The Three Pillars of Getting More Stuff Done

Can these pillars help you do more at work? We think so.

These days, it seems like everyone’s swamped. Work responsibilities keep piling on (particularly during hiring freezes and department restructuring), and family life and personal projects demand constant attention.

Sound familiar? You’re jumping from task to task all day, and you can barely find a spare moment to take a breath – let alone eat lunch away from your desk. At the end of the day, however, you’re not actually sure what got accomplished.

The truth is most of our days are filled with busy work and inefficiencies that erode our focus, fray our nerves, and don’t get us any closer to actually finishing work.

The internet is filled with productivity tips that promise to revolutionize your life, but in the end they all boil down to three simple things: figure out what you need to do, set aside time to do it, and focus on one thing at a time.

It sounds ridiculously simple – so simple that many people just skip these steps and get lost in a haze of undefined tasks and busy work.

Read below for how to define and stick to these three pillars – and once you’ve implemented them, you’ll be shocked by how much more productive you can become.

#1: Figure out what you need to do

You probably have a to-do list the length of your arm, but do you actually know what you need to be doing? Are you doing work only you can do, or should you delegate the task to someone with a more appropriate skill set? Is the task furthering the mission of your organization (or your own personal mission), or are you filling your time with busy work that’s not going anywhere?

Once you know what you actually need to do, list it all out. In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen explains the mind in terms of computer RAM. If you’re trying to keep track of everything in your memory, those tasks are using up mental space that should be used for higher-level thought. Pretty soon your brain is running slowly and starting to overheat.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed, simply listing out my tasks on paper or via a to-do app like Workflowy or Asana helps me get that anxiety under control. Rather than feeling smothered under the amorphous cloud of “Things That Need Done,” I can start to see a clear path to accomplishing them.

#2: Set aside time to do it

Most of us have tasks that require a solid block of concentration – like drafting copy for the new marketing brochure, or preparing a budget presentation. Yet we try to accomplish these tasks while also answering emails, dealing with walk-in interruptions, and going off on tangents of things we’ve just remembered we need to do.

According to the Wall Street Journal, office workers are interrupted – or interrupt themselves – every three minutes. If that’s the case with you, it’s no wonder you feel you have nothing to show by the end of the day!

So instead, set aside a solid block of time where you do nothing but work on the task at hand. Set the timer on your phone to 50 or 90 minutes, then apply yourself to work. Afterwards, take five minutes to deal with anything that’s come up, then take a ten minute break to refresh your energy. Rinse, repeat, and you’ll be surprised how much you’ll get done.

Additionally, pay attention to your natural energy peaks throughout the day, and schedule projects that need intense focus when you’re at your best. Save routine tasks like filing or following up on emails for times when your energy naturally dips.

Just as you’re setting aside time for larger projects, set aside time to blaze through smaller tasks. Batch like tasks together – emails, phone calls, and “in the car” errands – so you can do them all in one go. Our days are filled with waiting – for the coffee pot, for the start of a meeting, for a phone call, at the doctor’s office. Instead of simply killing time checking Facebook on your phone, keep a list of shorter tasks (like reviewing materials, responding to emails, etc) that you can dash off when you only have a few minutes.

#3: Do tasks one at a time

You know those days when you swear you’ve been scrambling all day long, but nothing seems to have gotten done? It could be that multitasking is rearing its ugly head. Doing three things at once feels so productive at the time, but in reality it’s completely unhelpful. By only giving a project a slice of your attention, odds are that you’ll make more mistakes, and waste time revisiting something that should have been done right the first time.

Dealing with constant interruptions as they happen instead of batching them undermines your productivity. Email and phone calls are one thing, but our brains are probably the biggest sources of interruptions. I keep a notepad on my desk to jot down anything my brain tries to tell me. Everything from job to do’s to “buy eggs” and “recommend this book to mom” gets jotted down there so I can process it later.

Set an auto responder on your email, put your phone on silent, turn off the internet, or take your laptop to a top secret location. In the end, there will never be more hours in the day, and as your career advances your levels of responsibility will only increase. In order to do your best work, you need to be fierce about protecting your time.

[Related: Get More Stuff Done: 9 of Your Best Productivity Tips]

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