I was asked to facilitate a discussion about productivity and administration with my Associate Dean colleagues on the Adminstrative Council for Undergraduate Education (ACUE) at Penn State.

Ever interested in sharing productivity strategies, I jumped at the opportunity … and quickly added an item to my OmniFocus Task List to write a short blog post about it.

Check.

People often ask me for productivity tips and tricks, but when I tell them what I do, they laugh.

In the world of productivity, what’s probably most important is to find a way that works for you.

So what I’ll do here is share a four things that work for me … and if they make you laugh, that’s even better.

1. Listen to the Delphic Oracle – “Know Thyself”

When do you work most effectively? What time of day are you most intellectually alive? When do you get your best work done?

Think about it; and when you identify those times of the day, treat them as sacred to Pythia, and guard them like Cerberus. Those are the times you should reserve for your most important projects, for the things that will move your life forward in fulfilling ways.

2. Take a Holistic Approach

Knowing what to do during those sacred times, of course, is critical.

I have a modified Getting Things Done approach; GTD is a productivity philosophy developed by David Allen to help people capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and do the things that they need to do. An important part of this approach is to take time to articulate your purpose and principles of life, your vision of your career, your long-term goals, your areas of responsibility, current projects, and next actions. Your long-term horizon has to inform all your decisions about where to focus your attention at any given time.

The sacred time of Pythia should be devoted, whenever possible, to working on those projects most important to the purpose and course of your life.

3. Deal with Email – aka, Develop a Workflow

It’s usually when I start talking about my “workflow,” that people start rolling their eyes and laughing.

Still, it is critical to have a system in place that allows you to spend less mental energy worrying about missing something and more creative energy focused on doing the things that are important to you.

A word, first, about email, and here I apologize for falling into the hortatory voice, but: you need to deal with email, or you will be overwhelmed by it.

The first commandment of email should probably be: Thou Shalt Not Use Email As Thy To Do List.

I know, it’s tempting; but the problem with using email to manage your tasks is that it gives too much power over to external forces to determine when and on what you focus. If other people begin to determine what you do when, before long, you’ve lost the horizon that was keeping you on course.

I have an InBox zero philosophy; and my current favorite email client is Google InBox for gMail. (Email me if you want an invite). InBox allows you to schedule emails to re-appear at a later time when you are in a position to better deal with them, and it makes it easy to archive things that you might need one day, but don’t need now.

I have a triage approach to email. I take short periods of time throughout the day (see point four below) to process email. My mindset is basically this–you have three options:

  1. Do it;
  2. Delegate it; or
  3. Delete it.

Of course it is never that easy, but the general idea is to quickly sort email so that you know you are not going to miss anything important.

Let’s look at each briefly in turn:

The “Do it” option often simply means assign it to a Project in OmniFocus (or whatever task manager you use) so that you can do it in a way and at a time when you determine is best depending on its level of importance to your long term goals. If it can be done by a quick response, fine; otherwise, into OmniFocus it goes.

The “Delegate It” option assumes that you have staff or collaborators with identifiable areas of responsibility on whom you can rely. For my Associate Dean colleagues, one of the most important productivity tips is to take the time to hire excellent staff, provide them with a lot of support, and trust them to do their job well.

Finally, “Delete It” or archive it: we receive a lot of email that can be deleted or can simply be archived for later reference if needed. InBox is excellent about identifying that sort of email and making it easy to clear.

4. Time Yourself, Always

If we began with Pythia’s “Know Thyself,” we might end here with an homage to Chronos, god of time. My homage, however, takes the form of a tomato which I bring in offering to Chronos. Specifically, an Italian tomato, a pomodoro.

When I mention the Pomodoro Technique to most people, they just laugh and laugh; they think I am crazy and often walk away shaking their head. It is not for everyone, but if you want a great way to focus your attention, give it a try. One day you just might be surprised at the power Chronos has when he is harnessed.

The idea is simple: a pomodoro, the Italian word for “tomato” that gestures to those little tomato timers, is a 25-minute block of time that is set to allow you to focus your attention on a single task. For each 25-minute period of focused work, you get a 5-minute break before another pomodoro begins. After a set number of pomodoros, you get a longer break.

This simple strategy allows me to turn an hour of free time between meetings, for example, into two very productive pomodoros. Because my task manager has enabled me to organize my priorities, I can focus my attention during those concentrated periods of work on things I know are important to me. Because I have a workflow I trust, I am not worried that I might be forgetting something, and my mind can attend effectively to the task at hand.

Obviously, there is always more to say about productivity, and there’s always the risk that too much talk of productivity will render one less productive, but the core of it is here: know yourself, orient yourself toward long-term goals, develop a workflow that works, and deploy a strategy that allows you to concentrate your attention on doing what you have identified as most important.

And of course, its always good to laugh along the way … even if you need to schedule a pomodoro just for that.

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