I confess: I can't touch each piece of paper just one time. I can't return every email within 24 hours. I can't maintain a clear desk at all times. I can't go paperless. Nevertheless, I've found some realistic strategies for getting things done that have helped me a lot.
One thing I know about myself is that an accumulation of tiny tasks, even if they aren't particularly irksome in themselves, combine to make me feel overwhelmed and drained. If I can keep little chores from piling up, I feel much more capable of tackling bigger, more difficult tasks.
For that reason, many of my most important daily personal productivity rules are very low-tech and simple - they're aimed to help me accomplish the most basic tasks of my day.
1. Follow the "one-minute rule." I don't postpone any task that can be done in less than one minute. I put away my umbrella; I glance at a letter and toss it; I put the newspapers in the recycling bin; I close the cabinet door. Because the tasks are so quick, it isn't too hard to make myself follow the rule, but it has big results.
2. Observe the "evening tidy-up." I take ten minutes before bed to do simple tidying. Tidying up at night made our mornings more serene and pleasant, because I'm not running to and fro like a headless chicken; and it also helps me prepare me for sleep, because putting things in order is calming, and doing something physical makes me aware of being tired.
3. Do a daily errand, or a bi-weekly errand afternoon. I keep a list of things I need to do (get a prescription filled, buy a new toner cartridge, return library books), and each day, I do one of them. Doing one errand is manageable, and although it doesn't sound like much, it adds up. My mother prefers to spend one afternoon every few weeks running errands--perhaps a more efficient strategy in a place like Kansas City, where she needs to do a lot of driving from place to place, in contrast to New York City, where I usually do my errands while I'm walking someplace. And while I'm running those errands, I...
4. Buy necessary supplies and keep them in order. Nothing annoys me more than spending time vainly searching for some obscure yet important office supply: a jumbo binder clip, an index card, a ruler, double-sided tape. I dislike running errands (therefore, tip #2), but having the right equipment, and keeping it organized enough so I can find what I want, makes a big difference to how much I can get accomplished in a day. Also my level of aggravation.
5. Ask yourself, "Why do I need this?" before you keep anything. I have a friend who filed the stubs from her gas bills for years. "Why do you keep those at all?" I asked, when she was complaining about how far behind she was with her personal paperwork. "My father always told me to keep that kind of thing," she said. That's not a good enough reason!
6. If there's something you don't want to do, prepare all the necessary preliminary steps the night before, and make yourself do it first thing in the morning. For example, I dislike making even the easiest phone calls, so I always steel myself to do those right away. (Check here if you need more tips for making yourself place phone calls you don't want to make.)
7. Be diligent about "unsubscribing." I need to be better at this. We all find our way onto email lists and newsletters of all sorts, and I often let weeks or months go by before taking five seconds to unsubscribe. But it's worth it, to weed out clutter from your in-box.
8. Keep a daily scratch pad. You know those notes you write to yourself--phone numbers, URLs, the "call John Doe" reminders, the quick "don't forget" notes...all those nagging loose ends that clutter the surface of a desk, and then vanish, get thrown away, or can't be deciphered when you're looking for them? Now I keep a scratch pad on my desk, and anytime I have the urge to make a note, I discipline myself to write it there. At the end of the day, I copy anything I need to keep (this is important!), then toss the paper.
9. Remember my Eighth Commandment and "Identify the problem." This sounds so obvious, but it's astonishingly helpful. For example, I like to work in coffee shops, and for years, and I mean years, I spent a lot of time running out of battery power and chasing around looking for someplace to plug in my laptop. Then I asked myself: "What's the problem?" Answer: "I need more battery power." Light dawned. I could buy an extra battery! I did, and it gave me a huge boost in productivity.