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5 Tips that Doubled My Productivity Last Year

5 Tips that Doubled My Productivity Last Year

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Last Updated on January 2, 2019

Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

The end of the year is the time when everyone tries to give you advice on how to live healthier, look better, and earn more money.

It’s understandable if you find yourself lost among all the tips and opinions. Sometimes you no longer know what you truly want to achieve next year – and what’s just imposed by society.

To help you out, we’ve made this article about the things you should remove from your new year’s resolution list – instead of adding to it – to make your daily life more harmonious and peaceful.

So just make sure you cross these off your New Year’s to-do list – your body, mind and soul will be thankful.

1. Stop Buying Meaningless Gifts

We all know the sense of obligation – when we have to buy a gift for an event or celebration that’s already tomorrow, but we still have no idea of what to give.

Take these tips close to heart for all upcoming holidays, including birthdays, weddings, graduations, etc.:

Stop focusing on the material objects

Instead of focusing on what material object to give, think about the emotion you want to evoke[1] in the gift recipient, and then pick a symbolic gift that can support or represent that emotion. For example, you can gift coziness by presenting a “comfort set” with warm socks, tea, candles, etc. Or give motivation by presenting a beautiful planner or notebook.

Plan gifts in advance

We know this is easier said than done. But if you try to plan which gifts you’ll need in the upcoming months (try making a list three or four times a year), ideas will more likely come to mind and you’ll avoid that last-minute shopping. Not to mention, you’ll be able to keep an eye on sales to get the best prices.

Suggest a better way

If you’re tired of exchanging gifts for birthdays and holidays, initiate a different approach. For example, draw names among family members and agree that each one only buys a present to that one person they got. Alternatively, you can agree not to share gifts among adults, and only give presents to kids of the family. Or, ask friends to donate to charity instead of buying a gift for you.

Go for common experiences instead of exchanging gifts

You can agree (with your partner or the extended family) to go on a common trip, dinner or another activity, instead of spending money on gifts.

Sometimes you’ll have to be the one who initiates breaking the rules that have been accepted in the family for years. But if you suspect that you’re not the only one in the group who’s tired of gift-hunting, you’ll surely find support for your suggestions.

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2. Don’t Exaggerate with Diets and Fitness Resolutions

It’s no secret that TV shows, article headlines, and ads (not to mention our healthy diet-obsessed friends) make us feel like we need to look better, slimmer and younger than we actually are. But going on yet another diet or starting a fitness plan with the wrong motivation rarely leads to great results.

If you are like many people, you have probably signed up for an annual gym membership at least once in your life – only to drop it one month later.

How do you balance a good resolution for a healthier life without pushing yourself into commitments that won’t last?

Here’s what you can do:

Set a healthier pattern

For example, do meat-free Mondays or reduce meat consumption to three days per week (less saturated fat for you and better for the environment). Or choose to eat only healthy food at least three days a week or only on weekdays (e.g. make sure your meals contain vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and protein). This way you’ll already have a healthier diet while still being able to treat yourself with a snack on weekends or parties.

Get a fitness watch

Fitness watches like Fitbit or MiBand are tiny accessories that will count your steps, calories burnt and will serve as an excellent motivator to move – or to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Find a physical activity that you enjoy

Even if you are not that fond of doing sports, you can definitely find an activity that you’d do with pleasure. Think about what you’d like – from taking up Nordic walking to pilates or even exercising at home.

Try intermittent fasting

This is an alternating cycles of fasting and eating. For example, stop eating at 8 pm and restart not sooner than 12 hours later. This approach has been proven to have numerous health benefits, in addition to weight loss.

Skip cabs or driving to work and opt for cycling or walking instead

You’ll burn calories, breathe some fresh air, and save money – win-win!

3. Put a Cap on Your Daily To-Do List

In today’s busy world, planning your day in a stress-free way is actually an art in itself. It’s natural to want to be a loving parent, a diligent employee, an active member of the local community and probably several other individual roles.

But playing all these roles requires energy and meticulous planning. How not to lose yourself amidst all the appointments and responsibilities? And – most importantly – how to still find time for relaxing and recharging yourself?

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These daily planning tips will help you have more stress-free days:

Leave bigger intervals between meetings

If you schedule too many appointments or chores in a day, you’ll probably end up late at some point, and as a result – more stressed. There are many different reasons why people are late, but poor planning is a major factor too.

Plan time to relax

As weird as it may sound, you should try and schedule your resting time. For example, if you only have one free evening this week, and a friend tries to squeeze in a meeting, feel free to say no. Don’t feel obliged to specify the reason for your refusal, just say that you are busy.

Try to be a little pessimistic

We’re often packed with plans or running late for errands because we tend to be overly optimistic – about the traffic, the time it takes to do things, etc. Instead, try an opposite tactic — assume you’ll hit traffic or the meeting will take longer.

Try waking up earlier

Sometimes even waking up 30 minutes earlier can give you the much-needed head start for several errands of the day. But remember to get enough sleep every night, even if it means going to bed earlier.

Plan your day the day before

Chances are your day will be much better organized if you pack a lunch and lay out an outfit before going to bed.

Designate a time for checking emails and social messages

If you start checking your messages between appointments, you risk getting lost in a sea of messages that need replies. Designate a time for this activity or do it in case you arrived early to a meeting.

4. Let Go of Unhealthy and Time-Consuming Habits

If there’s one thing we should get rid of in the new year, it’s the habits that steal our time, provide instant gratification but don’t offer any value in the long term. Or even worse, leave a negative impact on our health.

Here are some common (and pointless) habits along with tips on how to get rid of them:

Binge-watching TV series

Even if most online television platforms offer you lists of “Best TV Shows to Binge Watch”, being addicted to series is a major time-waster.

You can manage this addiction in several ways, for example, watch one episode per day (or a few per week) as a reward, only after you’ve finished an assignment or done a house chore. Or try replacing this habit with exercise or reading a book – this will be hard at first but should stick after a few weeks. You can also try to track how much time you spend on TV or movies – seeing how much of your life you are wasting might urge you to do something about it.

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Running on coffee

Being a coffee addict is kind of a stylish addiction nowadays, but it’s not that innocent as it may initially seem. Besides addiction being a problem in itself, drinking too much coffee (more than 500-600 mg of caffeine a day) may lead to nervousness, insomnia, an upset stomach, a fast heartbeat, and even muscle tremors.[2]

As a solution, try switching to tea or edible coffee – a more sustainable, healthy, and productivity-enhancing alternative. For example, Coffee Pixels are solid coffee bars that generate a more even energy kick throughout the day without the coffee-induced abstinence and dehydration.

Procrastination

Fighting procrastination requires some serious willpower. If it is a problem in your daily life or work, try ”eating the frog” in the morning – get over your biggest or hardest tasks first, then tackle everything else.

Alternatively, use time tracking software to monitor exactly how much time you waste on unproductive actions, websites or apps. Once you know exactly how much time you’re spending unproductively, try to limit your time on social media, for example to just 20 minutes per day.

If nothing else works, try bribing yourself — promise yourself to do something fun or pleasant when you finish your assignment.

Whichever habit you want to give up, consider using some habits building tools to make a contract with yourself and reward yourself for milestones achieved.

5. Stop over-consuming

We live in the age of consumerism – huge manufacturers with their promise of a comfortable life on the one hand, and growing environmental threats – that are the direct result of our modern lifestyle – on the other hand. There’s only one solution – try to consume less whenever and wherever you can.

Before making additional purchases, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really need it? Did I need it yesterday?
  • Can’t I buy it used or borrow it from friends?
  • Can I rent it?
  • Can I make it myself?
  • Am I buying the most sustainable version of this product?

For example, check if the brand you chose is conscious about the environment, for example, are the products they manufacture energy efficient? Do they try to use less packaging?

Also, if you often find yourself buying too many groceries, promise to buy only the amount that fits in one shopping bag (that you bring along). If you often forget to take your shopping bag with you, get yourself a 2-in-1 wallet with a built-in shopping bag for more eco-friendly shopping.

6. Learn to Unplug from Your Phone

Today’s world is crammed with information, and many people struggle to keep focus on what’s truly important. There’s just too much going on in the world – too much to read, to watch, to know, too many conversations to participate in.

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But how to refuse the temptation to check the phone and start using social media in a controlled, not a compulsive way?

Some tips for managing your phone-dependency:

Spend only a limited amount of battery per day

For example, start your day with 50% battery life, and manage your phone usage so that you’ll make it till the evening.

Block distracting apps and notifications on your phone and computer

Choose one-hour, two-hour or longer blocking sessions and enjoy the positive impact this will have on your mood and productivity.[3]

Set your phone on flight mode

When you start doing an important task that requires full focus, set your phone on flight mode so that nobody can disturb you.

Leave your phone at home or in the office when you go for lunch

You’ll see that the feeling of being unreachable for a moment is actually very liberating.

The Bottom Line

As a new year begins, we’re all excitedly looking forward to what adventures await ahead of us.

But this year, promise yourself this:

Instead of having a never-ending list of tasks and commitments, focus on the truly meaningful ones. And cross-out all the rest without feeling guilty.

Less is more. Make this year count. We’re all rooting for you.

Featured photo credit: Brooke Lark via unsplash.com

Reference

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