You have a digital notebook and you use the best task management system. You know how to make a schedule. You’re awesome at tracking details. You respond to emails quickly. But you’re still looking for ways to amp it up, because you know you can do even better.

1. Sleep more, not less.

Too little sleep, poor sleep, interrupted sleep, and/or health problems which interfere with sleep all add up to one negative: fatigue. And fatigue has a big, bad effect on your productivity. One study, completed in 2010, estimated the annual cost of fatigue-related productivity loss at almost $2000 per employee. Chronic sleep deprivation has some pretty severe results, such as increased anxiety, poor memory, and, ultimately, impaired cognitive function.

In other words, without adequate sleep, your brain just won’t work as well. So even if you have a great plan, a well-ordered to-do list, and all the tools you need, without enough sleep, you are apt to be sluggish and unfocused. All the tricks in the book won’t help maximize productivity if your brain—the ultimate productivity machine—really needs a nap.

2. Do less, not more.

Productivity is not about doing more in less time. What good is doing more if what you’re doing is not the real work that is needed? In fact, trying to do more is often where we waste time. Science has proven that multitasking is not something the human brain is wired to do.

The more you pile on your plate (or calendar, or notebook, or to-do list, or task manager), the more time you have to spend deciding what you’ll do next. And making decisions not only eats up valuable time, it depletes your ever-important reserve of willpower.

One simple solution will solve both of these productivity killers: try to do less.

Limit the number of open projects you are involved in at any one time. I realize that’s not always possible: sometimes your project list depends on your boss or your significant other more than it does on you.

If you find yourself overloaded, though, an appeal can work: “I’d love to tackle this project; would you be okay if I first complete XYZ project, so I’ll have the time and attention I need to devote to this new idea?”

Severely limit what you allow yourself to put on your daily and weekly to-do lists. At the beginning of the week, choose the top few things you want to accomplish. At the beginning of each day, decide on three tasks you will complete that will move you toward hitting this week’s desired accomplishments.

3. Become less available.

Being the one who is always dependable comes with a certain benefit: people look up to you. They respect you. They know you’ll get the job done.

It also comes with a certain problem: people will ask more of you if they know they can depend on you.

It’s good to help friends, and it’s something you should do. But it isn’t something you should do all the time. Choosing to be less immediately available sets up an automatic filter.

Don’t be the person with his phone glued to his hand at all times. Don’t be the gal who answers every text, call, or email in five minutes or less. People can wait, and if it’s important that you be the one involved, they will wait for your response.

4. Limit meetings.

Meetings are notorious black holes, eating up productivity in return for, well, nothing. A vacuum. While you might find plenty of good advice for how to get more out of meetings—keep meetings short, keep them focused, meet objectives, and so on—here’s one simple but extremely effective approach: limit meetings altogether.

If you’re the boss, simply quit putting them on the schedule or making yourself available for every meeting request that comes across your desk (see #3, above, Become less available). If you don’t have that authority, start making appeals. Before you just give in and show up, chalking another afternoon lost to the voracious productivity-eating machine that is a meeting, get in touch with the organizer and ask these questions:

  • What’s on the agenda for this meeting?
  • What are your objectives for this meeting?
  • Why do you want me to be there?
  • What do you expect me to contribute?
  • Is there some way I can contribute without being present at the meeting?

If the meeting organizer is also your supervisor or coworker, appeal on the basis of lost productivity. Ask something like this: “Would you rather I make some insanely awesome progress on this project we’re doing, or go sit in this meeting for 2 hours and accomplish nothing?”

5. Measure your production.

We often don’t know how to measure productivity on the projects we are involved in. Maybe it’s an ongoing project, or something big and complex, or something creative and intangible. In any case, it can be hard to pin down what production looks like.

The problem is, however, that if you don’t really know what production looks like, you can’t tell if you’re being productive.

Solve this problem of fuzzy productivity by hammering out a way to measure the production with each project you have going. This might be something like a timeline, with milestones for certain achievements in the project as you go: you measure your progress by seeing how closely you can stay aligned with the projected timeline.

Or it might be something like a quota, either daily or weekly, of the key tasks or deliverables that need to be done.

Or it might be something entirely different: words written, calls made, money pledged, emails answered, applications sent.

Figure out exactly what production means for each project, and then you can maximize that productivity. Keep track of your production every time you work on the project. Just the knowledge of exactly what you should be doing to be productive is helpful for focusing your brain.

Keeping track of how much you can achieve becomes a game you play with yourself, one that spurs you to perform better each time you do the work.

6. Forget big goals; focus on small gains.

Big goals are good, but tracking progress on big goals can be depressing. We need to see progress in order to be motivated to keep making progress. Otherwise, we get discouraged and start to question everything.

Unfortunately, we often buy into the idea of having big goals without understanding how to approach them. Every big goal is achieved by a series of small, incremental gains. This is old news: eat the elephant one bite at a time, take that journey one step at a time. Even though we know and understand this concept, we don’t know how to apply it.

The key is to set a big goal, then forget about it for a while. Instead, figure out what small gains you need to make weekly, even daily, and focus on those. Ignore the big goal, for a while, and just focus on getting to those small gains. Every now and then, look up at the big goal again and see how far those small gains have carried you toward reaching it.

7. Build healthy habits.

Your brain is the essential ingredient in any effort at a productive life. And your brain is part of your body. If you don’t take care of your body, you aren’t taking good care of your brain.

Healthy habits include getting adequate and good sleep, exercising, and eating food that fuels you instead of weighing you down. They also include balancing your time between focused work and downtime, solitude and social activities, physical and mental effort.

Focus on building or reinforcing one healthy habit every week, and cycle through the habits you want to establish. The stronger these healthy habits are in your life, the more productive you will be by default.

Featured photo credit: Zach Dischner via flickr.com

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