I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You’ll see plenty of people online telling you the best way to do one very specific thing, but that’s losing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter if you want to be more productive at work or at home. Whether you need career advice to launch a side business or get that promotion at work, the methods are the same. Learning how to be more productive isn’t hard, but it does require you to think differently about your to-do list.
Little changes in your work habits can lead to big results. But it is going to take time. Like anything else, the way we work becomes habit. All of these methods to boost productivity work for myself and countless others, but you’re not going to perfect them all at once. Start small. You’ll probably find that your ability to adopt new habits accelerates after the first few.
Where should you start? Pick one and work on it this week. I suggest starting from the top. Remember that this is a process. Every worker faces distraction, and that won’t change. Some days you’ll be more productive than others. That’s OK. Focus on the big picture and remember to recognize how much progress you have made instead of getting bogged down in the days that are more difficult.
Understanding what being productive means
Before you launch into the list, I need to make one thing crystal clear. After all, we’re no BS here. You cannot go into this list thinking I’m going to simply help you check more things off of your to-do list. In fact, I might even tell you to throw out that list (more on that later).
Part of the problem with trying to boost productivity is that people end up just spinning their wheels. Sure, you might check more things off your to-do list, but it’s easy to find that the extra work isn’t getting you much closer to your goals. When I talk about how to be more productive, I mean how to be more efficient. To get the biggest bang for your buck, work-wise. And, yes, in some cases it might actually mean doing less to accomplish more.
Just think of it: You’ll move closer to your goals and maybe even have more time to relax. (Or play with your kids, or see that movie you’ve been waiting to catch.) It doesn’t take long to see that grinding through more work just isn’t the right answer. So let’s get you out of that hamster cage together, shall we?
How to be more productive
Although I suggest starting with the first point, the rest is up to you. Some of these suggestions will be easier to adopt than others. Tackle what you can, when you can. Just try to take constant steps forward.
1. Write down your 5 biggest priorities, then remove 2
Yes, really. You want to know how to be more productive? The biggest change you can make is reframing how you think about getting work done. You can actually do less and accomplish more as long as the things you’re doing are the most important tasks. Start thinking about your priorities in terms of results. If you need to get 5 things done today, which ones will get you the biggest results for your time? Everyone’s to-do list has some tasks that are essentially busy work. Take a good, hard look at your list, find those tasks, and push them to the back burner.
2. Use the “eat the frog” technique
Stick with me, I know that sounds weird. This idea comes from a quote from Mark Twain, who once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Look closely and you’ll see that Twain’s talking about procrastination, which we all know kills productivity. But his saying is also about prioritization. Essentially, do the hardest things on your to-do list first. Instead of transitioning into work by checking your email for half an hour, use that fresh morning focus to tackle the most important task. Do that, and you set your entire day up for success.
3. Get real about your ability to focus
No, I don’t mean admitting you have a problem concentrating. We all do sometimes. Look online and you’ll see plenty of “experts” telling you that their way is the best way to accomplish more. Usually that requires working for an unbroken stretch of time, but this amount of time varies. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if it works for them. The question is, will it work for you?
It doesn’t actually matter if you choose to work without breaks for 90 minutes and rest for 30 or work for 25 and rest for 5 (also called the Pomodoro method). What matters is using the method that works for the unique individual you are. Try completely focusing on a task for as long as you can. See how long that is. The longer you work without a break, the longer you should step away from your desk between work cycles. It’s as simple as that. Don’t get caught up in the exact numbers.
4. Break down intimidating tasks
Multiple things can cause a serious bout of procrastination. One of those is having a huge task on your to-go list. There’s a line between something big that can be tackled through the “eat the frog” method (see #2) and a task so large you don’t know where to start. If an item on your to-do list makes you run for another tab to watch YouTube videos, you need to break it apart. Take 5 or 10 minutes to turn that one big project into 3-5 smaller tasks.
While you’re teasing apart the smaller tasks, you’ll clear up where to start. Break up the project and list the individual steps in order. If those small steps are all you get through in a day, that’s more than OK. Remember, they all add up to one huge project. And it’s all about being effective with your time instead of checking off low-impact boxes.
5. Don’t multitask, especially first thing in the morning
Nothing slows down productivity like multitasking. It might feel more productive to tackle three things at once, but you’re watering down your attention and skill. Essentially you’re being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Juggling two or more tasks actually makes you less efficient, a 2018 study found. The impact to your productivity is even more pronounced if one or more of your tasks is unfamiliar. It takes time to switch gears and focus, and that ends up costing you. Pick the most important thing, give it 100% of your skill and attention, and then move on. Your to-do list (and your boss) will thank you.
6. Figure out when your focus is greatest, and use this time strategically
We’re all pretty good to get through some work after we get up in the morning and have our coffee. But when else are you most productive? Maybe it’s right after lunch when you’ve had a chance to decompress and refuel. Maybe you get motivated by the end of the day approaching, and enjoy a second wind around 4:30. Figure out when your focus (not the experts’) is at its highest, and tackle the biggest thing left on your to-do list during that time. (Remember, you should have already checked off the biggest item first thing in the morning.)
7. Use a program for tracking projects, especially with other people
Let’s see if a situation sounds familiar. You’re working on a project with a lot of moving parts. People in other departments have roles to play in it, too. You remember getting your first part done, but you know some items are going to come back around to you towards the end. But there’s one problem: you have no idea who’s working on what right now or when you’ll be needed again. Then you waste precious time tracking down a status report and waiting for people to respond to emails.
Stop. There’s a better way. Try using a program for tracking the status of a project. There are many options, but a couple of my favorites are Basecamp, Monday, and Asana. Even if you’re the only user, it’s an easy way to get organized. There are a lot of moving parts when you’re trying to launch a business or work a side hustle. Documenting your progress allows for faster switching between tasks than recalling the status of everything from memory. Save yourself the time, and sign up for one of these services now.
8. Keep a journal handy or a notes app open
I’m sure that sounds counterintuitive. A journal or app is an easy distraction, right? Not when it’s used for keeping you on task. Ideas strike you at odd times. Not all of them are great, but some are truly valuable. The problem is, you can easily get diverted from conquering your biggest project (see #2 again) by entertaining a new idea. Still, it would be a shame to forget your new business strategy or content idea. That’s where a journal or your notes app comes in.
Keep one of them open and close by for this exact situation. When you get a new idea, write it down and — this is the really important part — leave it. Keep working on the task at hand. (Remember, we’re no good at multitasking. It’s simply science.) You can come back to this idea when you take a break or wrap up your project. Choose whatever medium you like most. Some people dedicate a page in their bullet journal to these ideas. Others prefer toggling to an app like Evernote.
9. Use breaks to learn new job-related skills
Some days, we simply need unproductive breaks. It’s OK to use your breaks to watch a funny YouTube video or send an email to your mom. But I want to challenge you to use that time some days to learn a new skill. Most of us want to master something new. And it’s usually something we hope will help us accomplish something, whether that’s getting your business off the ground or earning a pay bump at the office. Find something you’re passionate about learning, and I promise this will actually feel like a break from work. But if you’re using office time to do it, please try to make the skill work-related.
Some people have enough discipline to come home from a long day of work and crack open a book to learn and hone a new skill. Are you that kind of person? There’s no judgement either way, but you need to know in order to actually accomplish your goal. Expecting to teach yourself something new at night when you come home exhausted is silly. Give your brain a rest from work and move in the direction of your goals by using your break time efficiently.
10. Always, always, always set an agenda for meetings
You can’t be in charge of every meeting — unless you own the company, that is — but take ownership where you can. When you send out your meeting invites, tack on an agenda in the notes. Make it concise. You don’t want to spend time in a meeting trying to remember if you’ve discussed everything necessary. Then when it comes time for the meeting, kick things off with a reminder of the agenda. Then, this might be the hard part, keep people on topic. If it strays off course, gently bring people back around to the plan.
11. If it can be settled over email, don’t talk about it in a meeting
If you get groups of people together, they tend to go off-topic (see #10). So you’ve settled your agenda, but you also need to make sure that everything on it deserves to be there. Email is much faster than a meeting. Even if it takes a while to get your response, it takes seconds to read and action upon. Discuss that in a meeting, however, and you’re bound to waste at least 10 minutes discussing a two-sentence problem. Be thoughtful about what you’re dealing with where.
12. Go for a walk. Be around trees if you can
Taking a mental break is absolutely necessary, but so is movement. We won’t go into the health benefits of getting your blood flowing every couple of hours here. Walking has a positive impact on creativity, one study found. It could just open the floodgates on the problem you’ve been stuck on. Taking a break to walk at lunch also boosts your positivity and makes you feel less tense. That’s when you do your best work. So next time you feel worn down or stuck go take a walk instead of grabbing another cup of coffee. Or least get out of the office and walk to a coffee shop.
13. Do similar tasks at the same time
Read carefully because I am absolutely not telling you to multitask. Some items on your to-do list should be grouped together, though. Take email as an example. Let’s say you need to send out a meeting invite, respond to an email from your boss, and pull analytics reports in a tool. Since meeting invites are sent through email, you want to group this task and answering the email together. You’re wasting time in the transition if you put the reports in the middle. It’s like cleaning the living room in between cooking parts of dinner. Handle things that happen in the same room, so to speak, before moving onto the next.
14. Consider throwing out the to-do list
For some people to-do lists are absolutely essential. For others, it’s just another way of procrastinating. Yes, really. If you find that your to-do lists tend to have an excessive amount of items and they’re all tiny, you might be using the list as a way to waste time. This one requires you to take a good, hard look at your habits. Deep down you know if you’re enjoying a couple minutes away from your work when you write out a list. If this applies to you, that it’s bad. It just means you don’t need lists. Refer instead to point #9 and #12 for ideas on how to be more productive while taking breaks.