If you’re anything like me, you’d probably like to get a little more done in the day. Whether you’re making phone calls or typing away at your keyboard, there’s no getting away from the feeling you could have gotten just a little more done today.
Yeah, me too. I’ve been wondering about productivity lately, and I’ve been wanting to find out how I can get more done in a day. So I spent a week scouring the internet for the best advice I could find.
I came across a lot of great information along the way, and I hope to share some of that with you.
Some of it was pretty obvious stuff, like being sure to get enough sleep—although I still end up staying up too late at night!
Some of it was a little less obvious, like the reasons why some top performers only work for three 90-minute bursts a day. (It’s true, and rest assured I’ll tell you why in just a minute.)
All of it was good information, and it’s already been useful to me. I hope it’s the same with you. So, without further ado, 40 tips to improve your productivity:
- Plan Your Day the Night Before
They always say you’re supposed to plan your day at the beginning, but it turns out it works even better if you do it the night before. This gives your brain the chance to get started on getting the day in order while you’re still asleep. (Not to mention that you’ll be more likely to schedule that tough project you’ve been putting off if you plan today instead of waiting for tomorrow.)
- Exercise Regularly
Put it this way: your mind isn’t all in your head. If your body isn’t exercised, you’re going to be twitchy and nervous all day long. It’s not a good way to be, and your body doesn’t like it any more than you do. So if you start your morning with a quick workout, a morning run, or both, you’re off to a good start. Your body will be running at its best, and your mind will be all the better able to focus on the day. So it’s always good to get up and get a few miles in!
- Minimize Simple Decisions
Should you wear the red tie today, or the blue one? Should you have a regular coffee today, or a decaf? Should you take the normal way to work today, or the scenic route?
I know they sound like tiny decisions, but they add up. If you get your mind into the habit of hesitating on these little decisions, you’re all the more likely to hesitate on something more important. So what do you do?
Simple. Just get your meal plans and clothes arranged the day before. Or you could be like former President Barack Obama and wear pretty much the same suit every day. (Reducing mental strain: it’s downright presidential!)
- Keep Your Workspace Tidy
I know, I know, I know: this is one of those obvious ones we never do as well as we know we should. Just like with the small decisions, an untidy workspace gradually adds a tiny bit of mental strain that adds up to a nasty mood and decreased productivity. Remember: productivity is a war of attrition, and everything counts. You can try all the crazy productivity hacks you like, but if you’re not keeping things neat and organized, it won’t do you any good. So be mindful of that!
- Set Your Priorities (Use the 80/20 Rule)
Probably everybody in the world has heard of the 80/20 rule by now, but just in case you haven’t: according to the Pareto principle, 20 percent of the work you do is responsible for 80 percent of the results you achieve. Simple enough, right?
So the idea is, if you can identify which 20 percent of your work is getting 80 percent of your results, you can maximize your results by focusing on the part that’s serving you best. It’s worthwhile to check up on what’s helping you achieve your goals and recalibrating your priorities accordingly.
- Don’t Kill Yourself With Long Hours
The fact is: putting in long hours doesn’t necessarily correlate with getting more work done. That doesn’t mean there’s no good reason to put in extra time, either.
The fact is, diminishing returns starts to kick in pretty bad around the 50-hour a week mark, and by the time you get up to 65 hours you’re not getting much more work done than in 60 hours. So the point is: there’s a limit to what the human nervous system can reliably be expected to do, so don’t push it. Besides, if you’re good with planning you won’t need to put in crazy hours like that anyways.
- Use Reminders
They can be on your phone, or wherever you like. The important thing is: it’s good to have reminders in place to help you keep track of what you’re expecting yourself to get done in the day. Sometimes it’s useful to come up with a deadline to give yourself. (Just think, “I’ll get this done by 11:30 this morning,” and then set the timer.) Setting high expectations for yourself is an effective way to keep yourself trucking along when you’re not feeling motivated. Reminding yourself of all you’ve got to get done can be useful, as long as you’re careful not to overwhelm yourself.
- Give Yourself Deadlines
Ever had a project you knew you had to get done eventually, but just never found yourself getting around to it? Set a deadline! If nobody’s going to give you a deadline, you’ve got to give it to yourself. That means you’ll need to keep yourself on task and accountable to yourself.
Another thing. Find ways to make the deadlines meaningful. If you reward yourself for making a deadline and punish yourself for not making it, you’ll train yourself to be more productive in the future. Remember: it’s not what you do today that’s important, it’s how what you do today shapes what you’ll be doing tomorrow and ten years from now.
- Commit to Completing Your Daily To-Do List
Of course I said you need to get a daily plan together, and you do. That’s important.
But what’s even more important is making sure that you finish everything on that list every day. Productivity is a habit, and if you can form the habit of being productive, you’ll be able to pick up tricks along the way.
I’m not saying you should beat yourself up if you don’t finish what’s on your list. But I am saying you should form the habit so you know that when you write something onto your to-do list, you’re committing to getting it done.
- Build a “Stop Doing” List
I need to stop getting distracted online. Maybe you need to stop checking your email constantly. But just admit it: when you read “Stop doing” list, your mind immediately jumped to something you need to stop doing.
Everybody has all kinds of things they need to quit doing. But if you take a few minutes to put together a list of things you need to stop doing, you can track your progress. And if you track your progress, you can gradually wean yourself off the unproductive (or even counterproductive) activities you’ve developed the habit of slipping into.
- Get a Hobby/Keep Learning
Obsessing exclusively on solving work problems feels like it’s the best way to get the most done. But it’s not.
The fact is, good productivity means hitting a balance between single-minded focus on work and enjoyment. It’s the classic work/life balance. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in reading up on something entirely unrelated to work. You could read up on neurology, or philosophy, or postmodern literature (if you’re me). If that doesn’t speak to you, I’m sure you can find a hobby that helps.
Because when you learn about something that’s a little out of your expertise, there’s no telling what might turn out to be more relevant than you thought.
- Be Willing to Say “No”
A lot of us feel the pressure to say yes to every project that comes along. There’s no request too small, no deal too minor, and no event too tiny to warrant our attention.
Jim Rohn had a name for this problem. He called it “Majoring in minor things.” It’s the flipside of what we were talking about with the 80/20 rule. If you get into the habit of saying yes to every request that comes along, you’re not going to have any time left over for the important work that actually gets your results. You’ve got to be willing to say no.
- Graze on Fruits and Vegetables Throughout the Day
What you eat affects your productivity. Some people I know have a habit of skipping breakfast and trying to power on through to lunchtime. I think they do it because they’ve got this idea that it keeps them “hungry for success,” or something like that.
The problem is, those things don’t work. Skipping breakfast is a great way to let your blood sugar drop, and if your blood sugar drops you’re not getting all your work done. So keep yourself calm and focused by eating some rabbit food throughout the day. (I know it sounds like hippie silliness, but there’s science behind it, so I can’t argue.)
- Break Big Tasks Into Small Parts
Sometimes you can have a project staring you in the face, and you can’t get yourself to make any progress on it. There are two ways out of that problem: either a) you need to learn more about what you’re doing, or b) you need to break it down.
Every worthwhile project is made up of dozens, or hundreds, or millions of little sub-projects. Do you think the original plans for the pyramids were perfect, all the way down to how the Pharaoh was going to get the wood so the workers could move their stone blocks?
Of course not. You start with an idea, and you break it down into little, manageable problems. That’s how progress works.
- Schedule Tasks in Specific Chunks of Time
This has a little to do with what we were saying about deadlines a little while back. A lot of productivity is a matter of using time effectively. Just remember: the most powerful person in the world only has 24 hours a day, same as you. It’s what you do with that time that matters.
So, the first key to getting massive work done is expecting yourself to get massive work done. It’s a matter of starting out. If you start now, you can find the best way to schedule yourself to get the most done in a day. It starts with scheduling.
- Schedule Similar Activities Back to Back
When you make that schedule, it pays to pay attention to the way your brain works. A lot of the drag you run into with productivity comes from cognitive switching—making unnecessary decisions, thinking about things that don’t help you, switching from one task to a massively different task.
If you’ve got to make some sales calls, send some sales emails, and prepare a presentation for next week, you’ll probably want to keep the calls and the emails together on your schedule. These are similar tasks that will allow you to use the same parts of your brain. There’s less switching involved, so there’s less inefficiency in your thinking.
- Avoid Distractions
This is another obvious one. We all know we’re supposed to avoid distractions, but we all allow ourselves to get distracted much too often.
It can be social media. It can be the phone. It can be email. Whatever it is, it keeps you off task and you wish you could get rid of it.
So the big question is: how do you avoid distractions? Well, I’d start out by putting together a list of all the things that you find eating in on your time. Then come up with methods for avoiding those specific distractions.
If you can get away with it, turning off the phone is great. If you’re a writer who keeps running away to the internet, there are apps that temporarily disable your internet access. There may be no catch-all solution, but with a little ingenuity you can search out your problems and eliminate them one by one.
- Avoid Meetings
Note: I’m only adding this one because it was on every list I checked. Personally, I’m a freelancer, and the closest thing I have to a meeting is a Skype call every once in a while.
From what I gather, meetings are pretty awful. So if it’s at all possible to avoid a meeting, you should probably do so. I’m sure there’s some high-level administrative reasons for why meetings exist even though nobody actually likes them or gets anything important done during them, but that’s as may be.
It kind of seems like it’s preaching to the choir to say, “Hey guys, you should avoid meetings!” But it’s true that you should, nonetheless.
- If You Can’t Avoid Meetings—Set an Agenda!
Of course, a lot of the time you’ll be stuck with the meetings. A client insists. Management insists. The President of the United States insists.
Setting an agenda makes great damage control. If you can set the agenda for the meeting, you can get things going in as efficient a manner as possible. You can get in, talk about what you need to talk about, and get on to more important things. Problem solved.
Besides, there’s always the little advantage of making yourself look highly efficient, proactive, and professional. (And if you’re lucky, that alone can make the whole hassle of the meeting well worth your while.)
- Work in 90-Minute Bursts
Now, this one might sound a little woo-woo, but there’s science behind it, so you don’t have to take my word for it.
You know how you’ve always heard you sleep in a 90-minute cycle? Well, it’s the same when you’re awake. The body goes through 90-minute energy cycles when you’re awake as well. So if you work in 90-minute intervals that sync up with that cycle, you can supercharge your productivity in no time.
Don’t take my word for it, though. World-class athletes, thinkers, and chess players use this technique to get their daily work done in three 90-minute bursts. How does getting huge amounts of work done in 4.5 hours a day sound to you? Because it sounds great to me.
- Avoid Interruptions
It’s easier to make excuses for getting interrupted than it is to make excuses for getting distracted. After all, you can’t help it if your good friend Sam calls you up and tries to catch up, can you?
Maybe not. But avoiding interruptions pays off, whether you’re working at home or in an office environment. Family and coworkers will naturally want to chat with you throughout the day, and who can blame them? You’re charming.
But you’ve got important things to do. You’ve got to drive a wedge between work and life, or else the one is going to eat up the other.
- Focus on Your Goal
There’s no way you can accomplish anything amazing without having a goal to strive for. And there’s no way you can reach that goal if you don’t imprint it deep inside you.
I mean, it’s obvious enough that you need to focus on your goals. But where most people fail is that they just imagine some vague ideas and say, “Let’s call this focusing on my goal.”
That’s not how it works. If you’re going to really focus on your goal, you’re going to have to really flesh it out. Write down your goals, the same way you’d write down a grocery list. Remember: a list of long-term goals isn’t anything different than a to-do list that takes a long time to get done. Make those goals stick!
- Take a Nap
This isn’t me recommending it, it’s the research!
Personally, I’d never be caught dead taking a nap. But I’ve seen enough advice from enough people saying that naps are a great idea for productivity that I just had to put it on this list.
You can take a 15-minute power nap if you like, or you can take a 90-minute snoozefest. Whatever you do, there’s research showing that it improves your recall and memory, and that it gives you the chance to get your brain up and functioning at one hundred percent. So if your performance is slipping, you could do worse than take a nap.
- Keep a Window Open
Now, you’d think having a window wide open to take in the view would slow you down, but it’s actually the other way around. It turns out that we work a lot more effectively if we have something nice to look at, so keeping the window open can help you keep in a good mood while you’re getting your work done.
If you can keep your window open, you can have all the benefits of natural lighting and a nice view to help you through the daily grind. It’s always helpful not to feel quite so cramped.
- Take Breaks for Exercise
Speaking of feeling cramped: if it ever gets too bad for you, it can be wonderfully helpful to take a quick break to get the blood moving. You could take a quick power walk around the block, or drop down to the floor and do a set of push-ups.
The thing you’ve got to remember is this: your mind isn’t just in your head. It’s all throughout your body. Less than half of the neurons in your body are in the brain. So if you can get your body up and working, you can get your whole mind humming. Not just your head.
- Keep Inspirational Boards/Posters in Sight
We’ve all got those moments when we feel like we can’t go on. We’ve all got those moments when we just know everything we’ve worked for all our lives is bound to crash and end in terrible failure. We’ve all got those moments.
So we all need a little something to remind us why we keep trying. I used to think motivational posters were dumb, cynical, and unrealistic. But then I realized they’re actually deeply meaningful. It can change somebody’s life to have a poster in front of them that says “Look up when you’re down.”
Because if you can internalize that belief, you can make it happen.
- Keep Your Goals in Front of You (Literally!)
Sometimes we lose sight of our goals metaphorically. But sometimes we lose sight of them literally, and that can be just as bad.
What am I talking about here? I’m talking about the same kind of thing I was talking about with the motivational posters. If you want to keep your mind focused on your goals, it’s good to have your goals there in front of you.
You could write it down. You could get a picture of the house you want to live in. You can do whatever you want. But just make sure you have what you want in front of you, so you can see it when your motivation drops.
- Cut Out Multitasking
Multitasking always sounds like a good idea. But the fact is, it’s not. If you want your mind to focus on something, you need to focus on one thing at a time.
I’m serious here. We deeply overestimate the brain’s processing abilities all the time. When you get down to it, you’ve got two options: you can either do one thing at a time, and do it well, or you can do fifty things at once, and never do anything well.
It takes concentration to do a good job. So you need to kill the habit of trying to let your mind be in ten different places at once. It’s not working for you, and you know it. So STOP IT!
- Use Your Downtime Effectively
There’s always downtime. It can be in the car on the commute. It can be when you’re out for your morning run. It can be when you’re eating lunch in peace and quiet.
If there’s ever a chance for you to learn more about your work, you should take it. Read a book. Listen to a motivational speech. Read helpful blog posts. If there’s ever a free moment, you should take that time to make your working time more effective. It’s as simple as that. You need to get your head in the game, and you need to keep your head in the game.
- Rearrange Your Workspace
Now, before you accuse me of telling you to do useless stuff as a distraction, I’m not. I’m just saying if you start to feel cramped and stifled in your workplace, you could consider rearranging it.
Do it sometime when you get done with your work early. Do it on the weekend. The point is: do it sometime when it won’t interfere with work. But do it, because it’s worth the time to de-clutter your life and get your mind back to where it needs to be.
- Don’t Be a Perfectionist
Believe me, I know all about the dangers of perfectionism. You get so wrapped up in how perfect a project needs to be, or how perfect it could potentially be, that you end up never doing anything. Because you’re so worried it might not turn out perfect that you feel like there’s no point in even trying.
And that’s a recipe for failure. As somebody famous once said, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Sure, it sounds corny. Sure, it sounds dumb. But it’s true. So you need to get moving, give up your whiny little, “But it’s not gonna be perfect!” attitude, and get to work.
- Use More Red and Blue
Ink, that is. Writing with blue ink stimulates creativity, and writing with red ink increases your attention to detail. (Sure, it might sound a little hokey, but it’s worth a try.) If anything, it’s a way to let yourself know you’re trying, and isn’t that the main thing we’re after?
- Give Yourself Scheduled Break Times
This is a big one if you’re self-employed. (I know, because we’ve got a nasty tendency to either cram our days full of sixteen-hour marathons of productivity or week-long pits of uselessness.)
It can be tough. But if you make yourself schedule a specific time to take a break, it gives you a great feeling of mental freedom. Because now that there’s a time on your schedule when you’re literally not allowed to work, it’s easier for you to keep yourself on task when you are working.
Remember: it’s all about tricking yourself into being productive.
- Decide What You’re Going to Eat Before You’re Hungry
This comes back to the whole thing about how it matters what you eat.
Because let’s be honest: if you’re picking your meal when you’re half-starving, you’re going to pick that nice, juicy burger over that lousy rabbit food that makes you hate your life.
But if you really want to be productive, you need to give up the nice, juicy burger and eat that lousy rabbit food that makes you hate your life. And if you’re going to eat healthy, you need to arrange your life so it’s easier than eating what tastes good. That’s why it pays to pack your lunch the day before, and be sure to include a bunch of awful healthy junk.
- Come Up With Milestones for Major Tasks
This comes back to what we were talking about with the way you need to divide big tasks into a bunch of smaller, more manageable tasks. If you have a major project you’re working on, you can need a little kick to get you going. So if you divide the job into little milestones, you can give yourself a little pat on the back every time you reach a milestone. That way you can make yourself power through the tough parts and get them done.
- Set Aside 90 Minutes For Your Most Important Work
Some days you can feel like you’re getting sucked into a major pile of stuff that really doesn’t matter all that much. It happens to all of us sometimes. Nobody can keep themselves totally free of what seems like pointless work that doesn’t go anywhere.
But if you set aside a specific 90 minute block that always goes to your most important stuff, you’ll be able to power through those tough times. This one works for two reasons: 1) it gives you the incentive to work on the most important stuff, and 2) it forces you to identify what’s most important in the first place. And that can be half the battle.
- Turn off the Phone if You Can
Granted, it may not be an option to completely unplug from civilization and get into your work zone. If your clients are in the habit of calling you, they might not appreciate it if you turned off your phone all the time.
But if you can get away with it, turning off the phone can be a great way to avoid a major source of distractions. Your good friend Sam can’t call to catch up if your phone’s not on to begin with!
- Concentrate on Your Goals
I realize I’m probably beating a dead horse by this point, but it’s important. If you aren’t concentrating on your goals, you’re not going to reach them. There’s nobody on earth who ever achieved anything worth doing without learning to concentrate firmly on a single goal.
It’s hard. It’s not very much fun. And it can feel like you’re cutting off parts of your personality.
That’s life, bucko. It’s hard. But if you can truly concentrate on your goals, you can get more done than you ever thought possible. Your mind is a tool for helping you reach your goals. So pick the right ones, and stick to them.
- Try the 2-Minute Rule
Interruptions happen. Every once in a while, things are going to come up that demand your attention. So if you can’t avoid it, use the 2-minute rule.
What’s that? Simple. If it takes less than 2 minutes, go ahead and do it now. If it’s going to take longer than that, you’ll need to find a way to work it into your schedule. Sometimes things come up, and when they do you need to have a plan together to meet them.
- Be Sure to Get Enough Sleep
This one’s another obvious one. Everybody knows you’re supposed to get 8 hours of sleep every night, and everybody knows it’s not an easy thing to do.
So do it anyways. Everybody knows how hard it can be to force yourself to go to bed at the same time every day, especially when you’d rather catch the last few minutes of the movie you’re watching. But here’s the thing: it pays to be able to force yourself into bed. You’re practicing your will power, and you’re making sure your mind is ready to function at one hundred percent capacity tomorrow. And if you really want to be productive, that’s what matters.