In the month of December, a professional’s mind often turns to frustration over the lack of accomplishment in the current year, and the desire to be more productive in the New Year. But wishing it better isn’t enough, so here are Heather’s rules for getting more done in life.

I’ve been coaching professionals for over 18 years. There are lots of common issues I coach them around, but by far the greatest is inertia. Professionals are so multi-capable, and have such high expectations of themselves that they often become paralysed by inaction. This isn’t to suggest that they aren’t busy. But they spend too much time on things that don’t matter, and not enough time on the areas of their life that will make the difference between regret and happiness; average and outstanding; talking about it v. getting it done.

Each coaching subject is different so there is no cookie-cutter approach to helping them work through their unhelpful behaviours into more positive, productive ones, but there are some good habits that can help, as follows (in David Letterman style):

10. Always pay for more parking than you need, literally and figuratively. Arrange your life to ensure that the time you spend doing something important (like meeting with a client) isn’t rushed or limited on your part. Some professionals book client meetings too close together to allow for a meeting extension; yet they’ll sit in internal meetings arguing over work delegation or catering orders for HOURS. Don’t create circumstances that limit your ability to do the very thing you’re in business for.

9. Establish your foundation: Being productive at work requires a good support system at home and for your health and fitness. Often, professionals know but don’t commit to their foundational needs. For example, exercise might be critical to their health and stamina, but they’ll regularly sacrifice it for work right up until they burn out. You wouldn’t want weak cement as the foundation for your house. Understand what your personal foundation is, then honour it.

8. Respect the sales funnel: Professionals need to do good work today while filling the pipeline for tomorrow, so we are constantly selling. But some sales processes take longer than others, and that’s OK. Get comfortable with sales as a process, not an event. It might involve speaking engagements and authorships, followed by casual meetings, moving into a one on one meeting, and eventually a formal presentation. This process might take two weeks or two years, depending on the client. Regardless, don’t give up in frustration. Keep the ball rolling throughout with small actions, and relax into whatever sales funnel a particular target might need.

7. Go to the client as often as possible. This seems like counter intuitive advice in a post focussed on achieving greater efficiency. But it is far more efficient and profitable to do more work for fewer clients. So taking actions that improve face time and demonstrate commitment will be time well-spent within such relationships. And inevitably, when you are physically with a client (as opposed to on the phone or email), another issue will arise that needs your attention.

6. Spend more time in quadrant two. Efficiency expert Stephen Covey talked about the division of actions into four quadrants spanning important to unimportant actions, and urgent and non-urgent actions. Quadrant two is for non-urgent but important actions. These include systems and processes that will make you a better performer, more efficient, producing work of higher quality, building better relationships, etc. Yet professionals often focus on quadrant one: urgent and important. The problem is, too often we’re in quadrant one because we delayed action until it was urgent. Lawyers in particular can be adrenalin junkies; allowing a piece of work to sit on the corner of their desk until it’s on fire. Successful business people arrange their lives so that they spend 50% – 80% of their time in quadrant two.

5. Create a functioning BF system: I don’t care how intelligent you are, your mind can only effectively hang onto so many projects simultaneously. A functional bring forward system enables you to free up those memory cells so your mind can focus instead on problem solving. How does it work? Create folders for each day of the week. As you process work, determine if it needs to be done today, or can be dealt with on another day. Then place it into the appropriate daily folder. Don’t think about it again until you open the folder on the appropriate day, and address the issue then. We are not more important by having so much on the go that we lose track. We are only less organized and less efficient. A BF system allows you to free up maximum processing power for doing a great job on what truly needs to be done today.

4. Have a game plan: I am a tireless advocate of planning because it works. Given the choice, no one wants to wander aimlessly in the desert yet professionals do this within their careers all of the time. Have clearly defined goals for three to five years out, and then create an annual plan that declares what you will focus on in the coming year that will take you one year closer to achieving those objectives. Having it in your head is not good enough. If you can’t write it down, you’re wandering.

3. Take actions in steps: Life can be overwhelming when we face goals or major projects. To make them more manageable, break them down into the steps or actions they require. Then focus on when and how to accomplish the next step. Taking action a step at a time is far less intimidating than facing the entire project; and getting the next step done is more realistic, setting you up for success instead of failure.

2. Do fast, easy things right now: If you have time to remember or write down a small task that needs to be done, chances are you have time to do the task right now.  Call or email that individual with your question. Check that fact on the internet. Delegate that work right now. You may be shocked at how much you can really do in those available two minute blocks throughout your day.

1. And finally, focus on what counts. The problem isn’t that we have too much to do; the problem is that we haven’t triaged. Of the ten things on your mental list today, which are the most critical? Now do those first. Which items on your list could be done by someone else? Delegate. Which items aren’t truly important at all? Put them off or consider removing them from your list entirely.

Increased productivity is not a matter of better time management so much as it is the result of better mind management.