From the way it’s talked about on sites like this, you’d think productivity was a long-lost secret of the ages. Really, though, there’s quite literally nothing to productivity: for the most part, it’s just a matter of staying on task and working hard. The problems tend to arise more when self-motivation is required: when there are no deadlines, working consistently isn’t easy.
This guide won’t make you productive: only you can really do that for yourself. Rather, here are some little, specific tips you can follow that might speed up your day without any excessive effort from yourself.
Keep things offline. The easiest way to avoid getting something done is this: set up a to-do on some web site, then close the web site down. You might not even mean to do this: the site might close by accident. But once you’ve removed your source of keeping on task, getting sidetracked is far easier than it should be.
Instead, find a dark marker and a piece of paper. Write down your tasks in a single place, and put it close by your desk. Make sure you can’t avoid seeing that list. Update it when you’re done, though, or the whole list is just one big waste.
Shorten your task lists. The more detailed the tasks you set for yourself are, the less likely you are to be able to get through them. Hopefully, you know more or less what it is you’re supposed to be doing. When you write a task list, it’s to get you focused, not to remind you of what to do.
Right now, for instance, my list consists of three things: “Write post, Write post, Write prompt, Ask question.” The first is a reminder to write what you’re reading now. The next is a reminder for a different blog. The third involves creating something for a literary magazine. The fourth tells me to ask some site like Yahoo! a question about programming. But I don’t even need that level of detail. I just need something telling me what’s on my agenda.
Stay minimalist. Let’s say you’re a music enthusiast. You use something like Songbird to find music, VLC to play it, Audacity to capture online audio, Last.fm to find new artists, and iTunes to add music to your iPod. It might be a wonderful set-up for when you’re in a music mood. When you’re trying to work on something else… perhaps there’s a better solution.
When you’re working, try to do things not in your to-do pile as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you have to listen to music, don’t even bother calling up your library. Call up an internet service like Pandora and start listening to a band, so you don’t need to micromanage anything. (And if you don’t know where to start, a subtle electronica band like Daft Punk might be a good way to start.) Do you like playing games while you’re brainstorming? That’s probably not the best idea. But if you don’t have the willpower necessary to avoid it, at least settle for a source like Orisinal, which has quick, low-maintenance games for you to play. Not only does it let you actually think while you’re playing, the lack of complexity doesn’t threaten to immerse you nearly as quickly as a more advanced arcade site.
Time yourself. If you have three things to do in a day, expect to work on all three of them that day. Set up an alarm for yourself partway through your worktime. (And if you’re too lazy to set up an alarm near your workplace, take the lazy way out and just click here to get a quick timer for yourself.) Once your alarm goes off, switch to whatever your next task is. If you haven’t finished what you’re working on by now, it might be time to try working on something else instead.
Use applications. Don’t let them use you. Email, RSS feeds, and Instant Messenger applications are designed so that you can use them to make your life easier. It’s easy to get caught up, however, and let any one of them take over your work life. None of them are designed (so far) to stop you from abusing them, so controlling their use is entirely up to you.
When you open an RSS feed reader and see over a thousand posts waiting for you; when you find yourself refreshing your email inbox every ten minutes to check for new messages; when you turn on IM and five friends start talking to you about a party on Saturday… Stop. Oftentimes, it helps to just set up a schedule for usage: check email only once or twice a day, only turn on IM after 6 PM. The service itself can help, in some situations: Streamy, the site I use as an RSS reader, doesn’t prominently list how many unread feeds I have, so I don’t feel compelled to read many things.
Make a list of dreams. On a sheet of paper, make a list of things you’ve always wanted to try but never had the time for: learning to blog, for instance, or learning PHP. When you find yourself staring at your computer screen, don’t check your email again: instead, look at your list and really try to accomplish one of the items on your list. Don’t do it halfheartedly, either: research it, experiment with it, try to actually learn it. You might not accomplish what you set out to do, but it certainly beats doing nothing.
Or, exercise. If you’re in a position to do it (i.e. not in a cubicle), walk away from your computer, do a set or two of sit-ups or push-ups, and see if it doesn’t help you. Physical activity often helps concentration, and it has the wonderful added benefit of helping you stay (slightly) fit.
If you have the time, get out of your workplace entirely, be it your home or your office. Try jogging a block or two. The change in scenery certainly won’t hurt things, and you’ll often find yourself able to go back and start working.
Don’t do everything yourself. This applies especially for larger projects. You are not excellent at everything: if you need a variety of things done, don’t try to get everything done and perfected yourself. Work on what absolutely needs to be done; focus on what you’re most able to finish well. If you’re working with others, managing your work will help each group member focus individually.
If you’re working on your own, you have to manage everything yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to do all the work yourself. When you’re working on computer projects in particular, there are many ways of quickly hashing things up without your direct involvement. If you’re starting to blog, use a premade theme for a site (and an engine) yourself: don’t design one for yourself until you’ve actually written in your blog. By focusing on what really matters, you’ll be able to get much more work done than if you micromanage.
Avoid swivel chairs. There’s not much to explain here. I have sat at desks with swivel chairs, and I have sat at desks incapable of revolving at all. I have found that I’m always more productive when I’m not in a swivel chair.
Is there a reason why this is? No clue. Sitting on a couch or lying on the floor arguably provides more room to move than even a swivel chair, but either one is usually a more productive position to work from. There’s something about the ability to spin in place rather than type on a keyboard that makes swivel chairs almost malevolently unproductive.
Rory Marinich bought the web domain omegaseye.com two years ago. Right before writing this article, he finally got around to writing his first blog post there.