It’s Monday morning. You head to work, full of well-rested vigor and good intentions. This is going to be your week: you are going to stay organized, get enough sleep and exercise, and finally tackle that to-do list that’s been sitting on your desk for the last two weeks. That is, until you arrive at your office and find yourself bombarded with twenty-five emails, three voicemails, a hysterical coworker, and a blubbering Facebook message from your crazy ex-boyfriend. There’s too much to do, not enough time to do it, and just thinking about all of it makes your brain hurt and your heart palpitate. Stop. Take a deep breath. You can get everything done, and take control of your life. Being productive is not a superpower possessed only by mystical creatures in self-help articles. It is about creating a new way of thinking about how you structure your life. By taking just a few small baby steps at a time, you can retrain your brain so that checking boxes off on your to-do list becomes something that is easily accomplished and enjoyable. Tricking yourself into productivity is not difficult, nor is it painful, and it can be done with these fifteen easy steps.
15. Watch what you eat and drink
Although it may be more convenient or time-saving to wolf down a Power Bar at your desk or skip lunch in favor of cranking out that report that’s due, it will work against you in the long run. Ever heard of the two o’clock slump? If you don’t eat well throughout the day, you will find yourself sluggish and dragging. Your body needs proper nutrition in order to function properly, and if you skip meals or eat nutrient-deficient meals, your brain won’t be able to keep up with the demands of the day. Try to incorporate at least one source of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates at each meal. Ideally, you should have one or two servings of fruits and vegetables, a lean meat or dairy, and a whole grain. If possible, avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars, excess caffeine, and alcohol.
14. Get enough rest, but not too much rest
Sleep is important when you’re trying to achieve your goals. You are probably no stranger to that foggy, dim feeling that seems to cloud your brain when you haven’t had the proper amount of zzz’s. Make sure you are logging at least seven hours a night of quality sleep. Try to avoid spending time in front of the television or your phone as the light emitted from the screens can interfere with the chemicals that allow your brain to enter REM, the deepest, most restorative form of sleep. Instead, try reading or sipping a cup of tea just before bed. That being said, sleep is important–but too much sleep can have the reverse effect and also affect your productivity. Find the happy medium for you. If you find that you are still feeling sluggish and log much more than seven hours of sleep a night, it may be time to cut back on your time beneath the sheets. Additionally, make sure you’re getting at least thirty minutes of moderate intensity activity a day. Sure, it takes some extra time out of your busy schedule–but your clearer-thinking brain will thank you.
13. Make a better to-do list
Brushing your dog’s coat probably isn’t high-priority when you have a million other items on your to-do list, but it’s easy to get caught up in all the tasks floating around in your mental agenda. To organize these thoughts, make a three-columned to-do list. In the first box, write down everything that is urgent–in other words, everything that must be done as soon as possible. Number the list, with the most important item first on the list. In the second column, write down any other tasks that you think of that should get done soon, but aren’t exactly urgent –this is where you would put the dog grooming tasks. In the third box, write down things you want to do. Perhaps you want to schedule a manicure, or take the time to hang that new birdhouse in your backyard. These tasks aren’t urgent at all–but you want to make sure to take time to do them before you forget. By categorizing each item in your to-do list, you won’t have to spend time fretting over which item to tackle, or whether you’re spending too much time on each piece.
12. Practice “chunking”
“Chunking” usually refers to breaking up pieces of information into bite-sized “chunks” so that it’s easier to comprehend and process. When you think about productivity, chunking can help by making large or unpleasant tasks more manageable. For example, say you have to write a fifty-page research paper for your Philosophy class and make a few phone calls. You’d also like to get in thirty minutes or so of yoga. You’re probably dreading writing that paper first, so what you should do is: write five pages of your paper, then make a phone call, write five more pages, then do fifteen minutes of yoga. You see the trend? Chunking gives you a meaningful way to block out your time, and provides you with landmarks that you can look forward to. This way, you won’t get burnt out working on one miserable task, and you’ll still get it all done.
11. …but don’t multitask!
This tip seems a bit contradictory to the last one, right? Not quite! Chunking is a great way to make the most of a limited amount of time, but you have to be in control of when you take breaks or switch to another task. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of starting a task, then stopping at random to check your email, text a friend, or switch to a new task. Complete such things only within a given period of time, and be sure to schedule out your task-switching in advance so that your brain is prepared for the change. For example, if you want to take the time to check emails, set out a block of time that will be used only for checking emails. Don’t scatter your attention around multiple tasks at once. Otherwise, you’ll fall victim to the dangers of multitasking, which include decreased productivity, task enjoyment, and brain function.
10. Tell people what you are trying to do
Sometimes, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to complete the most boring, time-intensive, or unpleasant tasks. However, it’s important to remind yourself that you have a reason for doing them, whether it be for monetary gain (work), personal growth (training for a marathon), or family responsibility (scheduling your son’s dentist appointments). It can be difficult to remember why you committed to a task, so telling other people what you need to get done can help boost your accountability. Tell a friend or family member your plans for the day, and you’ll be more likely to get them done.
9. Reward yourself
Don’t get too carried away with this one. If your goal is to run three miles a day, rewarding yourself with a greasy cheeseburger after each run probably isn’t going to help you improve upon that goal in the future. But providing yourself with small incentives to keep going can help you stay motivated and interested in the task at hand. You can even plan your rewards as activity incentives. For example, you could tell yourself, “If I write these work emails for forty-five minutes, I can take a fifteen minute walk.” In fact, taking breaks is not only a good incentive, but recommended as a way to stay productive. Pulling your brain away from the task at hand for a scheduled break–especially if that break involves physical activity–is a great way to clear your mind and make sure your attention hasn’t wandered from your goal.
8. Schedule time for yourself
Again–don’t get carried away. Schedule too much time for yourself, and you’ll find you’re not getting anything done at all. However, it’s important that you take regular time out of each day (most experts recommend at least an hour) to do something you find enjoyable. Go for a run, take a hot bath, or read a book. Not only will these planned relaxation sessions help you unwind and relieve stress, the down time will help you organize your thoughts as to what needs to be done next. You’ll be less likely to get burned out, and less cranky when something else is added to your to-do list!
7. Tackle the most difficult items before the rooster crows
Unless you’re a farmer, and then it probably doesn’t matter. You should, however, try to schedule the most difficult–or most dreaded–tasks early in the day. If you’re not a morning person, or if you work nights, that’s okay–you don’t have to be scrubbing your bathroom floors or writing a dry dissertation at the crack of dawn. However, aim to tackle the “worst” or the most time-consuming item on your to-do list first. That way, you won’t be dreading it all day, and it will feel great to cross it off your to-do list before you’ve even had your second cup of coffee.
6. Break goals down into small, achievable steps
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when faced with a huge task on your to-do list. Looking at a behemoth such as, “Write that fifty-page research paper” may seem daunting and nearly impossible, but it doesn’t have to be. Break the goal up into small tasks and prioritize those tasks just as you would any other item on your to-do list. If only part of that task needs to be done right away, don’t worry about getting the rest done until you’re finished with the first batch. By prioritizing and separating out each step of your goal, you’ll be able to breathe deeply and focus on one step at a time. Remember–Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that research paper isn’t going to write itself.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail
Have you ever sat in front of a computer, trying to write a paper or an email, and spent half an hour typing four words, then deleting, then typing four new words, and deleting again? More than likely, you were afraid that whatever you were doing was not going to be good enough, and your perfectionism kept you from actually carrying out the task. Perfectionism is not a bad thing; in fact, when utilized correctly, a perfectionist nature allows you to complete work of the utmost quality and value. However, there comes a time in your busy life when you simply need to lose your inhibitions and get it done. If you’re faced with constant fear over the quality of your work, tell yourself that you’ll get as much done of the task as possible, and you can always come back and revise it afterwards.
4. Use technology
We’re in the twenty-first century, people. There’s absolutely no excuse for forgetting to do something anymore. There are a million apps and programs out there that will help you organize your life. Google Calendar, for example, allows you to plug in important dates, tasks, or reminders, and will alert you when those items are due. You can even color code tasks so that figuring out where you need to be or what you need to do is quick and easy. Not every app or program will work best for everybody, so play around and see what works best for your schedule and needs. Most apps are free, and easy to install.
3. Control your clutter
If you’ve ever walked into your office, looked at your messy desk and instantly felt less than Zen, you know the impact a pile of clutter can have on your mental state. It’s tough to think with a clear mind when the space around you isn’t clear, so take a few minutes every day to organize your space. Label specific places where particular items need to go. And, make sure you not only create an organizational system, but follow through with it. Again, what works well for one person might not work for everyone, but if you are able to establish a routine regarding what goes where, what gets shredded, and what doesn’t matter, you’ll find yourself working a lot more productively.
2. Think about what really matters
Why do you have this item on your to-do list? Is it something you want or need to do, or something you feel you ought to do? Many times we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tasks we have to complete because we are “keeping up with the Joneses,” or so to speak. Perhaps you have a million things to get done at work but keep remembering that you should repaint the front shutters because, well, the neighbors repainted theirs and you don’t want to be judged, and yada yada. If you don’t necessarily care if something gets done and it’s not vital to your life functioning or that of the people for which you are responsible (like your kids), put it in the “would like to get done at some point” box and stop worrying about it. Figure out what matters, and focus all of your energy on that.
1. Just do it
There’s no sugarcoating this one. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and get things done. Just do it–isn’t that what Nike always says? That logo works for a reason. There are some tasks for which the greatest incentives, most beautiful chunking, or organized to-do lists won’t help you. You can make lists until your hand falls off (which we don’t recommend–if this happens you should definitely add “see a doctor” to your priority list) but if you don’t sit down and actually do it then it’s not going to get done. Sometimes the easiest, and most effective, way to force yourself to be productive is…well, to force yourself to just do it already.