Time-wasting, procrastination, and a general sense of under achievement are themes that are becoming increasingly common across society. As we move further into an environment that is always “connected”, where we are always within reach of a computer or a smartphone, we are becoming less productive and less happy. The main reason for this is that our usage of time has changed. We feel that we do not have enough time set aside just for ourselves, to do what makes us happy as individuals, and then when we do finally get some “spare time” (I really dislike that phrase) we fritter it away on useless, unproductive, time-wasters.
It is not by accident that two of my most popular articles of all time are on this exact topic: Sometimes We All Need Some Alone Time and The Gentle Art of Not Wasting Time. People want more time and they want to be more productive.
I cannot give you more time in a physical sense but I can show you how to stop wasting your time and start using it in a more productive way. Here are my 3 simple ways to stop wasting time.
1. Set Goals
Goals are a fantastic way to get yourself focussed and achieving more in your life. They guide your everyday decisions, determine what you do with your spare time, and they provide a massive sense of satisfaction when you manage to achieve one.
The biggest trick to setting goals is to make them quantifiable. Your progress and ultimate fulfilment of the goal depends on you being able to measure it. If you cannot measure it then how will you know when you are finished?
But measurable does not necessarily mean that all goals have to be number-based. A yes/no goal is still measurable because you either achieve it or you don’t. As long as there is a clear end-state to your goal then you will be more likely to reach it.
Tips for setting goals:
- Set often, review often - I set my new goals, and officially review past goals, on the 1st of every month. This allows me to see what I managed to achieve last month and plan better for the current month. It also provides the opportunity to push myself by setting recurring goals higher so that I am constantly improving.
- Track progress - I track progress in a spreadsheet which tells me the percentage of progress complete for each task. Every time I do an action associated with a goal I update the spreadsheet to reflect it. It automatically tells me how much of that goal I’ve completed and whether or not that is on-track for the month. Yes, I’m THAT nerdy.
- Small chunks - I set most goals to last 1 month only. If I have a goal that will take significantly longer then I record that under “ambitions”. Then each month I pick some tasks that I can set as measurable goals to work towards those ambitions.
2. Use Todo Lists
Todo lists are the obvious next step. Once you have a set of goals that you are working towards you need to break it down into smaller tasks that you can complete during your day to start building momentum.
That’s what lists are really for. Setting goals is a great thing to do and it provides an initial burst of positive energy but if you do not take regular steps towards your goals then they will feel unattainable. Lists are used to take that initial motivation and provide regular positive reinforcement.
The best way to use lists is on a daily basis. Each day starts with a new list that contains everything you would like to get done in that day. If you didn’t complete a task from yesterday then bring it forward onto today’s list. There are no “rules”. It’s just a list of actions.
As you complete each action you then cross it off your list, put a tick next to it, or whatever else makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, because feeling that way is the real point of having a list. Each time you finish a task you get an immediate jolt of satisfactions and happiness that motivates you to keep going. That is how goals get fulfilled.
Tips for using todo lists:
- New list every day - I write a new todo list out every day. This is done either the first thing after waking up or, when I have been particularly productive, just before I go to bed the night before. I don’t spend too much time on it here (5-10 minutes) as I just want to get a basic plan for the day.
- Carry it everywhere - My todo list is now in the form of half an index card cut down to fit in my wallet. It goes everywhere with me. This allows me to have a constant reminder about what I wanted to achieve for the day, get that immediate feedback loop going when I finish something and can cross it off, and it means I can flexible. If my availability for the day drastically changes then I can update my list to remove/add tasks that I expect to complete.
- Each day is different - I plan differently each day and I only build a todo list based on how much time I will have to work towards my goals for that particular day. I make sure my todo list reflects my actual day because there is nothing more unsatisfying than ending a day with a todo list filled with incomplete actions.
3. Create a routine
Routines are the mechanism to ensure you are crossing things off your todo list and moving towards your goals. They are critical for maximising your productivity and helping push through the inevitable periods where progress feels that it has stagnated.
By creating a solid and persistent routine around your goals you force yourself into constant action. If you can get into a positive routine of productivity then you are guaranteed progress towards your goals.
Turning a routine into an ingrained habit can take about 4 weeks so no matter what the routine is I recommend committing to it for at least month. It doesn’t matter if you want to go to the gym 3 days per week, spend more time on your start-up business, or just improve your fake tan. You need to commit to doing it consistently for a month.
Tips for creating routines:
- Go daily - I find daily routines easier to maintain and quicker for them to become part of our everyday habits. If I have a routine that requires a day off then I still try to fill that timeslot each day with related activities to enforce the ritual. For example, when creating a new gym ritual I will use my rest days to read up on what's new in the world of fitness.
- Pick your best times - I create my routines for the times of the day that give them the best chance of succeeding. When it comes to writing I am at my creative and productive best early in the morning so now I get up early and I write for an hour. Because morning is my most productive time I have noticed a dramatic increase in my output which means I am way more likely to maintain the early-rising routine into the future.
- Finish your tasks - When I am creating a routine I make that time solely about being productive towards my goals. The positive feeling of crossing something off your todo list can be almost addictive, and doing it every single day means the routine is way more likely to become habitual.
There you have it. That’s 3 simple ways to stop wasting time and start being productive. Now I’m wondering, what do other productivity-fanatics like me do to help them stay focussed and achieve more in life?