By stopping we can see more clearly, be more effective, and make better choices.

By Camille Preston (Founder & CEO, AIM Leadership)

We’ve all had those days where we feel like we move a thousand miles an hour, nonstop, only to find our to-do list longer at the end of the day than it was at the beginning. Days like this leave us drained and dejected, and a little mystified.

How can it be, working that hard for 8+ hours, we could still be further behind than when we started? How is this possible, given how much we do every day?

Well, here’s the reason: activity does not always equal productivity. Truly productive individuals know and live the following six strategies for being purposefully productive:

1. More is not always more.

In our culture, more is more. The perception is that the more we have and do — more information, more connections, more data, more gadgets, more work, more things — the better, more powerful, and more successful we are. This concept of always having to have and do more is what drives much of the activity we engage in, and causes us to be “active” even when it isn’t purposeful.

Information is a perfect example of this. Nowadays information is abundant. But true power and purpose is in knowing what information is important, and then knowing how to process it effectively. And you cannot do that if you are constantly seeking more of it.

2. Avoid just hitting back. Aim for solving problems instead.

We’ve all known the feeling of a packed email inbox. Most likely, you can feel your heart rate and stress level rise (research funded by NSF demonstrates this impact) as you wonder how you are going to respond to all of them while still attending meetings, preparing reports, managing your team, and tackling big projects.

If you are like most people, you have had those moments in what I like to call the email batting cage: Swinging, hitting, and not really tuning in to where the email lands because you are so focused on getting it out of your box. Although this feels good in the short term, we are not really solving problems, we are not serving our colleagues at the highest level, and we are increasing the stress of those around us.

Next time you get up to bat, approach it this way:

  • Identify which e-mails are most pressing.
  • Ask yourself what is the true, underlying problem/request.
  • Determine who is the best person to solve the issue/request.
  • Identify what is the best vehicle for resolution (phone call, meeting, introduction, etc.).

You might “hit” fewer emails this way, but you will know that each response has a greater chance of becoming a home run. Added bonus: you will cultivate raving appreciation from your colleagues.

3. Stopping accelerates finishing.

I can hear it now: “What, you want me to stop? Don’t you see how long and growing my list is?” I know, stopping sounds crazy, but amid the frenzy of trying to get it all done and to “do it all,” we are doing nothing. When we live overwired, we are in constant motion. Everything seems urgent.

By stopping we can see more clearly, be more effective, and make better choices. Stepping back from the demands, we can ask better questions. Unplugged from the frenetic pace, we can differentiate the important from the urgent. Gaining perspective, we can develop better strategies. So:

  • Stop.
  • Step away from your technology.
  • Refocus on what matters most.
  • Generate options and alternatives for tackling priorities.
  • Determine your plan and your timeframe.

By moving away from the overwired states of urgency and constant doing, we can actually move toward getting things done.

4. Delete distractions to reclaim focus.

We spend an unbelievable amount of energy trying to resist distractions and stay focused. For the most part, we are unaware of how this drains our brains. Worse yet, we spend minimal amounts of time positioning ourselves for success.

Research shows that willpower is a finite resource. If you spend your willpower throughout the workday resisting the chocolates on your colleague’s desk, you will have less willpower available to do the hard work and heavy lifting on important projects (like getting to the gym). So:

  • Keep a list of all the things that distract you in a given day.
  • Which of these distractions can you control?
  • What habits would help you to limit these distractions?

Important tasks seem to pop into my brain at the most inopportune times. Rather than waste brain energy trying to remember them, I write them down on running list of miscellaneous tasks. Then, twice a day, I look at the list and recalibrate and reprioritize, determining which ones are the most important things for me to be focused on.

5. Build systems to maximize brain energy.

We have all heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect.” In reality, practice makes permanent. That which we practice consistently becomes a habit. Neurologically, each time we repeat an action we rewire our brains. The more times we take an action, the deeper or more robust this wiring becomes.

Leverage this by building systems that work. The more routine and ingrained these habits become, the less brain energy we need to spend on them. If you always put your keys in the same place, you never have to think, “Where are my keys?” because you will already know. These systems can extend from how you record new contacts, to how you store files, to how you refill your vitamins, to how you answer emails. Systems work in all aspects of our life. So:

  • Build systems intentionally.
  • Repeat routines.
  • Simplify your thinking.
  • Maximize your brain energy.

6. Manage your time to maximize your attention.

No matter how hard we work, how hard we focus, and how disciplined we are with our systems, we cannot be purposefully productive all day long. However, we can maximize our productivity with these core tips:

  • Work in 90-minute intervals. Research shows that our brains work best this way. Focus with intensity, then shift gears and go do something else for 15 minutes. This might be a catnap, a walk outside, filing papers, etc. Just something completely different, so your brain gets a break.
  • Chunk like-minded projects together. Put similar projects together within the 90-minute interval. For example, do all your expense reports within one block of time.
  • Know yourself. Schedule the most important projects for your best thinking time. I am most sharp and most creative in the mornings, so I reserve this time for deep thinking, for big projects, and for challenging issues.
  • Schedule fuel breaks. Oxygenation, hydration, nutrition, and rejuvenation are all critical. Schedule regular time throughout the day to do each these.

Being purposefully productive is about making better choices, using better strategies, and understanding how our brains and bodies can work best. With a little practice, you can work smarter, live better, and be more purposefully productive.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

Photo credit: Sébastien Barré on Flickr.

About the guest blogger: Camille Preston is the Founder and CEO of AIM Leadership, a coaching and training company focused on improving individual, team, and organizational effectiveness by developing leadership capabilities from the inside out. She serves as an adviser, guest speaker, and mentor for Compass Partners, a nonprofit collegiate organization that helps develop responsible entrepreneurs. Camille holds a BA from Williams College and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Virginia.