind maps.
Although widely used, I feel that mind-mapping is one of the most under-appreciated techniques for effective brainstorming. I find it best not to limit creative tasks by the prioritization or hierarchical arrangement that comes with to-do lists. Mind mapping lends the freedom of generating ideas spontaneously after which you can proceed with grouping the information systematically for actionable tasks.
Mind mapping can have applications in personal, professional or educational settings for a variety of tasks. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil and you’re ready to go. But if you wish to become more systematic in the creation, storage, sharing, and editing of your mind maps then it’s best to use an online service like MindMeister.
3. Kanban Boards
Kanban boards are a workflow visualization tool being used by multinational companies to small-time agencies. Their brilliance lies in their simplicity and the level of customization they offer.
Put simply, you use colored sticky notes to denote tasks and divide them into columns that mark stages of those tasks. In its most simple form, a board is divided into “to-do”, “work in progress” and “complete”. But feel free to experiment with the arrangement to meet your requirements.
The primary benefit of using Kanban boards is that you can create a picture of your workflow which makes it simpler to understand. Our brains process visual information 60,000 times faster than text so it is easier to see the larger picture of a project and the status of tasks in a single glance.
You can put up a physical board in your room or office if you have space or like me, you can use one of the many apps/services out there such as Trello.
Under the discipline of project planning, each activity is defined by 3 constraints:
- Cost or Quality
Timeboxing is when you allocate a fixed time period for each planned activity called a time box. Time is the most valuable and non-renewable resource you have and this is designed with that focus.
The topic itself is vast and complex but the key takeaway for personal time management is this – the deadline is fixed but the scope or quality is not. This is a game-changer and now widely used for software development projects.
For example, if you’ve allocated yourself a week to finish a paper but midway you realize you can’t deliver in time – timeboxing says you should reduce the scope or quality of the work rather than extending the deadline, which we normally tend to do.
It seems counter-intuitive but it is a more pragmatic approach when you have a larger goal that is more important than its individual components. You may not be able to get everything done or achieve the quality you desired but it leaves you with the possibility of making incremental improvements at a later stage.
5. Pomodoro Technique
So you’ve spent all this time meticulously planning everything that needs to be done. But what if you can’t concentrate on actually doing those tasks? Well, there’s a time-management technique which can help you do that while quantifying the time you spent working.
The Pomodoro technique is very popular with coders, entrepreneurs, writers and anyone who needs to achieve a state of flow for their work. There are 6 steps in the original technique:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the Pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
- Work on the task.
- End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
- If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
- After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.
The Pomodoro technique works with our short attention spans rather than fight it. I personally use it as a mental hack for getting stuff done. When you don’t particularly enjoy a task it’s easier to work on it in short sprints knowing that you get a break soon.
Moreover, by scheduling your work and break time you can also accurately measure the total amount of time you spent on a task and know if you’re on track. You can use an egg timer, the timer app on your smartphone or a specialized Pomodoro app like Focus Keeper.
Did you find this useful? Do you have any of your own techniques or tools for productivity? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!