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Feeling like a hamster? Five tips to get off the wheel

Productivity expert Kory Kogon says that, for many people, success boils down to feeling at the end of the day, they have made some contribution, professionally and personally. No matter how crazy the day, that serves as a useful measure of whether it was good or bad.

"Sometimes for me, it's just one good e-mail – an e-mail to my team or a client that says the right thing. I planned it and got it out of the door," the Tucson, Ariz.-based leader of the global productivity practice at Franklin Covey Co., said in an interview.

E-mail, of course, has become a symbol of the technology onslaught we are grappling with as we try for the day's successful moments, a burden as well as a benefit. It's also an example of what Ms. Kogon calls the productivity paradox: It's both easier and harder than ever to achieve extraordinary productivity and feel accomplished in our lives.

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The productivity paradox revolves around five challenges outlined in her recent book The Five Choices, written with colleagues Adam Merrill and Leena Rinne. The first is that we are making more decisions than ever – each e-mail, for example, presents a challenge on how to handle it. The second is that our attention is under unprecedented attack. The third is that we are suffering from a personal energy crisis, worn down from those decisions and distractions.

To deal with those challenges, we have to stop acting mindlessly, reacting to the daily barrage, and make some critical choices:

1. Act on the important, don't react to the urgent

Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People presented a matrix based on the importance and the urgency of our tasks. Extraordinary productivity, Ms. Kogon advises, comes from acting on items that are important but not necessarily urgent, quadrant 2 in the schema.

However, most of our time is spent in other quadrants, notably the distracted quadrant of "urgent and not important" – from late assignments to e-mail – and the wasteful quadrant of "not urgent and not important."

It's easy, she notes, to become addicted to the urgent. Instead, you need to decide on everything that comes before you how important it is to you and your boss, and spend your time on the tasks that really matter.

A global study found we spend only about 30 per cent of our time, on average, in that quadrant, with about 40 per cent devoted to the two quadrants of unimportant activities. But after applying her technique, people boosted their time in that key quadrant by up to a third.

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2. Go for extraordinary, don't settle for ordinary

We assume a variety of roles in our lives, from project manager to parent. She recommend making a list of those roles – there are probably 10 to 15 – and then picking four to six in which you want to excel. For each, determine what it takes to be extraordinary – your vision of extraordinary – and how you can achieve it. "You are giving your brain a target – a purpose to follow when going through the day," she says.

These are the important elements of your life, not necessarily urgent, that must be front of mind. Choosing only a few and allowing yourself to underperform in others is an element of balance. As well, she reminds you that these roles will change in importance over time.

"It's not set in concrete. It's dynamic," she says.

3. Schedule the big rocks, not the gravel

Stephen Covey showed how you could accomplish more if you put big rocks in a bottle first and then filled in the spaces with gravel, rather than vice-versa. Ms. Kogon urges you to take time to plan those big rocks – the important, quadrant two elements of your life.

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Before the week starts, spend about 30 minutes thinking of your roles and what needs to be accomplished to be effective in the coming week. Put those big rocks in your calendar, which research shows greatly enhances their chances of getting done. Then each day, perhaps on the way home from work, take 10 minutes to review what has been accomplished and rejig the week's plan where necessary. She calls the approach the 30-10 promise.

4. Rule your technology, don't let it rule you

All the information coming before you fits into four categories – appointments, tasks, contacts, and notes or documents. Select the preferred technology for keeping tabs on each category, preferably in one spot, and sync between your technologies. You don't need all four core elements grouped together in a single planner or software app, as long as you have one system for each.

5. Fuel your fire, don't burn out

Pay attention to five energy drivers – movement during the day, eating, sleeping, relaxing, and connecting with others. She highlights the importance of not confining your exercise to one time slot a day, but ensuring there's movement during the day.

Many of us are focused on time management, convinced it's the key to a less-stressful life. But she says it is broader than that: You must manage your decisions, your attention, and your energy. Her prescription is to find an idea from the interview or book that resonates, apply the practice to your life, and repeat as necessary.

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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