This is an answer to a question that I get asked every now and then. “Troy, how do you get and stay productive?” I’ve found 9 ways to be more productive. I’ll be honest enough to say that my own productivity system has been a work in progress for most of my career, and it will continue to be so (I’m always learning). Some of the techniques have come from reading, most from practice, and many from my passion for building race cars and hot rods.
Yes, I said race cars and hot rods. It’s a hobby that has taught me a lot over the years about problem solving and work habits. There’s no such book as ‘Seven Habits of Highly Productive Gearheads,’ but if there were, some of the habits below might be in it.
Game-plan every day: This seems obvious – but many people don’t do it, and in fact, I didn’t do it for many years. Every day has a game plan for me. The obvious components of the plan are ‘live’ activities – appointments, speaking engagements, and the like – but I always have some phone calls to make, some tasks, and some work on at least one long-term project. I also plan in my personal projects (I still work on cars and motorcycles) and my workout time. Rigid? Yes. But planning all this is what gives me time for fun, believe it or not.
Write it down: OK, call me a Luddite if you wish, but my game plan is always written down with a pen on real paper in a real (inexpensive) planning pad (it’s fun –and here it is). I’ve tried using the task management components of Outlook (I use Outlook for my contacts and appointments), but I find that it’s too easy – at least for me – to simply put a new date on an old task. Writing implies permanence and commitment (which are also reasons that handwritten thank-you notes are particularly effective, but that’s a different story). I like CRM and use it – but there’s still a place in my world for a pen and paper.
Make appointments with yourself: My phone calls are programmed into my day, including the time slot that I’ll be making them. Particularly for telephone prospectors, it’s vital that you block time into your schedule – ESPECIALLY for those parts of your job that you don’t love. If you don’t, it’s too easy to slide them off.
Checklists are great: I like lists. I like them a lot because they keep me focused. Again, this is a benefit of writing things down instead of using Outlook. For me there’s a satisfaction involved with taking a pen and checking an item off my list.
Touch big projects every day: This is one that I learned from racing and hot rodding. Sometimes a car build can stretch out over years, and if you lose momentum on one….well, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are full of aborted projects being sold at a heavy discount. You lose momentum by taking one day off, then another, then another…..and soon your project is gathering dust and you can’t remember where you left off. When I’m working on a car, I touch it every day, even if it’s just to change a light bulb or do a little sanding on a fender. When I do this, I never lose momentum and I never lose track. This method has segued over to business projects, as well. To write Sell Like You Mean It!, I spent an hour every day working on the manuscript for six months.
Work ahead: If you’re making calls today for appointments tomorrow, you’re already sunk. Don’t be that guy or gal. Instead, work well ahead. This article was written two weeks before I posted it. Why? Because I was inspired, and my own history tells me that when I get inspired to write an article, I’d better go ahead and write it, even though I might have a couple of articles ahead of it in line.
Stop when you have to: One of the things that I’ve learned through painful experience with my cars is that, sometimes, it’s best to stop in the middle of a task or project if you’re thrown a curveball, and reapproach it with fresh eyes later. A couple of months ago it was late in the evening and I was installing a part on my old Mercury, and I was determined to get it done that night. The problem was that a bolt hole wasn’t lining up and I was starting to cross-thread a bolt. Now, intellectually, I know that this is bad and that I should stop – but I didn’t. Instead I turned the ratchet harder (perhaps hoping that the bolt gods would smile upon me and magically make the bolt line up), and messed up the threads. At least now I stopped. The next day, I got a tap, recut the thread on the Mercury’s frame, and as I was doing it, an easy method for making the parts line up popped into my head. Ten minutes later it was done. I could have saved myself quite a bit of time if I’d stopped when things started to go bad.
Find your idea time: We all have times during the day when our mind is unfettered and is likely to give us great (and, honestly, sometimes not so great) ideas. For me, that’s the last hour before bed. I need to keep my mind unoccupied with important tasks (so, no business work during that time), and I need to keep my planner handy so I can capture those ideas. What do I do during that time? I watch TV, I read something unrelated to business…..but I am ready to grab a good idea when it hits me. Find yours and use it.
Keep a diary: Okay, okay….if you prefer to call it a ‘journal,’ go right ahead. I suppose that’s more manly. On the other hand, George Patton called his a ‘diary,’ so I think I’m OK on that count. At the end of every day, I write a little summary of the day in the same planner book that I use to plan my day. I do this for two reasons: First, I want to see if I accomplished my mission for the day. Second, sometimes the big success of the day wasn’t planned, and I like to keep track of positives. I do this because it makes me my own accountability partner. I never want to write “pretty pointless day,” so I strive to make it a day that advances me somehow.
There’s one other aspect that I didn’t mention, because it’s highly individualized. Do what works for you. You don’t have to use all my 9 ways to be more productive; heck, you don’t have to use any of them if you have a system that really works for you. But you should have a system and you should faithfully execute it, day in and day out. Until I did, I often had days where I sat in the evening wondering where the day went and why it didn’t produce a result.