Get more of the right things done with less stress

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Learn three simple things that can have a huge impact on your productivity.

As you rise in your career, you get more to do. You can be busy at work all day long, but that doesn’t mean that you are getting the important things done. How can you make sure to accomplish the right stuff?

My colleague Michael Dolan is a personal productivity expert who has helped hundreds of executives meet intense personal and organizational demands. He worked for five years alongside David Allen, widely considered to be the productivity guru of this era, and has coached hundreds of high-performing leaders using David’s Getting Things Done “GTD®” approach.

In Episode 29 of my Career Stewardship podcast, Michael and I discuss the best practices that have the greatest impact on productivity. If you apply them in a systemic, holistic way, they can change a lot. Here are the highlights:

1. Write Stuff Down

Don’t ever trust yourself to remember what needs to get done. Whenever you notice yourself thinking anything like, “I think I might have to figure out something about that” or “I need to remember to do this,” the first simple step is to write it down so you can collect that thought and free your mind from the cognitive burden of needing to remember. 

This practice not only limits the chance of things falling through the cracks, but it also frees up your mind. We have loads of things roiling about in our psyche. Its function is to be responsible and it wants to do good. So as Michael says, “It ends up reminding us about all the stuff that we need to do when we can’t do it, like at 3:00 am or in the middle of a sensitive conversation with direct report.” 

You can reduce your stress, be more present with the people around you and enjoy more of your life if you make a practice of capturing what’s got your attention somewhere outside of your own head into a trusted, consolidated collection point. It doesn’t matter what you use: an app on your phone, Post-It notes or a notebook. What’s important is that you keep those open loops out of your head.

But that’s just the first step.

2. Clarify Next Actions

The next, and most critical, step is to regularly go through each of those collection points – the email inboxes, notes, etc – and clarify what exactly each one means to you, including naming the next physical, visible action on anything that’s actionable. Michael calls this “clarifying mode.”

This is a practice of slowing down a bit more than we’re used to, looking at all that stuff that’s been collected and deciding what needs to happen. Michael notes that when you’re in clarifying mode, you’re looking at everything that’s in your own inboxes or notes and deciding whether it’s actionable for you. “Lots of times I end up moving tasks over to the Someday list because with everything else going on I realize they aren’t important enough.” 

Separating the act of jotting things down things from clarifying next actions is a key step. Michael describes it as, “Turning random stuff that’s undefined into very clear agreements with myself …  If we don’t make clear agreements, we’re in an uphill battle. Our psyche fills up and we feel stressed out and/or crappy about ourselves.”

Michael also notes that your action list should be full of action verbs. For example, “Call Deidre to ask about birthday presents” rather than “Mom’s birthday.” Turn “Performance Reviews” into “Review John’s last performance review and draft the next one.”  This closes the mental open loop.  When we apply this kind of clarifying to everything on our plate, it frees up our mind, and makes our action lists sing with clarity.

3.Turn Off Notifications

Michael says that the lowest hanging fruit is to turn off as many push notifications on your phone and computer as possible. Do you really need an alert every time a new email comes in? Constant notifications will make you numb to all reminders.

Furthermore, the interruptions come with a cost. Years ago, Microsoft did a study that found when people were interrupted in the workplace, one third of the time they didn’t return to whatever they were working on previously. Imagine what your email and phone notifications are doing to your focus. 

More practical tips for personal productivity 

Over the course of our 20-minute conversation, Michael and I share a range of other productivity tips and best practices, for example:

  • The best way to organize your tasks
  • Closing open loops: what it means and why it’s critical
  • Action lists vs. project lists and how they work together
  • Simple practices to clarify what’s important on your list
  • Negotiating clear agreements with ourselves

Listen now to the full episode: “Your Email Inbox Should Not Be Your To-Do List

About the Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher podcast

This 5-star podcast from career expert, Michael Melcher, will help you figure out what to do to advance your career.

Each episode offers best practices, stories from the field, and bite-sized tips to help build your career success in both the short and long term. 

As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.

Subscribe to Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcast or your favorite platform. You can find additional resources on the show website:

About Michael Dolan

Michael Dolan is a coach at Next Step Partners. Michael helps leaders get out of their own way by enabling them to develop greater self-awareness and to consciously practice more effective behaviors so that they can create a bigger impact and experience greater satisfaction in their work and life.



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