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How to Organize Your Workday and Be Effective

Has it ever happened to you at the end of your workday, while shutting down your computer, that you asked yourself: What have I actually accomplished today? Quickly you go throughout the day in your mind: the morning meeting, then a break while scrolling through LinkedIn, then taking care of the mailbox, lunch break, afternoon call, after which you were tired and needed a double espresso to be able to answer some more emails. Then you looked at the watch and started panicking since you realize you should be leaving in about an hour but you haven't even started working on that important project. So you open the file, but you are so tired and distracted, that you decide to leave it for tomorrow and you answer some more emails instead.

The reason this might be happening to you is that you try to be productive. But should productivity be your goal? Sure, but not the priority.

  • Productivity = Output / Input

  • Efficiency = Doing things right

  • Effectiveness = Doing the right things

You can answer hundreds of emails and calls, which will make you productive because your output is very high, you might even be very efficient while doing these things, however, the effectiveness will be very low. While answering emails is necessary, it is a task that puts you automatically into a reactive mode. It might even feel good because every email you answer will give you that little dopamine high and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Effectiveness means doing the right things and the right things are those that will have a larger impact on your business, customers, life in general or whatever your goal is. These tasks are usually not simple and require much more focus and time then the reactive tasks such as meetings or emails, but in the long term, they will have a scalable positive impact. You probably won't be able to start and finish such task in one day, and it's fine. Just work on it every day with consistency.

In his famous quadrant of task management, Dwight Eisenhower distinguishes 4 types of tasks:

4) Not Important, Not Urgent - this is basically a waste of time. These are mindless activities like watching TV, some junk emails, some calls, and other “busy work”. These tasks should be eliminated as much as possible.

3) Not Important, But Urgent - most meetings, calls, emails, meeting other people’s expectations. These tasks can be delegated.

2) Important But Not Urgent - These tasks will contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals, but they don't have any fixed deadline.

1) Important And Urgent - these are crises, activities with a deadline, true emergencies. These should be resolved immediately.

Naturally, as human beings we gravitate towards the urgent stuff, thinking that we will get to the important stuff “later on”. This mentality is very dangerous because it can keep us weeks, months, even years from doing the important stuff, until one day it might be too late.

When we think about the tasks on our to-do list and assign them into the quadrants, we start to think proactively. Instead of being reactive and dealing with other people’s priorities and with the “urgent” stuff, we set intention into our planning. This doesn't mean that you can never scroll through twitter anymore, this just means that you should be intentional about it and set a specific time frame for this activity.

So how should we organize our work day to be effective? Ask yourself: At what time of the day am I usually most productive? For most people, this will be in the morning, before doing anything else, when our brain is still fresh. For a smaller group of people, it might be in the late afternoon or evening. For this most productive time, schedule the tasks from the group “important but not urgent”. During this time, try to eliminate all distractions. This might include switching office communicator off, putting your telephone on flight mode, being alone in a room. If that's not possible, use headphones. Schedule the deep work for 1 to 4 hours, depending on your other agenda. Even if you only can stay in this deep focus for 1 hour, you will feel that this was the most effective hour of your day. Try to incorporate short pauses of around 5 minutes every 25 minutes (so-called Pomodoro technique). During these breaks, you should not be working on anything else though (phone calls, emails and so forth) it is better to stretch, exercise or get a snack.

After you have finished your deep work for the day (usually you won't be able to maintain it for longer than 4 hours), you should schedule working on important and urgent stuff. Ask yourself: From the important tasks I have, which ones are the most urgent? What is the nearest deadline I have to meet?

Once you are done with the urgent and important stuff, and if you have some time left, fill that time in with the urgent, not important stuff, like emails, meetings, phone calls and so forth. These tasks do not require as much mental energy as the deep work, therefore you can easily work on them even if your focus is declining or if you start feeling tired.

Think about this method like this: Your work time is like a jar. You are trying to fit the content of three bowls into the jar: In the first bowl, there are a few big stones. In the second bowl, there are many smaller stones. Lastly, in the third bowl, there is sand. Which one would you throw in first? If you start with the sand and then the smaller stones, you probably won't be able to fit the big stones in. Now, if you start with the big stones than the smaller ones and the sand, in the end, everything will fall perfectly into place.

Start incorporating the Eisenhower quadrant into your workday planning and see your effectiveness skyrocket. You can expect a deep feeling of fulfillment, motivation, and happiness as a reward for your discipline and focus.

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