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10 tips for being more productive

No matter what your job, in one way our days are basically the same: We all have the same amount of time at our disposal. That’s why how you use your time makes all the difference… whether you’re bootstrapping a startup or running a billion-dollar company like Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat, one of the largest and most successful providers of open source software.

Here are Jim’s tips for maximizing your time and improving your personal productivity:

Every Sunday night, map out your week.

Sunday evenings, I sit down with my list of important objectives for the year and for each month. Those goals inform every week and help keep me on track. While long-range goals may not be urgent, they are definitely important. If you aren’t careful it’s easy for “important” to get pushed aside by “urgent.” Then I look at my calendar for the week. I know what times are blocked out by meetings, etc. Then I look at what I want to accomplish and slot those tasks onto my to-do list.

The key is to create structure and discipline for your week — otherwise you’ll just let things come to you… and urgent will push aside important.

Actively block out task time.

Everyone schedules meetings and appointments. Go a step farther and block out time to complete specific tasks. Slot periods for, “Write new proposal,” or, “Craft presentation,” or, “Review and approve marketing materials.”

If you don’t proactively block out that time, those tasks will slip. Or get interrupted. Or you’ll lose focus. And what is important for you to get done won’t actually get done.

Follow a realistic to-do list.

I used to create to-do lists, but I didn’t assign times to each task. What happened? I always had more items on my to-do list than I could accomplish, and that turned it into a wish list, not a to-do list. If you have six hours of meetings scheduled today and eight hours worth of tasks then those tasks won’t get done.

Assigning realistic times forces you to prioritize. Assigning realistic times also helps you stay focused; when you know a task should only take 30 minutes you’ll be more aggressive in weeding out or ignoring distractions.

Default to 30-minute meetings.

Whoever invented the one-hour default in calendar software wasted millions of people-hours. Most subjects can be handled in 30 minutes. Many can be handled in 15 minutes — especially if everyone who attends knows the meeting is only going to last 15 minutes.

Stop multitasking.

During a meeting — especially an hour-long meeting — it’s tempting to take care of a few mindless tasks. The problem is that makes those meetings less productive. Even though you can only do mindless stuff, still — you’re distracted. And that makes you less productive. Multitasking is a personal productivity killer. Don’t try to do two things partly well. Do one thing really well.

Obsess over leveraging edge time.

My biggest down time during the workday is when I drive to work, when I drive home, and when I’m in airports. So I focus really hard on how to use that time. I almost always schedule calls for my drive to work. I typically don’t schedule calls for the drive home so I can return calls. At the airport I use Pocket, a browser plugin that downloads articles. Loading up ten articles ahead of time ensures I have plenty to read — plenty I want to read — while I’m waiting in the security line.

Look at your day. Identify the down times.

Then schedule things you can do during that time. Call it edge time — because it really can build a productive edge.

Track your time.

Once you start tracking your time you’ll be amazed by how much time you spend doing stuff that isn’t productive. You don’t have to get hyper-specific. The info you log can be directional, not precise.

Be thoughtful about lunch.

Your lunch can take an hour. Or 30 minutes. Or 10 minutes. Whatever time it takes, be thoughtful about what you do.  If you like to eat at your desk and keep chugging, fine. But if you benefit from using the break to recharge, lunch is one time where multitasking is great: you can network, socialize, help build your company’s culture, but not if you’re going out to lunch with the same people every day.

Obsess over protecting family time.

Like you, I’m a bit of a workaholic. So I’m very thoughtful about my evenings. When I get home from work it’s family time: we have dinner as a family, we help our kids with their homework. I completely shut down. No phone, no email.

Every family has peak times when they can best interact. If you don’t proactively free up that time you’ll slip back into work stuff. Either be working or be home with your family. That means no phones at the table, no texts. Don’t just be there, be with your family.

Start every day right.

I exercise first thing in the morning because exercise is energizing. I get up early and run. Then I cool off while I read the newspaper and am downstairs before my kids so I can eat breakfast with them. Not only will you get an energy boost, efficiency in the morning sets the stage for the rest of your day. Start your day productively and your entire day will be more productive, too.

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