Short on time? For the key points on how to be productive, stick to the bold text and the conclusion.
3 tips on how to be productive at work or at home:
- Set achievable goals
- Create well-oiled routines and habits
- Avoid distractions
- Bonus: Take breaks and get moving
Being busy and being productive isn’t the same thing. Being busy might make you feel productive, but contrary to true productivity it won’t grow your job status, bank account or knowledge.
A productive day is different for everyone because it largely depends on what you want to achieve.
Yet, productivity has one thing in common for everyone. Productive days take you at least one step closer to your goals, whether it’s a giant leap or just a baby step.
So how to be more productive?
Focus on the activities that bring you closest to your goals.
We’re aware that motivation, inspiration and drive fluctuate from day to day. Some days, you wake up and you’re just not feeling it. However, with some easy tips and a good day routine, you can even turn those off-days into something productive.
Tip 1: Plan ahead and set achievable goals
The importance of planning ahead
As Benjamin Franklin so wisely said: ‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’.
Planning ahead and setting reasonable deadlines is paramount to achieving your goals and having a productive day. Having a clear list of goals boosts your confidence and feeling of control.
Writing down your tasks also builds a sense of accountability. If you write them down, you’re making a commitment. Besides, it becomes a promise to yourself that you’ll complete your task list. It has even been shown by academic studies that writing down your goals and tasks increases your productivity and completion rate. What are you waiting for? Start planning!
Use to-do lists to boost your daily productivity
Many people suggest starting the day with a to-do list. However, it’s actually better to make your to-do list at the end of the previous day, as part of your evening routine.
By scheduling goals and activities the night before, you can head straight in the next day. This reduces decision-making fatigue, something we’ll explain more thoroughly later on.
Here are a few ideas for your to-do list that will help you have more productive days:
- Outline your tasks for the day.
- Think about how you will achieve your goals.
- Allot a fixed time period to your activities. Stick to it.
- Prioritise. Start with the hardest task(s).
- Use a to-do list app.
Take action on your goals
Now that you’ve prioritised and planned, it’s time to get shit done. ‘Your dreams don’t work unless you do.’ — John C. Maxwell.
As I said, it’s best to start a productive day with the hardest task. Listen to Mark Twain and ‘eat the frog’. Why? Very few things are worse than eating a raw frog. Or am I missing out on some delicacy here?
Complete the hardest thing first because you have the most energy at the start of the day. Moreover, you’ll instantly feel some kind of relief after completion. It will prevent a seemingly colossal task from hanging over your head for the rest of the day. Whatever happens now won’t get in the way of your big goals. Moreover, everything else will seem easy by comparison.
As Gary Keller beautifully explains in The Tim Ferriss Show (and his book), you need to start the day by doing the one thing that’s most important. Think about the one thing that will make the rest of your activities easier or obsolete. (This is one of my favourite episodes of the show, by the way. Highly recommended!)
Finally, don’t multitask. You may believe that you are ‘a great multitasker’ and that it gives you a huge productivity boost. I’m sorry to break it to you, it doesn’t.
Multitaskers are always less productive. It costs them more to concentrate on each task and they lose a lot of time switching between activities.
The benefits of sticking to your goals
Sacrificing short term pleasure will bring long term peace. Remind yourself every day that working now allows you to rest and enjoy later. Tackle your hard problems in the morning so you can be more present while relaxing with family and friends at night.
Some advice: chop big goals into easily achievable tasks. Ticking off activities on a daily basis feels more satisfying and helps to sustain motivation. Moreover, more people stick to their goals if they are reasonable and within sight. And these are only some of the benefits of setting deadlines.
Plan ahead and set achievable goals. Prioritise the one thing that will take you closest to your goals. Execute.
Tip 2: A daily routine will boost your productivity
As we approach the end of the day, we start to feel tired and we become less productive. This is when decision-making fatigue kicks in. We also start forgetting about our positive habits and our long term goals. Before we realise it, we’re making bad decisions, such as scrolling through our social media feed, eating junk food or procrastinating.
While trying to stay focussed, tackling difficult tasks and processing loads of information, our prefrontal cortex is working at full throttle. This part of the brain is where our willpower, reasoning ability and decision making power reside. As we exercise this part of the brain the entire day, it gets tired and we become less productive. So how can we prevent this?
Habits and day routines. These are key to having more productive days. When tasks become habits, you no longer think about them. You just do them. It’s one less decision you have to make. This means you’ll have more decision-making power for more important decisions later on.
Most successful people have a morning routine and evening routine. They are generally quite different but equally important. Here are some ideas for morning and evening routines. Most can be applied to both. Pick whatever works for you:
- Write a journal/diary
- Read the newspaper or a chapter of a book
- Start and end with a glass of water
- Practise a language on Duolingo or a similar app
- Set out clothes for the next day
- Prep breakfast for the next day or dinner for the evening
‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.‘ — Will Durant
Studies have shown that routines and habits not only prevent productivity decline, they actively boost productivity. Consistency and repetition play a major role in this. We learn by doing. The more we practise an activity, the easier it becomes. Thus, we do it faster without losing quality.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. As we stop doing habitual tasks, the forgetting rate kicks in and we become less effective again. It’s like going to the gym. The more you work out, the easier it becomes. And we all know what happens when we stop going regularly …
The final habit you need but may not like is this one: wake up and go to sleep at the same time. You’ll feel better rested and more energised during the entire day. In the end, you might even need less sleep overall.
Set day routines and adopt positive habits to reduce decision-making fatigue and become more effective.
Tip 3: Avoid distractions to stay focused
Distractions, however small they may be, are a major productivity impediment.
A phone that vibrates, an email pop-up, even the neighbour’s dog that doesn’t stop barking. They all claim your attention and prevent you from entering a flow state. While it’s sometimes impossible to deal with distractions from your surroundings, you can definitely do something about your electronic distractions.
Technology can be beneficial but also very detrimental. In a study with university students, the average time before switching from study to distraction was 6 minutes. Their mind wanders from their books to their phones because of vibrations, sounds or light flashes. What’s worse is that many lose focus because they feel the need to check their phone and see if there’s anything new.
Because of these distractions your brain needs to switch tasks all the time. You’ll never be able to fully concentrate and get things done. Besides, you’ll never get into the flow. That’s a shame because the flow state is a major facilitator for a productive day — It can boost your productivity by as much as 500%.
So you need to disconnect. Turn off your phone and avoid other interruptions. I understand that for many people it’s impossible to disconnect the entire day. However, a short break from technology shouldn’t be too hard to achieve.
For three months, I worked a back-office job. Although all email could be urgent, I turned off my email for periods between 30 and 45 minutes. In the end, nothing is ever that urgent that it can’t wait half an hour. Doing this allowed me to complete my other tasks without interruptions. Because of this tweak, I never had to do any extra hours. And there’s more. It freed up so much time that I was able to solve various lower priority administrative issues. Some had been unsolved for nearly two years!
For most people, attention and productivity start to decline after 30 to 40 minutes. That’s an ideal time for a short break. A break is a good time to get some water, eat a healthy snack or do some stretches. But if you still want to feel productive, use this break to batch check emails and messages. Even the tiniest of breaks can mean a huge productivity boost.
If you really need to get something done, find your most productive time of the day and turn off all distractions for two to three hours to get into the flow.
Do you think it’s impossible to disconnect for that long? When’s the last time you went to the cinema? (Thanks, Gary Keller for the great example — You’re right, it’s the same guy from the one thing.)
Improve your focus by avoiding distractions (during your most productive moment of the day).
Bonus tip: Take breaks and move
While breaks and exercise don’t sound like things to do to be productive, they are. You might not be getting closer to your goals in this time, but you’ll give your brain a well-deserved rest. In return, you will reap the rewards of refreshed willpower, problem-solving and reasoning ability.
Ferriss Jaar has some useful insights on the topic: ‘Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.’
And ‘downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.’
This means that breaks will help us to make sense of new information and solve internal debate. As a result, you’ll come up with new ideas more easily and you’ll receive a large creativity boost.
You can refresh your mind by taking regular breaks or by walking during calls. Have you ever suggested colleagues to hold a walking meeting, by the way?
Standing desks or desks with adjustable height are other tools that may significantly increase your productivity. Standing and switching body positions is better for blood circulation. This won’t only make your day more productive, it will also benefit your long-term health, which should always be one of your main goals.
Schedule breaks and exercise to give your brain a rest. Your brain is loyal and will repay you with huge productivity boosts.
A day routine is indispensable for a productive day. Plan ahead, set reasonable tasks and start building those productive habits and routines.
You may also want to design more productive schedules. Work for 30-40 minutes without distractions and take short breaks in between. You can either dedicate those breaks to messages and emails or to a healthy snack and some stretches.
How would you rate the information on this page?
Still not quite sure how to have a productive day? Have a look at the further reading list or reach out for some personal advice.
Written by Kjell
Edited by Loki
Sources and further reading/watching about how to be productive:
- TopThreeGuide – https://topthreeguide.com/productivity/benefits-of-good-habits/
- Ho, Leon, Lifehack — https://www.lifehack.org/677367/powerful-daily-routine
- Jaar, Ferris, Scientific American — https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
- LexisNexis — https://www.lexisnexis.com/en-us/about-us/media/press-release.page?id=128751276114739
- Scott, S.J., Develop Good Habits — https://www.developgoodhabits.com/psychology-daily-routines/
- Selig, Meg, Psychology Today — https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers
- Stringer, Heather, APA — https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/09/boosting-productivity
- Syverson, Chad, Journal of Economic Literature — https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jel.49.2.326
- University of Southern California — https://appliedpsychologydegree.usc.edu/blog/to-multitask-or-not-to-multitask/