Often, we think we need to take big steps to boost our productivity, but here are four small steps that can have a big impact:
1. Specialize More
Invest as much of your time as possible in your "high value activities": those that (1) are within your mission, (2) leverage your strengths, and (3) create impact or change. Doing so not only greatly increases your effectiveness, but reduces your busyness and stress. It also avoids overgiving, the Achilles heel of many talented, nice people.
In the professional realm this often means dropping out of projects and groups where your contribution is not vital, or where you're not seeing much yield. In the personal realm it means not doing housework or running errands when you can find (or pay) others to do those things. Most successful people focus on a handful of key priorities--and if you're worried that you'll become an overspecialized nerd, don't. Most people are way underspecialized, and so this will only be a corrective. (But check with your mentors to be sure.)
2. When Being Purposeful About Your Time, Also be Resilient in the Face of Criticism
When you pull out of projects, or stop running errands, you're probably going to make someone, or multiple someones, unhappy. That's great! I always tell people that they know they're doing their time management right when people start complaining! This is true especially if you've got a history of overgiving.
"How come you can't do this project any more?" and "You're not as helpful as you used to be!" are signs you're doing it right, as are, "Why don't we have more home cooked meals?" "Why is the house such a mess?" and "You're no fun any more!" To be clear, all of these could be legitimate concerns; however, the answer is not to perpetually subordinate your mission to others', but to cooperatively problem-solve, a process by which you explain the problem (in this case, your time crunch) and how it's affecting you, brainstorm with everyone majorly affected, and jointly craft the most acceptable solution. (No blame, shame, or guilt trips!) However, in some cases, you really do want to make a unilateral decision, and in those cases you'll simply have to say you're not available.
If anyone accuses you of being "selfish" for managing your time, remember that you're not-- you're being purposeful. Hopefully, however, you're hanging around a crowd that supports your efforts to succeed.
3. Send Fewer and Terser Emails
"Email overload" is one of the most common problems raised in my workshops and classes. It's another overgiving problem with two extra wrinkles: (1) most of us get a ton of emails, and (2) because email combines the quickness and informality of spoken communication with the permanence and formality of written communication many of us are tempted to "overwork" our emails. If you get just twenty nonessential emails a day and spend just three minutes answering each, that's an hour *every day* on this low-value activity. (Or: 365 hours a year, or more than nine 40-hour workweeks! Holy cow!) No good time manager would stand for that.
Some good techniques are to set your email program to automatically filter and sort, use email signatures, and unsubscribe from superfluous mailing lists. But as with most time management techniques, you've got to take things to the limit and go past your comfort zone to see the real benefit. Good time managers don't reply to emails when replying is low-value or optional, and when they do reply, they often reply tersely--i.e., not, "Great, I'd love to get together on Saturday; how about 8, and how about if I bring dessert? What do you think of pie?" but "Sure, see you at 8 - pie OK?" The savings may seem trivial, but it quickly adds up. When you start sending fewer and terser emails, you might get pushback from people who say you're being abrupt or even rude. In that case, refer back to Tip #2, above.
4. Be More Grateful
Gratitude, a.k.a., appreciation, is a topic I'm just beginning to explore, although many people have already gone deep into it. (It's prominent in both religious thinking and addiction-recovery practices, for instance.) Most of us are taught that it's the "nice" thing to do--which it is--but it's also a practice of unique power and effectiveness.
First, feel gratitude for all the good things in your life and especially the people and animals in your life. (Heck, and the whole planet, too.) You'll not only feel better, but more alive and attuned and connected. Also, be sure to feel gratitude for yourself, and all the things you are, and have done, and are capable of doing. If that feels weird, remember that dwelling on your perceived "negatives" and "failures" is not being objective, and it's also not a corrective or motivator. It's nothing but perfectionism and it will stall your progress. You've got nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by seeing the glory in yourself and everything around you.
Next, express your gratitude, because gratitude isn't fully real until expressed. Beyond the moral and psychological benefits of doing so, gratitude is also one of the strongest motivators around. When you thank someone for a favor or job well done--really thank them--you powerfully incent them to continue to assist you. (That's why gratitude is a productivity technique!) In contrast, if you don't express gratitude, that's a powerful DEmotivator.
I'm constantly amazed at how many people don't express thanks for meaningful favors or work done, or who do so only cursorily. (A quick verbal "thanks" is NOT sufficient; you need to follow up with a note. And it doesn't have to be lengthy, but it does have to be specific to the occasion.) Gratitude is one of the highest return-on-investment (ROI) productivity techniques out there, so use it lavishly.