I’m slightly obsessed with any list that will tell me how to increase my productivity. I don’t think anyone would argue that I’m not a hard worker, but I will also freely admit that I’m a terrible procrastinator. In order for me to get anything done, I need a deadline, and it’s usually better if someone else assigns it and/or is dependent on me to finish the required task, because I never want to let a coworker down.
I’m also not consistent with my productivity. Some days, I just kill it, and there’s very little that doesn’t get crossed off my to-do list. Other days, it’s like pulling teeth to get anything done. I’ve scheduled too many meetings, or I get sucked into doing research, or I’m battling bad writer’s block — and I put off a story by spending the day answering emails. But every Monday, without fail, I think, This will be the week I am finally totally productive and will burn through my to-do list like a champion. And, inevitably, every Friday, I’m telling my husband how I need to put in a few hours of work over the weekend to catch up. Needless to say, it was a little daunting compiling a list of productivity hacks, because I am not an expert on this. I am a believer, though, and hopefully that’s enough. There are a few things I know I will never do, no matter how productive they might make me. I will not plan a week’s worth of meals in advance. I will not whittle down my wardrobe to just a few uniform pieces I wear every day. I can’t check my email only once a day, and I think the idea of speed-reading is just silly. And I’m reluctant to tell anyone to "plan for Monday on Sunday night." I’m pretty open about my workaholic tendencies, but there needs to be some time when I’m not focused on my to-do list. For me, that’s Sunday evenings, which are reserved for hanging out with my husband and trying not to obsess about everything that needs to get done come Monday morning. I think the biggest thing is to pick and choose from this list what works best for you — and then get consistent about sticking to those habits. Everyone’s workplace is different, so what works for me might not work for you. And don’t kill yourself if you have a less-than-productive day. It took me three tries just to get started on this story, and I might not have gotten it done if it weren’t for the looming deadline. When I did finally sit down to write, I utilized many of these tricks to help me get it done. And, voilà! It wasn’t easy, but it did reaffirm that I can be productive when I set my mind to it. I'm still working on the procrastinator problem, though. Baby steps.
Multitasking used to be one of those corporate buzzwords that you would throw out during interviews. "What’s your strength?" "I’m a multitasking son-of-a-gun!" Really, multitasking is a terrible idea, and no one is good at it. You can really only do one thing at a time
well (just think how hard it is to pat your head and rub your stomach), and in order to be truly effective and productive, you need to focus on the task at hand. This can be crazy-difficult considering how much there is to be done in a day. My mind is always firing on all cylinders, with a never-ending stream of tasks and ideas running through my head. It’s hard to sit still and write when there’s a constant flow of emails filling my inbox or Gchats from coworkers. How many of you start drafting an email only to be distracted by something else on your to-do list — or worse, the realization you forgot to complete something that’s super important? And when you’re trying to answer emails while paying attention in a meeting, things get even worse. So just stop. Pick one thing. Do it well. Cross it off your list. Move onto the next thing. And speaking of to-do lists…
You need a to-do list. It’s that simple. Where and how you keep one is entirely up to you. I’ve tried every to-do app imaginable, yet I always come back to my
Moleskine notebook. I like writing down the list, and I enjoy the act of crossing things off. There are a lot of fancy digital options, though, that are worth trying: Wunderlist, Any.do, and TeuxDeux are just three great examples. Many productive people recommend writing down your to-do list before you check your email and get caught up with all your daily tasks. Some people recommend you don’t add to the list after you start your work day. I feel a bit mixed about both of these suggestions. For one, I usually check my email before I even get out of bed in the morning. And often, I use my to-do list as a reminder of EVERYTHING I need to do, not just what I need to complete each day. If I don’t write it down, I’ll just forget it entirely. Sometimes, the to-dos come up as the day goes on, and it’s super important I finish the task before I walk out the door, so I’ll add it to the list. (And, if we’re being honest here, sometimes I’ll write down something I’ve already completed just to enjoy the satisfaction of crossing it off the list.) I think the most important thing is just to have the list. Start there. Then, if you want to get fancier, you can try setting aside time to creating the list. And if you’re really a high-level productive person, you can get into numbering your tasks by order of importance. But, for me, I’m just going to stick with an old-fashioned, hand-written list, in no particular order...that sometimes stretches onto a second page.
There are two reasons I’ve found this to be one of the most effective ways to make sure I get work done. One: When you block out time on your Google calendar, well-meaning people can’t just go in and schedule a meeting with you. And two: When I set aside that time, it’s like I’m giving myself mental permission to step away from other tasks (checking email, for example), so I can completely focus on the to-do at hand. Giving yourself 90 minutes or two hours to completely focus on a project will make things go much quicker than if you’re stopping and starting again and again.
Did you schedule that block of work time on your calendar only to find that you break every few minutes to check Facebook or Twitter or your email? While you can read about productivity hacks all you want, if you don’t actually make an effort to curb the bad habits, you won’t really get anywhere.
In the middle of writing this paragraph, I reached over to my mouse so I could change tabs and check Facebook. TOTAL FAIL. That’s where the Self-Control App comes in. Download this app to your computer, add the websites you find most distracting to your blacklist, set a timer, and you’re set. You won’t be able to access those websites until the time runs out. The Self-Control App works even if you restart your computer or try to delete the app. This is perfect for those of us who get easily distracted, but you also have to make sure you remove other distractions as well. Such as…
Your phone. While writing this, my phone is tucked in my coat pocket, but most days I keep it in front of me on my desk. I get a dozen push notifications throughout the day, and whenever my phone buzzes, I always look, thus breaking my concentration. So just put it out of sight. Do you really need to be looking at it every five minutes? (Chances are, no.) Keeping it tucked away is especially important if you are trying out the next hack.
Merlin Mann at
43Folders shared this hack way back in 2005, before we were all dedicated to our smartphones and a whole host of fancy productivity apps. Here’s the gist: Get a kitchen timer (or, okay, your iPhone or a timer app on your desktop) and set it for 10 minutes. Work on a single task without stopping. When the buzzer dings, take a two-minute break to do whatever you want. Stand up, stretch, check Facebook, go to the bathroom. When two minutes is up, set the timer for another 10 minutes and start on the next task on your list. Repeat this five times for a total of one hour of work. The idea is that eventually you’ll get so engrossed in something, you won’t want to take a break. This is an ideal trick for tackling those long to-do lists filled with several short tasks that can be tackled in short increments. I wouldn’t really recommend it if you’re writing something, but for other to-dos (answering emails, filling out forms, etc.), it can be a killer way to plow through a bunch in a relatively short amount of time.
The most productive person of all time still takes breaks (well, maybe not Elizabeth Holmes, but we’re not all billionaire geniuses). While the regimented (10+2)*5 rule is great, when you're working on projects that take more time and concentration, it's still important to add a break into your schedule. This is
proven to improve your concentration as well as make you more productive in the long run. Plus, there’s something about pausing to chat with a coworker or read Facebook The New York Times that helps spur creativity.
Even when you like your job, there will inevitably be some tasks on your to-do list that you hate doing — I can think of more than a few that plague me daily. And as I mentioned, I’m a master procrastinator. When I don’t want to write a story or draft an email, I will tackle other items on my to-do list instead. As a result, certain tasks never seem to get done. This rule suggests that no task is that bad if you just do it for two minutes. And once you get through those first two minutes, it’s not a big deal to just finish the task, no matter how many minutes it takes.
Setting a stopwatch is a great way to get started. This website also has a timer that can be helpful when you’re using the (10+2)*5 rule (see tip #6).
I know, I know. Everyone hates being told to exercise, but it is included on every productivity list ever written. I like to squeeze in my workout first thing in the morning, and while I’m not exercising five days a week (ha!), I do find the mornings I go for a run are some of my best days at the office.
There are scientific studies to back that up. The on all the various ways that exercise can benefit you at work, including increased creativity and improved concentration. So lace up those sneakers and get out there. Your to-do list will thank you.
Harvard Business Review touches
There are few things better than crossing a big, stressful task off your to-do list. And there’s nothing easier than putting off those hard projects. So it makes sense that you would avoid them until the last minute. Not all days are structured so you “
eat the frog” first thing in the morning, but if you can rearrange your day (and schedule time on your calendar), it is best to tackle those awful projects first thing. Write that stressful email. Analyze that complicated data. Whatever it is, put your head down and plow through. And when it’s over…
At my first job, my boss gave me the particularly terrible task of compiling photo credits for a book project that contained more than 300 photos. It took hours to complete, but when it was over, he took me for a milkshake as a thank-you. For some reason, that memory always stands out. The photo credits were certainly my “frog,” and treating someone to a milkshake isn’t a particularly costly reward, but it made it all seem more manageable. Now, on those days I know I have a big project that’s going to be a pain, I schedule in a few breaks (see tip #7) and a big reward for finishing. Perhaps more important, if I ask someone to do a particularly onerous task, I will always make sure to buy them a milkshake (or a fancy coffee drink or lunch or whatever) as a thank-you.
There have been
studies that suggest a messy desk is the sign of a creative mind. And most of the time, mine is pretty cluttered with books and papers and coffee cups. Usually it doesn’t bother me — except on days when work is particularly tough or my brain feels more cluttered than usual. Then, I find it really helpful to pause and reorganize my desk, throw away the papers, shelve the books, and clear away the mess. Once I have everything in order, I feel calmer about tackling the to-do list that was plaguing me earlier.
As I mentioned, I’m good at hitting deadlines when I feel like someone else is depending on me — not so much when there’s no one to hold me accountable. It can be beautiful when you reach that point in your career when you have enough autonomy that people just assume you’ll get your work done, but for the procrastinators of the world, it can also be too much freedom. When you tell other people your goals, it adds a level of expectation. It’s not just you who wants to get the task accomplished; there’s another person (or people) who want to know your progress and can check in to make sure you’re getting it done.
Also, there’s something huge about saying a goal (especially a big one) out loud that makes it seem more real. For pie-in-the-sky projects that you hope to accomplish, sharing the idea with a friend or coworker can make the idea feel more concrete and can encourage you to actually go out and do it.
There are days when small, annoying tasks seem to eat me alive. I’ll start on one and get distracted by another, and by the end of the day, I realize I got seemingly nothing done. By batching similar tasks, you can truly focus and blow through a number of items on your to-do list at a smart clip. Use the (10+2)*5 rule (see #6) to help the process, and you’ll be a productivity goddess.
I played around with this idea over a few days, and I couldn’t really get it to stick. I used a time-tracking program called
Toggl, but was put off that I had to “name” the project (erm, editing?) and couldn’t pause my work to break and return to it later. I spend a lot of time on tasks that can seem never-ending (research, for example), and sometimes, I’ll start working on something only to look up 90 minutes later and wonder where the time went. In that regard, it was helpful to see how much time went towards accomplishing these to-dos — but it didn’t really help me become more productive. It could be helpful for others, though, which is why I’m including it here.
This is my number-one problem. I want to do everything, and meet everyone, and write all the stories. Most of the time, the only thing holding me back is that I don’t have enough time. And that stresses me out, and I worry I’m not giving enough time to the important stuff, and I fall down an anxiety spiral. I know I’m not alone.
Learning to say no might be as important as saying yes. Being choosy is vital when you want to be productive. And yes, it sucks to say no; it's not fun to turn people down, and who doesn’t suffer from a little FOMO? Thankfully, I have a few people at work who are constantly pushing me to be choosier, reminding me that I don’t have to do it all. If you suffer from the same overcommitment problem, I highly recommend you find someone to help you become a more discerning doer.
At the end of the day on Fridays, I usually come up with two to-do lists: stuff that needs to get done over the weekend (usually editing and writing, sometimes some email maintenance) and the stuff that needs attention first thing on Monday. Taking those few minutes to evaluate the week and get a clear picture of what you did and did not accomplish in the previous week can leave you feeling more comfortable going into the weekend, and will definitely make Monday less of a slog.
While it’s easy to just cover the basics on your to-do list, that can also make those bigger tasks seem insurmountable. Writing 28 entries for this story was tough; there are a lot of other to-dos involved (research, working with design to create art, actually building the post). Adding “Write Productivity Story” on my to-do list doesn’t mean much. Breaking the story into more manageable pieces allows me to tackle it bit by bit without feeling like I’m not getting anything done. It’s an easy hack that makes a big difference for those of us who get overwhelmed by big projects.
This Google trick is essential if there are certain phrases you type over and over again. This year, as I transitioned from an entertainment editor to the work and money editor, I’ve typed countless messages informing publicists that I have a new title and they have a new contact. When I figured out how to use a
Google canned response, it was such a relief, saving me minutes each day. That might not seem like much, but when you’re sorting through hundreds of emails a day and answering 50 to 100 of them at a minumum, it can really add up to big-time savings.
I’m not sure how I discovered
Pocket, but it’s been a total game-changer. It saves articles you find online to an app on your phone that you can access even when you don’t have an Internet connection. I come across dozens of great articles every day — there’s no way I can read them all. Being able to stash them in my Pocket app prevents me from getting distracted — and from having 50 tabs open at once (though that still happens). Unfortunately, there needs to be a whole other story about how to declutter your Pocket app, because I really do save everything, and I don’t always get a chance to read it all.
This has truly been a lifesaver for me. There’s lots of corporate-speak out there right now about “makers” and how you need to give these people plenty of time to actually make stuff. As a writer and editor, I need long stretches of uninterrupted time to actually produce content, and honestly, it’s hard to find those hours at work, which is why I end up doing a lot of writing and editing super-early in the morning or on weekends. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustration — plenty of other jobs fall under the "maker" category: designers, copywriters, developers, etc. But even if you’re not a maker, everyone requires stretches of time when they can simply get shit done — which is where grouping meetings comes in handy.
I like to have at least one day a week with no meetings, and on the days I do have meetings, I try to schedule them so there’s no more than 30 minutes between each one — and there’s a chunk of time at either the beginning or end of the day when I have nothing to do. It doesn’t always work, because I don’t have that much control over my schedule, but for the meetings I do set up, this is a handy trick.
My morning and evening subway rides are essential to my productivity (you'll rarely hear me complain about my commute). In the mornings, I use that time to check email and catch up on newsletters. In the evenings, I read a book or get through a few saved articles in my Pocket app. Usually, I get about 30 minutes of uninterrupted “me” time, and it’s the perfect chance to get a few extra things done. Granted, sometimes I like to just zone out (no music) and think. I’ve come up with some great ideas on those quiet rides.
It pains me to suggest that reading Refinery29 might be a big time-waster, but when you really need to focus, there’s no greater distraction than the internet. If you find the Self-Control app (see tip #4) doesn’t work, the best thing is just to unplug from the Internet altogether. This isn’t something most people can do every day, so save it for those rare times when you’ve got a really big project due that requires hours of careful concentration.
If you don’t think you have the willpower to simply disconnect, then go somewhere that has limited internet access — a library or coffee shop, for instance, where you need log-in info (or you have to pay). Sometimes, just needing to take that extra step will keep you on the straight-and-narrow.
We’ve written a few
articles about the power of music to help with productivity — and there’s scientific evidence to back that up. In open offices, music can be essential to getting stuff done; your coworkers aren’t necessarily on the same productivity schedule as you. Put on your headphones, and most people know not to interrupt you. My favorite is by Doves. For years, that’s been my go-to (I’m listening to it right now), and there’s something about playing it on repeat that helps me tune out the world around me and churn through whatever task is at hand.
This is both a good idea and a terrible one, but that might just be because I’m the queen of productive procrastinating. When I’m putting off writing a story, I will tell myself it’s because I need to focus on answering emails or doing some other annoying admin task. Then a whole day will go by, and my inbox will be zero, while the important task will still be staring back at me from my to-do list.
At least my inbox is zero? That’s what productivity experts argue, so I’ll include it on this list. Be careful not to use this as a crutch, though; it can also be a good way to ease into a busy day when you’re not ready to “eat the frog” first thing.
Most nights, I just kind of give up and go home with the thought that the work will still be there tomorrow. (It always is!) Taking a few minutes to review what’s still on your to-do list, though, can help you begin to think about how you can prioritize for the next day. Is there something that didn’t get done that you can hand off to someone else? Is there a to-do that simply can’t wait that you might have forgotten about? Giving yourself 10 minutes to review will give you some clarity on your day and help you prepare for the next.
As I said in the intro, I love deadlines, and I’m pretty terrible getting stuff done without them. With the influx of project management programs like
Asana or Trello, it’s easier than ever to give yourself a deadline, even if it’s self-assigned. I find sticking to these self-assigned deadlines to be tricky, which is why tip #13 (Tell People Your Goals) is particularly important. But the one-two punch of deadlines and having other people hold you accountable makes it more likely you’ll get shit done.
I have a terrible perfection problem I’ve been battling for years, and it can often hold me back from accomplishing big projects. Usually, it’s a bigger problem at home than at work. I don’t want to clean out my closet unless I can do the whole thing, down to the last bobby pin. But there’s rarely ever enough time to do any project as well as we want to. Sometimes, you just have to let it go and get to “good enough.” And, oof, that can be hard for the strivers out there who want it perfect. There’s a satisfaction in just getting it done and doing the best you can in the time allotted, though. And "done" is better than "perfect and unfinished" for sure.