So often we think of productivity as doing more and more each day, packing in everything like an overstuffed suitcase. Just one more email, one more call, or one more thing before we collapse into numbing exhaustion at the end of the day. Wikipedia defines productivity as "an average measure of the efficiency of production." Note that it does not say the amount of production but rather the efficiency of production. Just because we are busy doesn't mean we are productive or efficient.
One of the greatest detriments to productivity is that we live in a hyper-stimulated world, we continually have our boss, our co-workers, our clients, our emails, phones (multiple), social media, and a multiplicity of other things clamoring for our attention. God forbid our families, kids, or loved one want time carved out for themselves, we just don't have anything left. We are running on fumes most days.
A couple of simple, yet powerful, concepts and techniques can make a radical difference in our lives, freeing us to focus on what is essential in life.
Focus on What is Essential
In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about doing less to do better. I can hear the alarms bells going off here, as you say - "But I have SO much to do." McKeown argues that when we are maxed out with multiple projects and endless to dos, we don't do anything really well but rather our efforts are diluted and dispersed because we get overloaded.
What if we eliminated those things that were not truly essential? Do we need to go to every meeting, or say "yes" to everything we are asked to take on? Develop 1-3 core objectives for your job, your business, and your life and evaluate everything as to whether it adds or subtracts from your objectives. This takes time and practice but the payout is huge.
Make Space for What is Important
Following on the concept of essentialism, Leo Babauta with Zen Habits gives a wonderful analogy of filling up you weekly buckets with Big Rocks first, then leaving space for pebbles and sand to fill in. The Big Rocks represent the most important things you need to do in the coming week to meet your objectives. Babauta recommends having no more than 4-6 Big Rocks. The Big Rocks should include non-work items as well (your family and friends will thank you!). By focusing on the Big Rocks first we get the most essential things completed. This also helps to avoid procrastination as we focus on our mission critical first. It also gives us greater permission to push back on those things that clutter our ability to focus on what is most important.
Bite Off Small Chunks
Two things that contribute to our overload are underestimating the time it actually takes to complete a project and putting things off until the last minute because we really don't want to do them. The Pomodoro Technique can really help to address both these issues. Its philosophy is simple - break things down into 25 minute increments. When working on a project or studying set a timer for 25 minutes. Eliminate all distractions during this time (turn off phone ringer, turn off computer notifications), and focus only on the task at hand. No multi-tasking here as it defeats the purpose. Take a couple of minutes break after the 25 minutes and then move onto the next project for 25 minutes, or add increments of 25 minutes to complete a project.
I struggle with underestimating some projects especially if it is a new area, or the project is more complex than I anticipated. I find myself becoming frustrated because I either have to finish the project and put off other things, or I need to leave the project temporarily to complete another scheduled task. Either way I end up feeling frazzled. I have found the Pomodoro Technique is really helpful for this. Start putting down expected time for a project, then log the actual time it takes to complete the project or task. For example, if you write a weekly newsletter and you normally block out 1 hour for it, but with research you find it normally takes you an 1 hour and 30 minutes. This information will really help you be more realistic in planning out your week. It will help you focus on the important things but also helps better schedule your calendar so you don't end up with an unrealistic schedule that leaves you unfocused and over-scheduled.