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Happy New Year!!

Is productivity on your mind as you enter into the new year?

I walked into the office ready to start my daily standing meeting and spend most of the day working on content for a big marketing campaign. I knew that the executive director had a big meeting that morning that she was worried about but we hadn’t discussed it much.

My day already included a business lunch with a colleague, several video chat appointments, and a one-hour break away from the office to take a close friend to the airport. The current projects at this company include a few small renovations and a website redesign.

Before I could even start the morning meeting, an admin called the office in tears. She got a call from her sister that her elderly father was really sick and was on her way to his house to meet her sister and see what was up.

As I was starting the meeting, the office door opened and it was a team of folks, bearing laptops and cell phones, who work in the office next to us. They wanted to use one of our conference rooms for their morning meeting because their office had no power.

The standing meeting came and went with no real surprises. Several small problems surfaced and so part of my day would be spent resolving them.

The contractor stopped by my office unexpectedly to talk about a flooring problem that might actually save us money if we could re-think our expectations.

As I juggled the expected with the unexpected, content creation did not come easily…. Distractions prevailed…. And as I write this blog I realize that it is the start of a new year, and it was my goal to do better. That realization made me question what “doing better” actually meant to me.

The key to productivity is to focus on consistent and incremental improvement, not just New Year’s Resolutions. In this highly unpredictable world, focus on making every day better than the day before. Here are five suggestions that will help improve your productivity.

The key to productivity is to focus on consistent and incremental improvement, not just New Year’s Resolutions. Click To Tweet

Set reasonable goal(s) for your day. Prioritize carefully.

In a highly unpredictable world, we need to plan for the unexpected.  We all need to assume that there will be days when someone’s child wakes up with a fever, or somebody’s pipes have frozen, or the big game went into overtime and half your team looks pretty exhausted.

We all need to take some responsibility for our own days. Yes, your boss may have a big meeting in the morning, and come back to the office and collapse in your office chair, ranting. Or, the contractor may want to brainstorm longer than you expected, thinking that, of course, you want to save money. And who knows how long it will take you to solve the problems that surfaced in your morning meeting? So, set reasonable goals for your day.

Many productivity experts recommend that we prioritize our goals. I find that my priorities change frequently in the chaos of this decade. So, I am constantly asking myself: what is the single most important item for me to work on next. It might be something as simple as making a grocery list, so that I can send someone else to the store.

Make good use of small time blocks.

It is easy to convince yourself that content creation, or whatever it is that you need to do, requires a quiet space and a long block of uninterrupted time. I’ve seen plenty of productivity experts talk about how to schedule your day so that you have long blocks of quiet time for content creation, or whatever work you do.

I read an interesting blog recently that talked about the difference in how you plan your daily schedule, depending on whether your job is that of managing or making. I can’t speak for others but my days are a little of both. Most of the creative folks I know are far enough along in their careers that they are doing some managing. Most of the managers I know are still trying to produce something of value – even if it is a greater amount of knowledge in their heads.

And so, we all need blocks of time to create something of value, read a few books, and process our emails. But on the days when we just won’t have those big blocks of time, we can still make good use of the small time blocks. After all, content is created piece by piece. Books are read, one page at a time and emails are processed, one by one.

Understand what kind of tracking system works best for you.

I will be the first one in line to complain about most of the project management tools out there. But most of the time, what we are doing is daily self-management, not managing large team projects. This may involve juggling the needs of a lot of other people. There will be the unexpected times when a loved one falls and is rushed to the ER; your child wakes up sick; or the power goes out. Your job may involve organizing the details for any number of little projects in your life – the kitchen renovation, the website re-design, your children’s extracurricular activities, or your best friend’s bridal shower.

For most of us, it’s about how to schedule our day so that we don’t forget the urgent while focusing on the important. And it’s about remembering the details that are neither urgent nor important, but simply necessary.

I’ve played with many, many tools and I frequently find myself coming back to the simple online to-do list in my Google calendar. And when I’m juggling one project in Jira, one in Asana, a couple in Trello, some ZenDesk work, a SmartSheet list, and the emailed requests from those using other tools, sometimes a simple to-do list works best.

Make others feel better.

Tomes have been written on self improvement by eating less, eating the “right” foods, exercising more, exercising “right,” waking up earlier, sleeping more, focusing on goals, creating “smart” goals, and avoiding caffeine. Maybe we should stop thinking so much about ourselves and start thinking about others.

Maya Angelou said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And if you aren’t persuaded that making others feel better will boost your productivity, try reading about some of the research that David DeSteno at Northeastern University is working on. His research suggests that cultivating social emotions, such as pride, gratitude, and compassion, will improve perseverance, increase patience, and reduce loneliness. He cites the work of Greg Miller, at Northwestern, who has found that while self-control will improve outcomes in the short-term, that it does so at the expense of our health.

Finish your day with some retrospective time and track your progress.

So, maybe your day didn’t end quite like you had planned. I bet it wasn’t a total waste. Did you spend your day making a sick child feel better? Or, mopping up the basement after a leak in the HVAC system created a mess? OR did you actually finish writing the copy for the new marketing campaign?

Write it down on your to-do list, or in your journal. Take pride in what you did accomplish. Sometimes, I find that I accomplished nothing on my list, but did a bunch of things that weren’t on my list. Some might argue that I let distractions interfere with important deadlines. Only you can weigh the value of what you accomplished against the work that you didn’t get done. But, if we start our day being clear on reasonable goals and prioritize them well, and we do that consistently, we will make progress.

Maybe your day didn’t end quite like you had planned. I bet it wasn’t a total waste. Write something down on your to-do list, or in your journal and take pride in what you did accomplish. Click To Tweet

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