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The first rule of productivity: one thing at a time

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February 9, 2011

Last time, we talked about time-management tips for business owners and entrepreneurs that, if employed properly, would hopefully keep your weekends free!

But time management, in and of itself, will not really help you be more productive.

You’re probably wondering what kind of lettuce I’ve been smoking to write this in a series of articles focused on productivity and, hello—time management.

I’m talking about time management in the classic sense of the word, though. Getting through your “to-do” list faster. It’s a complete waste of time.

What you really need to do is to look at everything that you have on your list, and pick the single most important thing. Then work on it, uninterrupted, until it’s completed.

The uninterrupted part is the toughest, by far. It’s SO easy and tempting to check your email, answer the phone, respond to an instant message, or click over to a website.

But if you can master this ability, you’ll boost your productivity significantly, and you’ll be able to work the same—or even fewer—hours.

This is possible because you’re assuring two things. First, that you’re working on the single most important task at hand. Not the most urgent task, or the easiest one – but the most important one. So often, we plow down our “to-do” lists, with our heads down, without seriously questioning whether it makes a difference if we even do most of the items on it.

And the sad truth is—it doesn’t. The 80/20 principle tells us that 80 percent of our results will come from 20 percent of our inputs. By picking the single most important task to work on, we’re making sure that it falls within the critical 20 percent.

And secondly, by focusing 100 percent of our energies on this item, we’ll accomplish it much faster than we would have if we’d allowed ourselves to be distracted by interruptions, or worse, tried to multi-task and complete two or three items at once.

Interruptions are the real killer. It’s amazing how fast you can get something done—if that’s all you do.

I hadn’t realized this until I started using our time-management software to measure the amount of active working time I was spending on work items. Sadly, items would often sit on my “to-do” list all week, where’d I’d get to them on the weekend.

And with the benefit of no incoming interruptions (because the rest of the world was out having a life), I was able to focus and get the thing done.

The real surprise came when I checked my elapsed time spent on the task after the fact; I realized that I could get A LOT done under an hour. Basically, anything on my “to-do” list would be accomplished in an hour or less—provided I just sat down and did the work.

So try this exercise tomorrow: pick one thing, and work on it until it’s done. No distractions, and no excuses. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Brett Owens is chief executive and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, Calif.-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Previously marketed to the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation and improving personal productivity. Brett can be reached at 916-254-0260 and brett@chrometa.com.

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