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7 Unexpected Ways To Maximize Your Productivity

7 Unexpected Ways To Maximize Your Productivity
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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