How to Be Super Productive and Effective

Author: Adriana Beal

It has been said multiple times that the primary difference between the novice and expert analyst lies in the ability to recognize and apply patterns to solve problems.

A pattern describes a recurring problem and the core of a reusable solution to that problem. I’ve recently identified a pattern in my work, thanks to a coincidence of three people, coming from different perspectives, asking me, in a matter of days, the same question: How can you be so productive and effective juggling as many projects as you do?

I had to give it some thought, and then I decided to share my pattern with you, in case you can benefit from it, too. I realize my method won’t work for everyone, but perhaps this post will get you thinking and designing your customized solution for a problem we all face: multiple projects that need to be completed on time and with top quality.

Practice #1: Avoid Procrastination

A lot of people tell me that they become extremely productive when a deadline is looming. I get why that happens: Parkinson’s Law states that “works expands to fill the time allotted to it”, and the opposite is also true: work contracts to fit the time available as well. That’s why the last day before a big presentation you are finally able to get all the slides prepared, after struggling for weeks with how to structure them: because you had to, and you only had a limited amount of time to do it.

The problems with waiting until the last responsible moment, though, are many:

First, you can’t control what emergencies may be thrown your way the day before your task is due. Let’s say you are suddenly asked to facilitate a last-minute meeting to achieve consensus about a business process change, or your child gets sick and the school calls for you to pick her up. Now the hours you were counting on to complete a task you knew about 3 weeks ago are no longer available.

Second, it’s hard to accurately estimate the amount of time a task will take, so you may think it’s OK to wait until the day before a presentation to finish the slides, only to discover at the last minute that an important piece of information you wanted to include can only be provided by someone who is on vacation until the following week. Or, you learn that the audience of your presentation suddenly expanded, and now you not only need to produce the slides you already planned on using, but also new slides to provide more context about the project to the new participants.

I could go on and on why it’s never a good idea to procrastinate, but the fact is, if you want to be perceived as a high-performing professional, it’s simply not wise to chronically avoid work until you are close to a deadline. Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, and that’s fine. There are other ways to use Parkinson’s Law to your benefit, creating the right amount of pressure to help you get things done without putting the quality of your deliverables at risk like procrastinating does.

Read on for tips on that.

Practice #2: Develop Strong Self-Discipline

Self-discipline is “the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state”. Having self-discipline is crucial to my method of getting things done. If you think you need help in this area, read this series of articles from Steve Pavlina.

I recently waited for over a week to watch a reunion video a friend from Brazil sent me and I was quite curious to view. I knew it would take only 5 minutes of my time, but I also knew that when I was processing that email, I had a huge to-do list that included many other 5-minute tasks that would help me achieve more important goals than being entertained for that short amount of time. Instead, as soon as I got the message, I tagged it as “personal-not-urgent” and let it become part of my to-do list for future processing.

Giving yourself time off to relax and recharge is as important as working hard when the goal is high productivity.

I could have watched the video during a period of leisure time during that week. I preferred not to do so because the link to the video was in my personal email inbox, and I knew it would be hard to avoid processing other email if I opened my laptop to check the video. There was a good reason for me to postpone going through my “personal-not-urgent” list until a later date: avoid missing the benefits of taking time off to relax and tune out. Especially during times when I’m juggling multiples responsibilities that need to fit into a short timeframe, I find it crucial to apply self-discipline and follow my plan regardless of what I “feel like” doing at a certain point. Even if I actually feel like working more, when it’s time to unplug I just do it because I know it will make me come back to work rested, rejuvenated, and more productive the next day.

Practice #3: Process and Prioritize Tasks

Many people do well with David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, but it really doesn’t matter what method you choose to adopt or invent for yourself.

My method consists in using different lists to track “work-urgent”, “work-not-urgent”, “personal-urgent”, “personal-not-urgent”, and “someday” tasks. I keep two sets of lists, one in email form, another in paper (I just find it more convenient to write down tasks that are not received by email and carry a notebook with me than having to worry about recharging an electronic device for that purpose.) Items are moved from a list to another using email tagging or moving post-its from one page to another in my notebook. “Work-urgent” and “personal-urgent” lists are typically empty, or almost empty, as practices #1 and 2 help me take care of things before they become urgent.

An example of a “personal-urgent” item from last week was “find out how to request that the Brazilian Itinerant Consulate bring my voter registration to Austin in their next visit”. This is because I had just learned that an itinerant consulate would be in Austin in a couple of weeks, and the task (now completed) would help me avoid a trip to Houston to get my new Brazilian voter registration, recently transferred from NYC to Texas.

Every morning, before I check my work email, I take a look at the “work-urgent” list (hopefully it will be empty), and then move on to the “work-not-urgent” list. Some of the items on that list will already be marked “scheduled”, meaning, I already blocked time that day or one of the following days to start or continue working on that task. Other items may be still be pending scheduling, and I’ll take a look at my agenda to identify some convenient time to schedule the task. For example, if I have “prepare demo of new functionalities for the business” in my “work-not-urgent” list, I might block a 1-hour slot of time to create the script for the demo, and another 2-hour slot a few days later (when I estimate I’ll have access to the testing environment) to practice using the features and presenting the demo. This task remains in the “work-not-urgent” list, but now marked as “scheduled”. If I’m delayed access to the testing environment until a few days before the demo is supposed to happen, I will then move the “prepare demo of new functionalities for the business” from the “work-not-urgent” to the “work-urgent” list, to make sure I complete the task before its due date.

By blocking periods of time in my calendar to dedicate to each task, and turning interruptions such as email notification and instant messaging off during those periods, I can ensure that nothing falls through the cracks as I navigate through multiple projects. That also makes Parkinson’s law work for me instead of the other way around: if I allocate an hour to get something done, it will most likely be finished in an hour. (If not, I can always block a subsequent period of time in my calendar to complete the work. But knowing I will have to stop working on this task in an hour definitely helps me focus on finishing the work in that particular time box.)

If my method seems complicated when I describe it, it’s only because it isn’t as natural to you as it is to me. It really doesn’t matter what tools and practices you use, as long as they allow you to develop a clear view of what needs to be done by when, and help you avoid attending to “comfort tasks” while more important ones are piling up. (This article has a good tip to get you to focus on what needs to be done without getting distracted: if you want to get yourself to do something, make the alternative to that task to do nothing. Now it’s not as fun to procrastinate, since you won’t be able to perform a more attractive activity, such as watching a video or checking a social media website, until that work is finished.)

What about being spontaneous and actually enjoying your work?

The idea of a processing and prioritizing method is not about creating a too-strict routine that takes away all joy from your work day. I keep some slots open in my calendar to make sure I can start a small, manageable side project that I’ve always wanted to do, or watch an online webinar on a topic I want to learn more about, or suddenly decide to go out for an unplanned lunch date with my husband. I might even reschedule some of my blocked time to accommodate “what I feel like working on right now”, but keeping in mind that, above all, my priority work has to be done. And it’s always easier to spend an hour working on a demanding task when you know that the next slot is reserved for a more interesting project.

 

A little spontaneity can go a long way in keeping your day enjoyable while ensuring the results you want are achieved. You may find that the sense of accomplishment and reprieve from stress that comes from completing less interesting tasks before they become urgent is actually more fulfilling than any reward you may get from procrastinating them.

>> Read More About Managing Your Work

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So Good They Can’t Ignore You: A Recipe for a Fulfilling Career

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Comments

  1. I personally would like to take note of this posting, “How to Be Super Productive
    and Effective” on my very own internet site. Would you care if Ido it?
    Regards -Virgil

  2. Hi! GTD is really good but personally I woke up to a lot of things in Brian Tracy’s “Eat That Frog” book and started to implement them in my everyday life which helped me increase productivity tremendously. Great article, cheers!

    • Today, I went to the beach front with my kids.
      I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.
      There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
      She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell
      someone!

  3. Thanks, Felicia, I’m glad you enjoyed the article as well.

    I must say that “blocking time in the calendar to work on one of my priority tasks” is one of the key points of my productivity method. See, other people block time in our calendar all the time by scheduling meetings with us — why shouldn’t we take charge and save some of our valuable hours to work on our most important tasks as well? This way, we can also reserve the times of the day when we are most productive for our top priority tasks, instead of consuming them with less important meetings that could take place during periods we are not as alert.

    Regarding multitasking (some people call it “switchtasking”, moving from one task to another without giving any one of them the attention they need), I think it has been pretty well proven that it does reduce productivity, as it takes time for our brain to shift gears, making us lose time with each shift.

    However, I do use “background tasking” to become more productive under certain circumstances. For example, during some project status meeting calls, I don’t care about 90% of what is being discussed (about testing and construction details I’m not involved in), so I just keep my headset on and start working on other things, like organizing my to-do list, replying to emails that don’t require too much concentration, etc. When the meeting gets to a point I care about, or someone asks me to give an opinion, I then stop what I’m doing and go back to paying full attention to the call. It works pretty well because one task can be put in the background while the other is performed in a slower pace than it would normally if I didn’t have the background task interfering, but I’ll still finish that timebox with two things accomplished instead of one, without loss in quality ;-).

    However, I’d never do that for example during a conference call discussing business needs, because as the business analyst, I must devote my full attention to understanding what my business stakeholders have to say. So I believe this is something you need to consider in a case-by-case basis, always considering the cost/benefit of multitasking or background tasking vs. not.

    Focusing on 10 different things throughout your day is definitely not multitasking, though. Research also shows that our brains are not prepared to focus on the same thing for more than a given period (45 minutes seems to be the limit for most), so it’s also helpful to block periods of 60 minutes or less to work on each task, and then take a quick break and switch to something else so your brain can become fully engaged again. You may want to try that to see how it works for you!

    • Wow, that’s a very impressive system! No wonder you produce solutions so quickly. I might try breaking every hour to see how it works. I tend to take a break in the afternoons, probably because my brain is telling me to.

      I really appreciate you sharing this knowledge. I look forward to your future posts.

      🙂

      Felicia

  4. Hello Adriana,

    Great article! Things are ramping up for me at my job and this is great advice to follow. I do like the idea of blocking time off in your calendar. It gives you a way to organize your time and, personally, I feel better knowing an incomplete task will be done at a certain time. It also brings up the idea of choosing to multi-task or not. I’ve read a few articles that say multi-tasking reduces productivity. I have this idea in my head, but not sure if I fully agree. I suppose if you focus on 10 different things in a short amount of time this may be true. It’s a concept I am toying with. When you block tasks off on a calendar you are focusing on all tasks, but getting them done one at a time. Maybe this is called hybrid-multi-tasking.

    🙂

    Well done!

    Felicia

  5. @Murat: “I rarely stop a work to do a daily task that popped up. Instead I put it on my to-do-list and give it a weight. After I finish what I was doing, I simply order the list descending by weight to hack small things down.”

    That is definitely a key behavior for being super productive — we can’t let our inbox / external inputs control us and interrupt what we are doing at any moment (unless it is truly an emergency that must be dealt with immediately, which should be a rare situation). Thanks for sharing your process here!

    @Suman: Absolutely, the same practices I describe in the article are useful for other professionals outside the BA role. I’m happy to learn that the definition of self-discipline resonated with you (and Joseph). Studies prove that we can all develop self-discipline, thus benefiting not only from superior performance but also from the reprieve from stress that comes from completing our tasks on time and in an efficient manner.

    Thanks for the compliment for the article. I can see you are already in your way to becoming highly productive and self-disciplined ;-).

  6. Suman Manoharan says

    Hi Adriana,

    This is a wonderfule article. I am not a BA nor related anywhere near it. But the above article applies to me as well. I am from IT Service Management Practive, just for your information. The line “the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state” stuck me like a lightening out of clear sky.

    Although I am embarassed to admit that I have not been self-disciplined till date, I will not be so. This line has made some Magic. Thank you once again for the lovely article.

    Kind Regards,
    Suman Manoharan

  7. Celal Murat PARLAK says

    Hi There,
    I have developed 2 tools for myself to manage time.

    One is a weighted To-Do-List. I manage my daily on-the-spot tasks there. I rarely stop a work to do a daily task that popped up. Instead I put it on my to-do-list and give it a weight. After I finish what I was doing, I simply order the list descending by weight to hack small things down.

    One is my tracker. I keep all of my projects’ base info there. I also have a date-based log keeping method to keep my daily notes about the project. Tracker is designed for a waterfall environment so, at first glance, I can see what the status of project is, how many projects are pending, due dates, why the project is on the hold vice versa.. Tracker also helps me to shove off work’s stress. I always keep my daily notes on projects; what i have done and what i am going to do. This helps me to leave the work on workplace and go home carefree. When I return to dig in the mine again, I can read my notes about the project to continue.

    I give approximately 5 minutes for time management per day and I take back a lot.
    Thanks for the post, Miss Beal.
    Murat

  8. @Ian — I’m sorry you were disappointed with the article. The reason I used the opening quote is to remind the readers that when we see a “bright spot” (something that is working well and we want to do more of) it’s extremely useful to identify a pattern in that bright spot that can be reused in our work and to teach others.

    In this particular post, I am answering a question about how to get things done on time and with top quality in a context of a BA working on multiple projects with aggressive deadlines.

    “The real expert has learned over the years to recognize patterns in business practices, solutions, stakeholder behaviors etc, that far and away allow him to outstrip the less experienced.”

    I completely agree with this statement, and here at Bridging the Gap you will find many articles from experienced BAs about recognizing and applying patterns in business analysis work. This subject was not in scope for this particular article, and I thought the title of the article would have clarified the topic I was going to address.

    Perhaps you will want to write for BTG about your techniques to ask the right questions and quickly recognize patterns in business practices. I’m sure the readers here would be interested in learning them.

    Also, you may want to check the articles in the category below for topics more related to your observations:

    http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/category/business-analyst-knowledge/

    Cheers,

    Adriana

  9. Ian Drake says

    Adriana,

    I read your opening quote and it resonated. I have over 30 years in the industry and I totally agree with the concept, but I was disappointed with the rest of the article. I believe that the true measure of an expert does lie in patterns, but not in “time management” skills.

    The real expert has learned over the years to recognize patterns in business practices, solutions, stakeholder behaviors etc, that far and away allow him to outstrip the less experienced. By recognizing these patterns very early in the analysis process, the expert analyst can quickly drill past the misconceptions and “wish lists” and derive accurate business models upon which true and traceable requirements can be based.

    This is particularly true when faced with an unfamiliar problem domain. People are always amazed when I step into a new industry and start asking the right questions when the less experienced resident analysts keep missing the point. The reality is that analysis skills and business patterns transcend subject areas and recognition of such is your greatest weapon.

  10. @Tom: Oh my! Now I think that goes to far, this “starter kit” stuff. Really, I read one article about GTD once, and it did help me improve my own process, but I do not recommend anyone spending that amount of money and effort trying to learn a system to that extent :-).

    To me, that’s the “Rider” talking (whoever read “Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard” will know what I’m talking about — the rational part on our brains that wants to over-think and over-analyze everything).

    Instead of focusing on fancy tools and systems that will only delay getting returns, I believe it’s much better work on “shaping the path”: removing all barriers to getting things done (a good example from the article: if you want to get yourself to do something, make the alternative to do nothing–and see how fast it gets you out of procrastinating ;-)).

    • Maybe I was reading to fast but what are your calendars again? The one(s) where you block out a couple of hours as “busy” so no one will schedule for those times?

      • Hi, Tom! My apologies for not replying sooner — I received notification by email of your comment, but couldn’t find it here because I was looking at the bottom of the page and it was nested here at the beginning of the comments section.

        Yes, I have two calendars, one for 9-5 (Outlook is the tool we use) and one for my projects outside my day job (Google Calendar). Both are visible for the people who may need to schedule meetings with me. For example, I may block Tuesday 10-11am (a time I have high energy) to work on a requirements specification document, and 4-5pm (a time I’m definitely not capable of focusing too much) to work on administrative tasks. This way I get more control over my schedule, as Outlook automatically suggests different times that are showing as free in my calendar when someone attempts to invite me for a meeting.

        Does that answer your question?

  11. Thank you. Stumbled over the “GTD” system and had started to implement it before I got over-whelmed by a couple of “fires”. Its good to see how it could be applied to a working Business Analyst.

    I can recommend the “starter kit” from https://secure.davidco.com/store/catalog/Audio-CDs-p-1-c-252.php which combines both the book and multiple audio cd-roms that can be listened to in the car/truck/etc as well as some other supporting materials.

    Whatever software you decide to use make sure you only have to capture something once and then that software ships it to any other apps you are using.
    Tom

  12. @Joseph — thank you for the compliment, I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    I’m using the Evernote application too in my Nexus 7 (a tablet that is smaller than the iPad but larger than a smartphone), which I think is great for capturing quotes / bookmarking good articles for future reference. I haven’t tried it for managing to-do lists, but an app I am enjoying for Android mobile devices is the DGT GTD (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.dg.gtd.android.lite&hl=en_) — people who likes the Getting Things Done method should enjoy it. Different than my paper notebook, it allows me to set up alarms to let me know when it’s time to start or end a task, so I may end up finally giving up paper with this new device :-).

  13. Joseph Abraham says

    Hi Adriana,
    Thanks for the awesome article!
    I loved the connection to emotional state you provided in the definition of self-discipline – “the ability to get yourself to take action regardless of your emotional state”. I’m trying to break down my career/personal work in similar to-do lists too – I’m finding the “evernote” application very useful since it lets you manage your to-do lists from multiple applications – web/phone etc.

  14. You are very welcome, Bruce! I think you nailed it when you mentioned being proactive. It’s human nature to pay attention to things when they are already off track, but in order to be truly effective we must take control of our workload, and like you said, plan and prioritize constantly, as well as reassess our system to improve the parts that are not working.

    Thanks for leaving your comment.

  15. Thank you Adriana for sharing your process to thrive and succeed as a BA in multiple projects! I currently work in a sales organization as a pre-sales BA, and I find the best sales representatives are those individuals that are highly structured in terms of the weekly customer visits, and they are also confirming that time spent with prospective customers is done when the customer is ready to listen to a proposed solution. I believe as BAs, we tend to be reactive to our stakeholders, and as you point out – having structure and being proactive in your work moves you to a position of planning and adapting to new opportunities. For sales execs and BAs – planning, prioritizing, and adapting are the keys. Thanks for sharing your info!

  16. Hi, Raghu,

    My first suggestion to you: develop focus. This is not even the right type of article in which to ask for the type of help you are requesting. And really, “freshen me up with how to go about this whole thing” is not really an effective way to ask for help :-).

    My recommendation is for you to start exploring this website, which has amazing resources and advice from very talented and experienced BAs. This page is a good starting point: http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/becoming-a-business-analyst/

    Then, if you come across a specific question about the BA role, I’m sure you will find lots of people in this community willing to offer their help.

    Good luck!

    Adriana

    • hi,
      Thanks and sorry,
      everything seemed new,when i wanted to become a business analyst,my only hope was this wonderful website”bridging-the-gap” which i came across,it’s now instilled in me a lot of confidence and support to move on and learn through experiences of others.

      thank you adriana

  17. Hi ,
    I’ve just graduated from college with a bachelor of engineering in Computer Science Degree, I’ve joined work as a trainee business Analyst in a start-up firm with about 35 employees……..I’m the first BA they’ve roped in to start the BA Division in their company…Kindly freshen me up with how to go about this whole thing……as BA has many flavors I’m a bit awestruck with its diversity…I’ve been told to research on my role for a couple of weeks,Please find time to reply me as I seriously need some guidance…….

    raghu

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