I'm often asked how I get so many things done. A frequent version is "how do you find the time to do xyz?". Spoiler: you never find time, but you can make time.
What are these things that vie for my time and attention?
- My family (my wife - who also works full time - and two children under 6)
- My full-on full-time job managing a team of 7 solutions architects and engineers
- My health and fitness goals (I exercise daily)
- My training business Full Stack Training
- Writing books (currently the second edition of Getting MEAN)
Me being me, I don't want to just "cruise along" with any of these. I want to be as successful as I can in each. Mediocre is a failure.
Over the years I've tried various things, succeeded, failed, burned out, iterated, burned out again and so on. It's a continuous loop of experimentation, the ultimate goal being a continued level of success across all of these focuses while maintaining a good level of happiness. Productive and content. Notice that I don't say busy. If you feel "busy" that's a good sign that you need to change something.
Here are eight of my go-to tactics.
1: Always have a plan
Procrastination is the real enemy here, and the most common cause of procrastination - in my experience is indecision. "What do I do next?". This happens to all of us and the default responses are either:
- Do some "busy" work to feel like you're moving forward
- Procrastinate and find excuses not to do anything.
However, the best solution is really rather simple. If you don't know what to do next, then secretly you do know what to do. You need to plan.
When you're in the "busy" mode of getting stuff done, this can seem like a procrastination technique, as you want to feel productive. The reality is planning will often be the best use of your time, as it makes sure that you're going to be making the best use of the rest of your time.
What different things are you balancing? What's the most important? This can be different on different days of the week, and even different times of the day.
The tactic here is to be practice awareness of the things on your plate at any given time, and assessing which is the most important. It might not always be the most obvious thing.
A good approach here is the Eisenhower Matrix which helps you define the relative urgency and importance of different tasks. I don't write down the grids any more, but I find the approach very useful for helping me focus on the correct thing at a given time.
What's the Eisenhower Matrix?
The basic principle is that you draw out a 2x2 grid, with Urgent and Less urgent as the column headers, and Important and Less important. You put each of your tasks into one of the boxes, so you can see for each task whether you should do it, schedule it, delegate it or ignore it.
Image source: James Clear
3: Focus - do one thing at a time
To succeed in any given area, it must be your focus. Again, according to your priorities that can be different at different times of the day.
Don't work when you're with your family. Don't work on your side-business at work. And so on. If you don't apply a single-minded focus everything suffers and all of the context switching raises your stress levels. Eventually you end up all burned out, because you're exhausted but nothing is going well.
Take repetitive tasks and turn them into routines. Routines become more efficient over time, mean that you're less likely to miss things and crucially don't waste energy and focus on things that ultimately don't really matter.
I for example have a morning routine for starting the day in a positive way and an evening routine for unwinding. I have an exercise routine where I do different things on different days, and even have subroutines for what I do on those days (such as my Monday kettlebells routine). You can take this further by having routine meals and routing clothing - I have the same thing for breakfast every day (no unnecessary decision needed) and have five work shirts (I wear the first one I pick up that day).
Anything you can do to remove unnecessary repeated decisions will help you be more productive and effective. My performance is noticeably better when I'm highly routinised. The caveat here is to also remember to live life, don't die of boredom!
Following on from routines, identify those necessary yet repeatable tasks that don't have to be done by you. If you can easily describe what needs to be done then the chances are you can easily find somebody to outsource it to. This might be cleaning your house, doing your book-keeping, handling first-level support questions.
This can also work on some bigger tasks, if you need to focus elsewhere. For example, my background is a web-developer, but when I start a business venture I don't sit down and design a website from scratch. My time is limited and my energies would be better spent actually working on the business to move it forward. So I'll buy a theme or design, buy a logo and use an existing platform and concentrate on other things.
The question to ask yourself here, is what value do you put on your time?
6: Create time
"How do you find the time?"
If I had a fiver - that's £5 for non-British folks - for every time I'd been asked that I wouldn't have to "find the time", I could retire and have plenty of time.
As I said at the beginning, you don't "find" time, you make it. Unfortunately there's no magic bullet here. You make time by sacrificing something else. The good news is that most of us a great at wasting time, so if you look it's actually pretty easy to find time. I so wish I'd learned this before having children - all the time I could have found back then!
Anyway, do we really need to be sat watching re-runs of Game of Thrones because the new season is about to start? Do we need to endlessly scroll through never-ending social media feeds?
7: Stay healthy
Don't make time by skimping on healthy activities such as sleep, healthy eating, exercise and relaxation time. This can work for a short time, if you're up against a deadline and need a few extra hours every day for a couple of weeks. But if you try to continue much beyond a couple of weeks you'll hit burnout. And when you burnout, productivity drops massively - and often stops entirely - which outweighs everything you've just achieved.
Sleep is absolutely key here, get enough good sleep and you can cope with almost anything else. Combine that with good eating, exercise and relaxation habits and you're good to continue being extra-productive on an ongoing basis.
8: Give yourself a break
Don't beat yourself up all the time about how much is left to do, and think that you need to be on it 100% of the time. Schedule regular time off. Add a lie-in to your weekly routine. Add a date-night. Whatever it is, give yourself some downtime.
This might seem to go against the Create time tactic, but it's not. This is intentional downtime. You're not wasting time, you're recharging your batteries, so that when you are working on something you can be totally focused and energised.
If you're in it for the long haul, pace yourself. By all means sprint when you have to, but then be sure to take the time to recover. Otherwise you face burnout.