In a world where we’re all trying to do more with less, tips to boost our productivity help us make the most of our workday. But productivity isn’t just about making more widgets or turning out your work product faster. I’m a big fan of Charles Duhigg’s definition of effective productivity: helping people achieve their goals with less waste, anxiety, and stress, and more opportunities to do what they enjoy.
I’ve found a few ways that have helped me work toward that definition of productivity and they might work for you, too!
1. Practice “worst first.”
Sometimes it can be tempting to cross the tiny things off our lists, while staring at that one big to-do—you know, the one that seems to keep rolling over each day on our list. One of the things that has helped me make my days more productive is practicing the motto “worst first.” So, I eyeball my to-do’s for the item I’m most dreading and start there. I also go a step further and tell myself that I’ll only do that thing for 45 minutes, and after that I can take a fun break. After I’ve talked myself into starting the “dreaded” project, I’m usually just fine keeping at it when the 45 minute mark passes because I’m making great progress. The rest of my to-do list seems to pale in comparison!
Another tip: About 90 percent of the time I have a to-do that I am unable to tackle, I ask myself if what is written down is an action item versus an overall project. If it’s the latter, I try to break that big task into smaller actionable chores so I’m less likely to avoid it day after day!
2. Group like-minded items.
There are probably a lot more ways throughout our day that we could group similar tasks to save time! If you’re constantly jumping to different topics, you not only end up taking more time to complete the task at hand, but it’s actually also more work for your brain to switch between dissimilar tasks. Psychology studies have found that each “switch” may only take 1/10th of a second, but if you do it a lot it can add up to a 40% loss in productivity!
So I take a few minutes at the start of the workday to review my day and re-arrange tasks that are similar, matching them with the times of day I know I’m best prepared to tackle those jobs. I’m personally not enough of a morning person to have big phone calls or meetings first thing, so I usually leave those for the afternoon when my eyes are a little foggy from reading the computer and I’m ready to break away and chat!
3. Limit checking email.
You read that right! While this can be a terrifying (and for some us, a seemingly impossible) proposition, it’s what has made the biggest difference in how much work I can get done in a day. Often times we equate manning our inbox with “work” and that’s almost never the case. In my one of favorite productivity books Never Check Your Email in the Morning, Julie Morgenstern explains that if you start your day off responding to emails, you’ll never recover—and end up bouncing from task to task, letting your inbox run your day.
Limiting how much we dip in and out of our emails puts us back in the driver’s seat. So I use a mix of notifications and blocks of time to respond to my inbox. For example, I’m in the office around 8:30 a.m. but commit to not popping open my email until 10 a.m. and respond for about 30 minutes. This gives me a solid chunk of time start in on a bigger project but isn’t so late in the day that people think I’m checked out!
4. Take (productive) breaks.
We all know that taking a break from work refreshes our focus. But you can really up productivity when you focus on taking the right kind of break. In the afternoon, you might be tempted to dart off for a quick coffee break and chat at the water cooler. But, as it turns out, there’s an actual science to taking breaks at work and being more thoughtful about where you structure them in your day. It can improve your productivity rhythms!
For example, the Pomodoro method suggests you work in very concentrated blocks of time—say, 25 minutes straight and focused, then get up and take a five-minute break and walk around. This strategy helps you get rid of distractions and focus more intently. We all know that taking a walk can boost blood flow to our brains so it’s one of the first activities I pick for my breaks, followed by occasional doodling to improve focus and memory, or a quick snack to improve my blood sugar levels. Try it—you’d be surprised what you can acomplish in less than fifteen minutes!
5. Don’t double dip.
We are all guilty of opening and closing the same email multiple times a day or week because we’re just not up for it or have what we need to accomplish the task. This little nibble of time is one of our biggest drains on productivity! It not only takes time out of your day, but when we do it, we’re subtly training our brain to procrastinate and to not trust the evaluation we’re making on a task the first time.
Whenever possible, I do my best to only touch a task once. Sometimes this means I might not open an email or respond to a call right away—especially if I know that I will not be able to complete it in its entirety (but that’s OK)! Time saved on this strategy means that very few things actually take longer than necessary because I’m able to focus on completing something in its entirety.
6. Use technology.
Technology can be a double edged sword—some days, trolling Instagram for the world’s best eyeliner tutorials can take us away from less…er…more important things. When used appropriately, however, productivity boosting apps can help you get your life in gear and utilize the idea of productivity—which gives us more opportunities to do the things we enjoy!
I am a huge fan of apps like Evernote, FocusBooster, and Rescue Time, all of which have added efficiency to my day! Evernote is the master to-do list with endless customization options, and Rescue Time helped me see where I spend most of my time online (and on which specific websites), allowing me to trim down unnecessary web surfing. Focus Booster is an app that helps us with the Pomodoro break method above, reminding us to take a break and counts down the 25-minute work block.