Digital marketers are busy and seem to be getting busier. The rate of change in our working environment can lead to intense pressure, overflowing task lists and cause a fair amount of stress. We are going to aim to minimise that stress and improve how much you actually get done. But lets get to the heart of productivity first…..
Self doubt, frustration and procrastination
A number of different events have prompted me to write this post that I think are worth sharing. The first of these events involved a coaching session I was running with a young entrepreneur. This talented and charming young man had asked me to run through his business plans and help him shape things up and work out a way forward. I was expecting he had an idea that needed polishing, or needed me to share some digital marketing insights. What he actually presented was a series of well formed ideas and plans with a series of steps to achieve them. He didn’t actually need anything else to get going, yet he’d been busy for months and had got nowhere. Why? He’d been tying himself in knots with a never ending loop of self doubt and procrastination. The more he procrastinated, the more he had negative feelings about his abilities. What did that lead to? More procrastination. I am not going to try and understand why we procrastinate and the self-defeating psychology behind this, because its not my area of expertise. What I am is an expert at procrastinating, and I know it can be crippling at times. I could truly empathise with the situation the person I was coaching was in, and happily I have found some great techniques to help fix the problem. We’ll look at those in a moment.
Motivation and the Myth of Self Discipline
The next event, and one that was pretty profound for me, was actually just me reading a couple of fantastic blog posts from Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz.com, and Tim Ferris of Four Hour Work Week fame. They both summed up something I struggle with and I guess an awful lot of us do. What was fascinating was to hear this same issue coming from two such successful and outwardly confident individuals. The fact is they both suffer from terrible self doubt and don’t have limitless supplies of self-discipline. Both posts are 100% worth reading (you’ll find links at the bottom of this post), but the key point is that we often look at successful people and think “they can do it because they are super disciplined/confident/talented/etc/etc”. The reality is they struggle just like everyone else, and so do I, but by putting a number of practical steps in place it is possible to manage a lot of these struggles.
This quote from Rand Fishkin sums this struggle up for me really well.
“I don’t think that my psychological condition of self doubt and my self-knowledge of underachievement can be defined as ‘ambition’. It fits better under ‘obligation’. I feel an overwhelming obligation to someday, somehow live up to my own standards.”
So the approach I have learnt over a number of years is to try and minimise the opportunities for my natural tendency to procrastinate, to use a technique that helps me focus on tasks that are actually important and to not set myself up to fail (and therefore give myself a hard time, thus leading to more procrastination). These techniques are seen through a lens of a digital marketer and business owner, and focus on the kind of things I do daily, but will equally apply to lots of other roles as well.
1 – One Key Task
If you have a task list longer than your arm and much of it carries forward day after day, it can be pretty depressing and overwhelming. There are a thousand great task planning tools, each offering you the promise of managing your tasks more efficiently. The reality is that the best organised task list in the world isn’t going to actually get any of those tasks done (on fact fiddling with task lists was one of my special forms of procrastination!). By all means use a decent tool (I use a great tool across all my devices call Things) but make sure you are actually able to get the important stuff done.
I do this by blocking out one segment of my day (I’ll talk about day segments a bit more in a moment) and dedicating this to One Key Task. That’s the task that if I get it done my day will have been productive. Its often the biggest task on my list and it’s often the one I would normally put off. I always work on this task first thing in the morning for a number of reasons. Firstly, I start working on it before anything else has had a chance to distract me or change my frame of mind. This also tends to be the time of day with the least distractions and I have the mental energy to truly focus.
If the task is too big to do in the amount of time I have in this segment of my day (normally around 2 hours), I break it down into pieces that will fit into these segments. The key thing is to set the One Key Task the night before, so you don’t get too distracted while deciding what it should be. I also use this opportunity every evening to spend 5 minutes reviewing my task list overall, which helps give me closure on the day so I can switch off and relax. Once I get the One Key Task done it means I start my day with a sense of positive achievement before everything else in the day distracts me.
2 – Email Management
Email is a killer of productivity because it constantly interrupts and makes it very easy to feel busy whilst achieving nothing particularly useful. There a lot of theories on how you should handle your email and I have found the rules below work for me:
Unsubscribe from everything and have a separate newsletters mailbox/folder. Every-time a newsletter pops in to your inbox it’s a huge distraction. Even if you just file it for later review, it’s wasted a few seconds and will ruin your train of thought. Rather than trying to get rid of most newsletters and just keep the essentials, I suggested culling to the minimum and then directing the remaining emails to either a separate email address or using some inbox rules to automatically put them into a separate folder (you’ve pretty much got this automatically if you use Gmail).
Set one email scan and two email management sessions per day. I check emails 3 times per day. First thing, after my One Key Task, I check for anything urgent. I then have a 30 minute check and quick reply session at lunchtime and then a final more in-depth email session at the end of the day before I do my task planning.
Switch email off at all other times. I mean really switch it off, which includes the little red notification icon you get on your phone. Be present in what you are doing.
Set expectations. Let people know that you are essentially only looking at emails twice a day, and if its urgent they should call you (and define what you consider to be urgent to make sure you don’t start getting more sales calls). You can do this by setting an Out of Office Reply that explains exactly this and just leave it on (unless you are actually on holiday of course). You should also talk to your most important contacts and let them know this is how you mange things. Incidentally, very few people will actually call you. I take a month off every year in August, set my out of office to say I wont be checking email at all and to call if it’s urgent. I’ve had one call in three years of doing this.
Don’t put it off. Leaving email festering in your inbox is a sure fire way to demotivate yourself and cause distraction. My advice is action it or delete it. That action may be a response that you won’t be responding until a given date and then adding a task to your task list, but get it out of your inbox because otherwise you’ve got basically got two task lists. Many people are comfortable working with an inbox full of emails to follow and action but I find it really demotivating. If I can’t action it, I send a quick reply setting expectations, create a task and file the email. I can then action it when I plan to.
3 – Managing Social Media Distraction
We’ve covered this a lot in email management, but in a world of social media, particularly as digital marketers, its very easy to get distracted and end up being busy achieving nothing. I am not saying that social media cannot be productive and that you won’t need to do some reactive work, but you can plan around this to make your time as efficient as possible.
Content calendars. A content calendar is essential to any social media activity for any organisation of any size. It allows you to plan out what you are publishing in terms of content, and then address what social media activity will be carried out around that content and when. This allows you to amplify your efforts by focussing your content on key topics and allows teams to work together across the organisation. You can see a couple of great examples below. The first is in-depth and considers marketing objectives and positioning, the second is very simple.I tend to use something more like the second, as simple means it gets used.
Social Management Tools. To maximise efficiency, a good social media management tool is an absolute essential. There are plenty out there but my favourite is Hootsuite. The key features that I think are essential are:
- Allows me to manage all the particular social networks I use from a single location
- I don’t need to keep logging in to all my different profiles
- I can monitor all of my channels from one place
- I can schedule the posting of content to any particular channel
- Allows me to add analytics tracking code to all my social posts automatically
- Automatically does URL shortening for me
Daily Social Schedule. Just like the techniques used to manage email and make it less interruptive, we want to try and do the same with our social media. I make a quick scan of my social channels once a day and then do most of my responses and outreach toward the end of the day. All of this is done via my social management tool so I don’t need to log in to multiple accounts. I don’t dip in throughout the day generally, unless I come across something during my day that I want to Tweet about or react to. My personal Facebook is a no go zone during the working day as its a massive drain on time and browsing Pinterest is avoided at all costs. Twitter is the one channel I might be a bit less disciplined about – I enjoy it and the aim is not to beat ourselves up!
News sources and research time. Reading blogs, email newsletters, browsing Twitter, looking at Pinterest is all done as a ‘downtime’ activity as I enjoy it (more about this in a moment when we talk about routine). I use Evernote to note anything useful or interesting and then I can come back to the relevant stuff when I’m doing real work like building presentations, developing elearning or recording podcasts.
4 – Routine and Day Segments
Don’t underestimate the power of developing a routine. If you’re saying to yourself that you’d love to, but your work days changes everyday, you work shifts or travel a lot, this still applies. On average I spend 4/5 days a week travelling and away from home. I am in a different place almost everyday (this blog was partially written in a hotel room and is now being finished up in a sports bar in Dubai!) working different hours doing different things. Routines don’t need to be completely inflexible. For example, 5 days a week I’ll be training, consulting or speaking. I used to find it extremely hard to do that, go back to my hotel/home and then start working on my task list. So, my routine is now to go to the gym immediately after I finish my main day segment. No set time, and no punishment if I can’t do it some days, but I try to stick to it. If I can’t go to the gym I’ll just go for a long walk. This takes a bit of pre-planning as I need to choose hotels with gyms and travel with gym gear, but it gives me the mental refresh to then get some productive work done afterwards.
I find the easiest way to develop a routine is to define day segments. For me they are as follows:
- One Key Task 6.30am-8.00am
- Email and social scan (15 mins)
- Main Day 8.30am-4pm ( plans for this will vary from day to day but normally training, speaking or consulting)
- Lunch email responses (30 mins)
- Gym 4.30pm-5.30pm
- Tasks and emails 5.30pm-7pm
- Plan One Key Task for next day (10 mins)
- Dinner, drinks and blogging/learning/research time 7pm-10pm
Lazy start followed by 2/3 hours on a key task.
The rest of the weekend is family time. No email, no social.
Now, if it sounds like I work a lot I do, but bear in mind I take August off (no email, no social!), 2 weeks at Christmas and 2 other weeks during the year at least. Quite often when I am working from home, I decide to blow the whole thing off and go for a very long lunch with my wife and take my kids out after school. I’m self employed. What the point otherwise? Working more intensively means I get to focus more quality time on what really matters to me, my family. I also love what I do, so spending my evenings reading about digital marketing is no great sacrifice. Incidentally, I don’t keep my focus narrow when I’m researching, as you need to stimulate your creativity, but that’s a topic for another blog post.
This routine probably wont work for everyone for a number of reasons (parenting, pets, chores, you don’t do mornings,etc) but thats not the point. The point is to build a set of day segments that you can build into habits that take all the choice away and put you on autopilot. That way you don’t really consider not doing it because you don’t give yourself the brain space to have that internal dialogue and talk yourself out of it. I spent years trying to go to the gym regularly and failing. Now that it’s a habit it’s a lot easier and I’m actually seeing real results. The same applies to any activity.
5 – Underplan
For years my biggest mistake was to plan to try and get too much done. I’d build a huge task list, work out a time required for each one and then work out what I could do in any allotted time. I’d even factored in a fair bit of flex time. It didn’t work. The majority of days I’d wouldn’t make it through 50% of the list (and that would have been great going) so I’d end up having to shift everything. After a few days of this the whole thing would fall apart and I’d loose all motivation. They still teach productivity like this in quite a few business schools. It just doesn’t reflect the real world and human nature to me. It also creates the cycles of procrastination and self-doubt we started this blog talking about.
I now plan my One Key Task, stick to my day segments whenever possible, minimise the distraction and don’t give myself a hard time. Well, most of the time anyway.
You can see some of the ideas I have adopted I have learnt from these sites. I have always taken lots of inspiration from Rand Fishkin and I am forever impressed with Tim Ferriss.