Just saying ‘no’: My No. 1 productivity trick

Delete, unfollow, prioritize. In short, filter what you have to deal with, and deal only with what’s worth doing.

You could circle the world at least dozen times just by stringing together all the words that have been written about productivity.

In particular, managing information overload in a social and new media era is a topic that never ceases to draw the masses. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t see at least a post from someone lamenting how they simply can’t keep up anymore or keep track of what they have to do, or how they’re getting buried in information but not finding anything valuable out there. It happens to the best of us.

There’s a secret to all of this though. Well, a few, but they’re all kind of wrapped up into a single concept: Exercise your filters.

You have the tools available to you, and you don’t even need fancy software. It’s totally fine if you have a few favorite programs to keep you on your game. (I’m an Evernote devotee, for example.) At the most fundamental level, you need to stay focused on filtering information and accepting a few truths. Here’s what I mean.

1. The delete button and its cousins

Your email inbox isn’t nearly as crucial as you think it is. And you shouldn’t be afraid of the delete button (unless you’re in one of those industries that commands that you archive everything, but even then they ought to do that for you enough to get it out of sight).

Every email productivity system in the world—if it’s any good, like Inbox Zero—requires that you get rid of the stuff you don’t need to reference anymore. If you aren’t going to get to it, read it, or reference it later, delete it. If you’re going to do it, either do it now or add it to The List (see below) and archive it. If you need to reference it later, archiving is fine, but be realistic about what you really need. Saving or trying to consume everything “just in case” is simply folly.

2. The unfollow/unfriend/uncircle/unsomething gesture

This social networking stuff? It’s all opt-in. All of it.

I understand that there are causes important enough to you that you want to spend time advocating for (or against) them, or engaging in discussions or even arguments around those things for some greater good. If that’s the case and that’s what you’re doing, you’re probably not complaining about the noise.

And listen, we all kvetch about what’s in our streams. I’ve done it myself. Guilty.

By far the most powerful thing I’ve done to get a handle on it all? Taken the network into my own hands to change what I am willing to consume or tolerate. Too much negativity? Cull the members of the crabby camp. Too much discussion about the social network on the social network? Filter them out, and start your own discussion.

Unhappy about the attention someone gets because you don’t like their approach? Remove them from your field of view, and focus elsewhere. (And, ideally, do it better.) See the pattern here? In large part, you’re responsible for managing what makes it to your eyeballs, and how you counteract what it is you don’t care for. If I contribute to your malaise, please unfollow me, too.

There’s a lot of stuff out there that won’t suit your tastes. That’s OK. But you’ve got only so much energy and attention to burn. Do you want to waste it railing against the things that don’t work, or building and working on the ones that do?

Customize your experience, and home in on the stuff that matters to you. Leave the rest aside. I promise the world won’t collapse under your feet if you don’t follow the famous tech blogger or the big shot marketing author. Afraid you’ll miss something? If it’s really worthwhile, chances are it’ll make its way back to you through other channels.

3. The list

All that stuff you have to do? Some of it is simply more important than the rest. You have either hard deadlines or work that will more substantively move your projects or your business or your personal stuff forward. I guarantee you possess the ability to look at your list and find the five most important things—or six, if you like, or three or four even, but no more than six.

What it’ll take is one big session to sit down and get a handle on it all. A couple of hours, combing through your email inbox or your notebook or whatever to make one big, massive list. How you organize that is up to you. I use a plain ol’ Moleskine notebook and a pen. Use something computer or cloud based if that suits you. But the important factors are to have a list of everything so you know it’s captured, and then be able to pull out the five most important things to create laser focus.

What’s most important for you isn’t the same as for the next guy. Your criteria should be different, because your business and work are different. And I don’t buy that you don’t know what’s important. (After all, what we want to be important and what really is important are often different things, but we usually know what they are.) Even if you get a few of them mixed up, you’ll already be ahead of the game by focusing on any of the more important things.

Review the list daily. Add new stuff to the big list. Strike the stuff that’s done. And find the five or six things every day that absolutely need doing.

The truth

You may not believe me, but I don’t suffer from information overload.

Sometimes I feel like I have too much to do, but the reality is usually that I just don’t have a handle on what needs doing. Once I’m organized, I’m not overwhelmed anymore, no matter how long the list is. My enemy is lack of awareness more than anything else.

I never manage to read all the blogs in my reader, and I haven’t yet suffered a great loss from missing a compelling post. I consume what I can, and leave the rest to Mark All As Read. I focus on the social networks where I’m interested, engaged with interesting people, and where I personally find value and worth. I spend time on Twitter, on Google+, on Facebook (not as much on LinkedIn, just not my personal favorite). I enjoy them all, and have what I consider to be valuable conversations on every single one.

Even though there’s tons of information streaming in all the time, I don’t let it own me. Ever. I spend as much time as I’ve got, but I don’t stress out if I don’t have more. Maybe that’s why I don’t get fatigued or burned out or pay much mind to the “gah, another thing to pay attention to” talk. I just adapt to what works, and jettison what doesn’t.

I have a simple to-do list. I do the stuff on it. I put deadlines first, and mission-critical work next. (My definition of that will vary from yours, so it doesn’t matter what that means to me.) The rest either goes away or gets taken care of when possible. No one dies if I screw up. I clean up the mess and move on.

You control more than you think. The trick is that it takes a spine to look at something and say “no.” To delete the email. To postpone the meeting. To turn down the interview. To click that wicked “unfollow” button.

You’ve got this. I promise. Be ruthless about where you place your attention. You’ll thank me for it.

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