The power of compartmentalization.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities” — Stephen Covey
A workday is made up of two distinct parts. On the one hand, there is the “meaningful” work, i.e. the tasks that bring the most value. The ones you feel good about after you’ve done them because you know they have a positive impact on your career path.
It could be writing your daily blog post, taking an hour to create that presentation to highlight that high-potential idea you had last week, or finalizing that long-term assignment with one of your clients.
On the other hand, there are all those moments when you feel your time is being taken away from you. Unnecessary appointments are common, but this category can also include answering requests that keep filling up your mailbox.
The firsts are the outputs. The seconds are the inputs.
Balancing them is essential for your work to bear fruit. To use your time efficiently so that your efforts get you somewhere.
That’s one of the most important pieces of productivity advice I’ve ever received — and applied.
Breaking down inputs & outputs
Inputs are what interrupt your work bubble by demanding action from you, often to the benefit of an outsider. It’s a request. For instance, my biggest source of input is email.
These inputs appear in real-time in the top right corner of my screen. They attract my attention. But just as I do with my phone notifications, I save the information for later and continue with my current task.
When I started as a freelancer, and until recently, I tended to deal with everything right away. I would manage each incoming request before going back to what I was doing. I thought that my clients would appreciate my “efficiency”.
Outputs, on the other hand, are what you bring to the world from yourself. This is why you chose and love your job in the first place. An output is an accomplishment, an achievement. It requires focus.
As far as I am concerned, my outputs are my daily blog posts and the articles I write for my clients.
Inputs nip outputs in the bud
Every time an input appeared, I would interrupt my work and switch tasks. As a result, the quality of my work suffered. I finally decided that my clients would prefer me to provide them with high-quality content rather than respond to their emails within ten minutes.
If you make yourself available for inputs, you end up being dragged from a request to a call, from an email to a meeting. Inputs quickly fill your day. The evening comes, and you’ve accomplished nothing.
One of my clients told me about a rule they have introduced in their 4-person team. Every morning, everyone has to write down their output of the day on a common whiteboard. This can be whatever they want. That is their daily goal. When it’s done, they get up, and they cross it out. Box ticked.
I found that very significant. It’s a way of making sure you do something for yourself at least once a day. Something that brings value. Something that takes you somewhere. Something that gives you a purpose, and helps you to grow.
But to achieve this, you need to find the right balance between inputs — which are still necessary — and outputs. That’s my point.
Finding the balance
One of the ways that have proven to be most effective for me is to compartmentalize my schedule. Productivity, in the sense of “producing something”, requires commitment and rigor. You have to be uncompromising about your limits. And it is essential to set firm limits on inputs.
Here, some tips for striking a balance in your workday.
1. The ‘first thing in the morning’ rule
There is something I try to do every day as it has been proven to help me concentrate and have peace of mind. When I wake up I don’t take my phone. I walk into the kitchen and quietly sip my café au lait, slowly emerging or reading a book. Then I try not to check my phone or e-mail and sit at my desk to do my most important task of the day, which is to write my daily story.
To be honest, I often fail when it comes to the phone and emails. But at least, once I’ve checked them, I put them aside to immerse myself in my work. The main point is: I tick my output as early as possible. I do what is most important to me first.
Whatever happens afterward, it’s done. I can go about my day with peace of mind.
2. Remember: Email is lava
If you feel like you can’t resist clicking on your emails when they appear, simply turn off notifications. Then set aside some time to check and manage them. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
If you can resist and prefer to stay informed of what’s going on, let them appear, take a quick look to save the information, and postpone it.
E-mails are lava for me. If the inputs that distract you are other, apply the same technique. Time for everything.
3. Compartmentalize your schedule
Inputs are a struggle, but they are necessary. Of course, you have to integrate them into your working day. It’s just a matter of not getting caught up in them.
One way to do this is to structure your day and set aside a dedicated time for each group of tasks.
Plan time slots to manage your inputs. Perhaps one hour a day. Or one hour in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Once the 60 minutes are up, stop, and go back to your outputs.
To compartmentalize your workday, know your energy schedule. When do you feel most focused? When, on the other hand, do you find it difficult to do anything? The first is ideal for outputs, the second for inputs.
Productivity is about doing the things that matter. Do your most important task in the morning. Identify your source of input and set limits. And compartmentalize your schedule.
Your outputs are the reason you do the job in the first place. They are also the guarantors of your progress. Make sure you devote enough time to them.