It goes without saying that the holidays are a precarious time for productivity. Between the sugar highs and lows, the lure of online shopping, and the demands of your social calendar, it’s easy to let your performance slip in the last few weeks of the year.
Even for those who don't celebrate Christmas, the season is rife with distractions in and outside work, where everyone is twice as busy and half as focused. And if you're fortunate enough to have some time off during the holidays, it's easy to fall prey to the fantasy that you'll make up lost ground then. Here are a few things you can do in November to stay on track in December and January.
1. FOCUS NOW ON WHAT WILL BECOME ESSENTIAL SOON
If your plate is brimming over now, trying to look ahead is no easy task. So within the next week, schedule some time—even if it's just a half hour—to go through your calendar and identify the most important milestones, projects, and outcomes you need to achieve between now and January 1.
Then start prioritizing accordingly. If you're a manager, communicate those goals to your team, too. You can also try the same approach in your personal life. If you have gifts to buy and parties to attend, map that all out early. Which ones are truly essential? Just because you were invited doesn’t mean you need to say yes.
See if you can carry this habit with you into the New Year. At least once a quarter, assess the urgency of your current projects and decide which ones are most mission-critical. Even when you are this disciplined, it’s easy for the urgent to take over, while the important, longer-term tasks linger on the sidelines. So challenge your team to get one or two of the most critical efforts wrapped up by mid-December. If you can turn a productivity slump into a spike—all with just a little planning—you'll feel great heading into the holidays.
2. LOOK BACK AND AHEAD
Take some time to reflect: What have you accomplished professionally over the course of the past year? Which achievements were thanks to your own efforts and which were collaborative? Take a moment to celebrate your team’s wins over the previous 12 months. A little well-deserved good feeling can help boost everyone's momentum for a final, end-of-year push and help you get the New Year off to a great start.
Use the time to look ahead, too. Make a collective commitment to working smarter and using each other’s time well in 2016, and base your goals on the achievements you've just celebrated. Then get practical and start scraping away the past year's barnacles. See what recurring meetings you can cut from your calendar and how other tweaks to your working methods might give everyone a fresh start in the new year.
3. FOCUS ON QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY
The sheer volume of things that require your attention in the race towards the holiday season can be overwhelming. For most people, the time squeeze is more acute than usual. Rather than work longer, which is nearly impossible, focus on working smarter.
One way to do this is to identify the outcomes you want to achieve, then work backwards. Don't just have that all-hands meeting on Thursday because that's what you do on Thursdays. What do you need to communicate this week? As soon as you assemble your team, state up front, "By the end of this meeting we will have________." Fill an action item in the blank, and focus the discussion around the steps every team member needs to take to accomplish it. Then tie those objectives to reasonable deadlines that everyone can focus on until the next time you meet.
One of the ways that most of us inadvertently waste time is letting follow-up actions slide. They're usually small, quick, and easy to miss, but a dropped ball can hold up a entire project for everyone. During this time of year, it’s crucial to be relentless about follow-ups in the face of heavy distractions. Take a few minutes at the end of each meeting to recap, then cement them with a quick email, and you'll have dramatically lessoned the odds of anyone on your team dropping the ball at a crucial moment.
Don’t make a tradeoff between enjoying the holiday season and keeping productive. With some discipline and a sense of purpose, your sprint to the year-end finish won't be half as exhausting as it's been in the past.
Renee Cullinan and Shani Harmon cofounded Stop Meeting Like This to address the alarming misuse of time and energy in the workplace, particularly in meetings. They have each spent over 10 years as organizational effectiveness consultants to Global 500 corporations.