12 Tips for Being More Productive
by Joe Wilkes - May 20, 2014
Who among us doesn’t have trouble getting everything we need to get done actually done in a day? Or a week? Or a month? While it may seem impossible to get through your pages-long to-do list (if you even have a list), there are some steps you can take that can take some of the pain out of getting it all done. Working smarter not harder will help you with being more productive. Here are some tips:
1. Establish a regular sleeping and eating routine. Some people live by “early to bed, early to rise…” while others of us prefer to burn the midnight oil. Whichever camp you fall into, try and establish a routine where you go to bed and get up in the morning at the same time each day. Similarly with eating, some people prefer three big meals, others like to have six small meals. However you do it, try and keep it consistent. You may find a big lunch makes you logy in the afternoon, so it might be better to have a light lunch and an afternoon snack. Fine-tune your eating and sleeping cycles to see what gives you the most and best energy throughout the day.
2. Incorporate a mindfulness exercise into your day. Many people like to start the day off like this but you could do it any time of day it feels right for you. Just a simple 10-minute exercise where you focus on your breathing and try to free your mind of thoughts will help you focus throughout the day. This simple act of meditation will help you begin your day with a clean slate, wiping out the clutter from the day before. If you’re new to meditation, there are many Internet resources and iPhone apps and downloads featuring different guided meditations, music, and just more specific instruction. But don’t be intimidated by the practice. However you do it, you can’t do it wrong.
3. To-dos vs. nice-to-dos. One of the hardest things to do is to figure out how to wrap your arms around the mass of things that need to get done. I keep a two-column list of “to-dos” and “nice-to-dos.” To-dos are the things that absolutely must be done like paying the electric bill, working on an assignment that’s imminently due, or picking up a birthday present or flowers for tomorrow. Anything that is time-sensitive and shouldn’t be procrastinated any more than necessary qualifies as a to-do. The nice-to-dos are things that you’d like to get done in your lifetime but don’t really have any immediacy attached to them. For example, rearranging your closet, seeing that new movie, or learning a new language—things you’d like to do someday, but not necessarily today.
4. Prioritize. Now that you have your big to-do/nice-to-do buckets, you can start prioritizing what you’re going to do today. What on the to-do list has to be done by when and what will have the most impact if it gets done early? And remember the keyword is “today.” If you’re going to do things well, there’s only so much you can do in a day. When you’re choosing your daily to-dos, include the time it will take to complete each item. If it’s going to take more than one day to complete all the items, some items may have to shift to the next day, and phone calls may need to be made so expectations can be managed.
5. Schedule breaks and/or naps into your day. Efficiency experts around the world have seen the benefits of regular breaks or even naps. We’re not talking a four-hour post–Thanksgiving dinner crash, but a short 10- or 15-minute power nap. They’ve been shown to increase focus and productivity and decrease stress and mistakes. When you’re setting up your daily to-do list, pick an activity after which you think you’ll need to take a break. And take it.
6. Schedule exercise. Like breaks and naps, you’ll get the time back you spend on exercising in energy and focus. It doesn’t have to be a full-circuit workout at the gym. Even scheduling a 30-minute brisk walk at some point throughout the day can give you an extra boost that will help you get the items on your list done faster and better. Oh, and you’ll be healthier and live longer too. So there’s that.
7. Unitasking. Unitasking is what you should be doing. Multitasking is what you do when everything hits the fan. When people say they’re a great multitasker, watch out. What they’re really saying is they do a mediocre job on a lot of things at once instead of handling problems sequentially with excellence. The ability to multitask isn’t without value and is sometimes necessary, but the best way to tackle things is to focus on one thing at a time and that focus will help ensure that the thing was done well. Multitaskers usually have to clean up a lot of mess later. Think about a big holiday dinner. The dining room table may look like a beautiful banquet, but trust me no one wants to look at the carnage behind the kitchen door left in the wake of its preparation.
8. Never touch a piece of paper more than once. This is my grandfather’s rule of business and it’s what keeps your inbox from teeming over the edges with memos, bills, notes, and unpaid parking tickets just biding their time until you have that “Oh, sh%$!” moment when you realize you forgot about something important and/or expensive. When you go through your mail, play hot potato with it. Try and dispatch it right then and there so you can put it out of your mind forever.
9. Set a timer for every item. In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey writes some of her best advice from Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” We all strive for perfectionism but sooner or later you have to put your pencil down. When you’re making your to-do list, allot an amount of time to complete each task. Be as generous as you can with each time estimate, but try and stay within the allotted time. You don’t want to be stuck in the office until four in the morning because you wanted everything just so.
10. Time blocking. This is a big one for people with family, roommates or any other vagrants living in their household. If you need undivided attention to complete a task, find the closest thing you can find to a panic room, bar yourself inside, and leave a sign on the door that says something along the lines of “Working. Will be out in 30 minutes. Knock only in case of emergency.” Explain the rules and importance of the sign to them beforehand if possible for maximum comprehension.
11. Turn off your email. If like most of us, you’re working at a computer, you may be easily tempted to check out the latest cat video Aunt Cindy sent, click on the latest news update, or answer a colleague’s question. You can check your email after you’ve completed the task at hand. There should really be nothing in your email box that qualifies as a genuine emergency. True emergencies are usually handled in person, by phone, or by flashing lights, sirens, and ceiling sprinklers. If the sender chose email as their form of communication, it wasn’t an emergency. If it was and they chose email as their notification, the bad’s on them. If you have an inordinate amount of emails to answer every day, you might consider scheduling a time of the day when you answer them. Think of it like when college professors have office hours.
12. Turn off all unnecessary electronics. Your mileage may vary with this one. Some people prefer to work with a little background noise from their TV or iPod. But anything that distracts you is going to add time to your task. For example, as a writer, I don’t listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing so I don’t have competing words in my head. Similar to the email rule, try and stay off your phone. If it’s a family member or someone you care about that might have an actual emergency, you should answer it. If it’s an 800 number or another number you don’t recognize or someone you know is just calling to chat, I’d let it go to voicemail and check it during the email-checking time you set up.
So, if you can set up a routine where you’re not letting other people waste your time and being more productive, you might actually get to the “nice-to-do” list or the holy grail, nothing to do. Then you can waste your own time.