Working at a laptopBeing productive is not the same as being busy. Productivity requires that we have a sense of focus or at least an awareness of the desired outcome.

If you start each day with clarity about even one thing that you would like to achieve that day, your chances of having a productive day are greatly increased.

Having a plan and then working that plan is a simple yet effective strategy.

Often what happens is that we start with a plan and then get distracted. Maybe midway through the day we get hijacked by emails, a phone call or an interesting article we’ve read… something crops up that captures our attention and we find ourselves busy (and yet not on plan at all!).

When I’m discussing productivity in workshops this dilemma can be paraphrased as “When I find I’m off track do I go with the flow or power-through and stick with the plan?”.

There isn’t a single answer to this question as it really does depend on what you want to achieve and it probably helps to check-in and have another look at your plan.

If you are engaged in activity that is taking you closer to a valued outcome, yes, feel free to choose to stay in that flow, but only if the outcome is more important and at least as urgent as the “on plan” activity that you’re not doing. Sometimes it is possible to find a creative flow in an unexpected moment.

It is also very easy to slip from being productive to being busy with something we find enjoyable but don’t really need to be doing right now. I find it helps to make some assessment of “if I carry on, what is the outcome here?”.

If consciously or unconsciously, you are engaged in an unplanned task because you are avoiding something more important, this should at least ring alarm bells until you get to make a conscious choice or decision.

Most of the time it’s easy to tell when you are being inspired or when you are procrastinating about something you feel is difficult or dull.

I wish I could tell you that it was possible to completely avoid the “difficult or dull” elements of work – I can’t. In my experience there are always some things that need to be done but which don’t inspire me. So how to deal with this?

Yes, we can re-frame our thinking: the boring task can be re-framed as essential maintenance or a quick diversion. If we refuse to be sucked into the darkness and simply get stuck in we usually find these tasks are not as bad as we feared – it’s the looking at it and trying to avoid it that’s the real source of our discomfort, not actually doing it.

I find one of two strategies can be helpful – either to get “stuck in” with a short, sharp deadline, a sort of “hit the road running and get out as quickly as possible”-type of approach or sometimes to schedule a more sizeable block of time for just dealing with all of the tedious stuff in a block – “Monday morning, clear the decks, get ready for the week”-sort of work. I often think of this as Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” moment. Sometimes the prospect of something unpleasant is able to infiltrate or upset our more creative thoughts and the best way to deal with it is simply to do the tough stuff first. But set a timer. You don’t want this type of work to consume your day.

At other times, we know that dealing with these housekeeping tasks is keeping us from the more creative engagements – personally I often find it’s easier to deal with filing than to face the creative stress of writing an article or outlining a new project. As I write this blog post I I know I’m being tempted to buy Black Friday or Cyber Monday bargains. I could spend hours browsing, I’m sure the offers are out there. Or is a bargain price on something you didn’t really want ever a bargain?

Today, my bigger goal is to get words on paper, in fact to get two articles written and published.

Keeping that outcome clearly in sight allows me to focus, to stay on track and to get me back on track should my focus falter or fail. So what are you setting out to achieve today?