An entrepreneur's work is never done, but sometimes it's easy to feel overwhelmed or worn out. In these moments, productivity often grinds to a halt and it can be difficult to even remember important tasks or meetings.
Preventing these chaotic moments, however, is as simple as consistently employing some basic techniques and behaviors that help establish a positive, manageable routine. Luckily, productivity and memory retention go together. For the ever-moving entrepreneur with a to-do list a mile long, these tips could help reduce burn out and stave off fatigue.
Make a simple to-do list
Making a to-do list is your best friend when it comes to staying productive. Different methods work for different people: some people swear by smartphone apps, while others prefer to keep a handwritten journal. Regardless of how you create and track your to-do list, make sure it's concise, realistic and flexible. Write down only tasks that can be done that day, and don't overwhelm yourself with a long list. Organize your priorities into manageable tasks and give you a sense of clarity in how you want to approach your day. They should not be a list of everything you'd like to do for the next two weeks; this type of list will only compound feelings of anxiety and fatigue.
"A to-do list is terrific because it deals with past, present and future," said Mark Ellwood, productivity consultant and author of "The Poetic Path to Getting More Done" (Pace Productivity, 2018). "Think about your high priority tasks … it doesn't mean you do those tasks first, but you plan for them first and then block off your time accordingly."
If you're looking for a simple formula by which to manage your to-do lists, Ellwood suggests:
- Identify priorities that affect long term results
- Break those priorities down into responsibilities that should be completed today
- Include additional requirements for the day, such as filling out timesheets
- Discard or delegate other tasks; you shouldn't be spending your time on them
According to Ellwood, it's critical to think about what you want to accomplish a month from today and then break down those priorities into small tasks that can be accomplished in a single day. For example, if you want to hire a new staff member by the end of the month, you can start that process today by posting a job listing. Breaking down a big goal like finding a new hire into bite sized tasks like reviewing a few resumes or conducting an interview makes it far more manageable and creates a sense of progress each day. The feeling of progress can help stave off those overwhelming moments, Ellwood said.
Many people swear by multitasking. Why stick to one item on your list when you can simultaneously make progress on two, or more? The short answer: you're not really making more progress, you're making less. Research has shown time and again the multitasking actually takes longer and reduces the overall quality of work.
"People pride themselves on being able to multitask, but studies have shown that every time we add another unrelated task, we get less productive. There are diminishing returns," said Bob Cerone, CEO of CognosHR. "If you're interrupted when deeply focused on a task, it takes you a good 10 to 15 minutes to return to the previous level of focus."
So, how can you help ameliorate the urge to multitask? Researchers found human "executive control" processes have two distinct phases called "goal shifting" and "rule activation." Goal shifting is the moment a person realizes they want to focus on one task instead of another, while rule activation determines what set of "rules" or methods the person will use to complete that task. Consciously acknowledging one task to focus on in the goal shifting phase and then taking a moment to recognize the "rules" associated with that task can help prevent you from shifting between goals at will.
Delegate tasks wisely
You can also help defeat burnout by asking others to help complete tasks for you. This could be in the work environment, where you ask an employee or team member to tackle a pending task while you run a meeting, or to handle customer service while you manage financial paperwork. Good leaders delegate tasks, but don't micromanage, so trust your team to carry out assigned tasks successfully by their own methods.
If you're thinking "I work for myself," "I have no employees" or "I am not a manager," there are still many ways to delegate tasks to others. You could outsource certain tasks that often interrupt your work. Delegation might not always occur directly in the work environment either; you can ask other people in your life to take certain tasks off your plate, so you can better focus on your productivity at work. For example, asking a family member to go grocery shopping so you don't have to can be a good way to free up mental space and actual time.
"There are more people to delegate to than we realize," Ellwood said. "We think we're on our own, but we're not; we're part of a team. Teams collaborate, and we assign tasks to one another. That's a way to take lower priority tasks and give them away."
Establish daily "black out" times
Communication is a constant in the modern world. Between phone calls, texts, emails and messages, people have more mediums through which to reach us in real-time. In many ways, this is a positive development that allows us to stay connected at a moment's notice, but in other ways it has created new distractions that kill productivity.
"We keep inventing more and more ways to be out of touch with each other," Ellwood said. "I think something that needs to be paid attention to more is first, how are you communicating and, second, should you even be communicating at all?"
The meeting that could have been an email is a running joke in the professional environment, and for good reason. But emails can also be disruptive if you find yourself sifting through your inbox when you intended to focus on a different task. Establishing daily black out times, where you cannot be reached unless it is an absolute emergency, and then communicating those time to your colleagues can be a good way to free up some time to simply focus on your work with zero interruptions.
Finally, many people are resigned to dealing with every single interruption that arises as soon as it comes to their attention. For example, if a team member approaches with a problem, many people will drop what they're doing to address that problem. However, it's important to diagnose the severity of the issue or task that someone has interrupted you with. As Ellwood said, "manage your interruptions instead of letting them manage you."
"I suggest using a triage approach to dealing with interruptions," he said. "The first level is … 'can this wait?' If not, then maybe, 'I've got five minutes for this right now, that's all I can give you.' Set a time limit for the interruption and then point the person in the right direction."
When certain interruptions repeatedly crop up, that's a sign that you need to address the recurring source. In these cases, delegation or outright deletion of the source could be an option, or you might look to outsource management of the task to a third-party if it is truly essential to your operations.
"Identify the things that tend to interrupt you on a regular basis throughout the day or week and look for ways to reduce, eliminate or outsource them," Cerone said. "[When you] reduce interruptions and block off time for each separate task so you can focus deeply, that's how you become more productive."
Take back control of your schedule
Staying productive, clear-headed, and calm is really all about feeling in control. Each of these tips can help you retain control in places where people typically give it up. Whether you're delegating tasks to others or setting time limits for interruption, you are taking back room in your schedule to tackle the things you've deemed most important.
Avoiding burnout and fatigue is essential to boosting your productivity and memory retention. You can do all of that by simply influencing the direction of your day rather than being resigned to letting the direction of your day control your actions.