I want to confess right up front that I’m a bit of a productivity nerd. I love learning new hacks and finding those gems in a system or process that make my day go more smoothly and create less stress and more time for me to get things done. I’m a voracious reader and enjoy nothing more than finding books or articles about forming stronger habits, creating better routines and developing systems that help me get more done! I even read a book once called How to Read a Book because I just knew I’d learn a more efficient way to read—and it did! I crave organization and structure.
Now, I realize that not many people out there are like me. I haven’t always been like this either. In the early ’90s, my husband and I started a design and marketing agency in Anchorage, Alaska. We had a few seed clients that helped us build the business, but within a few months, I had an overwhelming number of jobs I was working on. So much so, I hit the point where I mentally shut down. I remember one late night I just sat there at my desk staring at the pile of folders and papers, not knowing how I’d gotten to this point and certainly not knowing what to do next. How do I tackle all this work? How am I ever going to get it done? I didn’t know where to begin.
I knew I was going to be a failure.
The next morning over breakfast, I explained to my husband how I didn’t even know where to start. And how doomed I felt. He said something that changed my perspective on work from that day forward. He said, “Cara, you just have to find a system.” I thought to myself, A system? Well, that sounds simple enough! Yes! I just need a system, and it’ll all be all right.
Now, the system I needed at the time ended up being a simple ranking and prioritization process, but the thought of how easy everything could have unraveled unnerved me. Right then and there began a lifelong journey that eventually led to my absolute love of finding the perfect organization tools, productivity hacks and stress-reducing habits that have helped me turn chaos into calmness and panic into peacefulness.
Let me share with you some of the things I’ve found along the way that I think will give you a foundation to turn your most hectic and anxiety-ridden days into organized and peacefully productive days. Let’s face it, we all want to leave the office knowing we got a lot done and we’re ready to take on the world, right? Let’s do it!
PUT AWAY YOUR SUPERHERO CAPE
First of all, you need to realize you cannot do it all! I know, you’re going to say, “But Cara, you have no idea the amount of responsibility I have to run this business or the amount of work I need to get done—I am way more overloaded with work than the average person!” Right. You’re overwhelmed. I get it. You have so much responsibility on you that there’s no way one person could do it. I get it. But let me tell you a secret. I know you’re not going to want to hear this, but I have to be completely honest with you. So, lean in to hear this. It could possibly change your entire life: You. Can’t. Do. Everything! You just can’t! I don’t care that you need to do everything or that you want to do everything—you can’t. It’s just not possible. But maybe you already knew that, right? Sure, you can’t do everything, but what do you do with that?
It’s simple. Know your boundaries. Know your limitations. Know what you are best at and then do that. Stay in your lane! Realize the more you take on, the more you’re diluting your valuable talents to the point that you’re not even doing what you do best—best! Delegate those tasks that you’re not great at. Or simply push back and admit to leadership that it’s just not a good fit for you. No one will think you’re less than if you just explain that those things aren’t what you’re best at, and it’s just going to take away from where you’re most productive.
It’s like someone came to Michael Phelps and said, “Hey, can you go cover third base for me in this championship game.” Well, could he do it? Sure! But how effective do you think he’d be at it. Probably not as effective as a Cal Ripken Jr. or a Derek Jeter would be, right? Michael knows he’s best at swimming. So, you should know exactly what you’re best at and do that. Stop playing the superhero, and start being super at everything you do!
HOW TO GET THINGS DONE
So now that you’ve decided to stay in your lane and you’ve delegated or rejected those tasks that you’re just not absolutely great at doing, you look back at what you have left on your plate and realize there’s still way too much to do and not enough hours in the day to do it. Now, what do you do? I’ll tell you. All you need is a system. A process that works for you. A set of steps to accomplish your overwhelming stack of things to do. And where do you start? Start by identifying everything you have to do.
Author David Allen has an amazing hack for getting yourself organized to accomplish everything you need to do. In his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, he outlines the five-stage process for managing your workflow by capturing (he calls it “collecting”) everything on your plate or in your head into a single list (like a data dump) which you then try to whittle down and prioritize.
Please read the book to find out how this unique system can change your life as it changed mine. But for this article, know that you’re going to have to set aside time to document everything you’re working on and reduce as much of it as you can. Then plan to tackle the rest. This turns your day from reactionary to proactive. Which would you rather do? Relinquish your day to the whims of others or take command of it to get done what you need to get done?
RITUALS = LESS STRESS = MORE ACCOMPLISHED
This last part is what will take you from someone who’s in the position to someone who has earned the right to be in the position. This is one of those productivity hacks I was alluding to at the beginning of the article. I’ll warn you, though. It’s a simple concept, but it may not be simple to accomplish. To get done what you need to get done—which, let’s face it, is way too much—you will need to build routines, rituals and repetitive behaviors. Our brains are hardwired to look for the fastest route to doing something.
Charles Duhigg wrote, in The Power of Habit, that our brains actually convert our repetitive tasks into automated routines called “chunking.” You’ve heard the age-old saying before: Work smarter, not harder. That’s what chunking is. It’s putting your brain’s systems on autopilot due to repetitive behavior. Meaning, you’ll expend less effort to get more done. The more routines and habits you can create, the more exponential you’ll see your productivity increase.
Set up rituals. Rituals are the habits you do every day at the same time in the same way. Studies have proven that rituals and repetitive behavior reduce anxiety and stress. Why? Because we spend less of our precious and scarce mental effort to get more done. So, look for ways to make everything you do a repetitive habit—a ritual.
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