“Productivity” is an overused word. Or rather, the context in which it appears is. People tend to treat productivity as a standalone notion—detached from the rest of your life and somehow “hackable” with a series of apps.
I think that productivity is a conscious decision. In fact, it’s a series of conscious, purposeful decisions that you make for your own good. “Boosting” productivity isn’t a one-time event, it’s a long-term commitment in all areas of life.
I’d like to share with you some of the productivity tips I’ve picked up while working at Printful, and get you to skip over the superficial guilt you sometimes feel for “not being productive.” Instead, I want you to unlock your personal style of productivity by understanding the way you function and asking yourself a few questions.
Let’s get to it—10 ways how to be more productive.
1. Always start with you
When you feel you’re being “unproductive,” it’s likely out of comparison—we’re naturally inclined to think the grass is greener on the other side.
While making comparisons is completely normal, the outcome of comparing your productivity to someone else’s is apples and oranges. If you copy someone else’s productivity routine, you’ll end up chasing the idea of productivity rather than your actual goals.
2. Steal productivity tips from people you admire
While it’s a bad idea to chase after someone else’s dreams, it’s a good idea to follow someone whose dreams you share.
Most of what I’ve learned about productivity (and not copy+pasted) comes from my friends, family, and people who I relate to or who inspire me. Interestingly enough, most of these people don’t see themselves as “productivity coaches”, nor do they see what they do as “productivity hacks.” For them, it’s a way of life.
I recently came across a fantastic work productivity tip from Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines. She says she creates an extensive weekly to-do list and immediately throws it out. What she remembers is what sticks, and the rest proves to be irrelevant enough to be forgotten. Now, this might not be the best approach for work, but it’s definitely worth a try for errands!
3. Be realistic about your to-do list
Kate Lewis’ approach to to-do lists illustrates a major productivity cornerstone—prioritizing. If you keep long, static lists of things you don’t even get around to doing, the problem is you’re treating everything as a priority.
You probably have a to-do list somewhere (or several) that’s giving you anxiety. Get it out and take a long, hard look at the items that have been lingering. Be honest—they probably fall under one of the following categories:
- Things you recognize as important, and also scary or overwhelming
- “Nice to have” items with no particular reason or value
- Tasks you’ll do anyway (added for the sheer pleasure of crossing them off)
- Things that someone else thinks you need on your list (this one’s a bit painful)
Now, go ahead and delete everything that falls under the second, third, and fourth category. We’ll get to the first one in a minute.
4. Prioritize tasks as they come in
Managing your workload isn’t just about keeping a list. A big part of staying productive is reacting to incoming tasks and ideas, and sorting them before they fall into that “nice to have” category that ends up cluttering your mind.
This is how to apply GTD the moment you receive a new “thing to be done”:
- Record the thing
- Make a decision about it on the spot:
- If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away (bonus: completing the task that fast will give you immediate satisfaction)
- If you can’t do it right away, decide on when you’re going to return to it
- If it’s not your job, delegate someone else to do it
- If it’s not relevant, drop it
- Review your list of things to keep the process going
It’s important to keep all your notes in a single space that you can easily access and review—a mix of app+notebook+email+post-its will soon get out of hand. Some of our favorites for productivity software include Google Keep, Evernote, Things, Wunderlist, and Any.do. And then there’s good old paper and pencil.
For prioritization to work, you have to enjoy using your productivity tools. Note that the first one you try might not be the right fit. I go for a combination of Google Keep for upcoming and ongoing tasks, and a notebook for quick, unexpected tasks I have to resolve the same day.
5. Break up bigger tasks
Remember the first category of to-dos I mentioned earlier, those important, scary ones? A productivity tip you’ll often find is to break them down into smaller, less scary ones. So rather than facing a big, overwhelming task (or the desired outcome), you see actionable steps to get you there.
I don’t always like the idea of crowding my Google Keep with too many predefined baby-steps—I know I’ll just get frustrated with not taking each baby-step as I had intended. Instead, I update the entry until the task is completed.
So, if I were creating an important email campaign for any of the upcoming holidays, the updates might go like this: “organize campaign brainstorm,” “create campaign draft,” “finalize copy and visuals,” “schedule campaign.” And once the entire task is completed, remember to monitor the results. For the holiday email campaign, I’d change my Google Keep entry to “check on holiday campaign in 5 days.”
6. Work with a sense of purpose
I believe the key to productivity lies in purpose. Once you’ve defined the purpose of what you’re doing, productivity will follow.
One of the great American writers of our time, Nora Ephron, has said: “I don’t write a word of the article until I have the lead. It just sets the whole tone—the whole point of view.” An idea that extends well beyond writing, wouldn’t you agree?
7. Communicate with your team
You may have noticed that your productivity is also influenced by the habits of the people around you. Unsurprisingly, teamwork is a great asset for boosting productivity.
Solving problems on your own is fantastic, but sometimes it’s one of the least productive things you can do. If you’re stuck for a long time, you’ll start going in circles and feel annoyed. That’s when you need to step away and ask someone to lend you a hand—you’ll save time and energy for yourself and your team.
When communicating issues, delegating tasks, and giving answers, be brief and to-the point. It’s a good mental exercise, shows courtesy, and shows you’re in control. Say, someone on your team has asked you to share a Google Doc with them, and you have no idea where it is. Instead of wasting time replying “Oh no, hold on, I’ve no idea what folder I put it in, let me check if I can find it in my inbox [+ emoji],” try “On it, I’ll let you know in 10 minutes.”
8. Rethink your mobile habits
Getting sucked into a vortex of mobile apps is a headache for many. It starts with “I’m just going to check the weather real quick” and ends with you mindlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed (stop telling yourself it’s “research” for a project).
Being up-to-date with current affairs is important, but not to the point of shifting focus on someone else’s life instead of your own. Whatever’s going on with you and the people next to you at any given moment is often way more important than any social media post.
There are two main ways to manage app overuse. You can either set up some kind of downtime function or app blocker as a quick technical fix, or really ask yourself why you’re picking up your phone in the first place. Why go on your phone at a time you’ve specifically set aside for completing a task? Is the task boring? Do you need help? Is something distracting you?
9. Feel productive by looking after yourself
Your body is the vehicle of your “productivity,” making sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet the three pillars of self-care you can’t ignore or substitute.
Your sleep pattern is as unique as your fingerprints, so find the one that makes you feel your best. Take proper rest breaks–no coffee, no phone, no people–and nap, if you must. I know people who do just fine with 6 hours of sleep, and I’ve heard of med-students going to bed straight after their 5 p.m. class and waking up to burn the midnight oil.
I’m seated for most of the workday (and often too lazy to use my standing desk). That’s why for exercise, I’ve gone for a workout routine rooted in physiotherapy. There’s a lot of core stuff. On some days it’s not unlike slow torture, but I’ve never had a better confidence booster. I spend less time worrying about my appearance which leaves me more focused on what I have to do.
Since the workouts, I’ve also become more aware of how everything in the body is connected—legs, butt, spine—everything. So now I make a conscious effort to make my body work outside the gym, too—I try to stand up straight, I’ve stopped crossing my legs while sitting, and I no longer shift the weight of my body on one leg while standing. Over time, these habits cause muscular disbalance, making you slouchy and tired.
Another thing—please enjoy your meals. Try to extend your lunch break by 5-10 minutes to properly chew your food. You’ll notice you actually need a smaller portion size, and you’ll skip over the post-meal drowsiness straight to a more productive day.
10. Be OK with procrastination
Lastly, accept that you’re not a machine and there’ll be days when your brain is going to make you take a break. You’ll feel sluggish, uninspired, and blank.
When it happens, don’t panic and use procrastination to your advantage. Go slow, and soak up some inspiration—catch up on your reading, listen to a podcast, or watch a movie. There’s even a TedTalks playlist for procrastinators to help you put your downtime to good use.
Final thoughts: personality over productivity
Cultivating productivity means building your entire personality. So, what kind of person are you going to be? A flaker who refuses to pull their weight, or a proactive doer?
Leaving unproductive habits unchecked only creates obstacles. Whenever you postpone something, choose to ignore something, or take up a forgotten project the very last minute, all you do is keep adding those hurdles.
What I’d really want you to do is to not be discouraged neither by this, nor any other list of productivity tips, and set your own rules. Only you can define what being productive means for you, and only you can reach the goals that will make you fulfilled and happy.