It’s 4:35 pm. You’re exhausted. “Drained” is more like it. You feel like a tire at the end of a road trip. Or like the bottom of a marathoner’s shoe. Flat. Dirty. Sore. Whimpering.
It’s been a day of fighting distractions, racing to meetings, staying awake, ingesting caffeine, and trying to get stuff done.
Like most days in a project manager’s life, it’s been a hopeless rat race of discouragement and frustration. Now, you’re stuffing papers in your briefcase and packing your laptop to take work home.
Once home, you’ll plop in front of the TV, eat dinner from the microwave, and try to get more stuff done.
Then, tomorrow morning, you’ll get up, rinse and repeat.
There is another way. I’m not going to propose any pie-in-the-sky four-hour workweek. Nor am I going to give you a list of ways to squeeze a few more minutes out of each insane day. Instead, I’m going to give you a simple process for taking the end of your workday and reversing it to deliver an extraordinary amount of productivity to your entire work existence.
The End-of-the-Day Process
Here is my thesis, in four bullet points:
- Fact 1: The end of the workday is often the most unproductive. Our minds are taxed, our energies are spent, our inbox is full, our attention is in four hundred places
- Fact 2: The beginning of the workday is when we have the most productive potential.
- Dismal Realization: However, the beginning of the workday is when we spend recovering from the previous workday’s debacles. It’s wasted time that gets our day started on a wasted note, and leaves us bailing water for the rest of the day.
- The Productive Plan Takes Shape: If we can somehow bring completion to the end of a workday, then we can better start a new workday. Thus, we maximize the unproductive end of the day, and utilize the potential of the productive beginning of the day. This plan is simply about bringing value to the devalued (end of the day), and bringing power to the eviscerated (beginning of the day).
That’s the premise that I’m starting with. Now, let me explain how exactly to begin this process in your work life.
I suggest starting this process at least a half hour prior to the end of your workday. If you extend your workday a half hour beyond the traditional 5pm end time, this may work to your advantage. Otherwise, you can begin at 4:00 or 4:30. This is runway time that will allow you to take off with a huge creative and productive burst the following day.
Step 1: Respond to as many emails as you can.
I’m a huge believer in chunking — the practice of doing similar tasks at the same time. Email is one of them.
The sad news is American office workers spend 2.6 hours per day reading and responding to emails. What makes this number worse, is the halo time of distraction over email. Many of us allow email to creep into every moment of our day. We get an email notification and whizz, we allow our mind to skitter away from whatever task it was we were doing, and go see what shiney new email we’ve now got! It takes an estimated forty minutes to recover from a distraction, meaning that we spend the entire day distracted by email.
That’s a freaking waste of time.
The first step in this end-of-day process is to respond to as many emails as possible in a thirty-minute span or less. The vast majority of relevant emails hit your inbox during workday hours. By the end of the workday, you will have received most of the important email messages. By responding to 80% of these or so, you can effectively reduce tomorrow’s workload by a huge margin.
Eliminating email creep is one of the single biggest gains you can make towards improving your productivity. If you can get this done before tomorrow begins, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
Step 2: Turn your computer and mobile device off.
This deserves its own personal point, because it’s so important.
By turning your device off, you are putting up a barrier to the invasion of email. If, however, you use your computer or device for scheduling your day or taking notes then you’ll want to keep them on.If this is the case, then you should close out whatever programs or notifications are allowing email or chat messages to invade your end-of-the-day productivity prep. Instead, keep your project management software or gantt chart software in order to stay organized in the next few steps.
There’s another helpful bonus to turning off your computer. When you shut down your computer — as long as you totally close it down — it closes out all the programs and/or browser tabs that you have open. All this information and unfinished activity should be set aside before the next day begins.
If you start your day by seeing that article you were reading, jumping on that Facebook argument, or re-writing that report then you are starting in the wrong frame of mind. The whole idea is to start clean and fresh.
Each day deserves a fresh start — not a regathering of the ragged leftovers of the previous day. If you have any remaining issues that you need to deal with, then you can do so in your “brain dump” (step 3).
So, turn off your computer, and slowly step away.
Step 3: Perform a brain dump.
Write down everything that’s on your mind that you need to do. This can include everything — from personal to-dos, family to-dos, and work to-dos. It can be as random as necessary.
The goal in the brain dump is to reduce mental clutter. Productivity is more about mental control than it is about the techniques that help get stuff done.
Since I use project management software for Mac, I record my brain dump on my computer. Don't worry, I always shut my computer down at the end of step 4.
Writing down the things you need to do is an important part of unlimbering the guns for the next day’s fight. Your mind is clear, and the distractions are set aside. It’s go time.
Step 4: Plan the next day.
The step of brain dump is just one way of preparing for planning. Scripture says, “Let your eyes look directly ahead And let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you” (Proverbs 4:25), an acknowledgement to the importance of single-minded focus on a task.
It’s important to plan your day before it starts. A day that starts without a plan is like an engine that needs to warm up before it’s safe to drive. As one productivity expert admits in Lifehacker, it’s possible that “you spend more time hacking your to-do list than you actually spend doing stuff.” If you start your day planning, you are wasting your most productive time planning instead of doing.
Perform your planning the day before, not the day of. A day planned before allows you to jump in fully prepared, fully planned, and fully ready to get stuff done.
You don’t need a to-do list, as Daniel Markovitz skillfully explained in a Harvard Business Review article. Instead, you need control of your day. Because a to-do list introduces the paradox of choice, heterogenous complexity and priority, and lack of context, it makes more sense to schedule calendar slots for the things you need to get done. This allows you to actually take time to complete things, rather than scramble to check things off, without a clear sense of when that will happen.
What does this look like practically? Simply review all your upcoming tasks in a project management app like TeamGantt. Make sure that you have scheduled time to work on these important tasks. Don't underestimate the power of gantt charts in this process. Gantt charts give you power over your projects — visual clarity and mental control. By structuring your schedule ahead of time, you have the ability to tackle the day's most important work head on. TIP: Use our free to-do checklist template
Step 5: Clean your office.
Cleaning your office is a powerful productivity hack that improves productivity. Your office space is known as an “environmental factor.” The status of this environment changes the way you think and work.
As Inc.com reported, “office clutter...can actually crippled your job performance.” What kind of job performance downers? Survey respondents announced “lost time (47 percent), meeting tardiness (16 percent), and missed deadlines (14 percent).” Plus, CIO.com explains that “the average executive wastes six weeks every year searching for paper.”
From whence comes such disturbing bugaboos? From your workout clothes draped over the chair, from Wednesday's Wall Street Journal on the floor, from the pile of who-knows-what papers that have been tornadoed across your desk, and the week-old coffee cup that is covered with a fuzz of toxic mold.
If you clean your office, you will be come more productive. It’s just that simple.
Robin Sharma shares this advice and anecdote:
Mess creates stress (I learned this from tennis icon Andre Agassi who said he wouldn’t let anyone touch his tennis bag because if it got disorganized, he’d get distracted). So clean out the clutter in your office to get more done.
“Searching for and gathering information” is the second-biggest time expenditure of the office worker, taking up an astonishing 19% of the workday, or 1.76 hours (source: McKinsey). If we were more organized, we could probably reclaim a solid hour a day of frenetically misplaced time!
There are other benefits to a clean office:
- It brings closure to the day. By tidying up, you are putting to rest the melee of a day’s activity. It feels good, and provides an appropriate stopping point.
- It helps you relax when you stop working. This makes it easier for you to go home in a peaceful state of mind, and actually enjoy yourself when you’re not working.
- It creates a sense of renewal and energy the following day. The biggest upside of a clean office is the fresh start the next day. You walk into a clean office, and you’re ready to kill it with productivity.
It’s time to reclaim the end of your workday. Once you do, you’ll be able to reclaim the beginning of the workday. And by doing that, you’ll be able to gain productive mastery over your entire day.
Here’s the process:
- Step 1: Respond to as many emails as you can.
- Step 2: Turn your computer and mobile device off.
- Step 3: Perform a brain dump.
- Step 4: Plan the next day.
- Step 5: Clean your office.
Imagine stepping into your office tomorrow morning. It’s clean. It’s quiet. Your mind is clear, poised for action. Sitting on your desk is a clear schedule of what you’re going to nail in the next eight hours.
It’s time to seriously get things done.