In Eric Barker's insanely-popular blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, he got to interview Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University, about how we can better manage our day and get more things done.
Newton, author of five books including the well-received Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, shared five productivity strategies many of us probably haven't thought of before, but need to learn in order to master our day.
1. Schedule your to do list items.
This technique is to help you be more realistic about what you want to get done, otherwise, it's just a list of wishful thinking, says Barker in his blog. Newton expands on the idea further: "Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Now that you look at the whole picture you're able to get something productive out of every free hour you have in your workday. You not only squeeze more work in but you're able to put work into places where you can do it best."
2. Set a deadline for leaving work, then plan your day backwards.
If you want to leave the office by, say, 5:30, set that as your deadline and work backwards. But first, make sure you schedule tasks you can get control and actually get done without interruptions. Point being, you want to rule the day rather than letting it rule you. Newton explains in Barker's blog: "Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit--ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way. My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions."
3. Focus on long-term planning.
We all do this: we sit down the day before and plan out our to-do list for the next day, which conditions us to short-term thinking. Newton tells Barker this is the wrong approach and we have to focus on long-term planning: "People don't look at the larger picture with their time and schedule. I know each day what I'm doing with each hour of the day. I know each week what I'm doing with each day of the week and I know each month what I'm doing with each week of the month."
4. Focus on doing the things that truly matter.
If you're stuck in a perpetual cycle of overwork with an endless to-do list that won't go away and you feel helpless, your next choice may not be an easy one, but it will be necessary to keep your sanity: only do the things that create value in your life. Professor Newton tells Barker, "You're judged on what you do best so if you want to have as much success as possible you're always better off doing fewer things but doing those things better. People say yes to too much. I say no to most things. I'm ruthless about avoiding or purging tasks if I realize they're just not providing much value."
5. Do the things that challenge you to grow and be better.
Your schedule should be dominated by "deep work" and not "shallow work," says professor Newton. He calls the shallow stuff things like "email, meetings, moving information around. Things that are not really using your talents." Deep work, on the other hand, "pushes your current abilities to their limits. It produces high value results and improves your skills," says Newton. The problem is most of us are "drowning in the shallows," which explains why we can't as much significant work done before we jet out the door. Newton adds, "[T]the whole reason they need to work at night and on the weekends is because their work life has become full of just shallows...[t]hese things are very time consuming and very low value."
Barker drives the point home with a bit of his own wisdom: "Nobody in the history of the universe ever became CEO because they responded to more email or went to more meetings." He adds, "Shallow work stops you from getting fired -- but deep work is what gets you promoted."