Essential productivity hacks I learned from elementary school

Essential productivity hacks I learned from elementary schoolYesterday was my kids’ first day back to school.  My daughter is in 2nd grade, and my son is in 5th grade–his last year before middle school.  They were both excited to start back, and I was glad too, after a summer in which their camp schedules seemed to be in a constant state of flux.

Going back to school means a lot of different things:

  • new backpacks
  • rekindling friendships
  • getting pushed into the mud on the playground
  • vaguely meat-like slop served by the former East German women’s Olympic shotput team
  • mountains of dittos.  “Worksheets” to those of you too young to remember the literally old-school purple-inked pages that were coughed out of a spinning metal doohickey, usually run by a stern matron with cats-eye glasses who could’ve been one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s cousins.

For my family, one of the biggest things about going back to school is a return to a more structured schedule.  Having some flexibility is good, but by the end of the summer, that lack of structure makes it difficult to get things done and be productive.

Which brings me to my point:  productivity.

Everyone struggles with productivity, and starting and running your own business is no different.  In fact, being productive can be a lot harder, since you don’t have a boss standing over you.  (I used to have a boss who’d burst into my office, angrily ask what I was working on, and literally stand over me–but that’s a story for another time…).

So, getting back to a structure and refocusing on how to be productive can often get you out of a rut, and move you toward where you want to be.  Here are my elementary-school-inspired productivity hacks.

Structure is your friend

One of the things about elementary school is that it’s structured.  Students have:

  • a predictable schedule: Kids have a schedule for getting up, getting ready, leaving for school, as well as blocks of time during the day for specific subjects, recess, lunch, and then homework when the kids get home from school.
  • physical structure: Kids have their own desks, their own cubbie and/or hook for their backpack, and places where they line up to leave the classroom and return from lunch and recess.
  • homework & projects: Schoolwork is assigned with due dates, and failing to turn in homework by the due date has consequences.  In my kids’ school, they bring a folder home each night with graded homework/tests and memos from the school.  Starting in 4th grade, each student is given a notebook/planner where they keep track of their assignments and projects; at the beginning of the day, the entire class goes through the day’s assignments and everyone writes them down in their planner.
  • long-term goals: Students have to achieve specific goals by the end of the school year.  Those goals get broken down into smaller milestones along the way.

Now, if you’ve ever been to an elementary school, it may not seem very structured–especially if you poke your head in the cafeteria during lunch, with its cacophony of noise and bustle.  But even so, it’s structured.

As a result of all that structure, kids can focus more easily on the learning.  The more structured teachers have to spend less time settling the kids, having them find their books, pencils, and other materials they need for the task at hand, and have systems in place to make sure that kids know what’s expected of them and how to easily track what they need to do.

So, whether you’re in 4th grade or you run your own business–consulting or otherwise–you can use structure to help you.

Make structure work for you

Being naturally lazy, I like to make things easy for myself.  I find that by planning out my days ahead of time, I no longer have to think, “What am I supposed to be working on now?” and then sift through e-mails, getting distracted by each one, and then overwhelmed by the 15 things I just discovered I need to do.  That disorganization took up tons of time, and created undue stress about all that I had to do and everything that I hadn’t yet done.

Make things easier for yourself.  Your structure will put you on autopilot.  Don’t know what to work on?  Look at your calendar!

Take the elements of structure from elementary school, and use them to suit your needs, make your day less stressful, and get more done:

  • Schedule your week and your days with blocks of time for specific tasks. Don’t forget recess!  Being active during the day energizes you so you can sustain your productivity throughout the day.
  • Set up your work environment for simplicity and focus. Have everything you need for work easily accessible; whether you spend time trying to find a pencil or an e-mail (I love GMail’s tags and search features), get organized.  Carpenters and mechanics use toolboxes; make a virtual toolbox for your line of work.
  • Organize your tasks. I like, but there are lots of other good tools available.  Listing and organizing your tasks is the first step toward knowing where to start and what to do.  Figure out what features you need (e.g., tags/categorization, integration with your calendar, multiple projects, etc.), and then try out a few tools before deciding on the one that fits the bill.
  • Break larger tasks/projects into smaller tasks. This is one of my favorites, since it’s a great way to eliminate procrastination; by breaking a big, daunting task into tiny, easy ones, it’s a lot less overwhelming.  Use milestones for intermediate deadlines for longer-term projects; that way you can see your progress.  For example, my 2nd grader isn’t going to start doing multiplication from the get-go, but has to start with other things–addition concepts–before progressing to multiplication.
  • Focus on the tasks that move your toward your goals. This is essentially the idea from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where you only focus your energy on the next actionable task that will move a project forward; Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has a great article on this topic.  For the moment, ignore stuff that doesn’t directly move you toward your goals.

Bonus hack for those lousy tasks you’ve been procrastinating

Yep, we’ve all got these kinds of tasks.  These are the tasks that you avoid.  The ones that stress you out just thinking about.  Your wife mentions it, and your stomach sinks.  You’re embarrassed that you haven’t done it.  So, you avoid it–which makes your anxiety go away, but doesn’t get the task completed.

For these tasks:

  • Ask yourself if you really want/have to do it. If not, then take it off your list and don’t stress about it.
  • Otherwise, list the positive aspects of why you want to do the task. For example, maybe you have a non-billable project that takes your time away from billable work.  But on the positive side, doing the non-billable project might reinforce your relationship with the client, it could lead to billable work, and also reinforces your personal integrity by completing something you committed to.
  • Think about the negative aspects that make the task easy to procrastinate, and then figure out workarounds. Don’t know where to start on a big project?  Break it down into tiny steps.  Don’t like doing prospecting calls?  Think of those calls as meeting interesting people, learning about their job, and educating them about how you can make their job easier.
  • Schedule 20-30 minutes each day specifically for lousy tasks. Do them early in the day, and reward yourself for getting those lousy tasks done.  As you make more progress, your inertia and self-reinforcement will snowball.
  • Break down the task into teeny and easy actionable steps. I’m saying this again (and again) because I really like doing this.  Just listing the teeny easy tasks for a big project makes the project seem easy.  And once I have my list of tiny tasks, it feels good to complete one of the tiny tasks and cross it off my list.

Let me hear from you!

What are your productivity hacks?

What’s your daily or weekly structure?

How do you break down projects?

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