Goals give you direction, make your calendar look less intimidating, and tell you when to celebrate your achievements, but no matter how many goals you have and how good you are at achieving them, productivity can be a major issue. That’s why, in 2012, one of my major goals was to improve productivity across the board. I experimented, changed sleep habits, shifted when I focused on certain tasks, and tested a dozen different theories to see what worked and what didn’t, and while the vast majority of my “genius” ideas turned out to have very little (or negative) impact on my productivity, a few things worked quite well.

Here are five of the things that worked best and how they can be quickly and effectively used to boost your own productivity:

Working Fewer Hours

When things get really busy and it seems like you’ll never, ever get caught up, the knee jerk reaction of most is to work more, not less. On a strictly logical basis, it makes sense: when you work more, you get more done, right? As I found last year, this may not be the case—I’ve always noted that on days when I have a LOT of time to get things done, I tend to get less done overall, and In 2012 two things happened to confirm this.

First, I started taking half-days twice a week to spend time with my son. On those two days I would work from 7am until 1pm; about 3 hours less than my normal schedule. It was immensely stressful at first, but with time I noticed that I was actually getting just as much, if not more, done on those days than I did on the days I worked until 4pm.

Second, I installed RescueTime. Recommended by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week, Rescue Time installs in the background of your Mac or PC and tracks how much time you spend on certain tasks. You can use it to block certain tasks or provide advanced analytics if you pay for it, but I use the free version just so I can get a weekly email telling me how productive I was in any given week. Every Sunday an email shows up that includes the number of hours worked and the percentage of productivity I reached that week.

The first week, I worked 45 hours and was 73% productive, which Rescue Time told me was better than about 75% of the people using the site. I made it my goal to get that number up to at least 80% though and the only way I could do it was by working fewer hours. As I started to work less—at first to do the Dad thing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and later to ensure I had weekends for yard work and family time—I noticed that my productivity increased greatly. It reminded me of Parkinson’s Law; If you give yourself a set amount of time to complete a task, you will fill that time to completion, so when I gave myself 45 hours to get a week’s worth of work done, it took me 45 hours. When I only gave myself 35 hours, I still got everything done, plus I had a lot more time to myself, which in turn reduced stress and made me even more productive.

Unplugging Once a Week

Around the same time that I realized I was wasting close to 12 hours a week at my desk reading email and watching YouTube videos, I started to wonder if I was spending too much time in front of a screen. On Saturdays and Sundays I would quite literally groan whenever I needed to log on and send an email; my brain and body were worn out with screen fatigue. As such, I decided to turn everything off for one day (on a voluntary basis—I was still available if there was a work emergency) and spend time working outside, running errands with my family, or playing board games with friends.

Not only did this help me get over the anxiety of screen fatigue on the weekend, it made me much more productive when I logged on Monday mornings. I didn’t dread the thought of turning my computer on; I embraced it.

Automating as Much as Possible

Everyone has a handful of tasks they spend entirely too much time working on; the little stuff that eats time out of your day with very little or zero benefit. Whether it’s a maintenance task like updating your financial spreadsheets or a communications task like sending emails, you’re losing anywhere from 5-10 hours a week doing stuff that is either A) boring or B) low return. I always knew this, and while I hated it, I couldn’t do much about it. Automation took to much time, or money, neither of which I had.

In 2012 I made the investment and started automating key tasks. Things like:

  • Email – Instead of having it open all day dinging at me, I closed my mail app and only checked it twice a day. I leave Skype on in the interim and everyone knows that if it’s important they should just call or Skype me.
  • Accounting – I set up a new Freshbooks account, installed the mobile app on my iPhone and started sending invoices and updating expenses while on the go. Combined with Quickbooks for general accounting, it now only takes 20 minutes a week to update all my financials instead of the hour or two I was spending every Friday before.
  • To-Do Lists – For the heavy-hitting GTD apps, you’ll need to spend some money. There are some great freebies like Wunderlist, but most of the bigger, multi-platform, cloud-syncing tools cost money. That said, they are well worth the investment; I estimate I’ve saved dozens if not hundreds of hours the last 18 months with Omnifocus on my phone and computer.
  • Outsourcing – When I outsourced before, it was an ordeal: Either I spent all day answering emails and phone calls, or I received a finished product that was nowhere near what I had asked for. I invested some time in creating training materials for contractors, such as videos, style guides, and templates that ensured outsourcing was MUCH easier to get done right.

Automation, when implemented properly, can provide an immediate boost to productivity and finally help you reclaim some of the mental energy you’ve been spending on routine tasks.

Recording and Revising Key Work Habits

One of my favorite books of 2012 was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, Duhigg talks about everything from how habits work to the amazing things people have been able to accomplish by changing small keystone habits.

After reading the book, I became significantly more aware of the things I would do every day that took a bite out of my productive hours, such as when I was most likely to read movie reviews or surf Facebook, why I would go downstairs two or three extra times in the afternoon, and the many things that would hold me up in the morning and cause me to start work late. While I haven’t fixed everything, simply being aware of those small issues was a huge first step.

It begins with observation: spend two or three weeks just making notes of what you do. Keep a journal on your computer or buy a notebook and jot down quick notes. Nothing is too small. Write down when you eat, when you take breaks, when you look at websites you shouldn’t, etc. (RescueTime can help here too). After a couple weeks, you’ll have a much keener idea of what things are getting in the way of your productivity. Then, look at those habits and identify the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is the trigger: the act, thought, or moment that makes you want to follow that habit.

In my case, I noticed that whenever I finished a work task I would immediately surf a website that had nothing to do with work—a sort of mental cleanse. The cue was finishing work, the routine was visiting IGN and the reward was that I didn’t have to think about work for 5 (going on 15) minutes. To change this habit, I started getting up and doing some stretches whenever I finished a task. The cue was the same—I wanted to do something different after writing 5 articles—but the routine changed, and not only did it improve productivity, it got me out of that chair.

Look for similar moments in your day and ways you can change those habits to boost productivity.

Setting Aside Review/Thinking Time Once a Month

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Every day, for at least a few minutes, I would get distracted by some “big picture” task. Finances, scheduling, email, clients—whatever it was, I would stop writing and start taking notes and thinking about my next steps. I like to be organized—very organized—but as a freelancer, organization only gets you so far. You also have to be flexible, so those planning exercises would pop up every day of the week. I was probably spending 1-2 hours a day looking at my calendar and to do lists; not actually doing anything, but certainly thinking about it a lot.

I decided to set aside two hours every Friday and one day every month on which I would think about those bigger, overarching goals, and the rest of the time, I just worked. Whether I had a clue about what I was doing or not, I just worked. Not only did this cut down on the amount of time spent tweaking my schedule, it improved productivity by cutting out distractions and forcing me to just get things done.

Productivity Is Getting Out of Your Own Way

It’s not easy to be productive all the time. There are moments when you just want to be lazy and do nothing for a few minutes, and that’s perfectly normal. The most productive people are the ones who have a system in place that allows for those lazy moments and jumpstarts them back into high gear the moment they are ready.

As I get more done in less time, automate time consuming tasks, and change my habits more in 2013, I expect to become not only more productive, but happier in what I do. While not every tip in this post is right for everyone, I guarantee that implementing even just a couple will help you get more done.

What strategies have you used in your life to get more done? How do you boost productivity without setting unrealistic expectations? Sound off in the comments below.

There are lots and lots of lesser-known sites that are as good or even better than the “A-list” productivity blogs.: 50+ Personal Productivity Blogs You’ve Never Heard of Before (and about a dozen you probably have)

Featured photo credit: Doubled My Productivity via Shutterstock

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