Productivity tips are generally things that make me want to poke my eye out with a spoon. “Start early!” “Have all your notes in one place!” “Set SMART goals!” Thank you, productivity gurus, the world is slapping their foreheads saying “Oh gosh! How could I have missed that one!”
Obvious advice, like “Eat less and exercise”, does not help the majority of us who are frazzled, ADD, and not looking forward to major life or habit change. If we know what we should be doing and we’re not doing it, there’s a reason. One that a therapist, rather than a productivity coach, is more qualified to help with.
Therefore, for your reading pleasure, I submit to you a baker’s dozen of truly useful productivity tips that don’t require major lifestyle/personality transformations. Do the ones that look easiest to you, and I promise you that good things will happen.
1. Batching tasks makes them WAY easier.
Take something you do repeatedly (blog posts! newsletters! emails! laundry!) and do MORE THAN ONE units of these things in a row. If they’re small, do a bunch at once. If they’re bigger or creatively taxing, try two. They will go faster and as you get into the flow of things, and they will lose some of the Big Scary Dread that you have associated with them.
Answer one email? You might take you 20 minutes on it. 10 emails? That might only take you 45. You’re in a groove. Batching = easier and faster for YOU.
2. Timeboxing will speed things up for you.
“Stuff you have to do” generally fills the amount of time you feel like you have to do it. (That’s why you can do a fantastic job of cleaning when you realize your mother-in-law will be over in 45 minutes, and sweet nothing when you have all day.) When you sit down to do a thing, give yourself a countdown timer. Watch how you get faster and distractions don’t pull at you.
3. Top-down your email to get it done lightning fast.
That feeling you get when you look at your inbox and don’t know where to start? Welcome to decision fatigue. When you’re sitting down to do email, start at the top and work your way down, or start at the bottom and work your way up. Decision fatigue goes away, and more emails get responded to.
(Note: If you have a time-critical email, like responding to a request for work, you can cherry-pick that first. Just go back to top or bottom when you’re done.)
4. Time logs automatically boost your focus.
“Where did all the time go?” is a cliché of a question. BUT IT IS NOT RHETORICAL. Seriously, track your time, even for a day. Scribble down “Started email at 9:42” and “Finished email at 10:33”.
Do this a few times, and you will quickly self-correct 90% of distractions, because you will realize they are going to show up in your log.” (The other 10% of distractions you will happily be accountable for, and be glad you did them.)
5. “Pass-backs” get your inbox down faster.
For some reason we collectively got it in our head that we had to reply to everything in every email at once, and turn ourselves into knots figuring out what people mean when they’re vague.
There is nothing wrong with addressing one point in an email and asking a question about the other one(s). That passes it back to the other person, and gets it out of your inbox, and you still get credit for replying.
This is especially useful if you have a lot of emails to get to at once, or some require really long answers. You can split the work into multiple sessions.
6. Single-tasking boosts your productivity INSTANTLY.
Multi-tasking works well for a very small number of situations. Listening to language training or audio books while you’re taking a walk, for example. You don’t have to think when you walk, so you can use your brain for the audio.
But if you have to actively use your brain on two things at the same time, it’s never a 50-50 split. Blah blah blah science, the upshot is that you actively get worse at just about everything when you multitask.
Just focus on one thing at a time, and you’ll probably cut your task time down 30 to 50% immediately. If you internally complain about not having enough time, this is potentially the best thing on earth you can do to change that situation.
7. Pick one objective to make tasks faster and easier.
There was this guy a few thousand years ago who said you couldn’t serve two masters at once. You’ve probably heard of him. Totally into productivity, that guy. The more objectives you try to pack into a task, the harder it feels and the longer it takes.
Write a blog post that’s witty AND insightful AND data-driven AND between 750-1000 words AND perfectly SEO-optimized? That’s a lot of work. Pick one objective instead, and your workload is now a fraction of what it was before – plus, it’s easier.
Showing up on social media today to be super helpful AND make new connections AND promote your new class AND reply to everyone who replies to you AND look like a hotshot? That’s a lot of work. Pick one objective at a time. Look how easy it gets. You can use all that time you freed up to hop on social media again later and target one of the other objectives.
8. Make “weird time” your free virtual assistant.
Keep a running list of little things that you have to do (book tickets to a movie, draft a blog post, proofread a document, put a new profile picture up on Facebook) and have it to hand.
Your days are filled with little 5 to 15 minute chunks of time that you don’t realize you can use. Waiting in line, being on hold, sitting at your computer like an idiot waiting for someone to BRB in a chat window. You can probably nab 2 or 3 hours a week of little-things-you-never-get-to just by having this list handy.
9. Pick “next actions” to move projects along faster.
Picture the next time you’re staring blankly at the wall thinking “I don’t know where to start.” Now imagine you had a perfectly reasonable list of very-next-actions for every project you’re working on.
Inbox? Answer Bill’s email.
Blog? Pick the title of your next blog post.
Website? Call a photographer and get prices for headshots.
Webinar? Buy a microphone.
There is always a definable next action for whatever you’re working on. (If it feels like you don’t know where to start because you could be doing a dozen different things to “get a webinar going” then pick any next action. It’s better than the nothing you have now.) Having a next action means you will always know what to do next. No more wall-staring.
10. Prep your next tasks to make them easier to start.
Starting things is always the hardest part (hence, why we don’t do lots of stuff). A big part of why starting is hard is because after the starting you have to do it all. Not the most fun. But! If you kinda-start them and then bail, your brain will believe the hardest part is done and that what remains will be easier.
(There is science to back this up, but I’m not interested in looking it up and linking to it. Besides, that would just give you a distraction. I care about your productivity, truly.)
Tell yourself “All I have to do right now is title this blog post and open a document” or “All I have to do right now is begin this email with Hey Kate, I’ve got some bad news for you” or “All I have to do right now is write the name of my webinar on a piece of paper and make a mindmap with three empty circles”.
Then leave it ‘till tomorrow. It will get the task started, and leave you with an open loop that will make it seem like you are not starting, but continuing. This works. Seriously.
11. Check and answer email at set times to keep your sanity.
One thing I heard recently regarding email is “Don’t open an email if you can’t respond to it.” That sounds great in theory – and probably is good advice 90% of the time – but it’s not practical. There are lots of emails I want to open and NOT respond to until I’m damn good and ready.
However! If you pick a few times of day to check/answer your email and stick to them, two things will happen.
First, you will start instantly loving your life more. Always-on email is brutal to the psyche. You will cherish the fact you are not in the inbox like you would cherish fresh air after they let you out of San Quentin.
Second, you will begin to get better at answering email, because you will begin to hate going back into the inbox. You will get email over with as fast as possible, because you finally have time to do all the things that email has blocked you from doing so far. It will become like a perfunctory visit to a relative you do not like. Quick, polite enough, and with no emotional investment.
Pick 2 or 3 times of day that will be your “email times”. Anything that is not that time is YOUR LIFE. The door is locked from the inside, darlings.
12. Set a closing time to get twice as much done.
Also in the “get your life back” department is setting a closing time for your office, virtual or physical. If you are done by X time, and you are DONE, then it’s amazing how much more stuff gets crossed off the to-do list.
Half the reason you don’t get as much done is because you are allowed to cheat.
You’re allowed to let work spill over into areas where it doesn’t belong. You’re allowed to tell the people in your life “I need to work late tonight because it’s busy” (rather than “I need to work late because I screwed around all day getting distracted and don’t want to admit it.”) Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that.
Accountability means you start saying “Crap, if I want to get this done, I gotta get it DONE.”
You are a very, very smart person. If you set a closing time, you will get much better at what you do, and you will make more money. I’ve never seen anyone fail at this.
13. Pick your “first 3 things” and watch everything get done.
Raise your hand if you have ever heard someone say “You need to pick your most important three things every day and do those first” and wanted to retch. yes, I’m seeing the hands now… good, good, a lot of hands. I figured.
Here’s what I notice. Lots of people say “I can’t do that! I have like 10 things I want to get done every day!”. That’s cool, I get it. Those same lots of people very frequently say “OMG! The day’s over and I didn’t really get ANYTHING on my to-do list done!” (Raise your hand if you say that more than you’d like.)
Ok, so no “Big 3” list = 0 things done. Last time I checked, 0 things is smaller than 3 things. So you’d actually be better off going with the 3.
The truth is, here’s what happens. You pick your 3 Most Important Things for Today, and then you put other stuff out of your mind and DO them.
Then you realize there’s still a lot of day left, so you make a new list of 3 things. Then you focus and do them. It’s not uncommon to get far more than 10 things a day done that way. And 10 is way bigger than 3.
Productivity does not have to be the 9th Ring Of Hell.
If you are an entrepreneur, chances are high that you have some level of ADD. That’s why you have entrepreneur superpowers – you can make mental connections extremely rapidly and do things other people can’t do.
But if you’re finding hard to focus, move forward confidently, and get stuff done, you need ADD-specific solutions (even if you don’t really have ADD).
Major lifestyle change, while helpful in the long term, won’t exactly help you get more of the important stuff done this week.
These 13 productivity tips will.
They’re easy. You can do these with almost no effort at all.
So pick a few and start doing them.
And click one of those share buttons down there if you’re feeling generous. Spread the word. :)
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