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Fun fact: No one is 100% flawlessly productive all the time.
Becoming more productive is not unlike getting in shape, says productivity expert Julia Roy, host of the podcast How We Work Now: You never really reach a point at which you say, “I’m in shape now; time to stop exercising/getting enough sleep/going to the doctor!”
So don’t look at productivity as one more goal to cross off your to-do list. Instead, think of it as an ongoing process that you can get better at over time. “We’re always seeking that balance where we get the work done, still have a life, and are happy with what we’re able to accomplish,” she tells BuzzFeed Health.
With that in mind, know that the tips here may or may not fit with your schedule or the culture at your job. That’s OK; the idea is to take what might work for you, see how it might help you get shit done, and leave the rest.
1. Determine which parts of your schedule you can actually take control of.
“People really underestimate how much power they have over their schedules, and how much the way they behave trains others to have certain expectations,” productivity expert Jocelyn Glei, author of Unsubscribe, tells BuzzFeed Health.
Sure, most jobs make at least some demands on your time that are outside your control. But Glei suggests trying to find all the parts of your day you actually can control.
For example, do you deal with your email as it comes in because all the email you get requires urgent responses, or because you got in the habit of replying really quickly and now it’s just how you work? Same thing with meetings — are you letting people schedule meetings with you whenever because your job requires you to be available 100% of the time? Or would it be mostly possible to not schedule or attend meetings till the afternoon? Once you know, you can start to hack your schedule.
2. Use the morning for any work that requires deep focus.
Although there’s some variation based on your sleep schedule and whether you’re a hardcore morning person vs. a night owl, for the most part, adults tend to feel sleepiest between 1 and 3 p.m., thanks to our bodies’ circadian rhythms, which regulate our alertness and drowsiness throughout the day.
Knowing that, go ahead and use the morning to deal with work that requires intense concentration. “The general rule is that it’s good to do deep-attention work in the morning and then do busywork or the less challenging work in the afternoon,” Glei says.
3. If you just can’t think hard in the morning, start your day by knocking one thing off your to-do list.
Some people are natural night owls or experience irregular sleep, which makes mornings sluggish (maybe hellish). So hardcore non-morning people should start the workday with a simple task that they’re likely to be able to complete, like reviewing paperwork, invoicing, or even organizing your desk, says Glei.
Getting something done in the first part of the day will help you “build momentum and confidence before plunging into something demanding,” she says. Research indicates that our brains seek to complete tasks because checking items off your to-do list feels good and provides motivation for later work.
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4. You can also use the afternoon for work that energizes you.
Another strategy for the midafternoon, says Glei, is to tackle the project that you’re most eager to work on or that makes you feel engaged and excited. This might provide a natural pick-me-up to get you through that drowsy part of the afternoon.
5. If at all possible, don’t start your day by dealing with email.
Reactive work is anything that’s put on your desk by other people — emails you have to answer, meetings you need to attend, requests for you to review something or provide feedback, and so on.
Starting the day with reactive work puts you in the mindset of working on other people’s schedules instead of your own, says Glei. And it probably means pushing back that deep-attention work until later in the day, when your ability to focus has decreased and you’re worn out from aggressively working on inbox zero.
6. Keep your social media and chat apps on a separate screen.
If social media and Slack or other chat applications are part of your workday, chances are you’re juggling ongoing notifications and alerts and opportunities to engage, which can be incredibly distracting.
These interruptions can sabotage your workflow and throw off your focus, says Glei. But one way to address this without taking the extreme step of logging off social media and chat for all time is to just quarantine those apps to another screen — or to your phone.
“If your primary screen is reserved for your primary task, rather than buried under a bunch of Slack and social media windows, you’re more likely to be able to return to it quickly after an interruption,” she says.
7. Alternate periods of work with quick breaks.
You might think of your workday as an eight-ish-hour block, but Glei recommends breaking it up so you alternate uninterrupted work with a bit of rest.
This minimizes that burnout that happens when you focus on one thing for an epically long time, and it also means that you’ll start each work interval renewed. Glei says the ideal would be to work for about 90 minutes followed by a 20-minute break. If that’s not doable, aim for 45 minutes and a 10-minute break (or create your own work-rest schedule).
8. Make a “stop-doing” list.
The secret to being more productive, say Roy and Glei, is eliminating the stuff that’s taking you away from the work you really need and want to get done.
To do this, take an inventory of all the things that screw with your productivity on a daily basis. For example, can you stop scheduling meetings in the morning or working for more than a couple hours without a break?
If your workplace and office culture are amenable to these kinds of changes (i.e., the only thing holding you back from letting go of less-healthy work habits is you), start stopping!
9. And then start blocking your time.
Once you’ve figured out what you’ll stop doing, look at what’s left and try to block out time for the different kinds of work you do — processing email, attending meetings, dealing with paperwork, writing, or other attention-intensive tasks. Basically figure out everything your job requires, and if possible set time on your calendar for when you’ll do each thing. This prevents you from “working reactively,” says Glei.
11. If you can’t block your time, do something to “reboot” your brain before you start a new task.
If it’s just not possible to practice time-blocking at your job, Glei suggests doing something to prep your mind for the switch in tasks, particularly when you go from reactive or busywork to deep-focus work. It can be a quick walk or a few minutes of meditation — whatever allows you to reset.
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12. Give your boss a heads-up before you make any big changes to the way you work.
If you’re worried that your boss might not be psyched about you suddenly changing your workflow, give them some context about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
“The good news is everyone thinks productivity is an unadulterated good. So frame the change as ‘a radical experiment to try to boost your productivity’ or something similar,” says Glei.
13. And obviously make room in your schedule (and your mind) for exceptions.
Obviously you don’t want your newfound productivity to unintentionally screw with your boss or your employees, so Glei recommends making exceptions when needed.
For example, if you’re cutting back on how often you check email (but your boss will lose it if you don’t respond ASAP), you can use your smartphone to designate them as a VIP sender, so you get push alerts whenever they email you. Or if you’re trying that no-meetings-in-the-morning thing, just know that it won’t pertain to your manager.
14. Have a solid pre-work routine that lets you start each day feeling productive AF.
Roy recommends doing something each morning that requires some effort but doesn’t feel like a Herculean task. “When you’re able to push the ball forward on something important, you get a sense of ‘this day’s going to go well,’” she says.
The idea is to do some activity — journaling, exercise, cooking, meditation, etc. — that you’ll feel satisfied and happy to have done, but that doesn’t require all the willpower in the world to start. If 20 minutes of meditating feels insurmountable, aim for two minutes. If a full workout seems impossible, take a brisk walk, says Roy.
15. Stop trying every new productivity app or system that works for everyone else. Create a plan that works for you.
There are all kinds of apps out there that help with organization, distraction, note-taking, reminder setting, list-making, etc. And likewise there are plenty of methods that promise increased productivity.
A common pitfall in the quest for productivity is to jump from app to app or system to system in an effort to find to the one that changes your whole damn life. But productivity is rarely about which tool is objectively “best” and more about which tool works well for you, says Roy. So chill on the apps.
16. And experiment with just one tweak at a time.
“If you try to change three things at once, it will be difficult to assess the impact of any one change, and you’ll be less likely to stick to the changes,” says Glei. So start by pinpointing one thing that’s really messing with your productivity, like constantly checking email, obsessive Slacking, or a needy co-worker.
Then focus on making changes to just that one behavior. “Maybe you commit to not checking your email or Slack for a 90-minute block each day,” says Glei. “Or maybe you deliberately schedule all of your meetings to be after 11 a.m. for a week. Or perhaps you schedule a quick check-in every morning and afternoon with your needy collaborator for a week…”
During this experiment, try to notice what happens during the times you freed up. If you really were more productive, keep it going. Once you’ve made that a habit, you can experiment with tweaking something else.
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