The law of entropy seems to apply to every area of life in this broken world. Without constant effort to the contrary, houses get dirty, gardens get overgrown, cars get rusty, habits get sloppy, children get unruly. If you leave it alone, whatever it is, it gets slower, not faster; sloppier, not neater; worse, not better.
Like everything else in the world, your ability to get things done is always spiralling toward chaos. If you allow yourself to coast for a few weeks, your life will get less orderly, not more orderly. Not only that, but you will soon find yourself neglecting the important tasks in order to focus on the urgent tasks. Before you know it, you’ll be off-focus and out of control.
Here are 8 ways to take control and get more done this week (and every week).
1. Plan Your Week
I know it’s a cliché but it really is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If you don’t plan your week, you will only ever be reactive, responding to whatever concerns and opportunities arise. To take control of your week, you need to plan your week. Take a few minutes on Sunday evening to plan out your entire week, from Monday morning to Sunday evening. You don’t need to have something planned for every minute of every day, but at the least you should plan your work week. If you are married, it is best to do this with your spouse so you can be sure you are properly accounting for appointments, evening activities, and any other commitments you may otherwise forget. Make sure everything that happens at a specific time is on your calendar and that you have set alerts or reminders. Make sure that everything you need to do is in your task-management system (whatever that system is). Get as much as possible out of your brain and into your system.
2. Block Your Time
As you begin to determine what time you will use to accomplish your tasks, block time to specific tasks instead of general tasks. This may be something you can do at the beginning of the week, or it may need to be a day-to-day kind of task. You will need to be adaptable here, but simply blocking your week into work, family and sleep won’t do it. As you plan time, assign particular tasks to particular times. Plan that block from 10 AM to 12 PM on Tuesday as not only “Office Time” but “Write Bible Study.” Plan that block from 3 PM to 5 PM on Tuesday as not only “Meeting” but “Meeting With Marketing Team.” Take into account the times you are at peak productivity and reserve those for your most mentally-demanding tasks. I am at my peak in the early morning hours, so that is when I tend to do my writing or sermon preparation. By mid-afternoon I am flat out of energy and creativity, so this is when I tend to do my maintenance tasks and other chores that are necessary but routine.
3. Manage Your Tasks
An essential element of productivity is the implementation of, and reliance upon, a system that will get the list of things you need to accomplish out of your brain and onto paper or into software. You need to create a system and then rely on it. As you plan your week, and as your week unfolds, you need to use this system to capture, organize, and manage your tasks. When you reach the office on Monday morning and see that time in your calendar blocked off for “Weekly Maintenance,” your task management software should have a list of all those tasks waiting for you. As you receive phone calls and emails, and as you sit in meetings, you will constantly be adding new tasks that need to be done. Rather than relying upon your memory, you need to get all of these into your system so you will remember them and execute them at the best time. I am heavily dependent upon Things, a Mac-based application that syncs seamlessly between my computers and my mobile devices. Wherever I am, I have it with me. I always input my tasks with a verb followed by a colon like “Write: Email to Francis” or “Plan: Sunday Evening Sermon”. This keeps me from using my to-do list as a place to store random thoughts and forces me to make every task an action.
4. Control Your Distractions
As you attempt to focus on what is most important this week, you will inevitably face distractions. Each of us faces unique distractions so each of us needs to learn to identify the ones that most apply to us. The most common distraction is email. Few things distract from real productivity more than constantly monitoring email. Learn to do your email in batches and do it no more than three or four times a day. At the very least, shut down your email once you have responded to what is in your inbox. (See my article 8 Email Mistakes You Make.) Another common distraction is social media or those web sites we unthinkingly visit when we have a spare moment or are just desperate to take our minds off the difficult tasks before us. I rely on Nanny for Google Chrome to keep me from my most distracting sites during my most productive hours. I call it “my outsourced self-control” and it saves me a lot of time.
5. Claim the Cracks
The cracks are those times between other things—the five or ten minutes sitting in the waiting room, the small piece of time between the two meetings, or even the commute to and from the office. Those cracks can easily add up to several hours a week. Instead of using that time in the waiting room to grab your phone and swipe through Facebook or Pinterest, use those moments knock out a couple of the quick tasks that you can complete in just three or four minutes. Instead of using your commute to listen to sports radio, claim it for phone calls or listening to a good book. I once knew a pastor who committed to praying behind the wheel, praying out loud from his prayer list while driving from one place to the next.
6. Track Your Time
I don’t recommend tracking yourself all the time, but every now and again, for a week or two, it can be very helpful to track your entire day or even just your workday from beginning to end. There are some excellent tools that help you do this very thing: Time Doctor is one I have been using recently. Toggl and RescueTime are similar. Through automation or semi-automation, they allow you to keep tabs on what you are doing throughout the day. By measuring your day you will be able to identify those times when you are most productive, those times you are least productive, and those times you are just wasting time. You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself and how many hours you dedicate to things that don’t really matter.
7. Learn to Say No
You are not truly managing your time well until you find yourself saying “no” to a lot of good opportunities. There are a lot of good things that aren’t the best things. There are a lot of good things you could do that you shouldn’t do because they will take you away from the most important things. Learn to confidently say “no” or “not now” to meetings, conference calls, invitations, and other opportunities.
8. Entrust It to the Lord
Finally, entrust it all to the Lord. The Lord may interrupt even your best-laid plans. While I believe there is great value in planning and preparation, God’s divine interruptions may be the most important part of your week. Knowing we serve a sovereign God allows us to prayerfully entrust it all to his hands, believing that whatever he does will be good. We can’t ever be so committed to a system or to a plan that we are unwilling or unable to break and change our plans to reorient ourselves toward the good things he provides for us to do. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). It is far better that way.
(While I implemented all of this prior to reading Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next, that book will certainly help you to use your time well and wisely to accomplish the most important tasks.)