I’m Jonathan, CEO & cofounder of actiondesk.io. We let business teams easily automate their processes using only their spreadsheet skills, saving them tons of time.
Back when I was working as an intern, I didn’t really have issues with time management. As an intern, your manager usually filters things a lot and tells you exactly what to do. It might be a lot but usually if you work hard you’ll get everything done. Later, things got more complicated. I joined Jumia, a very fast-growing ecommerce company operating in Africa. All of a sudden, just working harder and later was not enough to get everything done.
I had three symptoms that let me to think I needed to change something:
- My to-do lists would get completely out of control,
- I would often get the feeling of being overwhelmed,
- I would work on something and be stressed about other things I wasn’t doing
Thus began my journey to become more effective and efficient. This ebook is a summary of what I’ve learned so far and how I currently organize myself. I think the younger me would get a lot of value out of this, I hope you do too.
Effectiveness and efficiency are often confused:
- Effectiveness: Producing the intended or expected result
- Efficiency: Performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least wasted time and effort
Basically, effectiveness is about doing the right things, efficiency is about doing things right.
It all starts with being effective. If you’re very good at doing the wrong things, then it won’t lead you far.
That seems pretty obvious but a lot of things get in the way:
- Other people are pushing to you things that don’t necessarily help you reach your goals
- When a lot of things are happening, it’s easy to forget which things are most important
- You get easily distracted by urgent matters and forget about longer term, but more important, topics
So how do you ensure you do the right things?
This applies to both personal and professional projects. I won’t describe in detail the annual and quarterly routines, because they are quite similar to the weekly routine I’ll talk about specifically here. The only difference is that the longer the period, the more steps back you should take and the more high-level your mission / objectives should be.
The weekly routine is ideally done on Friday evening, Sunday evening or Monday morning early before everything starts.
Ask yourself what you need to do to maximize your impact and reach your goals. Focus on a few things, 3-5 is probably enough (those things could be increasing the pipeline of candidates for X position, talking to Y customers, analyzing Z, etc.).
As we all know, reality rarely matches the plan! And that’s fine. Your job is to get better and stick as close to the plan as possible. For that, you need to know where you’re at.
Here’s how I do it.
- As I said, every week I write down the number of hours I want to spend on each of my priorities.
- I schedule time in my calendar to work on those.
- During the week, if for some reason I didn’t follow the planned schedule, I will change my calendar. If I had a meeting from 1-2pm on Monday whereas I had planned to work on customer acquisition, I will put that change in my calendar.
- At the end of the week, I take my calendar, count the number of hours spent on each priority and look at the following metric: Number of hours spent on priorities / number of hours planned for those priorities. You can end up with a table like this:
That was me last week; 58% is not great, I like to be 70%+. That week particularly, I had to do much more customer support than expected, bringing my % down. An item to prioritize for the next few weeks will definitely be how to automate some of that customer support and fix the bugs that created most of the problems encountered by our customers.
If you’re like me, you’ll realize you’re nowhere near what you had planned. That’s ok. Next thing is to understand why.
Is it because you procrastinated or let someone impose their agenda on you? Then make sure you get better at it next week.
Is it because some truly new topic that’s more important than the planned priorities came up during the week? Then that’s ok as long as it doesn’t occur too often.
If it does happen often, it means you’re not in control. To get back in control, make sure you work on non-urgent / important tasks that will help you avoid those instances. More on that in a bit.
I use two frameworks to help me understand what will have the most impact.
During Y Combinator (a startup accelerator program that Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe and many other extremely successful companies went through), each company has to choose a north star metric to focus on. Depending on your company, this could be revenue, number of users, etc.
As an employee, you can do that as well. Actually, your manager should help you define the north star if they haven’t already.
Once you know your north star metric, ask yourself each week, “What are the things I could do that would have the most impact on this one metric?”
This is also called the Eisenhower matrix, named after former US Army General and President Dwight Eisenhower, who said “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Here it is:
I think this is very helpful, because it makes us realize that we don’t usually spend our time on the right things. Intuitively, most of us spend time on the left side of the matrix, on the urgent things, whether they’re important or not. It’s pretty obvious we should spend time on the top part of the quadrant.
You might see somewhere the following version of the matrix
I think the 3rd quadrant (urgent / not important) shouldn’t be delegated, it just shouldn't be done (at least, as long as there are things in quadrants 1 and 2).
In practice, it means you might have to say no to a user who’s really asking for a feature but who’s not actually a paying customer. Or to say no to this person who wants to meet you for coffee to “chat”.
Now that you make sure you work on the right things, how do you make sure that you’re doing them in the most efficient manner?
Again, this is pretty obvious, but it took me some time before getting there. Let’s take a step back. What’s a to do list?
Here, I’ll paraphrase David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, who said you want to capture all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you in a logical and trusted system outside your head and off your mind. To me that’s very important, that prevents you from always have that thing you need to do in your mind. Once it’s on your to do list and you trust it, you know it’ll get done at the right moment and you can free your mind from this task.
Now, we all have made a to do list at some point that then gets totally out of control. At least that’s what happened to me for years. How do you avoid that? Discipline.
I believe a big driver of stress is when you have something to do, are afraid of forgetting it or are not sure when you’ll do it. You basically feel like this:
This is Rule #1 of a good to do list, everything needs to be there. As soon as there’s something you know you need to do, write it down. It takes 2 seconds to write on your notebook or your to do list app. DO IT. You don’t have to think exactly how and when you’ll get it done right now.
Having a good system to capture your thoughts is a bit like the pensieve in Harry Potter, you get to remove things from your brain, preventing them from stressing you out while still being able to access them when you need it. (HP geek right here!)
My system to capture thoughts is actually very low tech, a notebook. I always have it with me and I write down everything that I think might need to be done at some point, without specifying much.
This is something you should do everyday. Review the items you’ve captured in your do list and specify them further. This is the time to think about exactly what needs to be done and what outcome is expected of the task. I do that every day, and my thoughts go from rough in my notebook to specific in my to do list app. (we’ll talk about those in the tools & tips section)
For example, “writing an article for the blog” is too large of a task, you need to break it down:
This will help you understand two things
Based on those two factors, you’ll be able to prioritize it and organize it.
On prioritization, my system is pretty simple. Either I need to do it this week or I put in a backlog folder. This folder is reviewed frequently (more on that later).
On organization, some people have a very complex system of labels. Mine is very simple, I label tasks small task or long task. Small means you can do several of them in a 25-min time slot (you’ll understand the 25-min time slot later in the book). Long means you’ll need at least one 25-min slot or several.
This enables me to treat small tasks in batches and to make sure I have enough time to complete a long task.
I used to be very, very bad at to do lists. I would look at my list and there would be so many items to be done yesterday, or the day before that were not done yet. Just looking at my list would stress me out, so I would stop using it until the next time I would think “I really need a proper to do list”.
The key to avoiding that is to have a daily routine. I do it at the end of the day, but it could be first thing in the morning.
On top of that, I review my backlog folder every week to see if anything in there should be prioritized for the coming week. My backlog folder is a bit of a mess and I think that’s fine, there’s no point ordering it, it’s just a list of things you think you’ll have to do at some point. That being said, delete any task that’s not relevant anymore.
Beyond the notebook, I use Todoist. There are many to do list apps on the market, and the one you choose is not that important. Applying the right method and being disciplined is 10x more important. I like the two following things about Todoist:
I just have one folder called backlog, and two labels: short and long.
There are countless studies that show that when interrupted during a task, getting back to the level of productivity you were at takes several minutes. I won’t bother linking to them because I think you don’t need studies to understand that, it’s pretty obvious.
When you get a notification for every email, every whatsapp message, every text, you’re just losing a ton of time.
Now, when I say that, I get asked how can I still be notified of really urgent things that require my attention? Tell your team / family they can reach you by phone.
I personally deactivate all my notifications thanks to the “Do not disturb” feature on my iPhone. The great thing about it is that you’ll still get calls from your contacts in favourites. So you can still see the urgent call from your husband / wife / colleague while avoiding all prospecting calls and other time-wasting notifications.
The corollary of the previous point is that in order to be on top of your emails, you should carve out some specific time during the day to handle your emails. I would advise once or twice a day.
I do a quick check of my emails around noon, and I manage most of them in the evening at the end of the day.
I’ll explore tips and tools to be extra efficient when handling emails in part III.
This is one of my favorite techniques. Using it has drastically improved my productivity. The idea is to break down your time as follows:
What I find brilliant in this technique is that it makes it easy to be in deep work during the Pomodoros. After all, focusing on one thing for 25 minutes is not that hard, you can definitely resist the urge to check your phone / social media / email / whatever usually prevents you from working for that long.
Hardcore Pomodoro advocates will tell you it’s crucial to stick to the exact method. I actually take a lot of liberty with it: doing longer time slots for some tasks, skipping some breaks, etc. I think you should start with the exact framework and then take some liberty with it once you’re used to it.
This other gem comes from Getting Things Done. When required to do a task, either it takes less than 2 minutes to complete it and you should do it right now, or it takes more and you should just capture the task in your to do list to be handled at a later point.
This is particularly useful for emails. If an email requires an action item from me, I’ll usually turn it into a task unless it’s very fast to do.
Let’s be real, most meetings are a waste of time.
For every meeting that’s asked of you, ask yourself whether it really is the best use of your time to fulfill your objectives. If those meetings are imposed by a hierarchy, feel free to express to them why you think this is not the best use of your time to reach the objectives (that you should have defined with them). If your manager really cares about you performing, they should be open to your arguments.
Some companies go as far as doing no meetings at all (French startup Alan for example). I will not be as radical. I still think meetings can be useful to meet a client, brief one or two colleagues, etc.
That being said, the length of most meetings doesn’t make any sense. Most 30-min calls could actually be done in 15-min. Most 1h meetings could be done in 30 or 45 minutes. I believe you should never have a meeting lasting more than 45 minutes. If you pay attention, the last 15 minutes of a 1h meeting never add value.
In the two previous sections, we’ve seen the methods. These are the most important and are timeless. I will however recommend here some tools I use that I think are helpful to apply the said methods.
Disclaimer: Neither actiondesk nor I are affiliated in any way with any of these tools and companies.
Most programs you use often have shortcuts that can really save you tons of time if you make the effort of learning them. Depending on what you use, it’s up to you to understand which operation you perform often and whether there is a shortcut for it. Here are the ones I use the most often:
Gmail: you have to activate your shortcuts in settings / general / shortcuts
- j, k respectively to go to the previous / next email
- shift + U to mark non-read
- shift + r to reply to an email
- shift + A to reply all
- ctrl + shift + C to add cc recipients
- ctrl + shift + B to add bcc recipients
- ctrl + enter to send the email you were working on
- ctrl + shift + 8 to start a bulleted list
- ctrl + shift + 7 to start a numbered list
- ctrl + K to add a hyperlink to a selected text (works in most apps)
- ctrl + W to close a tab
- ctrl + L to jump to the URL / search bar (this one’s a gem)
- ctrl + shift + T to reopen the last closed tab
- ctrl + D to bookmark a page
- ctrl + H to open your history
- ctrl + R to refresh a page
- ctrl + page up / down to navigate between tabs
- type the name of website and press tab to search directly in this website (example: drive + tab to search in your google docs, doesn’t work for all websites but for more and more)
- doc.new, sheets.new to create new google doc / google sheets, etc
Excel / Google Sheets:
- F2 to enter in a cell
- Shift + arrow to select several cells
- ctrl + arrow to jump to the next populated cell in that direction
- shift + space: select the whole row where the cursor is
- ctrl + space: select the whole column where the cursor is
- ctrl + alt + m to add a comment (only in google docs)
- F4 to reproduce the last done actions (if you applied yellow background on a cell, then do F4 on another cell, it will apply the yellow background to that cell)
- Alt + F4 to close a program
- Alt + tab to switch between applications and windows
- right click keyboard key. This one is super useful for people like me who use their trackpad and not a mouse. This reproduces right click. I use it a lot. If you don’t have it on your keyboard, shift + F10 does the same thing.
On top of those shortcuts, I use a really cool plugin called AutoTextExpender which enables you to create shortcuts for frequently used pieces of text.
For example, when I typed “typf”, it replaces it with the link of a typeform form I use a lot at the moment.
I also use it for any response to an email I write often, like
Thanks for your email but I’m not interested in your service. Please remove me from your email list.
All the best”
Would love to jump on a call to better understand your needs and use cases. You can pick a time that will work for you here.
On the word “here”, you’ll attach a hyperlink linking to your appointment scheduling software, which leads me to:
Sick of the email back and forth with people to set up a meeting or a call? Use calendly or a similar tool. They are integrated with Google Calendar (and most popular calendar apps). You just have to send a link to the people you want to meet / have a call with, and calendly will suggest times when you’re free. Once the person has chosen the time, it will send both of you a calendar invite.
This is just great.
This was recommended by Tim Ferriss on his blog. It’s basically ctrl + C on steroids. This enables you to access quickly and easily the ~40 elements you’ve copied recently. Tim recommends Jumpcut, but it only works with Mac. I’m on Windows and I use Ditto, it works with any format, specifically images, which is awesome. Also you can access the list of elements copied easily with a simple shortcut: ctrl + ~
According to this study, ambient sound is good for creativity. I’ve got to admit I was very skeptical the first time I read about this. But I decided to give it a try using Coffivity, which recreates the ambient sound of a cafe. I find it works great for me both in terms of focus and creativity and I use it pretty much every day when working on a long and deep task (typically, writing this ebook). I also find it’s much less distracting than listening to music. Finally, you can’t actually understand anything people are talking about, contrary to the ambient sound you might have in an actual cafe or coworking space.
This is one of my very favorite tools. As I said previously, emails should be managed in batches, and it’s better to not check your emails outside of the time slots dedicated to it. Now during the day, as part of your tasks, you might have to write an email to someone or search your inbox for information. Usually, when you do that, you see your received emails and inevitably, you’ll check some of them, or at the very least seeing you received emails will distract you.
I discovered this awesome chrome plugin called Inboxwhenready. This will install a button on gmail, Show Inbox / Hide Inbox. By default, your emails are hidden. So you can go on gmail, write some emails, and search in your emails all without seeing your recently received emails. For example, in the screenshot below, I can’t see my inbox whereas I have around 50 non-read emails.
If you’re worried you’ll miss urgent emails, there is a way (although I think there should be no such thing as an urgent email). Thanks to gmail, you can label some emails as urgent (when they come from a specific sender or when they contain some specific words in the subject line, for example). With Inboxwhenready, you’ll still get to see whether or not you have such emails. To know more, check out their article on the matter.
In google calendar, go to Settings / General / Event Settings / Default Duration. Unfortunately, you can’t set a default lower than 25 minutes. Another problem with google Calendar is that setting an event with unusual timing, say 25 minutes, is not user-friendly at all. I’m still on the lookout for a better calendar solution if anyone has one to recommend!
Productivity is a journey, I still have a lot to learn. I’d love for you to share your methods, tips and tools you use. Feel free to share your best tips on Twitter or Linkedin and tag me (Linkedin: Jonathan Parisot, Twitter: JoParisot).