Have you ever spent an hour in your email program and still had a full inbox? Have you ever sat in a meeting and left without knowing exactly what was accomplished?
I think most of us can answer in the affirmative. Much of our time is often spent in ways that can be charitably categorized as “unproductive”.
However, one simple change can turn unproductive time into very productive time: put all your focus on actions.
The problem is that we read stuff, and we talk to people, but then no actions come out as a result of that. By ruthlessly focusing on actions, you can do more without wasting time.
Here’s how. (Note: credit is due to David Allen’s Getting Things Done for inspiration for the following.)
Instead of just “checking” your email (which means reading it without taking action), open your email one at a time and ask yourself, “What action must I take as a result of this email?” Often the email contains one or more requests for actions from your part, such as requests for information (action: look up info and send to Mr. X), requests for you to call someone (action: call Mr. Z and request info), requests for a meeting (action: schedule meeting in calendar). The key is to develop the habit of finding those actions immediately, and either doing them now (if they can be done in a couple of minutes or less) or noting them on your to-do list. Then take action with that email: file, delete, forward, reply. Get it out of your inbox, and move on to the next. Continue processing for actions until inbox is empty.
When sitting in a meeting, don’t just jot down random notes about what was said (or more likely, doodle cartoons until the meeting ends). Instead, focus on what actions need to be taken. When an action is mentioned, write it down — especially if it’s an action you need to take. Mark it with a star, so you can easily transfer your action notes to your to-do list or calendar immediately after the meeting (and make that a habit too). This way, the meeting wasn’t a waste of time — you’ve got actions to take as a result of it. If people are talking a lot about an issue, but no actions come out of the discussion, make a point to ask: “So what action are we going to take on this? Who is going to do the action and by when?” You may encounter a lot more discussion with no actions, but be persistent. Without action, you just have a lot of hot air.
If someone calls, instead of chit-chatting or “discussing” something, ask immediately, “So what would you like me to do?” or more politely, “How can I help? What can I do?” Always focus on action, jot the action down, transfer it to your to-do list or calendar when the call is over. By keeping the call focused on action, you can keep it short and make it useful.
Your to-do list shouldn’t just contain a list of names or titles (such as “Plutonium Report” or “Laslow Code”). It should contain only actions. And not things that sound like actions but actually contain several actions (such as “Plan Christmas party”), but actual discreet actions (instead, “Call caterer for prices” and “Write out guest list”). If your to-do list contains only real actions, you’re much more likely to do them.
When a paper comes into your inbox, process it the same way you would an email (see above): figure out what action(s) must be taken as a result of the paper (letter, report, memo, file, whatever), and either take the action or write it down for later. Then move the paper off your desk (forward it, file it, or trash it).
If you have a project to do, it can sometimes seem overwhelming. Instead, focus on just one action within the project. What’s the next thing you can do to move this project forward? If that action is still too large, break it down into an even smaller action: instead of “write report”, just “outline report” or “write first two paragraphs of report”.
When in communication with a client, always steer him to actions that are needed. Some clients like to talk about things, give you feedback, or go on forever with vague generalities about a project. Instead, focus him on specific actions: “OK, that sounds great … so what actions should I take?” Same thing goes with complaints: When someone tells you that your writing is horrible, for example, ask for specific suggestions for changes.
Out and about.
When you’re on the go, and you think of something, or you meet someone and talk about something, carry a notebook to capture your actions. Write them down, and transfer them to your to-do list. This will allow you to keep your focus on actions wherever you go, and not waste your precious time. Now go, and take action.
You can read more productivity advice from Leo in his classic eBook Zen to Done.