“There aren’t enough hours in a day!” How many times have you thought that at the end of a day?
How many times have people asked you how you are, and you can only reply with an emphatic ‘Busy!’ and a half-suppressed sigh? How many days have you felt like there have been too many meetings and interruptions and you haven’t achieved what you’d set out to?

It’s a sign of the times. Across all industries, the pace of communication is increasing and expectations around what we can achieve in a standard working day are increasing along with it. It is pretty safe to say there is always an over-abundance of work to be done, and never enough quality time to get it all done.

To be a successful business owner you must be a great leader, which means not only do you have to be there for those around you but you also have to deliver on top of that. Although leaders are not always the ones ‘on the tools’, you still need time to do the thinking, the planning and developing or reviewing the key materials (reports, presentations, strategies, plans etc) that are going to tip the scales in favour of what you and your business are trying to achieve.

Here’s the rub… There are physical constraints to productivity defined by these 4 parameters: Scopetimeresources, and quality. If more scope is added to your workload, then there must be compensation elsewhere. In other words you either need more time, resources (e.g. people involved) or you need to reduce the quality of what’s produced.

You can lock down any 3 of these parameters, but the 4th one will stay flexible in response to the rest. That’s just the nature of reality, No matter how much pressure we’re under, there’s no way to keep adding scope and still expect to get it all done. Something has to give!

So how do great leaders use this insight to get the most of out of each day? Here are the 5 top habits that consistently come up in my conversations with great leaders.

1. Get in ‘The Zone’

First things first. To be productive, you must be in a productive state of mind. What do I mean by this? Well consider these less-than-productive states of mind (you might be able to relate to some of these):

  • “There’s too much to do, I’ll never get through it” (defeated)
  • “I don’t know where to start” (overwhelmed)
  • “If I just keep plugging away I’ll hopefully get somewhere” (too deep in it)
  • “Oh shoot!! I’m up Shoot Creek!” (stressed)
  • “I’m not even sure I can do it” (incapable)

These states of mind are common, spend too long thinking and believing them can send you into a spiral from which it’s difficult to recover.

Great leaders and elite athletes know that mindset leads to state of mind. If you have the right mindsets you can head-off negative states of mind before they take root. You need to find mindset statements that resonate for you that allow you to take a productive mindset about each of the common situations above.

You can use these as a starting point and adjust them so they resonate for you and most importantly you believe them:

  • I can only do what I can do. I’ll prioritise and know the most important things will get done.
  • Once I prioritise and break down the work I’ll know where to start.
  • I will prioritise before continuing to plug away, then I know the work I’m doing is making the biggest possible impact.
  • I’ll achieve more if I’m feeling relaxed and positive.
  • I am capable of doing what I need to do, or I’ll find another way (there’s no shame in asking for help).

Once you’ve written out your productive mindsets, the next step is to get in the zone. Here we can borrow another tool from the elite athletes’ toolkit: MindfulnessMindful breathing allows us to relax, let go of distractions, and refocus on the task at hand. This gives us the best chance to stay in a state of flow, increasing productive focus, creativity and quality of output.

2. Gratititude leads to productivity

You want to be in a positive and relaxed state of mind every morning, research shows you’ll be more productive and more creative. Research also shows that happiness is (largely) a choice, a choice we get to make every day. I’m not talking about rose-coloured glasses. Just an ability to see the positives around you and capitalise on them, while avoiding being ‘off-lined’ by the negatives that you see.

The absolute best way to help yourself find your happy place each day is through gratitude. We often focus on what we don’t have, what we’re striving for, gratitude flips-the-script allowing us to feel good about what we already have.

Reflect each morning on the amazing things you have in your life already. Whether it be large things like key relationships, opportunities, unique qualities and abilities you have or really small things around you like having access to clean water. Say ‘thank you’ quietly to yourself for these things and really allow yourself to feel the warm sensations of appreciation. It sounds corny I know, but it works! So give yourself permission to lean into it.

Daily priming

Combine these practices together in the morning and you’ve got a reliable way to ‘prime’ yourself to start the day feeling awesome and face the day in the most productive way possible.

  • Start with something physical—Even light exercise or stretches or explosive breathing.
  • Do some deep breathing (refer mindful breathing above).
  • Think about 2–4 things you are grateful for and allow yourself to feel really thankful.
  • Finally, review your list of productive mindsets, read them to yourself and believe them.

You should feel positive, relaxed, empowered and ready for the day. Make this a daily habit and your productivity and overall success in the workplace and as a leader will increase out of sight.

3. Prioritise to reduce scope and balance quality

We know that there’s too much work and not enough time. Logically, it’s not all going to get done. So it’s up to us to make sure the most important things are getting done.

Take all of your tasks, write them on sticky notes and then map them using the Eisenhower Matrix. This tool maps the importance of each task on one access vs the urgency of the task on the other axis. You’ll end up with 4 quadrants (Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4).

  • Q1 tasks you want to do now, they are important and urgent.
  • Q2 tasks you want to schedule in future and make sure they happen. These are critical to your future success but they often get deferred repeatedly for more urgent tasks.
  • Q3 tasks are usually important to someone (hopefully at least the person who’s asking) but not important to you. You want to find another way to help the person get them done. Try to suggest an alternate solution. If it’s an important relationship, but not the best use of your time, consider delegating the task to someone else to do. Also consider whether reducing the quality of what’s delivered here is a viable way to reduce the negative impact these can have on your time.
  • Finally Q4 tasks aren’t important or urgent, you should find a way to politely say no to these.

1 + 3 = A productive day!

Each day there’s only so much you’re going to get done, so having a todo list with 10 items on it for the day is setting yourself up for failure. As a good rule of thumb is to pick 3 small tasks and 1 larger task for the day.
If any of the tasks are too large for 1 day, break it down, what’s the step you’ll take towards it today?

Set yourself up for success. You can complete these 4 tasks off, feel great, and then anything else you get done is a bonus.

Reptiles taste better than you think

It’s easy to procrastinate the bigger, scarier tasks by chipping away at smaller (usually less-important) tasks. Don’t do it, it’s a trap!

Consider Ferriss’ Razor: “Most important usually = most uncomfortable”. Why is this? Because if it were easy, someone would have done it already. Brian Tracy’s top productivity tip is to tackle this scary task first. Or as he puts it: Eat That Frog!

Your Frog is the biggest and scariest task you have on your plate at the moment. Do it first. It’s not always easy, but it is that simple. You will likely need to push outside your comfort zone to get it done, but that’s good, as we know, that’s where the magic happens.

Complete your Frog first each day, and the rest of the day will be a downhill ride.

4. Focus to increase quality time

We often feel like there’s not enough time in the day. I’d like to challenge that mindset. I believe there’s not enough quality time in the day. 6 productive hours are enough to get an incredible amount done and done well.

So the challenge is then to increase the amount of quality time we get each day. What do I mean by quality time?Although interruptions have been found to boost creativity, they are terrible for productivity. You need to defend parts of your day to get important work done (think Q1 and Q2 tasks). Here are some tips to remember:

  • Batch up smaller tasks (like responding to email, or repetitive admin tasks) and do them together in a scheduled block. This reduces the cognitive load and time cost of ‘task-switching’ as you’ll execute similar tasks over and over again much more quickly.
  • Use the ‘Inbox Zero’ approach to email. Email isn’t an urgent form of communication. Check it 2 or 3 times each day at most, process all emails (deal with the urgent and delete, delegate or schedule the rest) and then shut down your email and notifications in between times.
  • Block out time in your calendar for thinking, planning and Q2 tasks and guard that time religiously. Consider taking a laptop to a meeting room, going offsite or working from home to get away from phones and ‘drive-by’ interruptions.
  • If you’re invited to a meeting, make sure you know what the purpose of the meeting is. If there’s no clear purpose, politely decline to attend.
  • Think about instituting a ‘meeting free day’ each week for you and your colleagues to focus on getting work done.

You deserve to get your work done within reasonable hours each day. Be there for your team, but allow your work to be a priority too.

5. The Pomodoro Technique to increase focus and energy

Finally, when you have large blocks of focused work to do, it’s easy to lose focus and motivation after an hour or two.

One of the best productivity techniques to overcome this is called the Pomodoro Technique.

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted focused work. Avoid interruptions and don’t stop till the 25 minutes are up.
  2. Then take a 5 minute break. Use this break to refresh your attention. Stretch your legs, get a glass of water, breathe deeply. Try to avoid thinking about work during this break. Add in some light exercise to really boost your energy and attention.
  3. Then repeat: 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, 25 working, 5 not working, 25 on and finally 5 off.
  4. After 2 hours, take a longer break (15–60 minutes). Go for a walk. Do something entertaining and distracting. Are you hungry?
  5. At this point if you have more focused work to do, start again with another block of Pomodoros.

Try it out, it’s easy and surprisingly effective. You’ll find the time flies by and 6 incredibly-productive hours of sustained focus and energy is quite achievable for most.

Try this free Focus Timer to track your Pomodoros and remind you when it’s time to take a break.

Bringing it all together

There’s no better feeling than a productive day kicking goals and getting things done—well, no better feeling during work days at least.

Try adding one or two new habits at a time, then come back and build up over time till you’re a productivity ninja.

And let us know what’s working for you in the comments. What are your secret productivity ninja techniques?