The first five steps for personal efficiency

Over the past years I have been working step by step on my personal efficiency, towards having better control over my activities, better order in my life and to feel calmer and less stressed.

My road really started when I almost experienced a burnout out a couple of years ago. Working too hard and too much, wanting to achieve more than was humanly possible within a certain time frame, I would completely ignore things like health, mental balance, bills, love and other things I felt was irrelevant to what I was passionate about.

I recovered from that and in the process got more aware about what I really wanted to do. And I found new avenues to live my passion, such as AIESEC, and once again I found myself with a huge workload. However, this time I had some experience and also a support network of growth minded individuals who could give me the push and guide on how to handle my passion sustainably this time.


What I have realized is that the first steps to focus on when you’re an ambitious, passionate person with high goals is to get your personal efficiency under control. Otherwise you’ll just constantly find your energy and time stolen (and time can never be regained – it’s lost forever!) by an overwhelming workload. So, where to start on that? Well I’d like to share a couple of steps I’ve taken to get in control:

  • Identify all your INBOXes – where does things come into your life?
    You really need to start identifying the sources of actions, material . This is almost certainly your e-mail, your voicemail, your notebook, mail coming to your home and work. It can also be downloaded files (I store them in a folder on my computer), SMS, Facebook – anything!

  • Combine & Collect
    Combine all the inboxes you can. Use technology! You can use your Gmail for all your mail inboxes, get your voicemail forwarded to your e-mail and so on. Get a physical inbox for paper (they’re €2 at your local store). Put all online files you download in one folder until you have time to decide where to store them. The important part is just making sure EVERYTHING comes into a specified place.

  • Get a task manager
    You need to have a central place to store all your tasks. This can be a notebook, an online tool or a software. I’d recommend getting started with something like Gmail’s tasks or Outlook’s task manager. Pick something simple and practical that you don’t have to learn and that fits you. If you change in the future that’s fine, just find something that works now.

  • Process regularly – but not every 5 minutes
    Checking your e-mail or Facebook every 5 minutes is probably the biggest time waster. Want to know how much? Run RescueTime for a week and you’ll see the scary truth. First step, turn off auto-notifiers on your computer. If it’s really urgent, people will call you. Second step, decide for each inbox how often you will check it (three times per day, once per day, once per week and so on).

  • Always empty
    Once you got this far, make sure you always empty any inbox you process. This means that your e-mail should be empty three times per day if that’s how often you check it. Don’t keep e-mail as task reminders – that’s what your task manager is for.

    If the e-mail means you need to perform some task – then put it in the task manager or if it’s a short one just do it immediately. If not, then archive it if you need to find it later or delete it. Take this same type of decision for every SMS, every e-mail, every voicemail, every Facebook poke.

Getting these things in place will probably take you a good 2-3 months, but once you do, you’ll be happy you invested the time. Give it time, and stick with it and share your challenges!

For those who wants to dig deeper, this is mostly based on Getting Things Done and other great sources such as the blogs Zenhabits and 9rules productivity blogroll – so if this makes sense to you those are good places to start.

Also, I have written previously about making peace with your e-mail. Today I don’t work quite like this, I’ve removed all labels and I use a separate task manager – so I don’t do step 6 any more. Instead I have a separate task manager (and Gmail has it now too) for handling tasks that arise from my mail.

Photo by Morton Fox.

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