8 guaranteed ways to totally smash your ‘to do’ list in 2015

Want to hit targets this year but always juggling too much? Oli Barrett has crowdsourced the best tips from the most productive people he knows

There is a certain type of person who, despite having the same number of hours in the day as the rest of us, seems to get an unusual amount done.

Whether running businesses or ultra-marathons, they just keep making things happen. Call them successful, call them driven. They are massively productive.

More intriguing, I have found, is their ability to remain thoroughly nice, fun people to spend time with. It’s infuriating, actually, and I could bear it no more. I had to learn their secrets.

I’ve asked them for you, and they’ve told me. A dozen of the most productive people I know have spilled the beans. From practical pointers to new ways of looking at the world, here are some top tips for a productive year ahead.

1. Structure your week

Richard Moross, founder of Moo.com sets aside Friday mornings for non-MOO meetings. This could be for helping someone out or giving some advice. “That way the diary doesn’t get littered with non-MOO stuff (which is still important) and my time is naturally limited to a sort of office-hours slot.”

Richard (who, for the founder of a printing business is anything but stationery), also tries to work from home on a Wednesday morning. “Working from home rocks.” With hundreds of thousands of customers, so does his business.

Perhaps next Monday is already starting to look a little different. If so, take a tip from Amol Rajan, editing the Independent at the ripe-old age of… 31. He recommends setting yourself some weekly aims.

Not for him the long lunches of Fleet Street’s past. “Meet people for breakfast rather than lunch: morning is the time of day when you’re most productive, and taking out lunch can interrupt the flow of your day.”

2. Get off to a good start

Starting at the very beginning sounds good. Sadly, for some of us, our to-do list is more deary me, than do-re-me.

Sherilyn Shackell, founder of the Marketing Academy has a brilliant way of beginning her day. “The first task every day should be one you LOVE to do or one that makes you (and, whenever possible, someone else) feel good. The second task, before anything else is to do the one that you loathe or are least looking forward to doing. The third task is to give yourself a pat on the back because you survived.”

For Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence, productivity is an important part of what she calls, Social Health – or how we go about managing our time and our tasks. The professor of networking likes scheduling ‘when to do’ something as well as ‘what to to’.

More than that, her tip is for us to think about ‘why’. “Always stand back from the thing you aim to do and ask if it really is essential, short medium and long term. That way you can continually do a bit of strategic pruning too which is always satisfying.” For many of us, it may be time to get the shears out.

3. Disconnect

With a string of awards to his name, over $70m dollars in revenue and a 150 staff, Ross Williams seems to be doing something right. The founder of Global Personals, the white-label dating company, puts his matchmaking success down to divorcing himself from his inbox.

“Turn off email from 10am to midday and 2pm to 4pm so you can get your actions done.” He continues: “If it’s important people will find another way to reach you – turning off email, and sometimes going offline so you don’t have WiFi, is sometimes the most effective way for me to get things done without distractions or the opportunity for procrastination.”

4. Break things up

It is hard to imagine Ben Saunders spending a day at his desk. The charmingly self-effacing adventurer has recently completed Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition, setting the record for the longest polar journey in history.

When he isn’t plotting his next adventure or speaking about his endeavours, it has always puzzled me how he manages to knuckle down at the desk. He has, after all, landed sponsorship deals with global giants Jaguar Land Rover and Intel, so isn’t afraid of some hard office graft.

“For getting desk/computer-based work done, I’m a huge fan of the Pomodoro Technique.” As he explains, there are five basic steps.

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. After four pomodori, take a longer break (15-30 minutes)

If Ben can complete 69 arctic marathons, back-to-back, and raise millions of pounds in support, I’m up for giving his considerably warmer methods a go.

Speaking of moving, I have discovered one of the secrets of none other than Baroness Martha Lane Fox of Soho. It’s walking. “Everywhere. Stand up. Move about. Keep energetic.” Ben would surely approve.

5. Choose the right tools

For some of us, a sharpened pencil is about as cutting edge as our to-do-list tools get. For the more tech-savvy, help is at hand. Omnifocus, for example, describes itself as “an incredible task management platform” and is used by a couple of people I asked. Meanwhile, Shaa Wasmund, founder of Smarta and the One Retreat, swears by Evernote.

In the words of the San Francisco based company: “No matter what form your writing takes, Evernote keeps you focused on moving those ideas from inspiration to completion.” Closely resembling a force of nature, Shaa is not one for half measures; “Put everything into Evernote. Like everything. Your whole life.” Noted.

For keeping on top of an overgrown inbox, Alicia Navarro, founder of affiliate marketing expert Skimlinks swears by Sanebox. “It’s life changing in terms of keeping me focused on top priority emails, and not distracted with less important or bulk/news emails.”

Tech aside, the Skimlinks CEO isn’t afraid to use a “good ol’ notepad”. For her, it’s “satisfying, effective”, and “still the best place for writing to-do lists and crossing them off”. Richard at Moo adds that “all actions I list in my notebook that need direct follow-up by me are starred, so I can easily track back and see what I need to follow up on”. More five star advice.

6. Trust your instinct

Decisions to make? Ruby McGregor Smith, CEO of Mitie (the outsourcing business in the FTSE 250), encourages us not to take too long.

“The best tip I have – make decisions quickly and do them on instinct – they will rarely be wrong.” Given that her firm has grown revenues and profits for no less than 25 consecutive years, she may have a point.

7. Seek help

Several people I asked highlighted the importance of a personal assistant. Daniel Priestley, founder of Entrevo and creator of the Key Person of Influence programme runs events across six cities, from Sydney to Singapore.

His assistant is in the Philippines, and works full time, on UK time. Daniel, who can often be found writing his latest book on a plane, shared two more of my favourite tips. Firstly, to ask your team: “What are the highest value activities I should be focused on?”. Secondly, to “book holidays”. Why? “The week before, a lot gets done.” Now that’s smart.

8. Choose one thing

After all this, perhaps you simply don’t know where to start, blinded by science or overwhelmed by Pandora’s Inbox. Pete Ward, founder of social travel network WAYN takes his inspiration from the New York Times bestseller, The One Thing.

“Ask yourself,” says Pete, “what’s the one thing that I can do, right now, that by doing it, everything else becomes easier or unnecessary.

“Focus on that, and you will create a domino effect of the right outcomes and momentum that will take you to where you want to go.”

As David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, said: “You can do anything you want – but not everything.”

Whatever your plans, goals and ideas for the year ahead, I hope you too are massively productive. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Ordinary people think merely of spending time, great people think of using it.”

Oli Barrett MBE, is a founder of Cospa, the agency that connects brands with causes to deliver social innovation projects. He is one of the people behind Tenner, WebMission, Areté Club and StartUp Britain and can be found on Twitter

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  1. Tactics 1 and 2 are particularly useful for me. On a Friday I will structure the following week and this means over the weekend I can mull over this in my head whilst relaxing and make sure that it is the correct way to do things. If any changes to the week ahead are required I can then do these on Monday morning but I have “psyched myself up” for the week ahead’s activities either way whcih makes me more productive.

    With regards to tactic 2, I find myself much more productive during the whole day and feel better about myself if I have a productive morning. I try to stick to a morning route of getting up at similar times and have breakfast and a wash in the same order. I also do that aren’t too strenuous like reply to easy-to-answer emails and check finances as well as social media and business development opportunites. I think getting into a work mindset is all about building momentum and easing into the day is a great way to begin building this momentum.

    Thanks for writing this post!