We all struggle to live up to expectations of productivity – both our own and those of society. It seems as though there are always more ways to increase productivity, and at the same time, always more things to do than time to do them.
The little things — like taking care of ourselves or spending time on personal interests — take a back seat, and before we know it we are feeling stressed and dissatisfied, which results in decreased productivity.
Here are a few simple ideas to help you be your most productive without burning out.
1. Batch your emails. Don’t just keep checking throughout the day.
Don’t get buried in emails. They are so frequent and abundant that we can have 100 or more flood our inbox in one day! Each time you check in and out and it can slow down momentum that would’ve likely been better spent on key goals for the days.
Instead, consider “batching” your time spent with emails. As popularized by Tim Ferriss and the Four Hour workweek, batching involves choosing a limited number of specific times in each day that you’ll check (and if necessary, respond) to emails. This prevents you from just randomly checking in. And as you’re batching, take the time to unsubscribe from emails you no longer read.
2. Apply batching to other tasks using the Pomodoro Technique.
This idea of batching, or taking a block of time to deal with email can be applied to other tasks as well. The Pomodoro Technique can help you reorganize your workday into more manageable chunks.
You basically take 25 minutes to work on a task and then take a 5 minute break. It helps you stay focused on what you are doing and also forces you to relax between work batches.
3. Turn off all but the most vital Push notifications.
Beyond important calendar reminders, push notifications on your phone can quickly become pesky distractors if they are constantly going off throughout the day. Take some time to think about what you truly need to be notified about and what things can wait silently until you decide to check on them.
We all want to be notified for things that could require immediate action, but what exactly are those things? Certainly you want your phone to ring in case there is an emergency with a family member for example. But do you really need to be notified for things like social media and emails?
Seriously, how many times have you been in the groove working or thinking and suddenly your phone notifies you that something has happened online. Even if you don’t drop what you are doing to check it, it still takes your attention away from the task at hand. It can take up to 15 minutes to get back fully involved with a task once you’ve been interrupted. Imagine how much time all those minutes would add up to over a day, over a week!
4. Set deadlines that leave 25% extra time for SNAFUs.
Consider setting deadlines for yourself that are actually 25% sooner that the true deadline. For example, this article is due Monday. I am telling myself that it is due on Sunday. I have kids, three jobs and my own interests that I have to juggle. Inevitably, my plans will be interrupted by some unrelated need — a SNAFU (Situation Normal, All F***ed Up).
By telling myself that it is due on Sunday,I leave room for the unexpected, or in my case the expected. Best case scenario, I am done early. Worst case, I finish it on time.
5. Use organization boards to arrange your tasks and projects visually.
More often than that, people use text-based lists (to do lists, checklists) or calendars to keep organized. But when your life and projects get more complex, it’s difficult to keep all of that information organized using only text or calendar format.
If you’ve never tried a more visual format, it can be a game changer. One of the best recent tools is Trello, which allows you to lay out ‘cards’ across the screen in different columns and thus have a more visual presentation to your work than a simple checklist.
6. Know (and stick to) your work style.
Are you better at focusing on one task through to completion or working on multiple tasks in spurts? I know that I work best in short bursts of rapid, focused activity. So, I like to have multiple projects in the works. That way I can work on each one in short bursts and get a whole days work done. If I only have one project, I will only work on it in a few short periods, and not get as much accomplished as I could.
On the flip side, if you are focused for long periods, you may prefer to have one thing to work on at a time. If you do have multiple things to do, consider pretending that you only have one. Put all your effort into it until you are done and then select another task to be the ‘one’.
7. Set concrete goals for each day.
Besides your medium and long term goals, set daily goals. There is an old saying that you should ‘plan your work and work your plan’. Make to do lists for the day as well as longer term to do lists to help you stay on track. Crossing each item off when completed also gives you a sense of accomplishment, and force you to reexamine items that keep getting pushed to the bottom of the list. Are they really necessary?
8. Don’t simply “look for things to do” when you’ve completed your tasks.
Next, use time off to take care of YOU. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you always have to be doing something active to increase your productivity. Some of the same things that will help keep you from burning out will also help you be your most productive.
9. Quiet your mind.
Our minds are constantly bombarded with information and stimuli. We need time to think and process it all.
Meditation is a fundamental practice to help you quiet your thoughts. It is time dedicated to breathing and relaxing which can help us feel less stressed. There are some nice apps that can help you with guided meditation like Headspace or Insight Timer. You can use guided meditations for sleep, relaxing or stress relief.
10. Don’t sacrifice sleep.
The average adult needs between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night. It is essential for us to function at our best, yet it is the most common thing people skimp on in order to have more time. While it is true that we have an hour or two more to be awake and work on tasks if we skip some sleep, what is the true cost?
When we sleep, we not only recharge our body and mind, we also solidify important neural connections regarding things we’ve learned the day prior. It is essential for learning and memory and if we don’t get enough we can’t function at our best. Lack of sleep can cause problems with our judgement, mood and motivation which are all things that can result in reduced productivity.
11. Feed your brain.
Just as you would not expect your car to run well on bad gasoline, you can’t expect to be your most productive if you don’t fuel your brain. Our brains use around 20% of all the calories we consume. That’s why we are all so hungry even if we sit at a computer all day long! Some great brain foods to snack on are things like blueberries, nuts, and pumpkin seeds.
12. Take a hike!
So much of our work is done sitting at a desk these days that we just don’t get the opportunity to move around as much as older generations. It’s hard to want to exercise after sitting at work all day, but our bodies need to move. Get up every hour and stretch a little bit, or take your morning and afternoon breaks at work by walking around the parking lot.
Physical activity releases endorphins in the brain which help alleviate pain and reduce stress. It also causes dopamine and serotonin to be released which can boost your overall mood and sense of well-being.