Few things feel as good as a truly productive day. You start off knowing what you want to accomplish. You focus on and finish each task in succession without racing through. You go home with almost everything crossed off your list -- and a clear plan of how your tomorrow will look.
If you're like most entrepreneurs, though, those days are far less frequent than you'd like. Many business owners begin the week with good intentions, then fall into a pattern of slipping behind. Soon, they're ending every day feeling even more overwhelmed than the last. The outcome generally involves too much stress on the individual and unnecessary strain on the business, too.
My career as a tech founder followed my experience in the science field and on Wall Street. I've seen a lot of different working styles and even more productivity traps. But nearly all the pitfalls stem from one cause: People ignore how they work best.
Develop self-awareness in your work
Productivity doesn’t look the same for everyone. Did you notice how this article's overview of a productive day didn’t define a set framework? Self awareness is the key when it comes to actually getting stuff done. Develop that, and you can use it to create a blueprint to structure your day.
To cultivate this kind of self awareness, start by taking a hard look at the behavior patterns that motivate you as well as the ones holding you back. Are you really good at digging into deep work in the afternoon? Or are you all about checking off small items as soon as you get in? Knowing when you naturally tackle different types of projects will enable you to prioritize tasks and plan your day in a way that drives you to produce your best work.
This is a far better tactic than simply wishing you could be the type of person who thinks creatively first thing in the morning. Look not only at the when, but the how behind your work. Do you need to put all notifications on do not disturb? Do you have set times when you need to take breaks? As an entrepreneur, you aren’t going to have the same built-in structure that might otherwise plan your day. It's up to you to identify the right structures, put them into place and communicate them to others.
Here's one trick I learned from Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase: At the end of every day, I review two lists. One list describes what I owe to people. The other describes what others owe me. It holds me accountable to team members, partners and clients -- and vice versa. I also keep a Trello board of tasks segmented by urgency and category. It can be easy to get caught up in responding to all the phone messages, emails and project updates, so I make it a point to block out at least two hours of deep work time every day. I invest that time in activities that drive the business forward.
Set the right goals
The next step in turning productivity into a sustainable habit is to set daily goals that take advantage of how you work best. (Don’t worry; this isn’t another article touting SMART goal-setting.) When you're planning what you need to get done, consider just these three things: Aim for a target you can hit, create a timeline, and build in accountability checks.
1. Aim for a target you can hit. It's extremely counterproductive (and damaging) to set unrealistic expectations and then fail to attain them, day after day. For years, I went through the same motions: I’d make my to-do lists too long and ambitious for a single day. Rather than tackling what I could accomplish, I ended up spending valuable time stressing about all the things I never got around to doing. I broke the cycle only when I focused on what was realistic and put my efficiency first.
2. Create a timeline. Even an achievable list can seem daunting when it contains so many possible start points. Eliminate the decision paralysis: Schedule beforehand when you'll tackle each task. Use your newfound self-knowledge to identify which times of day you're most effective. Plot breaks as needed and communicate your plan to your team. Going into deep work in the morning? Let your staff members know and turn off those Slack notifications. Making yourself available when you're at your best is better for everyone anyway.
3. Build in accountability checks. Check in with yourself throughout the day to take stock of what’s working and what’s not. Be ruthlessly honest. This check-in process also should take place at the end of every month and quarter to measure your longer-term goals, both personal and professional. You need to make sure you're headed in the right direction.
Even the most disciplined entrepreneur can benefit from an occasional external gut-check. Think about colleagues and peers you confide in, and how well they know your goals and challenges. They can be be a source of "real talk" when you need it. For larger goals, it can be particularly helpful to find an accountability partner who is separate from your business. This might be a friend, a coach, a sibling, a partner or even a parent who can help hold you to the goals you set.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.