One blessing of 2020 is that we are not starting 2021 with the arrogance of being in-charge of our own lives.

While 2021 has started with fewer conversations about new year resolutions and detoxing, it is filled with more conversations about the unpredictability of life and the pursuit of happiness. Neither of these conversations is complete without lamenting about the lack of time for the important things in life.

The work from home trend that was foisted on us in 2020 brought some promise of returned time, time that we could spend on the things that mattered. But with work-creep, more zoom, the pressure of the green button on corporate messaging platforms and home based school schedules, the promise was short-lived.

The ball is back firmly in your court. You need to manage your time and productivity so you can fulfil your pursuit of happiness. Here are some researched strategies that are emerging in my conversations as an Executive Coach that could be useful in helping you be more productive in 2021.

1. Limit your goals

Research from The 4 Disciples of Execution (Covey, McChesney and Hulin) indicates that after the first 2–3 goals, even goal added reduces the probability of any being achieved. Setting 2–3 goals will likely lead to their achievement, setting 4–10 goals leads to only 1–2 being achieved and setting 11 or more goals will probably end up with you achieving none.

Your goals, however, do not have to operate in the same cycle that the earth follows in going around the sun. Each goal can have its timeline and you can set any number of goals in a year, as long as, you are working on a maximum of 2–3 big goals at any given point of time.

To start off 2021, an important question to ask yourself would be “what did 2020 teach you about how you want to live your life”. Before the ‘everyday’ takes over, bring your focus to the things that genuinely matter and incorporate those into your goal setting.

2. Time box the important tasks

Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, indicates that our natural prioritisation is influenced by urgency as also the perception of urgency. Results over five experiments demonstrated that people tended to complete tasks with deadlines attached to them, over more important tasks without deadlines.

This, unfortunately, means that the important things in life like health, family, personal growth might find themselves eased out of calendars to make space for tasks with specific timelines attached to them.

This paradox is also illustrated in numerous versions of the Jar of Life exercise, which metaphorically brings home the point that we need to time box or calendar in the important tasks first.

Creating a Time box means that we slot in a task and also allocate some distraction free time to it. It creates an illusion of expiration, pushing our brains to get it done. Making it distraction free, ensures that your most important tasks are not left to the mercy of your time scraps.

3. Create distraction free time blocks

In a study conducted by Mark, Gudith and Klocke, they found that it took 25 mins to return to the original tasks after an interruption. Another study by Rubinstien, Meyer and Evans, showed that switching what you’re doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%.

Considering that getting the job done is not a choice, the stress that distractions bring with them is intense. The extra time required is often found by letting go of the important goals, or pushing them to a new tomorrow.

While external distractions like someone stopping by for a ‘do you have a minute’ might seem more obvious, the harder distractions to fight are brought by our own impulse to keep a check on our digital lives.

To create a distraction free block, start by understanding your own body rhythm and span of focus. If you are most productive in the mornings, set aside small blocks of time where you will work without checking your mail, instant messaging or social media. Start with a small stretch on your typical span of focus work your way up from there. Some studies are reporting spans of focus that are as low as a minute, so starting with a 10 minute could be a sound beginning.

4. Know what’s on your plate

We, at Metis, worked with 10 of our Executive Coaching clients to map the all the tasks they had on their plate with an estimate of the time it would take to get it all done. All clients reported that they had underestimated the hours they needed to commit to before undertaking this exercise. In some cases, the underestimation was as high as 20% and in some cases, there were ‘little things’ that added to about 25% of the total time estimate.

If senior executives who are so prudent with their time, treating it as a resource and a reward can underestimate the time they are committing to, by such a large extent, there is a large probability that a lot of us are too.

This exercise is very simple. Just make a list of every single thing that’s in your day. You could work with just your workdays or with all days if you want a full perspective of your life. Add every small task -bathing, grooming, meetings, committees you’re part of, documents you’re supposed to read, the time you’re expected to spend with your team, with clients, summarizing those meetings, everything! Now put a time estimate against each item on your list. Estimate a weekly contribution to tasks that happen monthly and if something happens once a year and is far away, keep it in the list but keep it out of the time estimate.

Knowing what’s on your plate helps you eliminate thankless jobs and also helps you have a more effective conversation when you’re discussing something new with a colleague. You might still take it on despite a heavy plate, but you will be conscious about the effort you can spend on it or the other tasks that might need to give way.

5. Rely on a system

The Global Productivity Management Software Market size is expected to reach $99.2 billion by 2026. At an individual level, a simple search of /productivity’ throws up over 200 apps on the Apple store. Surrounded by technology, we still come across people who swear by the disciple of their paper planners and written to-do lists. The tools at our disposal are immense but they are only tools, at the disposal of our intent.

Find a system that works for you but don’t bother finding the perfect one. The perfect one will come along, all in good time. But for you to know it’s the perfect one, you should have experienced the short fall of the others!

If you’re a creative thinker, you might find yourself making a system of your own or changing the one you use every few months. Whether you’re using one system consistently over years or make one up every few months, as long as you have a system you’re working with consistently for a period of time, it’s ok. The only system that doesn’t seem to work is one that is followed half-heartedly, so when you find a system, commit to it, at least for now.

As you embark on your productivity journey for 2021, remember that 2020 has taught us some lessons about the things that are genuinely important to us, let’s spend 2021 in finding time and focussing on them.