When there seem to be endless tasks and never enough time to accomplish it all, you can feel overwhelmed. But increasing your productivity is possible. Here’s how
“I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”
— Golda Meir
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”
— Michael Altshuler
Want to improve your productivity? The to-do list is your first step. How can you take it from an unintelligible scribble on the back of a crumpled receipt to a blueprint for your day?
“Research shows that writing by hand helps us pay more attention to information. Write your to-do lists by hand,” says Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld, Director of Strategies for Optimum Success.
Despite often being surrounded by phones, computers, and servers, Moshe Eisenberg, COO of NakiRadio, uses a pen and notepad all the time. “If you have an idea, its’s so much easier to put thought to paper, rather than take out your phone, open a note, and type in a neat, formatted line,” he says. “Sometimes I convert it into an email reminder.” This system has an added benefit when talking face-to-face with people — it’s far more socially acceptable to jot something down than to take out your phone.
“I buy packages of 12 reporters’ notebooks, and my kids know these are my brain,” says Rachel Bachrach, one of the busy editors at Mishpacha. “I call it ‘The List,’ with a capital T and a capital L. I once lost a notebook and called my husband in tears; I’d lost part of my brain!”
“One page of the notebook serves as a shopping list for the regular grocery store; I add to it as things come up. Another page is for specific stores, such as Costco or Target. I live out of town, so a third is a list for when we go to NY or someone comes here and asks what they can bring. Page four is things I need for each kid — Yonatan shorts, Azriel shoes, Aliza headband for her orange Shabbos jumper, Yael t-shirts, etc. Five is the week ahead, based on my calendar.
“I also have a Chai Lifeline calendar, and it’s my other brain. I copy what’s scheduled for the week into my List, allocating a few lines for each day of the week, things like appointments, deadlines, or carpool — all the things I must do so the house doesn’t go to pot.”
Not all tasks are created equal. “Separate the tasks you want to accomplish and those that need to be accomplished into two separate lists. Or you could create a list that starts with the most pressing things and decreases in importance as the list continues,” suggests Hadassah Levin, LCSW. “This will make it easier for you to prioritize tasks and avoid the distraction of non-necessities. It will also let you end the day feeling productive, having taken care of urgent tasks.”
“It’s helpful,” Sari Verschleiser, certified life coach and career counselor, points out, “to remind yourself that whilst you would love to get the entire list done, you’re not a failure if that doesn’t happen.”
“Visual components can add a huge boost to our ability to accomplish,” says Avigail Kemmoun, MS. BCBA, COBA of the Advanced Behavioral Therapy agency. “A visual picture task list isn’t just for kids. Also, always mark tasks as done; in my experience, visually seeing your progress can provide an inner drive to keep moving forward with energy.”
“We’re human and need motivation to do what’s required of us,” explains Avigail. “Rewards aren’t a luxury. The key is to put an exciting food, activity, or item at different points in your schedule to motivate you to keep going and accomplish all you have to do.”
“We all have long-term goals we want to accomplish,” says Rifka Schonfeld. “We want to write a novel, lose twenty pounds, start our own business, or pursue a hobby. If in the morning we woke up and decided to write a novel, we’d never get anything done.”
Rifka recommends formulating what she calls a “stretch” goal, the long-term objective, like running a marathon. Then you should have a “SMART” goal, a small goal for each day that will slowly help you reach your long-term goal. SMART stands for:
Specific: know exactly what you want to get done
Measurable: have a clear way to measure whether it’s been accomplished
Achievable: ensure you have the ability and skill to get it done
Realistic: check if it can be done in the time and space you allotted to it
Timely: set clear deadlines: the time of day it will happen and how it will be broken up over the week
“Experiencing the success of accomplishing all these small goals will give you the drive to continue working toward the larger goal,” Rifka explains. “And if while working towards your SMART goals, you’re distracted by something that doesn’t pertain to your stretch goal, simply ignore it!”
“To help motivate yourself, honor your wiring,” says Sari Verschleiser. “I teach clients to leave the ‘I shoulds’ behind. What makes you tick? Trying to fit in the wrong box is an energy drainer, and if you do what you hate all day, productivity will become a struggle. Take a day to figure out what you love doing and what methods work for you.
“Women who embrace who they are have found renewed energy and productivity. One lady hated carpooling, but loved giving shiurim; she hired a seminary girl to drive for her and spent that time preparing more shiurim. Another person, who was really not into cooking, increased her time helping autistic kids and hired a cook.
“If your perfect neighbor starts Pesach cleaning Chanukah time, remind yourself, ‘This isn’t how I’m wired; I’m more productive when close deadlines give me that rush of energy.’
“Creative people tend to be less structured by nature and struggle more with time management. Spending a day figuring out how to structure your schedule can be helpful. Ignore the pressure to follow methods that work for others. Design your life to suit you: do more of what you love, less of what you hate, and do it according to the schedule that works for you. The side effects may include a natural increase in productivity.”
“Some things can’t be dropped,” Sari acknowledges. “You may have to make dinner, even if you’d prefer not to. If this is the case, preempt the activity with some self-talk. Why am I doing this? For the kids. Keep going with the why questions until you’ve acquired motivational energy to start cooking. Then switch out of I have to mode to I choose to mode. As in, I choose to cook a nutritious homemade supper for my kids because this is important to me. This will hopefully make the task feel easier.”
“Alongside finding the reason you’re doing a task you dislike,” suggests Sari, “make the process enjoyable by turning on some music.”
“I frequently hear from happy customers how listening to shiurim, stories, or music while doing housework makes everything more pleasant. Somehow, boring tasks get done more quickly and easily,” says Moshe Eisenberg.
“You can also use music to block out or mitigate other disruptive background noises,” suggests Berl Oberlander, a job coach. “Your coworker’s conversation may be fascinating, but you won’t get much done while you’re eavesdropping. Noise canceling headphones can be used to block disruptions; it can be surprising how quickly you get things done when you’re fully focused on the task at hand.”
To be productive you need energy. “It may seem counterintuitive, but while exercising takes time and seems like it would interfere with time management, the opposite is true,” says Rifka. “Exercise allows your brain to slow down and gives you the ability to think more clearly throughout the rest of the day. This, in turn, means that the time you spend on your tasks is more focused and productive.”
“There are many apps out there that can help with organization and project management,” says professional organizer and interior designer Yael Wiesner. “If you go that route, don’t get lost in them. Something easy and simple is your best bet. Personally, I like Trello, a program that functions like a computerized whiteboard full of sticky notes. It’s good for anything from designing a client’s kitchen to planning a bar mitzvah.”
Moshe Eisenberg is also a fan of Trello, and says it helps him keep business projects running smoothly.
Sari recommends those who check their phones frequently harness that tendency to aid them in organization. “Before leaving your bedroom in the morning, create a note and write down the things you want to do that day. Getting it down can help you get 90% more done than if you simply barrel into your day. When you pick up your phone later in the day, you have a quick reminder of what you wanted to accomplish. You can use actual reminders on the phone as well.”
But beware; your phone can be your greatest distraction. Mordechai Salzer, a web content manager, advocates switching your phone off, closing Outlook/Gmail, and silencing notifications, basically closing all tech around you so your brain can fully focus on that big project.
“On a super busy workday, leave your phone in the car and save yourself a lot of time and temptation,” suggest Berl Oberlander.
“To utilize your time and make it as productive as possible, allocate an amount of time for each task on your list,” advises Avigail Kemmoun. “Set yourself alarms or reminders five minutes prior to the end time so you can keep track of where you’re at. My clients use those visual timers that show, in red, how time is moving, so they know clearly when their time is up. Seeing yourself get close to that time is also highly motivating to finish your task.”
Making it Stick
“Put externally imposed structure into your life,” recommends Yael Wiesner. “This isn’t an empty promise to yourself, but rather a real pressure from the outside to get you going. For example, if you hire someone to help you fold and iron the laundry on Wednesdays, you’ll be sure to have your laundry done on Tuesday. Don’t pay for a general membership to the gym; then you’ll likely keep pushing off to tomorrow. Pay for specific classes so that if you miss them, you lost them.
“I had a friend who set up a ‘davening Shacharis chavrusa’ with her neighbor across the hall each morning to ensure they’d both daven Shacharis. A man I know did his wife a ‘chesed’ to help her finish her Shabbos prep early — he said he wouldn’t eat any food she prepared after midnight on Thursday, so she finished cooking for Shabbos on Thursday afternoon. I always recommend my clients set up a true ‘mechayev’ for something you want to get done on a regular basis.”
“A few years back,” says Rachel Bachrach, “I was arranging suppers for someone local, and a friend casually mentioned she’ll do Monday, and she’ll send chicken ‘because Monday is chicken and rice night.’ I looked at her like she was nuts, and she told me she has a basic outline for suppers for the week. It takes all the thinking out of it!
“I stole her idea, and I haven’t looked back. If Monday is chicken, you can alternate between bone-in chicken, stir fry, or chicken fajitas… For Fish Tuesday, you can do leftover salmon from Shabbos, or kid-friendly homemade fish sticks made with breaded tilapia… Suppers aren’t boring, since they change every week, but the base/main is the same, which is a brain- space saver.”
“End the day by looking in the mirror, and realizing how productive you were,” Sari recommends. “Remind yourself of all the things you did accomplish. We are what we tell ourselves we are. If you want to strengthen your productivity, ask yourself each night, ‘In what ways was I productive today?’ List at least five things. You’ll notice that you’ll naturally become more productive when you honor the fact that you already are, and you’ll strengthen that trait within yourself.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 744)
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