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10 Simple Steps to Exceptional Daily Productivity

A little planning, a little discipline... and a lot more gets done.
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No matter what your job, in one way our days are basically the same: We all have the same amount of time at our disposal.

That's why how you use your time makes all the difference... whether you're bootstrapping a startup or running a billion-dollar company like Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, one of the largest and most successful providers of open-source software.

Here are Jim's tips for maximizing your time and improving your personal productivity:

1. Every Sunday night, map out your week. Sunday evenings, I sit down with my list of important objectives for the year and for each month. Those goals inform every week and help keep me on track. While long-range goals may not be urgent, they are definitely important. If you aren't careful, it's easy for "important" to get pushed aside by "urgent." Then I look at my calendar for the week. I know what times are blocked out by meetings, etc. Then I look at what I want to accomplish and slot those tasks onto my to-do list.

The key is to create structure and discipline for your week--otherwise you'll just let things come to you... and urgent will push aside important.

2. Actively block out task time. Everyone schedules meetings and appointments. Go a step further and block out time to complete specific tasks. Slot periods for "Write new proposal," or "Craft presentation," or "Review and approve marketing materials."

If you don't proactively block out that time, those tasks will slip. Or get interrupted. Or you'll lose focus. And important tasks won't actually get done.

3. Follow a realistic to-do list. I used to create to-do lists, but I didn't assign times to each task. What happened? I always had more items on my to-do list than I could accomplish, and that turned it into a wish list, not a to-do list. If you have six hours of meetings scheduled today and eight hours worth of tasks then those tasks won't get done.

Assigning realistic times forces you to prioritize. (I like Toodledo, but there are plenty of other tools you can use.) Assigning realistic times also helps you stay focused; when you know a task should only take 30 minutes you'll be more aggressive in weeding out or ignoring distractions.

4. Default to 30-minute meetings. Whoever invented the one-hour default in calendar software wasted millions of people-hours. Most subjects can be handled in 30 minutes. Many can be handled in 15 minutes--especially if everyone who attends knows the meeting is only going to last 15 minutes.

Don't be a slave to calendar tool defaults. Only schedule an hour if you absolutely know you need it.

5. Stop multitasking. During a meeting--especially an hour-long meeting--it's tempting to take care of a few mindless tasks. (Who hasn't cleaned up their inbox during a meeting?) The problem is that such split focus makes those meetings less productive. Even though you're only doing mindless stuff, still--you're distracted. And that makes you less productive.

Multitasking is a personal-productivity killer. Don't try to do two things partly well. Do one thing really well.

6. Obsess over leveraging edge time. My biggest down times during the workday when I drive to work, when I drive home, and when I'm in airports. So I focus really hard on how to use that time. I almost always schedule calls for my drive to work. It's easy: I take the kids to school and drop them off at a specific time; then I can do an 8.00 to 8.30 call. I typically don't schedule calls for the drive home so I can return calls, especially to people on the west coast. 

At the airport, I use Pocket, a browser plugin that downloads articles. Loading up 10 articles ahead of time ensures I have plenty to read--plenty I want to read--while I'm waiting in the security line.

Look at your day. Identify the down times. Then schedule things you can do during that time. Call it edge time--because it really can build a productive edge.

7. Track your time. Once you start tracking your time (I use Toggl), you'll be amazed by how much time you spend doing stuff that isn't productive. You don't have to get hyper-specific. The info you log can be directional, not precise.

Tracking my time is something I just started to do recently. It's been an eye-opening experience--and one that has really helped me focus.

8. Be thoughtful about lunch. Your lunch can take an hour. Or 30 minutes. Or 10 minutes.

Whatever time it takes, be thoughtful about what you do. If you like to eat at your desk and keep chugging, fine. But if you benefit from using the break to recharge, lunch is one time where multitasking can be great: You can network, socialize, and help build your company's culture--but not if you're going out to lunch with the same people every day.

Pick two days a week to go out with people you don't know well. Or take a walk. Or do something personally productive. Say you take an hour for lunch each day; that's five hours a week. Be thoughtful about how you spend that time. You don't have to work, but you should make it work for you.

9. Protect your family time. Like you, I'm a bit of a workaholic. So I'm very thoughtful about my evenings. When I get home from work, it's family time: we have dinner as a family, we help our kids with their homework. I completely shut down. No phone, no email.

Generally speaking we have two hours before the kids have to get ready for bed. During that time, I'm there. Then I can switch back on. I'm comfortable leaving work at 5 or 5:30 p.m. because at 8 or 9 o'clock, I know I will be able to re-engage with work.

Every family has peak times when they can best interact. If you don't proactively free up that time you'll slip back into work stuff. Either be working or be home with your family. That means no phones at the table, no texts. Don't just be there, be with your family.

10. Start every day right. I exercise first thing in the morning because exercise is energizing. (Research also shows that moderate aerobic exercise can improve your mood for up to 12 hours, too.)

I get up early and run. Then I cool off while I read the newspaper and am downstairs before my kids so I can eat breakfast with them. Not only will you get an energy boost, efficiency in the morning sets the stage for the rest of your day. Start your day productively and your entire day will be more productive, too.

Last updated: Feb 18, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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