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Last Updated on February 25, 2019

Top 10 Productivity Tips to Achieve More and Create Peace of Mind

Top 10 Productivity Tips to Achieve More and Create Peace of Mind

Do you know anybody who’s not busy?

Most of us wake up each morning facing crammed calendars and mile-long to-do lists. As a lawyer/wife/mom/writer, I know I certainly do.

Out of nerdy fascination and sheer survival instinct, I’ve made a lifelong study of productivity and time management. Here are the top 10 productivity tips that help me get done the things that I must or want to do without losing my mind:

1. Write it down

Every task, every commitment should be written down. This frees your mind from the energy- and attention-sucking job of trying to remember.

In his seminal book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen points out how uncompleted commitments take up psychic energy, each one making you just the tiniest bit more tired, more distracted, and therefore less productive.

He emphasizes that the first step to managing your life and time is getting every commitment, large and small, out of your head and into a trusted system.

I use OmniFocus to capture these commitments, but you can start with a simple pen and paper.

2. Get a head start

The best way to hit the ground running is to start the night before.

Before leaving your workspace, or before going to bed, take ten minutes to look over the next day’s commitments.

What appointments can’t be missed? What do you need to have with you for those appointments? (Make sure you’ve gathered those materials and have them ready to go.) What three to five tasks must get done?

Decide what you’ll do first. Look at that to-do list and decide whether any tasks on it can be delegated to someone else (see number 9 below) or, even better, crossed off the list altogether (see number 10 below).

The busier your day, the more important it is to do this quick survey the day or evening before. It means you waste no time in the morning deciding where to start, or gathering materials (and maybe discovering a crucial item isn’t available when you need it).

3. Do your most dreaded task first

Every one of us has one or more tasks on our to-do list that we dread doing.

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Maybe it’s that unpleasant phone call you don’t want to make. Or that blog post you’ve been putting off writing because you don’t know how to start. Or that project that just overwhelms you because it’s so massive.

Whatever it is, it hangs over your head, distracting you with guilt because it keeps getting pushed to the next day and the next. It’s time to end that cycle.

Do it first thing. Writer Michael Hyatt talks about slaying your dragons before breakfast—there’s nothing more motivating for the rest of your day than crossing that monster off your list first thing in the morning.

But many people instead of doing the tough tasks first, they do the easy ones. But if you really want to be productive, there’re some tasks you shouldn’t do first in the morning:

To Be More Productive, Never Do This To Start Your Morning

So make that call. Pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm ideas for that blog post.

Do something about that overwhelming task—maybe you can’t finish it in one day, but you can at least get started. Whatever it is, just do it.

Then let the satisfaction of crossing it off your list carry you into the rest of your busy day.

4. Turn off distractions

One of the major productivity killers is the distraction of constant interruptions: emails, phone calls, people appearing at your door…

The technology that can (and should) make our lives easier and better also can make it virtually impossible to maintain the kind of focused attention that’s necessary to work efficiently and effectively.

But here’s the thing: you can control that technology.

When you’ve got an important task that requires attention and focus, create the space to give it your best.

Whether it’s a meeting with a client or colleague, or an important letter that needs to get written, or a piece of art you want to create, schedule a block of time to focus on that commitment, and then turn off all distractions.

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Shut down your phone (or at least turn off the ringer). Silence your email alerts. Disconnect the internet (or at least Facebook and Twitter). Close your office door.

Just for that hour (or thirty minutes, or half day), turn off all outside communications and give yourself the necessary luxury of undisturbed time to really focus on the matter at hand.

Learn more about How to Minimize Distraction to Get Things Done.

5. Take breaks

There’s a limit to how long anybody can devote deep focus to a task.

No matter how busy you are, after a certain amount of time the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and fatigue—physical and/or mental—starts to impair your effectiveness.

Schedule breaks periodically even during the busiest days. Take ten minutes to stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, walk around the block.

You’ll return to your work refreshed, both mentally and physically, and ready to be even more productive.

If you’re not convinced yet, read this article about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

6. Batch process

If the demands of your day include routine tasks, try to group similar tasks and schedule certain times during the day to knock them out.

Answering emails? Returning phone calls? Entering expenses into a spreadsheet? Instead of interrupting your other tasks to do these things piecemeal, batch them.

Set two or three or five times a day to check and respond to emails. Return phone calls at 11:45 am and 4:45 pm (or, if you want to avoid getting sucked into long phone conversations, return them at 12:15 pm while folks are at lunch and 5:15 pm after they’ve left for the day, and just leave a message!).

By batching similar tasks, you save the time lost to ramping up multiple times a day and reap the benefits of momentum.

7. Eat a healthy breakfast

Do I need to explain this? There are countless studies confirming the importance of breakfast for maintaining our health.

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Healthy people are more productive. No matter how busy you are, eat a decent breakfast. It’ll fuel you for a terrific start to your day.

For more breakfast ideas, check out this:

31 Healthy Breakfast Recipes That Will Super Boost Your Energy

8. Get some exercise

Not to be too repetitive, but healthy people are more productive.

Exercise makes you healthier, so be sure to get some exercise every day.

You don’t need to spend hours at the gym to get the benefit of this; take a walk around the block, or do some isometrics at your desk.

Try these 29 Exercises You Can Do At (Or Near) Your Desk or 15 Simple And Quick Office Stretches To Boost Work Efficiency.

Just do something to get your heart pumping and your blood racing. It will enhance your general well being as well as your ability to think more clearly.

9. Delegate

I’ll confess: I stink at this. I hate to ask for help, and often it seems more trouble to explain a task to someone else than to just do it myself.

But not everything that needs to be done in your life must be done by you.

Evaluate that to-do list carefully. What tasks could someone else do, thereby freeing you up to focus on the things only you can do?

Look around you: who is available to do some of those tasks? A secretary? A colleague? A family member? A paid helper?

An important key to productivity is doing only those things that only you can do, and giving somebody else the opportunity to contribute by doing those other tasks.

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Lifehack’s CEO has a unique way to delegate work effectively, take a look at his guide:

How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

10. Say No

How many commitments have you made that don’t really need to be kept at all?

Have you taken on tasks that don’t actually matter to you or anybody else?

Is your calendar cluttered with meetings that don’t accomplish anything for organizations that you no longer care about?

Has your day been hijacked by somebody else’s priorities?

If your calendar is jammed, if your to-do list is miles long, take ten minutes or so to look at each item with a careful eye. Can any of those appointments or tasks simply be crossed off to create some reasonable margin in your life?

When someone calls or appears at your door with a request for your participation in some activity, take a breath and consider whether it fits into your own priorities (which priorities, of course, might legitimately include keeping your boss or spouse happy).

If the answer is no, then just say no. Practice it ahead of time: “Thank you for inviting me, but no.” “Thank you for asking, but no.” “Thank you for thinking of me, but no.”

As a wise person has said, “no” is a complete sentence. No explanation is necessary. Just no.

You may want to learn from Leo Babauta The Gentle Art of Saying No so you can set better boundaries for yourself.

More Resources About Time Management

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

More by this author

Laura McClellan

Passionate about encouraging women in their roles as wives, mothers, friends, and workers.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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