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Three Things I Ignore Too Often

One of the greatest tools in life is the ability to learn from our our mistakes and the mistakes of others. They don't have to be huge mistakes either, it can be something as simple as learning that cooking pasta for 20 minutes is not a good idea or that eating nothing but cream crackers will not make you big and strong.

One of the things I wanted to create with this site was a place where I could share what I've learnt, so here are three mistakes I make, some more often than others. They're all centred around a lack of focus, which can be a real productivity killer.

1) Ignoring plans I make

Planning isn't one of my favourite activities, but I find that once I've started to create a plan it's not too difficult to finish it all. Plans can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to create, and the level of detail depends on the task being planned. The real problem isn't in creating the plan, but in sticking to it.

Once the initial enthusiasm has waned, it becomes very difficult to stick to any kind of schedule. More interesting tasks appear all the time, unexpected events occur that throw off schedules and there are days when you just don't want to see a particular project.

So far the best solutions I've found to this problem has been the following:

  1. Make the plan as simple as possible - This goes against my natural urge to plan for everything and to make things as detailed as possible. Instead, I find a more agile approach works best. This starts by making one very general plan, and making smaller ones as each large milestone is completed. See Agile Achievement for more information on this.
  2. Put the plan somewhere visible - It gets very hard to ignore a plan when it's constantly in your face. It might feel a bit silly writing out your plan on a huge sheet of paper and sticking it to your ceiling, but it does have an affect!
  3. Make your plans small - No matter what you plan for, something will appear and mess it up. The smaller (and simpler) your plans, the easier it is to cope with these interruptions. This isn't to say you shouldn't set big goals, but rather you should aim to get there in lots of little steps rather than a few giant strides.

Planning takes work, but if done well it can save hours of time and a lot of frustration. Learn what your limits are and set yourself reasonable targets to avoid any problems.

2) Ignoring priorities

This is related to the first point, and in some ways it's probably the biggest mistake that anybody can make when it comes to productivity. It's an unfortunate fact that there will never, ever be enough hours in the day to complete everything. This is where priorities come in, and when they're followed they can make a huge difference.

The hard part is accepting that in order to do something, you will have to not do something else. Once you understand and accept this, it makes it a little simpler to prioritise your actions. To further encourage sticking to priorities, any rewards should be given for tasks that were marked as "high priority".

3) Ignoring the clock

After a certain amount of work, your productivity will take a steep decline. This is nature's way of telling you to stop and do something else. Once of the worst habits I picked up at university was working until 5 or 6am in the morning, getting a few hours sleep and then working through the day again. Although I got my work finished, the quality suffered as I made more mistakes and felt far more frustrated.

I've found the root cause of this problem is not trusting myself to resume work the next day. Although I know I'll be more effective in the morning, I've had too many days of slacking until the afternoon that put me off this approach. It often seems like working through the night is the only way I'll get something completed.

I found the best way to beat this problem is to wake up an hour earlier and dive straight into whatever task I set the night before. Even if I don't get a huge amount done in this first hour, it sets up a more productive mood for the rest of the day.

Bonus - Not ignoring other people's standards

It seems every list needs a bonus item at the end, so here's one thing that I don't ignore that would probably be a good idea. Everybody has different standards, and it's often hard enough meeting your own, let alone somebody else's.

Don't get too hung up on trying to be somebody else. Improve yourself in your own way, and you'll be far more satisfied than you ever could be by living someone else's life.

Getting Yourself Organised

What does it mean to be "organised"? It's a term that can crop up quite often, but outside of the workplace it has a rather negative image. Organised people are seen as boring and dull. They'd rather spend Friday night arranging their CD's chronologically rather than socialising with friends. Their lives are meticulously planned, and they're "missing out" on the joys that spontaneous living brings.

The truth of the matter is that organised people enjoy just as much fun as everyone else. More importantly, they experience less stress and and more efficient simply by sticking to a few habits. Whilst most people would agree that it's beneficial to be more organised, it can sometimes be difficult to get started.

Why should you get organised?

Being organised isn't about obsessing over small details, but about being effective and efficient. There are plenty of benefits to be gained from creating a consistent system:

  • Reduces Stress – You won't get stressed looking for things, such as reports or documents. You'll also be less likely to forget important tasks and have to deal with the consequences.
  • Saves time – Similar to the above. You won't waste time worrying about things, because they will already be done. You also won't waste time repeating the same task you've done before and either forgotten or mislaid the results.
  • Increases personal effectiveness – You won't repeat tasks, mislay important jobs or items. There's also the benefit of prioritising your work so important things get done, and you'll have a complete list of tasks and projects so you'll alsways know where you stand on important jobs.
  • Improves your self esteem – As strange as it sounds, being organised increases your self esteem. We often feel better the more in control of our lives we are. When things are going wrong, items are getting lost and we feel lost in our work environment it can seem like we're just being dragged along. By getting organised you take control of your life, which improves self-esteem.
  • Improves your relationships – This is another "side effect" of being organised. Having a system in place makes you more reliable, and reliable people are often seen as more trustworthy. Plus keeping things somewhere safe means you're less likely to forget birthdays and anniversaries - although if you do forget them you won't have an excuse ;)

There are plenty more advantages, but they'll appear in different areas of your life in subtle ways. You'll probably find that the quality of your life is improved in many areas, which is perhaps the biggest advantage of all.

The Anatomy of Organisation

You can split your system into three distinct areas:

  • Physical layout – This concerns all the "stuff" that you use. Things like lists, folders and stationary. Each of these items should have its own place to be stored, which saves you from looking for them when they're required. It also keeps work surfaces free of clutter, which can aid concentration.
  • A processing system – The system used is down to personal preference, but you should have a consistent approach to dealing with everything that comes into your life. This includes creating a place to put all of your inputs, as well as how they are recorded so they won't be forgotten.
  • Habits – A set of good habits will ensure your system runs smoothly. Examples of good habits to learn include handling each piece of paper once, and regularly reviewing goals and task lists. It takes time to build up these habits, but they will make a huge difference to your personal effectiveness.

It's important to note that the entire system is only as strong as the weakest link. For example, if you have good habits but a poor physical layout, you'll struggle with finding things which can lead to frustration. Similarly, if you have a good system and methodology but you're not in the habit of using it, you won't gain the full benefit.

Creating a Simple System

There are dozens of different systems out there, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I've found that it's best to start with a barebones system, which can be modified once you've got into the habit of using it. A very simple system would consist of the following elements:

  • An inbox – This is a central place where all of your incoming stuff is put, so it can be processed at a later date. The important thing is to make sure nothing is getting left out of the processing stage. You can think of it as a funnel that makes sure everything is going into your organising "machine".
  • To-do lists – These lists can either be contextual or project based, whichever fits you best. If you're using contextual lists, you'll need several such as "@Desk", "@Computer" and "@Internet". I put "Computer" and "Internet" into two different lists as I usually disconnect my modem when I'm working so I don't get distracted.

    Even if you decide to use entirely project based lists, it's still useful to have a list of phone calls that need to be made, emails that need to be written and people to follow up with.

  • A calendar – If a task has to be carried out on or by a certain date, you'll want to put a reminder of this on your calendar. You should resist the temptation to organize your days using a calendar, as it dilutes the effectiveness of it.
  • A list of all ongoing projects – This is a central list that lets you keep track on all of your current projects. It's not meant to be detailed, and all project material and task lists should have their own folder(s). The main purpose is to give you something to review to make sure nothing gets forgotten.
  • A filing system – Unless you're an extreme minimalist, you'll need a central place to store project and reference materials. Every project should have its own folder, even if it will only contain a single piece of paper. When organising these folders, simplicity is the key. Storing them alphabetically is much easier than arranging them by importance or any other criteria.

    Most of my projects have their own folder, but in some cases they will be split up. For example, I have two folders for this website: one to store general information such as design ideas, and one to store draft blog articles.

    If you think storing a single piece of paper in a folder is wasteful, you can place a piece of tape on the folder before putting a label over it. This makes it easy to peel the label off so you can reuse the folder.

  • A someday/maybe list – This isn't really essential, but if you get a lot of crazy ideas about new projects it's a good place to keep note of them. During your reviews you can see if any of the ideas are worth pursuing, or if they're worth giving to someone else.

The main purpose of having all these things in place is that it gives your brain a break. You're effectively delegating the responsibility of remembering things to paper, which gives you chance to concentrate on more important things.

Additional Items

Once you've got your basic system up and running for a few weeks, you may want to add more to it. A little experimentation can go a long way, so don't be afraid to mess around with different things. Here's a few ideas to get you started:

  • Goals, affirmations and purpose – Having clearly written goals is one of the biggest steps you can take to being a more effective person. By setting goals, you give yourself an idea of where you want to be in life. More importantly, you can use your goals to assess which tasks will take you closer and which will waste your time. It can be tough to get started with goal setting, but the benefits far outweigh the initial difficulty.
  • Today's tasks – This is a list of all the tasks that you want to complete in a single day. There are plenty of different ways to do this too. It can be a simple list of tasks, a prioritised list, or a "top 3" task list. Take some time the night before to write your list, and think carefully about how much you put on it. There's only so much you can do in a day, and having tasks left undone at the end of the day can have an adverse effect on morale.
  • Today's stuff – This is another tray, but it contains all the reference material for the current task. It's useful for keeping everything in one place so it doesn't take over your entire desk.
  • A schedule – This can either compliment the "today's tasks" list or replace it completely. Start by breaking your working day into chunks of at least 30 minutes and then fill it up with what you want to get done. The article "How to create an effective schedule" covers this subject in more detail.
  • Individual lists and schedules – Large projects will need their own task lists, and may also require their own schedules. It can also be useful to keep schedules for recurring tasks, such as blog posting or weekly reviews.
  • A progress tracker – If you often end the day feeling like you've wasted your time, you may benefit from using a progress tracker. It doesn't have to be complex, and a simple system may just involve writing down what you've done during the day and what went right and wrong. A slightly more thorough version involves giving yourself "points" for completing tasks, and ticking boxes when performing activities in different areas of your life. I wrote about my experiences with progress trackers in "keeping a progress log".
  • A journal or diary – Journals can have several uses. The most common way is as a book to write down personal thoughts and feelings, as well as detailing personal problems. Sometimes the act of writing down a problem can give you many ideas about how to solve it.

    Another use is to keep track of what changes have been made in your life and why. This information can be used to see if they had a positive or negative impact on your life, and writing down why you did them can stop you from repeating the same mistakes.

  • "To Read" pile – Yet another tray, this time containing material you wish to read. This could be printed articles from a blog (such as this one ;)), magazines or newsletters. By giving these items their own place you have somewhere to refer to should you get any "dead time". It's also a great place to go if you're going to be taking a bus or train and what to get something done.

There are hundreds of tweaks and changes you can make, and not all of them work for everyone. Very few systems will ever remain the same for very long, and it's beneficial to try many different things over time to see what improvements can be made.

PC vs Paper

PDAs and Pocket PCs have become more affordable in recent years, but will they replace pen and paper? Like most things, it's really down to personal preference.

Most modern handhelds are powerful enough to run just about any task. They can also be synchronised with your main PC to keep things stored in a central location. They're also much quicker when it comes to searching and sorting, and you won't get leaky ink in your pockets. However, paper is far more versatile in most areas. You can quickly scribble down notes, stick it in your back pocket without breaking it and the battery will never go flat.

I've used both systems, and both had their strengths and weaknesses. I initially struggled to get a pen and paper system working, and buying a Pocket PC made a huge difference to my overall productivity. Perhaps it was the excitement of getting to use a shiny new toy to keep myself organised, or perhaps the fact I'd spent a lot of money on it. Either way, it had the desired effect and was one of the best purchases I made.

The main problem I had is that electronics can be very distracting. I often spent too much time trying to tweak the system to perfection instead of just using it to get things done. There was also the distraction of trying out all the new features and getting it to run games. I still use an electronic system, but I prefer to have paper copies of calendars and task lists handy.

Keeping it all working

Once your system is set up, you'll need to keep it maintained so it doesn't grind to a complete stop. This is done by developing habits that will keep your system running:

  • Discipline with the inbox – This is quite difficult to begin with, but it's vitally important that you don't use your inbox as a storage folder. If you find yourself leafing through it looking for papers, then it's not being used properly. Everything that goes IN should only be touched once before being stored, completed or binned. This is really just a habit of repetition, but ingraining it will save you hours of time.
  • Carry a capturing device – Ideas will come to you whenever they feel like it. Our brain is a wonderful organ, in that it'll come up with some splendid idea at 2am but will steadfastly refuse to remember it in the morning. Get in the habit of carrying something around that you can use to record these ideas. Make sure it's small enough to comfortably fit in a pocket or bag, otherwise you'll resist taking it around with you which really defeats the purpose. One more tip: keep it by your bed!
  • Constantly Review Your Items – Constantly look over everything on your goals and to-do lists to make sure you're going in the right direction and that nothing has changed. The more often you review, the quicker you can adapt to changes in circumstances. Check everything is moving forward, and review your "crazy ideas" list every few weeks to see if it any ideas have become more relevant.
  • Keep your work areas clean – As soon as you've finished with something, put it away. This simple habit alone can help keep your workspaces clean from debris and other clutter which will distract you.

So there we have it. Organising yourself can be a daunting task, but breaking it into small chunks and slowly developing the habits necessary will help you to create a system that improves just about every area of your life. All of this might seem excessive, but just one day of being organised will let you know it's all worth it.

What makes a great leader?

Many years ago, I was a member of a local Scout troop. On one occasion we were going to be camping in the woods, and as the mischievous teenagers we were, we decided it would be the perfect opportunity to bring plenty of booze. Our plot was simple: smuggle the contraband onto camp by concealing it in black soda bottles. Once we were set up in the woods and our leader had gone to sleep, we would drink and be merry. We had assumed that our leader would leave us alone and check on us during the night. We were wrong. The next day, whilst scrubbing the toilets, we reflected that perhaps we weren't as smart as we had thought…

OK, so that wasn't a exactly textbook example of leadership. I could easily have opened up with a cliched tale of an ancient commander, leading his troops to victory in the face of overwhelming odds, but that only scratches the surface of leadership. More importantly, we all have the capacity to be great leaders without having to lead an army.

A very simplistic view of leadership is that it's about getting people to work towards the same goal. However, the way this is done is what shows a leader's true qualities. Bullying people into working will only get you so far, but being too easy going may not get you results at all. So what qualities do good leaders share?

  • They lead by example – This is the foundation of everything else that makes a truly great leader. They set the bar high for themselves, and strive to live up to their own expectations. However, just because they have high standards doesn't mean they expect perfection from everyone else. Everybody makes mistakes, even those with the best intentions.
  • They are honest – Honesty and integrity are vital ingredients in any form of human interaction. Lying and scheming can get you places, and whilst some may get away with it, for the majority their underhanded ways will hurt them in the end.
  • They have courage – If there's one constant in life, it's that things are never easy. It takes courage and strength of character to get yourself, and others, through these times. It also takes courage to do the right thing in the face of opposition.
  • They listen – It's easy to bark orders at people, but it's important to listen to those you are leading. Nobody can do everything by themselves, so listen to the ideas and problems of others. It's important to be open to feedback, because if people know you'll ignore their problems and ideas they'll be less likely to tell you anything in the first place.
  • They nurture – There are a lot of talented people around that often feel as if their talents are being ignored. Great leaders can see the potential in others and encourage them to raise their game.
  • They encourage others to be independent – A fear-based leader will not always encourage others to be independent, as this would threaten their position of "being in charge". By encouraging others to work independently, you let them know that you trust them and that they're valuable members of a team.
  • They plan – Because you're working towards a goal, it's essential to plan ahead. This lets people know that you're serious about the project, and also gives them an idea of where things are going.

When we think of leadership, we often assume it is reserved for certain people. After all, leaders are born, not made, right? The truth is, you have the potential to be a truly great leader, and it doesn't have to involve leading hundreds of people. Setting an example to those around you is also a form of leadership. The goal doesn't have to be completing a new project or building a skyscraper, but becoming a better person.

Effective high-level habits to improve your life

In his excellent book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", Steven Covey details the habits that all successful people share. The habits he writes about are what I would call "low-level" habits. This is not a derogatory term, but is meant to convey the idea that these habits are closer to the sub-conscious than higher level habits. Low-level habits are more about changing the way you think, whereas higher level habits are about learning patterns of action that can be repeated.

Steven Covey's Seven Low-Level Habits

In order to gain a further understanding of low-level habits, here are Steven's original seven habits.

  1. Be proactive – We all have the capacity to choose how we react in every situation. We can use the common reactive model of thinking, where we are not in control of what we think or feel, or we can choose to be proactive and decide on our responses.
  2. Begin with the end in mind – Before you start any task, you should have a concrete idea of what the finished result will be.
  3. Put first things first – Don't waste time on insignificant and unrewarding tasks. Aim to sped as much time as possible working on the tasks that will bring you closer to the completion of your goals.
  4. Think win/win – When working with others, always be looking for a solution that benefits both parties. Cultivate and develop an abundance mentality.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood – Always try to see the other person's point of view before impressing your own upon them. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to experience the situation from their viewpoint.
  6. Synergise – Synergy means that the whole is greater than the individual parts. By working together in a synergistic way, we can create much more than if we worked alone. Sadly this has become modern day management speak for "do more work in less time".
  7. Sharpen the saw – Constantly regenerate and reinforce these habits through conscious action.

All of these habits are low-level, as they will affect just about everything you do. Developing any of these habits fully takes conscious effort, but they all bring considerable improvements to all areas of your life.

Effective High-Level Habits

Now that we have an understanding of low-level habits, we can look at building higher level habits. Each of these habits will bring improvements to your life, and the self-discipline acquired from learning each one can be used to learn others, in a snow-ball like effect.

Become an Early Riser

A lot has been said about the benefits of waking up early. Everyone wants to get more done in less time, and we can either wake up earlier or go to bed later. The main advantage of these two approaches is a lack of distraction and disturbance as everyone else is asleep. You can easily get several uninterrupted hours of work done without a break in concentration. Of the two, early rising has several major advantages:

  • You're more alert – The first few minutes can be difficult, as you shake off the early morning grogginess. A splash of cold water on the face and some fresh air can quickly wake you up. A little vigorous exercise can also get the blood flowing and raise your alertness. At night there's the problem that you don't want to be too alert as you'll be sleeping soon. There is also the fact that you're fighting your body as it releases sleep inducing chemicals into your bloodstream.
  • It's more rewarding – Realising it's 7:30am and that you've already done a tonne of work feels much better than doing the same amount of work as the clock ticks past 2:00am. Knowing you've done a lot before the day has even started is far more rewarding than feeling like you've had to pack it in at the end of the day just to keep up.
  • It gives you time to wind down – If you work up until the moment you sleep, you'll quickly burn out. Waking up early gives you the later hours to yourself, so you can relax and unwind. It's extremely important to make time for relaxation, because it helps to reduce stress and makes you more productive.

Waking up early and staying up late are both habits that can be learnt with the correct preparation. The hardest part of learning to wake up early is battling the internal conversation of "just a few more minutes". It's always extremely tempting to hit the snooze button and stay in bed, but it can be overcome. If you need a little help, you can always put your alarm nice and far away from your bed so you have to get out to switch it off, and then dunk your head in some cold water before going to bed.

Alternatively you can share a bed with somebody who takes up all of the room as soon as you get up so you can't get back in :)

Motivate Yourself

Although motivation in itself is a low-level action, it can be reinforced with a high-level habit. Constantly topping up your motivation is important for those times when things get tough (and they will). There are plenty of different motivational techniques out there, and some work better for different people. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Use the golden hour – Use the first hour of your day to read through positive affirmations, review your goals and get yourself pumped up for a productive day
  • Reward yourself/punish yourself – The carrot and stick motivational techniques are classics. Either dangle a tasty reward in front of yourself that you'll get upon completion, or threaten yourself with something bad if you don't finish in time. You might need external help if you don't yet have the discipline to reward or punish yourself. I'm not a big fan of the punishment approach, as makes you feel worse about not completing something in time can compound the approach, but it's a case of different strokes for different folks.
  • Use positive affirmations – Develop a positive mindset with positive affirmations. Read them as often as possible to keep your thoughts as positive as possible.
  • Do it now! – W. Clement Stone, who built a multi-million dollar insurance business, would have all his employees shout "Do it now!" every morning before they started work. This helped to get them in the mood for a solid day of work, and also got them out of the procrastination mindset. It sounds silly, but this type of reinforcement behaviour can have a profound effect on your productivity.
  • Listen to positive music – We all have songs that get us fired up when we hear them. Make a collection of your favourite tracks and listen to them before you start work. You can also combine this with reading positive affirmations or reading through your goals.
  • Use environmental reinforcement – Put your goals somewhere you'll see them often. When Jack Canfield set himself the goal to earn $100,000, he made a large $100,000 bill and stuck it to the ceiling above his bed so he would see it every morning. This kind of simple trick can help to keep the goal in the front of your mind, and assist in visualisation techniques.
  • Get outside help – Ask friends and family for help, or use a focusing partner.

Take Regular Exercise

Aside from the health benefits of regular exercise, it's great for your productivity and your mood. The body releases endorphins during strenuous activities which elevate the mood, and cause the phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "runner's high".

Committing to regular exercise can be difficult at first. It's important not to do too much when you first start as it can be counter-productive. If you haven't exercised in a long time, start with a small goal like working out for 10 to 15 minutes three times a week. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it can be a challenge if you haven't been doing much physical activity. Once you've built the habit of making time to exercise, you can start to increase the amount of time you spend doing it.

Use the Two-Minute Rule

If you have a task that will take less than two minutes, do it right away. It makes sense to get it done immediately, because it will take longer than two minutes to store it and retrieve it later. There is also the problem that most two minute tasks have produce the feeling that "it'll only take a few mins so I'll do it later", and they either snowball into a much bigger problem or don't get done at all.

Make Plans to Achieve Your Goals

Making plans builds upon the habits of having clear goals and of prioritising actions. Once you have a firm idea of where you're want to go, you'll need to start deciding how you're going to get there. Sometimes you might have no idea how you're going to achieve a goal, and that's fine too. Knowing what the goal is and visualising its achievement can give you valuable ideas, and it also opens your mind to opportunities you may have previously missed.

How far ahead you plan depends on the project and your own personal preference. Regardless of how far ahead you plan, remember to keep your plan as flexible as possible. Unexpected events will always occur, so be ready for them.

Get Yourself Organised

This is really a broad term that covers many smaller habits. Each small habit is useful on its own, but as they add up they become more and more valuable. Examples of good organisational habits are:

  • Use an inbox – Keeping all your inputs in a single place prevents you from becoming overwhelmed from too many sources. The inbox is not a place to store work, and once something goes in to the inbox it should be processed once and dealt with. Don't succumb to the urge to leaf through it and pick out the things you want. Go through it one item at a time, and keep it as empty as possible. The rest of your organisational system should be doing most of the work.
  • Keep your work area clean and tidy – A messy desk might not seem like a big problem, but lots of items lying around it can be a large distraction. Keep it simple and keep it clean.
  • Regularly review your goals – Once you've listed your goals on paper, make it a habit to constantly review them. Make changes where necessary, and don't be afraid to modify or even remove a goal if it is no longer relevant.
  • File away your project work – As mentioned earlier, don't use your inbox to store your work. Use folders to store work on projects, even if the folder will contain a single piece of paper. This approach makes it much easier to find the things you want, and keeps other areas clean and tidy.
  • Use project and task lists – Keep a list of all the projects that you are working on, and keep separate lists of all your tasks. Use contextual to-do's where appropriate.

Organisation can be a sticking point for some people, either because they have negative views of organised people, or because of a pre-conceived motion that they're just disorganised and that's the way it is.

A lack of organisation is a habit that can be replaced, and it's well worth it. For example, if you spend 5 minutes a day looking for misplaced items, putting things in the correct place could save nearly 20 hours over the course of a year. Granted, that's a particularly contrived example but the benefits are real. By getting organised you'll save time, reduce stress and have higher self-esteem.

Developing a high level habit

A habit is a "recurrent pattern of behaviour that acquired through frequent repetition". In order to truly learn a high-level habit, you must continuously and consciously repeat the behaviour that you want to see. It requires devoted energy and attention, but all habits can be developed with the correct mindset. When you are first getting started, develop small changes at a time. As you succeed, start to build on these previous successes. It's tempting to try and change everything overnight, but this approach usually leads to failure and frustration, and can set you further back in the long-term.

A simple method for learning a habit is as follows:

  1. Define the habit to be learnt – Define a specific and measurable habit that you wish to learn. "I exercise for 25 minutes every day at 7am" is a good example, but "I regularly exercise" isn't. Much like setting goals, you must be as specific as possible so that you know exactly what needs to be done to say that the habit has been learnt.
  2. Monitor your progress – Create a system for monitoring your progress. This can be as simple as ticking a checkbox at the end of the day, or filling in a chart. It could also be something more substantial like writing entries in a journal to describe the experience in more details.
  3. Use environmental reinforcement – Put up reminders and encouragement in places where you will constantly see it. Good places include the ceiling above your bed, or on a wall next to it. Also stick it on or above your desk, so that you'll see it whilst you work.
  4. Take action – The more often you take the action, the easier it is to repeat. It can be difficult to start any new habit, and there is often a dip midway where you want to revert to a previous habit. Fight the urge, and enlist the help of others if you need it.

Any new habit takes work to achieve, but even small changes in your thinking and behaviour can create substantial changes in all areas of your life. None of these changes can be learnt overnight, but with consistent effort and energy you can transform your life into something truly amazing.

Increasing your productivity with a time log

Picture the scene: It's the end of the day, and although you're exhausted, you feel as if you've done nothing all day. "If only I hadn't wasted so much time" you think. "Tomorrow, I'll get up earlier and work extra hard!" The next day, you climb into bed, exhausted but unfulfilled. "If only I hadn't wasted so much time", you think…

There's nothing quite as de-motivating as feeling you've wasted a day doing nothing. It's easy to get frustrated, and even if you have had a productive day, the habit of beating yourself up can still keep your mood down and hold you back. Unless you keep track of what you're doing with your time, your account at the end of the day will mainly be based upon how you feel at the time. The solution to this problem is the trusty time log.

What is a time log?

A time-log is a simple tool that lets you keep track how you're spending your time. This is very helpful when trying to optimise your time, and it also helps to make sure you don't concentrate on the negative aspects of your day. After a few days and weeks of using a time log, you can then build up an accurate picture of how productive you're being, as well as when your most productive hours are. For example, you might find you're much more productive during the first few hours of the day, or directly after you've exercised. Using this information you can optimise your daily performance by scheduling tasks for your most productive hours.

How do you keep a time log?


I use a very simple 3-column format for my time logs. The left column is used to note the start time, the large column contains the activity and the small column on the right is used at the end of the day to calculate the length of the session. Although the example picture is from a spreadsheet, I prefer to use a purely paper driven system for ease of use and portability.

Your own personal circumstances will determine when you start keeping track of your time. If you're self-employed, you might want to start it as soon as you wake yup. If you're in an office environment, it might be more beneficial to start as soon as you leave your front door. If there's a particular part of your daily routine that you feel is causing trouble, make sure you capture it on your log for later analysis.

Once you've started, every single activity needs to be noted down. This includes tea and coffee breaks, toilet stops and the ubiquitous "just 10 seconds to check my email" task. Most of these are trivial activities, but it's quite enlightening to see just how long they take when added up. To give an example, the very first time I used this technique I found I was wasting over three hours on "checking email/web surfing".

At the end of the monitored time period, work out how much time was spent on each task by using the recorded information. After a week or two of using this technique, you'll have a good idea of areas where you need to improve. It's also not unusual to see a direct improvement within the first few days as a result of tracking your time. Often knowing that your time is being monitored is enough to keep you on-track for a little bit longer and can help you push through to a task's completion.

Isn't this all a little excessive?

Keeping a time log is a very small price to pay compared to the improvements that can be gained. If you're wasting a lot of time during the day, it's not uncommon to double your productivity within a week or two. And remember, you can stop keeping a record once you've made the improvements you wanted. If ever you feel your productivity has slipped, you can start recording again.