How Do You KNOW When You Are Being Productive?

How Do You KNOW When You Are Being Productive?Well folks—here it is. I don’t know if you’ve been counting, but you are now reading the 100th issue of The Productivity Pro news”E”letter. How exciting! I spent some time going through the archives and simply could not believe how much time has passed since that first issue in 1999. I changed the name of my company, got married, and had two more children. But one thing that has not changed is my passion for personal productivity. It was then—and continues to be—my professional mission in life: to help people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it.

Anyway, it got me thinking…with all of the tips and tricks that we’ve discussed (including tons of great reader suggestions), we’ve all hopefully learned HOW to be more productive, personally and professionally—but have we BECOME more productive?

I’ve come up with a few questions that you can ask yourself to see where you stand. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, so if you don’t like all of your answers you can always browse the archives for some inspiration.

Are you productive — or just busy? Watch out for this one, because it’s an easy trap to fall into. Everybody likes to look busy. Some workers make a career out of it while actually accomplishing very little in the average day. People zoom around the office, guzzling coffee and stomping back and forth to the copier; they scatter paper across every inch of their desks; and they furiously clack away at their keyboards while they talk on the phone. Busy, busy, busy!

But having lots of plates spinning at once doesn’t necessarily mean anything was accomplished. We all know what it’s like to have a really busy day, but still feel like we’ve accomplished very little and were unproductive all day.

Set your sights on realistic, attainable goals and work towards them. You’ll still be redirected by everyday interruptions and the inevitable fires that must be put out, but a plan will help you get back on track.

Do you plan your day? This goes beyond just keeping track of your meetings and jotting down deadlines. Planning your time is about keeping track of your projects and long-term goals and managing your priorities. If all you have is a daily to-do list and never look ahead, it is very easy to spend your day reacting to low-priority tasks without even realizing it. Sure, you’ll probably go to each of your meetings and cross off a few items on your list, but this is no guarantee that you are maximizing your productivity, making sure your daily activities are contributing toward your long-term objectives.

Take a few minutes each day to invest in planning. This means double-checking to make sure that every meeting you attend is a good use of your time (if you have control over this sort of thing) and that your to-do list not only tells you what you want to get done, but offers some level of priority for each item. You accomplish things in order of priority and spend some time on tasks that aren’t due in the next few days.

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to decide to spend time on a low-priority task, just because it is easy, fun, or low-stress. After all, if you complete an easy task, you’ll be able to scratch an item off of your list right away! We all know what a good feeling that is, but resist the temptation. If you do the most unattractive but highest value task on your list first, you’ll feel better about the entire day.

Do you have goals? Are you moving toward them? Generally our biggest goals, professionally and personally, are the things that we care most about in the world. They represent our career ambitions. Or our goals for our families. Or our goals for ourselves. If somebody asked you about them, you would probably agree that your big goals in life are your highest priorities.

Then why is it is so easy to neglect them? Our next promotion, our relationships with our kids, our physical fitness—whatever it is that matters most—so often gets pushed to the back-burner in favor of things that aren’t nearly as important. It is too easy for unimportant work to steal family time, for office frustrations to make you lose sight of career ambitions, or for exercise to be that one thing on the list that always gets pushed to the side.

If the last few paragraphs seem all-too-true to you, you might consider grabbing a piece of paper and writing down your goals for the next month, six months, and year. Then post your goals where they can act as a constant reminder of your true priorities. That might be your computer monitor at work or your bathroom mirror at home. Just make sure that you make your goals clear and post them with pride.

In a blog posting, I asked “How do you know if you’ve been productive?” Here are what six readers had to say:

1. Dear Laura, Productivity means that I am able to work, to network, and to accomplish the goals set by my boss and not feel any undue stress in the process. I feel very goal oriented and goal focused on productivity days. My sense of accomplishment is an elated feeling that carries me into the next day of work. Carol V.

2. When I know what needs to get done and I get all of the “tasks” done that are important to me. Mark K.

3. Dear Laura, A good day is when “all four burners are firing” and a bad day is when “I’m spinning my wheels.” When you’re having a good day, things don’t take as long as you expect. You have the info at hand. The work flow makes sense and you have all the reports from subordinates. The decision is obvious and the words flow clearly and succinctly. You walk away feeling great and that you’ve gotten two days work done. “Spinning your wheels” involves waiting for permission and “CYA” activities, being told to do things with people who aren’t here, a mental lapse that makes things hard that you know perfectly well you can do. Everything takes twice as long as it should and you’re never going to get done. Everything is frustrating and difficult. I find when I’m really in the grip of such a day; the best thing to do is clean out my pencil drawer. Doing something mindless and finite gives me a chance to stop and refocus without feeling like I’m just sitting around. Going on break doesn’t have the same effect because you’re still worrying about the problems. Sharon P.

4. I feel that I am being PRODUCTIVE when I am tackling those big, important projects that are moving my business forward and bringing in results. I feel like I am ORGANIZED when the house is running smoothly, I’m on top of the ticky-tacky daily paperwork, appointments are kept, errands are run, bills are paid on time, the bank statements are balanced, etc. I very seldom feel that I am both productive and organized at the same time – usually it is one or the other and that is why I am reading your books and newsletter. For once, I am trying to get it all done and done well. Sandi D.

5. Productivity means…having done everything I meant to do yesterday, keeping in control of today, and actively preparing for tomorrow. This kind of productivity is measurable simply in terms of comparing actions taken against goals set – how close are we to meeting a goal, how long did it take us to get there, did we get there in time? Understanding my capabilities day to day is key to setting the right goals; working hard and smart is key to meeting them. It’s counter-productive to allow myself to get despondent if I don’t meet every daily goal but acknowledging a missed goal or an unproductive period is part of designing a more realistic goal or working smarter today. I think that I achieve optimum productivity on those days/weeks/months when I’ve really taken time to analyze my daily capabilities and then used this knowledge to set realistic goals (‘realistic’ isn’t a code word for ‘easy’ – these goals can be ambitious and really stretch me/my reports/my colleagues/my company but I have to be sure that we’re all capable of at least getting close otherwise I’m wasting everyone’s time and missing another opportunity by focusing on an unachievable one). Loving the email newsletters – thank you for your continuing inspiration. Mary Ann L.

6. Productivity means accomplishing your goals; tasks; etc. in a timely manner. This is a consistent performing activity. You have organized your To-Do’s; planned your day; etc. The rewards of productivity are: 1. Stress-free feeling 2. A clean desk 3. Guilt-free pursuit of quality time activities (what is “special” for you). 4. A sense of accomplishment. Lou S.

What did all these comments have in common about how to be productive? What have I learned in 100 editions of this newsletter? I’ve learned that productivity, in its most meaningful sense, is all about reaching high-value goals, in every area of your life, often in the shortest amount of time (but not always, such as spending time with loved ones). It isn’t about scratching a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter off a to-do list. Time management techniques, electronic/paper planners and other productivity aides are just TOOLS. They are only as useful as what they help you accomplish. Make sure that your biggest, most important goals create the context for the other things you do throughout the days, weeks, and months.

I’d like to thank each of you for the instrumental role you have played in making this newsletter a success. Looking back on 100 issues, I’d like to know what you think. What have you found useful? What would you like to see more of in the future? What can I do to make the most out of the NEXT 100 issues (exciting thought!)? Please email me at [email protected] and let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2007 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.