[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
You know what isn't useful? Cookie-cutter, stock image-adjacent, tale-as-old-as time advice, especially when that advice relates to work. No productivity hack will help you if you aren't able to tolerate the work you do. So, step one is having or getting a job you don't hate, or engaging in work that is at least somewhat worth the hours you'll inevitably put into it.
1. Develop A Routine.
Jordan Peterson is a renowned clinical psychologist, YouTube personality, and author who happens to be a huge advocate of schedules, routines, and lists. First, he says, you need to have a higher vision or goal for yourself and build your routine backward from that. My daily routine is this: wake up, workout, shower, coffee, breakfast, work. The items on my working to-do list are forever shifting but I know that I will dedicate a certain chunk of my day to work, and my lists guide my most relevant tasks. The most important thing is to plan your days so you aren't floundering from task to task. Dr. Peterson says, "Aim high, and then concentrate on the day. What do you need to attend to, in order to be in a better place tonight than you were in this morning?" Watch a video from Dr. Peterson about routines and schedules here.
2. Time Block.
Time blocking is essentially setting aside a specific amount of time to do one task. For example, you could time block your entire day to set aside time for meetings, emails, phone calls, creative work, writing, traveling, etc. At work, I block time to write my grants, time to call donors or prospects, and time to catch up on emails or data entry. When I set out to do each task, I commit to focusing on it until I'm finished. This eliminates distractions and increases my overall efficiency. Read an incredibly (or unnecessarily) detailed description of time blocking here.
3. Limit Distractions.
One study found that the average office worker gets distracted every 40 seconds when working in front of a computer. This is both absurd and mildly insulting. How can we even portend to be productive when we have the totality of human knowledge at our fingertips? More importantly, it's hard to engage in deep work or even finish a complete thought when constantly faced with distractions. Turning off notifications is a good place to start. If I'm doing some writing that doesn't require the internet, I also disconnect from that, which is very helpful in limiting distractions. Finally, put your phone away, silence it, or keep it out of reach. The average American looks at their phone 96 times every day. Cut that in half and you'll have eons more time.
4. Say No.
One of my first therapists used to tell me that "no is a complete sentence." She was trying to help me understand that it's okay to say no sometimes. Not only is it okay, but it's necessary and healthy. Sometimes, we take on extra tasks that we don't need to because we feel obligated, we fear letting someone down, we fear failure, . But saying "no" to projects that you don't have the capacity for or that don't interest you will guard your time for things that matter more or that do interest you.
5. Eat The Frog.
Productivity consultant Brain Tracy named the Eat The Frog method after this vivid piece of advice from Mark Twain: “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.” Basically, eating the frog means identifying one important task for the day and doing it first. Usually, the "frog" is your most difficult or important task. Sometimes, it might even be your most unpleasant yet urgent task. Read more about finding and eating your frog here.
6. Utilize Your Chronotype.
Your chronotype is your "body clock," your sleep-wake cycle, your pits and valleys of energy. Around 10% of people are "larks" who feel most energized in the morning. Another 20% are "owls" who do their best work at night. The other 70% fall somewhere in the middle. Dan Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, writes that paying attention to your chronotype and structuring your tasks around your energy peaks can help you get a lot more done in less time (obviously). I'm most energetic in the mornings, so if I need to be particularly creative or productive, I'll block off my morning for doing things.
7. Take Breaks.
It can feel counter-productive to stop working, even for a few minutes, if you have a lot on your plate. But taking time to go for a short walk, make some coffee, or just unplug can clear your brain and bring you back to work refreshed. Giving your eyes a break from screens and your brain a break from problem solving can improve your overall productivity and happiness. Sometimes, "less is more," as the infamous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said.
8. Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage.
Parkinson's Law states that work will fill the time available for its completion. If you have four hours to complete a task, that task will take four hours. If you only reasonably need three hours for the task, you'll fill the remaining hour with trivial work or procrastination. To hack Parkinson's Law, try cutting your deadlines in half; gamify tasks by racing against the clock (not at the expense of your quality of work though); create consequences; or align deadlines with external obligations. You can hack yourself into completing more work in far less time using Parkinson's Law to your advantage.
9. Work Smarter, Not Harder.
I'm a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. Depending on your role and responsibilities, your ability to reduce time by reusing and recycling work will vary, but things like emails, presentations, proposals, or any activity where your communication similar information can be copied or edited. Most of us have some redundancy in our work. Utilizing redundancy will increase your productivity and make you an expert at delivering your content.