According to author Laura Vanderkam in her newest e-book What the Most Successful People Do At Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career, the secret to “astonishing productivity” lies in daily disciplines.
In the book Vanderkam outlines seven of these disciplines: mind your hours; plan; make success possible; know what is work; practice; pay in; and pursue pleasure. For each one she shares stories and interviews with successful people who use these disciplines in their own daily lives.
Here are several lessons from Vanderkam’s book on boosting your productivity and being successful at work.
1. You need to know how you use your time.
For the most part, we tend to be unreliable reporters of our work hours. According to one study, people who estimated that they worked over 75 hours a week were actually off by about 25 hours. People who estimated they worked 55 to 64 hours were still off by 10 hours. Naturally, if you think you work more, you’ll use your time differently.
That’s why successful people know how many hours a week they work. In order to use your time more effectively, you have to know how you’re using it in the first place.
Vanderkam suggests thinking of yourself as an attorney who charges by the hour. Track your time for an entire week and consider how long you spend on email, projects, meetings, planning and other tasks. (Vanderkam created a simple spreadsheet to help track your hours.) Then take a close look at how you’re spending your time.
According to Vanderkam, the most important lesson in keeping a time log is learning how long it takes you to accomplish each task. This gives you insight for creating meaningful changes. For instance, Vanderkam tries not to schedule phone calls before 11 a.m. because the morning is when she’s better able “to turn an idea into words.”
2. Don’t underestimate the power of planning.
In addition to being a writer, Vanderkam also is a speaker. When she asks audiences what they’d like to spend more time on, they say planning. The problem? They also say they’re too busy to plan.
And that is a problem. Vanderkam thinks this is a backward approach.
As she writes, “You hope whoever built your house wasn’t so busy hammering and sawing that he couldn’t look at the blueprint.”
In other words, planning gives you a path. How can you arrive at your destination without directions? “Knowing where you’re going vastly increases the chances that you’ll get there,” she writes.
Successful people build planning into their days, according to Vanderkam, also author of the excellent books All The Money In The World: What The Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
For instance, her personal planning strategy consists of three levels: Every December, she comes up with questions she’d ask in her “performance review” at the end of the year.
Every Sunday she creates a list of what she’d like to accomplish that week, keeping in mind her annual goals. Her to-do list includes tasks toward these goals along with immediate assignments she needs to accomplish.
Come Monday night, she evaluates what she accomplished that day and what needs to be done, and then schedules Tuesday. She does the same on Tuesday night, and so on for the rest of the week. Friday, she might spend planning and wrapping up the week.
3. Many things masquerade as work and can stifle your productivity (and vice versa).
Some tasks may look like work. But “if they’re not advancing you or your organization toward your goals,” they’re not, Vanderkam writes. The key is to figure out what those things are. Vanderkam names email and meetings as two examples.
What successful people do is to calculate the opportunity cost of various tasks. For instance, Traci Bild, of Bild & Company, leaves work at 3 p.m. to take care of her kids. She tells Vanderkam that her number one strategy as a leader is “constantly trying to replace myself…If I give my duties away, it frees me up to go to the next level.”
Other activities that don’t look like work can actually contribute to your success. LeUyen Pham, a prolific illustrator with two small kids, gets up from her desk and stretches every hour. She also peruses bookstores and art blogs.
“Successful people know that astonishing productivity – particularly in creative fields – requires filling the pot,” Vanderkam notes. To fill your pot, she suggests everything from getting a library card and browsing the stacks to visiting art museums to reading journals in a related field.
In her last chapter, Vanderkam talks about the importance of pleasure. She writes, “Successful people constantly look at their days to evaluate what brings them pleasure and what does not, and they figure out how they can spend more hours pursuing pleasure and fewer hours doing what they don’t care about.”
In fact, maybe that’s the biggest secret to productivity: Try to maximize the joyful parts of your work and minimize the miserable.
Learn more about Laura Vanderkam’s work and read her informative blog at her website.