It was 6:30 on a Thursday morning in January. I was already at the office, rummaging through my desk drawers looking for a fresh stack of sticky notes. While digging, I found a small piece of paper tucked in the back corner of my top drawer. I grabbed and uncrumpled it. It was the fortune I had saved from an old Chinese fortune cookie, undoubtedly leftover from one of our team lunches from months past. The fortune read: “Your present plans are going to succeed.”
Timing is everything. It was certainly a reminder I needed that day.
But, that’s right, Fortune Cookie, my plans are going to succeed. How do I know that? Two words—productivity. habits.
If you’re reading this article, then you’re likely trying to find the easiest and shortest path to productivity. You likely have also read other blogs, articles, studies, and books about how to boost productivity and do all of the things.
That’s great, but here’s what might be wrong with that…
Although many productivity techniques are proven to work, that doesn’t mean they will work for you.
In this article, we will explore how to define productivity and some tips that will actually help you pave the way to powerful productivity.
What Does Productivity Mean to You?
Productivity looks different for each person. Before you continue reading this article, take a few minutes to think about what productivity means to you.
For example, productivity might mean getting up at 4 am, hitting the gym, preparing breakfast for the family, getting the kids to school, working a full 8-hour workday, preparing a home-cooked dinner, enjoying family time, reading bed-time stories, working on that novel, and then hitting the sheets at a reasonable hour, only to do it all again the next day.
For others, productivity might mean just getting out of bed.
If that’s the routine that allows you to feel and be productive—and helps you reach your goals—then there’s nothing wrong with that. Go for it, and hit it hard.
Productivity Comes Down to Goals
Whether your goals are learning how to work from home more efficiently, starting or building a business, receiving that promotion, finishing that painting, learning how to code, or exercising more, productivity is the progress you make towards them.
Here’s a caveat: It’s easy to mistake motion — the activities that you do that are related to your specific objectives — with the real goal, which is action.
For example, someone who gets up every morning and goes for a run but then does nothing for the rest of the day might consider him or herself “productive“.
On the other hand, a business owner who speaks with 16 clients per day, cleans the house, picks up the kids, feeds the pets, and then exercises and reads at night before bed might say, “I didn’t do enough today”.
However, if you have too many goals that you are trying to accomplish all at once, you might get frustrated with your level of productivity.
Above all, remember productivity isn’t about doing it ALL every day; it’s about the level of progress you make towards your goals.
Over the years, here is how I define productivity:
- My ability to focus
- Preparing for meetings and projects
- Making progress, or finishing a project or task that I have been procrastinating
- Completing the high priority items on my todo list
- Enjoying my work
Now, think about your own goals and projects (personal and/or professional). What do you need to get done? What do you want to get done?
13 Productivity Hacks
Once you think through your own goals and projects, here are some extremely powerful productivity habits to start implementing right now:
1. Start with a productivity philosophy.
However, from years of working with clients, I have discovered that the latest and greatest productivity technique is like a shiny, new iPhone or another tech gadget. What works for one individual doesn’t mean it will work for another. So, whether it’s a highly-robust project or task management system, or the good, ol-fashioned handwritten to-do list, find the best productivity technique that works for you, master it, and make it something rely on each day.
2. Set the stage.
While experimenting with productivity techniques, ensure you have a distraction-free work zone. This is especially important for anyone who works from home on a daily or regular basis. Working from home is great, but as you likely know, it comes with a wealth of distractions. And if you don’t properly set boundaries, a consistent work schedule, or the proper work environment, you are going to struggle with productivity.
3. Start small.
Believe it or not, productivity really comes down to building habits. For example, let’s say you want to start going to the gym every day. That’s a great goal, but you’re unlikely to stick with it if you try to force yourself to go every day immediately. Start small. Commit to going to the gym two or three days per week. Then, work up to five, and maybe to seven. Give yourself several weeks in between each “milestone”.
You can apply the micro-habit-building method to anything. If you want to write more, build the habit by writing ONE sentence per day. Read more by reading 10 pages or ONE chapter per day. Break your goals down into bite-sized pieces, small milestones, and build the habit. Over time, you will find that you write more than one sentence per day. You read more than one chapter per day.
Remember, it takes the average human being at least 21 days to develop a habit. So set yourself up for success by starting out small.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
During any goal-achieve journey, we will run into obstacles and roadblocks along the way. The key is to find workarounds—or a detour—rather than give up. In fact, not giving up is what separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls.
Think of driving a car or going on a road trip. You might approach a construction site with a “road closed” sign. Do you pull over and say, “forget it! We’re never going to get there”? No. You find a detour or another route. Sure, it might add a little extra time to your journey, but you still get there.
Dealing with the little things on a daily basis can be a bigger time suck than what most of us realize. Take email, social media, and notifications on your Smartphone, for example. Shut it all down. Tune it all out. Even the slightest notification is enough to interrupt your focus and derail your productivity.
If possible, put your phone in a separate room. Shut down email. Close your browser tabs (other than what you are working on), even if it’s just for a few hours. In this short amount of time, you will likely see a huge difference in your ability to focus (and, therefore, your productivity).
5. Planned vs. Actual
When organizing a project plan and timeline, one of the ways a project manager monitors schedule management is by tracking “planned versus actual”. This refers to the amount of time we planned for a specific task or project phase, and the actual time it took to complete that task or project phase.
This technique can also be applied to your productivity philosophy. This will involve using some type of time tracking application, such as Harvest or Toggl, but it will allow you to see how much time you plan on working on a project or working on an action related to one of your goals, and how much time you actually spend on it. Then, address the mismatch between your priorities, goals, and the time you actually spend on them.
6. Prioritize and schedule your work and projects.
Remember, no matter how much your family or your boss throws on your plate, there are only so many things you can accomplish in a single day. Before you start work or your project each day, ask yourself “what are my top priorities for today?” Then, write them down. You can also ask yourself, “what do I want to get done today?” And then also write those things down.
I recommend only focusing on your top three priorities. If you finish all three, great! You can either work on lower-priority items, or get a jumpstart on the next work day.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, then ask your boss what the priorities are. It’s very possible he or she isn’t aware of everything that’s on your plate. Once you have a clear sense of the priorities, you will feel more relaxed—and more motivated—to begin tackling them.
7. Slow down.
To do more, you need to do less.
Yes, this point might seem counterintuitive, but it works. This is the power of simplicity at work. Avoid succumbing to interruptions and distractions. Work on one thing at a time, and you will not only yield better results on whatever you are working on, but you will enjoy what you are doing.
Remember, doing less means you can make more progress on the things and projects that matter most. Those are the projects that are aligned with your goals and your purpose, and are also what deserve your time and your focus.
8. Set a daily routine—and stick to it.
You can spend time determining what productivity means to you and what productivity philosophy is most aligned with your personality and work habits, but all of that means nothing if you don’t build a consistent routine and put it into daily practice.
Many entrepreneurs claim that the way to success is through a “marathon” morning routine. Waking up at 4:00 am, doing 200 push-ups, hiking a mountain to watch the sunrise, drinking a gallon of water before lunch, and so on.
Again, if that works for you, great. But is it the ONLY way to be productive? No.
Your routine should be built around when you do your best work. That could be first thing in the morning or late at night. There’s no right or wrong time to work. Everyone has different peak “flow” periods, or times through the day (or night) when they work the best.
Figure out when that is, build a routine, follow it daily, and protect it. Use a calendar to schedule or “time block” your work periods. For example, if you are most creative in the morning, then schedule time to work on your most creative projects during this timeframe. Block it out on your calendar so A) you can commit to it, and B) nothing and no one else can schedule over it.
9. Start a NIGHTLY routine.
If the “marathon morning” routine doesn’t work for you, then experiment with a nightly routine to make your mornings easier.
For example, lay out your clothes for the next morning—or the next week, if you’re feeling ambitious—meal prep for the next morning (or week), set a “no more screen time” deadline to allow yourself to wind down, and list the top three priority tasks or projects you will conquer the next day.
10. Do deep work regularly.
Execution and productivity require focus. If you can’t focus on your work, you will either deliver shoddy work to your boss or client, or not make any progress on your projects at all.
If you’ve been reading my blogs, then you likely already know that I prioritize deep work sessions on a daily basis. This little thing has been incremental to my success. Read more about the importance of “deep work” and how this can be incremental to your focus.
For example, in the fall of 2021, I was facing burnout—again. I had all the signs… increased anxiety, depression, frustration, impatience, and I lacked motivation for doing the things I enjoy. Above all, I didn’t feel like me.
That’s when I did my “Banana Bread Experiment“. I took my schedule by storm, cancelled all my meetings for two straight weeks, and focused my time on getting my largest projects done. I finished up some large client projects that were lingering. I fired some other clients who were no longer working for us. I finished writing my “Single for a Year” eBook, and I got back into exercise.
Two weeks later, I felt like a new woman—all because I dedicated my time to focus work. This also allowed me the opportunity to regain a state of mindfulness, which is directly tied to productivity.
Of course, I’m fully aware that you may not necessarily have the flexibility during the workday to just up and cancel meetings, especially if you work for someone else. The point is to recognize the importance of deep work and schedule time for it.
The beauty of your deep work sessions is that there is only ONE “rule”, and that is to create an environment with 0 distractions. Otherwise, your “deep work” session is ineffective. The beauty is that your “deep work” environment can be whatever you want it to be, such as in your office at 6 in the morning, or your garage at 1 am. It can be completely quiet with no noise, or you can listen to music. It can be any place and any time that allows you to be your most productive self.
11. Sunday Planning
No one wants to think about work on a Sunday. Especially during seasons when the weather is warm, and we would rather spend our weekend time lying under the sun in the backyard or in the sand, soaking up those last few hours before the rigorous work week ahead.
However, there’s something to be said for taking even just 30 minutes on a Sunday evening to prepare and plan for the week ahead. This can make getting up and starting off the week substantially easier.
Sundays are also great days for reflection. With the previous week behind you, and the next week quickly approaching, take time to ask yourself:
- What went well last week? What didn’t? And why?
- What were the intentions I set last week? Which of them did I get done? And why?
- What can I learn from this and do differently this time?
- What can I do this week to see the same successful results?
Sunday is also a great time to check in on the progress of your goals.
12. Start a productivity journal.
Journaling doesn’t only benefit writers; it can benefit anyone. You don’t have to worry about grammar, spelling, or whether or not what you write even makes sense (as long as it does to you). The point of a productivity journal is to write down…
- Your goals
- Your progress
- What is going well and what isn’t
- What you have learned
- What you can do differently
Of course, this is just a guide for you to follow to help you get started. All in all, write down what you need to, to help keep yourself accountable, track your progress, and what you learned from it.
13. JUST START!
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these tips and tricks aren’t designed to work for everyone, nor do you have to apply all of them (again, unless you are ambitious).
All in all, you may not necessarily struggle with the act of being productive, but you struggle with getting motivated to be productive.
My advice for you? Just start.
Again, break it down into smaller steps. Write ONE sentence in your blog or journal. Bang ONE nail in those new cabinets you are making. Respond to ONE email. Jump on the treadmill for just five minutes.
If you can commit to even the smallest increment of doing the thing that you’re trying to do, you will find that you write a few sentences, bang a few nails, respond to several emails, or walk on your treadmill for more than five minutes.
The point is to just. start.
It sounds like overly simplistic advice, but it works.
To Multi-task or Not to Multi-task?
Multitasking—we all do it. But why do we do it? One incredibly common reason is that we have too much on our plates. This creates overwhelm and prevents us from focusing on one task at a time. Another common reason is we are often distracted by constantly responding to the neverending emails, chat application messages, and browser notifications. And, finally, we are bored with or don’t see the value in the task at hand and our minds wander to other things.
Regardless of why we multitask, the fact is that it doesn’t necessarily allow us to be productive. Some experts claim that it is okay to multitask in certain situations. For example, in his book, Extreme Productivity, author Robert C. Pozen discusses is the art of multi-tasking, and when it’s “okay” to do it, such as checking email while sitting through a conference call or meeting that you may not necessarily need to be present in.
However, I would respectfully disagree. I personally would question whether or not my presence was needed on that call or meeting to begin with. I would attempt to respectfully decline rather than try to multitask my way through it. This just fuels the bad habit of multitasking all the time. This is like saying, “I know I’m trying to quit smoking, but it’s okay for me to have this one cigarette,” or “I know I’m on a diet, but I’m going to just sneak this chocolate bar real quick while I’m waiting for the laundry to finish.” You are just fueling the bad habit and granting yourself permission to do it, even if it is only on occasion.
Although we think we are being more productive by conquering multiple tasks at the same time, we really aren’t. Multitasking actually makes you less productive—by as much as 40 percent! It also often forces us to rush through those trivial tasks, which often leads to errors. Even if you consider yourself a master of multi-tasking, you are likely to make more mistakes because our brains can only focus 100% on one thing at a time.
How to Single Task
Rather than trying to become a “master of multitasking”, spend each day focusing on certain “themes” or categories, or different streams of thought or activities. Here’s a basic example:
- Monday is organizing your office day
- Tuesday is meeting day
- Wednesday is a “NO meeting” day so you can focus on work
- Thursday is finance day for paying bills, budgeting, and financial planning
- Friday you work on your blog or do creative work
- Saturday is “cleaning and errands” day
- Sunday is “do whatever you want” day
These are just examples, of course. The point here is that if you try to cram in ALL those activities every single day, you will not only burn out, but you also rob yourself the ability to do your best work. This is because you aren’t allowing yourself sufficient time to properly transition from task to task or project to project.
What Matters Most Are the RESULTS
The overarching point we are driving at through goals and productivity is results. Again, the point of this article is to provide you with a number of tried-and-true productivity hacks that will allow you to make progress towards your projects, goals, and allow you to see the results you are aiming for.
Before you start working on a new project, or pick up a project you started some time ago and never finished, you might have to start it by first working backwards. What do I mean by this? Spend some time thinking about the final product first before aimlessly burning hours and energy on a project, just to “start” working on it. Although this method might seem productive, it isn’t…
If I could leave you with one thought, it is this: Think of your productivity technique like a car. Whether you drive a Prius or a Porsche, it still gets you to your destination. Productivity is very similar. How you get there doesn’t necessarily matter. The RESULTS are what matter most.