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Simplify Your Productivity Tools To Get More Done

Simplify Your Productivity Tools To Get More Done

    Anytime a new productivity app hits the App Store or the web it’s a race to see if it’s the next best thing; the last app you will ever need to become more productive, a better human being, or, hell, even cuter. Anytime a new “productivity guru” tells us how to get more work done we may as well spend a week or month to give it a try.

    I can’t tell you how much money and time I have racked up in trying new apps, paying subscriptions to things like Remember the Milk or Toodledo, or even creating precise taxonomies for tagging my tasks.

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    If you are like me in any way (and you probably are because you read Lifehack.org), I can help out by telling you now that no single application or productivity system will make you more productive. In fact, most of our so-called “systems” tend to get in our way and make us productive at creating productivity stuff. And that’s about it.

    It’s a racket

    When I first read GTD about 4 years ago my inner geek instantly saw a way to systematize my work and life. With that came an eagerness to look for everyone’s “implementation” and to try out many different ways of setting up my own system. I bought a labeler, filing cabinet, inbox, paper planner thingy, some decent pens, index cards (way too many index cards), and preceded to Get Things Done.

    Or so I thought.

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    What happened for a good portion of 2 to 3 years was my endless tweaking of a system and search for something better that didn’t really support my work. The system ran me and actually made me scared to use it. It felt like a bottomless pit of empty projects and tasks that I would never look at or review because of their unimportance.

    All of this brought me to my original point: productivity apps and systems don’t make the man, the man makes the productivity system.

    Cutting the fat

    So, instead of being buried in a sea of productivity tools and ideas that were not supporting me, for the last year and a half I have been trimming down my system to the most essential and useful.

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    I first went on a paper productivity kick. It was like a detox for a productivity pr0n junky. Keeping projects and action lists with paper allows one to not be confined to a certain set of labels, buttons, and tags. It allows you to just write things down and helps to stay out of your way. Another nice thing about paper productivity is that it isn’t really filled with features and because of that doesn’t move you to “feature-tweak” it. You can read more about the benefits of paper productivity here.

    While using paper I identified some things that I truly didn’t like that I knew I would need a digital system for like:

    • due date sorting
    • sorting in general
    • easier manipulation of lists and changing tasks without rewriting everything
    • ability to easily send something by email
    • a place to store notes directly linked to tasks

    So, I then found myself a set of tools that met these requirements and allowed me to practice the Getting Things Done system at the minimum. I cut the fat of my productivity system and finally put myself in control of it.

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    The practical part

    If you are like me and have been swimming in a sea of productivity pr0n for too long and want to own your productivity system rather than allow it to own you, here are a few simple steps:

    1. Go on a productivity tool detox. Quick searching for the “15 Best Productivity Tools on ‘X’ Operating System”, stay away from the multitude of apps that promise that they will help you get more done and try something simple like paper for a while. You will find out what you truly need in a system.
    2. While using the simplest tools possible actually get some work done with them. Allow the productivity tool to support you and start to learn how to trust it in your everyday work life.
    3. Make a list of things that you absolutely need – not want – in a productivity tool and try to find the easiest implementation of it. Try really hard not to go on a quest for the greatest productivity system ever made. It doesn’t exist.
    4. Get settled in with your new set of tools and stick to them. Once you feel that your system supports your work, make a pact to not change your tools for 90 days. After that you can reevaluate and tweak things as needed. Then stick to them for another 90 days. Rinse and repeat.

    And that’s it. It’s important for an information worker to have a set of tools that truly supports her work. But what is just as important is that worker have a set of tools that she sticks with, that she knows and trusts, and that don’t get in her way. Have you settled into a system that supports your work and allows you to get things done? If so, tell us about it in the comments below.

    More by this author

    CM Smith

    A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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    Last Updated on April 19, 2021

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

    The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

    Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

    In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

    When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

    Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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    1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

    When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

    As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

    That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

    The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

    What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

    Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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    There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

    So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

    2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

    When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

    No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

    3. Move Your Body

    A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

    It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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    So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

    4. Connect With Another Person

    Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

    One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

    Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

    5. Use Your Imagination

    When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

    That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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    And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

    Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

    Final Thoughts

    Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

    Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

    More on the Importance of Taking a Break

    Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

    Reference

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