Work less, worry less and go home early. What’s not to like? 

[Image courtesy of Sébastien Wiertz at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have I ever mentioned that I’m a bit of a language geek? Well I am. In fact, I’m a big language geek. 

Earlier this week, I was having my hair cut and asked the stylist where she came from. Lithuania, she told me. And I was off.

How did the language work? (With incredible complexity) Was it related to Russian? (No) Did it have cases? (Yes) Was it like any other language? (Not really, except Latvian) Did surnames change for women? (Yes, and for unmarried and married daughters too)

The trouble with languages is that there are so many of them to learn, and so little time. I speak French fluently, Italian well and have a smattering of lots of other languages (German, Spanish, Zulu, Afrikaans, Irish and I can even count from one to 20 in Finnish, which is of limited use, but a good party trick). 

Like I say, the problem is time. And then I happened across Olly Richards, who’s fluent in eight languages. So does he have more hours in the day than I do? Or does he speed read? Or have a photographic memory? 

None of the above. He just focuses, and is more productive. He cuts down distractions such as Facebook and maximises his time to maximise his results. I want to take a leaf out of his book – whatever language it’s written in. 

Olly got me thinking about productivity in general, and how it’s easy to let time slip though our fingers without accomplishing anything. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered that help me read more, write more, market more and get more done. 

  1. Set a time limit. This is one of the most effective ones I’ve used. Whether it’s writing a blog post (like this one), or studying vocabulary lists, or doing a marketing blitz, setting yourself a limit helps you focus on doing more in less time. I often wonder how on earth I managed to study all the subjects I did at school without feeling overloaded. The answer came to me the other day: I didn’t have any choice. The bell went, and it was the next period. And the next subject. 
  2. Focus on one thing at a time. This, of course, is directly linked to the last one. If you can take a set time, and a set subject, and work on it and nothing else, you’ll achieve remarkable results. If I’m not getting anywhere with something – a copywriting project, a difficult brief, a marketing quandary – it’s almost always because it’s not getting my full attention. I used to be quite critical of brainstorming sessions in the past, but now realise they work because of the total focus they bring to one topic in a concentrated period of time.
  3. Write out a list by hand every day. This is an old trick that I learned before the age of digital calendars, and which I used for many years. The key thing was not to use the same list as the day before, even if very little had changed. The mere fact of writing it out made it feel real and spurred me into action. I then went entirely digital, but recently rediscovered the joys of a handwritten to-do list. I still have an electronic one, but it’s much longer. The manual one is fresh every day, and written in order of priority. It makes a huge difference to my view of what needs doing and what can wait.
  4. Don’t count your chickens or flog a dead horse. A horribly mixed metaphor, but which is true nonetheless. I’ve lost track of the jobs that were on the brink of coming in but didn’t, the projects that were going to expand but failed to, and the tantalising initial project that never led to the flood of extra work. Plan for the worst-case scenario, and remember it’s never in the bag until it is. And by the same token, recognise when a prospect, project or idea has simply run its course. Tick it off that handwritten to-do list, move on and do something productive.
  5. If something can be done in one minute, do it right now.  This applies to everything, and comes from happiness guru Gretchen Rubin. From making your bed to replying to that email, from ticking it off your to-do list to tidying up your desk, the one-minute rule is a magical cure for indecision, clutter and procrastination. If you can do it in 60 seconds, do it now. You’ll be amazed how you feel afterwards. And if it takes more than 60 seconds, start it anyway and you’ll be carried my the momentum. That’s a complementary trick I learned from artist Betty Edwards, who said that finding time to draw is easy if you start small. Before you know it, you’re in the flow and you’ll continue. 
  6. Take regular breaks. My friend Francesca reminded me of this golden rule recently. “At least once an hour,” she said in a bossy-but-nice way, “get up, walk around, and reconnect with the world.” How could I say no? So I took her advice, and it made a world of difference. With more air in my lungs, and more blood flowing to my brain, I achieved twice as much in half the time when I got back to my desk. Magic.
  7. Don’t agonise over decisions. Why? Because most are reversible. Because there are lots of other decisions that you need to make. And because that elusive ‘right’ answer you’re searching for actually doesn’t exist, so to it’s best to make a decision and move on. 

These are all small things, but they add up to big results. And big gains. I’m not saying you’ll free up enough time to learn Mandarin, but you might just be able to count from one to 20 in Finnish. 

And with the party season coming up, that’s one skill that could come in very handy indeed.