There are people who appear be able to complete one task after the next. Whose days seem to have more than 24 hours. Have they sold their souls and made a deal with the devil? Or do they simply know something I don't? My best tips to help you be more productive.
That's often my thought process when I see highly productive people and everything they manage to get done. Meanwhile, I've learned a lot about what makes me more productive - and what doesn't. I'd like to share some of these insights with you in this article. Do you know any more hacks? I look forward to discussing them with you in the comments down below.
I'm sure you'll recognize this scenario: you have been "busy" all day but you feel like you haven't accomplished anything at all. You barely remember what you were working on. Some jobs are just like that. Then there's all the tasks that never really get completed. So you don't get the satisfying feeling of crossing something off your list.
Or you have been busy, but not with the important things. And that's the difference between productivity and busyness: in one case, we get things done and finish projects. In the other, we mainly see to it that we have something to do - to feel better or to have something to show off. To ensure the first scenario, it helps to have a project management tool or one for prioritising tasks.
Ask yourself consciously during the course of the day whether you've used the last half hour productively, i.e. whether you've worked on important projects and tasks. Or did you really just make sure your brain had something to do? One key to increased productivity is to recognize that some tasks are important but not urgent. Others are both important and urgent. And some are neither.
You should manage your time accordingly. And if you are easily distracted, you should consciously switch off the usual distractions. For example, by setting your smartphone to "Do not disturb". See also our tips for working remotely.
You will often have tasks that are both important and urgent but that you don't want to do. For many people, tax returns would belong to this category.
One simple trick works for me here. The greater my resistance to a task, the earlier in the day I have to complete it. We only have a limited supply of resilience and "bite" per day. In the morning, we're still fresh and full of energy. But in the afternoon, this can look very different.
There are two advantages to doing unpleasant tasks right away:
- My mind is still fresh in the morning and so I approach these to-dos with a maximum amount of energy. I get them finished much faster than in the afternoon. Because by that time, my brain is constantly looking for excuses to be able to deal with something else.
- I have a feeling of success straight away because I've managed to stop dragging my feet. If I'm lucky, this feeling can then give me a boost for the rest of the day's tasks.
Many of my tasks are manageable in scope. They mostly take hours or days and rarely go on for weeks or months. Once I have a long-term project, I schedule a clearly defined period of time for it on each working day.
If this task requires all my attention and creativity, I schedule it for the morning. If it's more of a diligent job that doesn't require creative mastery, I do it in the afternoon. But an important point for both cases is that I try to keep the time and length constant. It's always amazing how much I can achieve if I consistently work on a task for an hour every day.
It's always a good idea to think about how much time you want to spend on any task before starting it. I'm sure the following has also happened to you before: if you only half an hour to do a task that usually takes an hour, you still manage to do it.
Tip: You work as a freelancer? Then there are a number of stress factors that do not have to be. I'll tell you how to avoid typical freelancer mistakes in this post.
It's important to set the right priorities here. You need to clearly limit precisely those tasks that stop our productivity. Or those that aren't really important.
It also involves learning more about what you actually spend your time on. Time tracking is also something that some people fight tooth and nail against. There are tools for this, but sometimes a simple tally sheet is enough.
With time tracking, you can quickly and clearly find out which black holes your productivity is disappearing into. We're surrounded by distractions. Many digital devices and services deliberately use the same tricks as casinos. In the blink of an eye we're checking out emails or "just quickly" having a look on Twitter. We're often not even aware of this behavior.
At the same time, you're not going to be more productive by only concentrating on your work without breaks or occassional distractions. Your brain also needs moments of rest. Sometimes we need to recharge our batteries. Boredom can be valuable.
It's just important to remember that there's a time and a place for everything. Get your task done and then reward yourself consciously with a break.
We'll all have experienced times where we're working productively and time flies by. You're headed straight for the finish at warp speed. In other words, you're "in the flow." This feeling arises when we dedicate ourselves undisturbed to a task that interests and challenges us.
But now and then this flow needs a little push. One tip that works well for me is to first give this this task only a limited period of time, e.g. 30 minutes. With a little luck I'll be in the flow before then. And then maybe in an hour I'll have done what I've been putting off for days. If not, I'll have worked on it for at least 30 minutes and that's better than nothing!
Many people recommend planning the next working day in advance, either at the end of the current working day or in the evening. The argument is that you'll then know what to do in the morning. And you can immediately use your fresh energy for productive work.
But don't schedule your entire workday. Something always comes up. Or your tasks may take longer than anticipated. If you manage to do much less than you set out to do every day, you'll end up frustrating yourself. A good rule of thumb is: only make set plans for two thirds of your time.
As you noticed, I don't go into a single productivity system like Getting Things Done (GTD) in this post. Some people swear by it. It doesn't work so particularly for me: I feel like I'm managing and sorting my to-dos more than actually working through them. Of course, that may be very different for you.
Either way, it's a good idea to adopt good elements from those systems that work for you. For example, a key idea of GTD is to create a fixed place for tasks and ideas instead of trying to keep everything in your head. The benefit is that the brain spends less processing power trying not to forget to-dos. Instead, it can focus on important tasks or rest unencumbered. For me, that filing place is Todoist. There are dozens of alternatives.
One productivity hack I personally have gained a lot of insights from is the "Pomodoro Technique". It goes back to Francesco Cirillo, who divided his work into clear time periods with the help of a kitchen alarm clock. The basic idea is to work in 25-minute blocks, followed by 5-minute breaks. Once you've completed four such blocks, you take a longer break, e.g. 20 minutes. You can, of course, adjust these intervals. However, they should still be manageable sections with regular interruptions because that's where the real power of this technique lies.
Another important point is that each section is dedicated to one single pre-defined task. Note down internal or external distractions and postpone them to the break or include them in future tasks.
You plan your tasks at the start of each day or even plan them the day before. At the same time, you define how much time, i.e. how many blocks, you plan to spend on each task. After each block, you tick off your task and can see how much time you spent on it.
This approach unites many of the tips covered in this article:
- Large tasks are divided into feasible smaller sections to be more digestible.
- It's easier to concentrate on a single task for 25 minutes, even if you are easily distracted.
- At the same time, you learn how long certain activities take. Then you can either optimize them or at least estimate them more realistically. This kind of time calculation is especially important for self-employed people, for whom time is quite literally money.
- By planning ahead, including time management, you ensure you don't take on more than you can actually manage.
- Last but not least, the system makes sure you take a break. Full disclosure here: I sometimes skip these breaks when I'm in a flow state.
In general, I don't use this technique to the letter either because it doesn't suit me personally. At the same time, however, many elements have become routine over time. For example, I automatically decide how long I want to work on a single task.
One thing I barely mentioned in this article: Tools. Of course, there are dozens, hundreds of apps and services around productivity. See our post Tools for WordPress professionals.
Tools can be very helpful. But at the same time, they are an excellent opportunity to distract yourself from important and urgent things. Yes, I use Todoist as mentioned above. Others use a text editor for the same purpose. Some use calendar entries. Others rely on pen and paper. Or a whiteboard.
All this is secondary. What's important is that you first work out what helps and what reduces your productivity. Once you've done this, it'll be much easier to find the right tools to help your individual case
What productivity hacks do you know? What questions do you have? Feel free to use the comments section. Want to get more tips for freelancers and agencies? Then follow us on Twitter, Facebook or via our newsletter.
Images: Carl Heyerdahl, Javier Quesada, Kaleidico