We want to be masters of productivity, most of us, because there are a lot of things we really want to do.
Sometimes that means that we expect ourselves to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We tend to think that increasing our productivity is something we do by making monumental changes.
Monumental changes can help (depending on what they are and how they’re executed), but they’re rare. Usually they’re instigated by a huge life change or crisis. Though I love the idea of being more productive, I’m not willing to invite crisis into my life for the sake of higher output.
I am willing to make small changes…and, generally speaking, it’s the tiny, daily habits that move us forward. Try some of these disarmingly simple, tiny habits and see how your productivity grows.
1. Use a Timer
I use a timer constantly. It tells me when to begin and, more importantly, when to end. It helps me to stay on track. It gives me worry-free breaks and helps me to get in the flow for a concentrated block of work time.
You can investigate the Pomodoro technique for a detailed way to use a timer, but you can also just start using a timer without any prior investigation.
Use a timer both to get yourself to do the stuff you want to avoid (“I’ll clean the house for 20 minutes”) and the stuff that can eat up too much time (“I’ll only research this article for 30 minutes”) and to take regular breaks, which increase productivity.
2. Give It 5 Minutes
If you continually face intimidating tasks or projects, or if there’s something you really don’t want to do (there always is), embrace the habit of “the first five minutes.”
This is a no-stress, no-commitment way to get yourself started. It requires a timer (see #1). For the task you’re avoiding, tell yourself — and mean it — that you’re just going to give it five minutes. Then set the timer and tackle the task for five minutes. At that point, you can either stop and move on to something else, or you can dig in and keep going.
Starting is almost always the most difficult part. By training yourself in this little habit of throwing five minutes at the thing that intimidates you, you can get yourself over that starting hurdle and get more work done with less procrastination and anxiety.
3. Write Your Victory Statement
Sometimes, especially if I know I’m tired or unexcited about work or if I have a particularly trying day ahead, I’ll take two minutes to stop and write a victory statement.
A victory statement is a simple sentence that describes my day, and what I did in it, if I choose to be productive.
So it might look something like this:
“Today I wrote a full two chapters on the book even though it was difficult to get started.”
“Today I got a big start on that newest project and followed up with that difficult client, and man, does it feel good!”
In other words, it’s an idealistic description of what I want my day to be. But it’s pretty powerful. It tells me, in a single sentence, what’s in it for me: the feeling of accomplishment, relief, and joy I’ll have when I choose to be productive instead of letting fear control me. Try it.
4. Tell Somebody What You’re Going to Do
When my husband is on the road and I’m struggling to launch into an afternoon of writing after a morning of homeschooling the kids, I use this trick on myself. When Joe calls, usually around lunchtime, I’ll tell him, “I’m going to write three articles this afternoon.” Or, “I’m going to finish that query letter and edit two blog posts.” Or whatever it is.
Just saying it aloud and making a commitment to another human can propel you forward. Social media is pretty great for this, too: if you’re procrastinating online, blab about the word count or quota or goal you want to reach. Now you feel too embarrassed about public failure and you have to make an effort.
5. Treat Yourself
What’s a treat that you anticipate and enjoy?
This is a question worth thinking about. We’re not all excited about the same things. Duh, you think, but it’s pretty common for us to assume that because someone else enjoys a particular thing, we also will (or should) enjoy it.
Instead of getting “treat” ideas from what other people like, think about the things in your life that you truly look forward to: a short walk, a cold drink, a chat with a friend, new music, fresh flowers, time alone, a particular task (I love mopping; weird but true).
Gretchen Rubin has some insight about how treats help us:
“When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits. Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control…Self-regard isn’t selfish. When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful.”
6. Stand Up
Sitting at a desk all day, we know by now, is one of the most unhealthy things you can do. Quit doing it all day long.
Rearrange things. I have a shelf right by my desk that doubles as a standing desk: it’s just at the right height for me. Rig something up so you can stand and work, then alternate sitting and standing. And don’t forget those breaks: take them regularly, and move around for a bit when you do.
7. Drink More Water
The easiest habit on this list, I think. Drinking water is a gift to my body and my brain. Get yourself a great mug or travel cup or water bottle and drink it down several times a day.
You’ll get a long list of benefits, like a healthier immune system and clearer skin; you can even get some increased cognitive function, too. All-around winning for being more productive.
You love coffee or tea or some other beverage? I hear you. Strong, hot coffee with cream is my working beverage of choice. My method is to alternate: one cup of coffee, then a big glass of ice water.
8. Listen to Great Background Music
Like treats, the kind of music you enjoy is a matter of personal preference. What gets you into a productive groove might just be annoying for me. Personally, when I’m playing or hanging out or exercising, I like music I can sing with. But when I’m working, lyrics distract me.
Find out what kind of music helps your brain get into work mode. Then create a few work playlists and make it a habit to have one going when you work. The music acts as a cue, signaling your brain that when you hear it, it’s focus time.
9. Use Your To-Do List at the End of the Day
There’s plenty of advice on how to make a to-do list. Equally important is how to use it: when you’ve accomplished something, mark it off. If you get something done that wasn’t on the list, add it to the list and mark it off.
Take five minutes at the end of a work session or at the end of the day to look at your list, note what you did, and make decisions about what you’ll do the next day.
It’s helpful to know ahead of time what you’re going to focus on the next day — whether that’s a series of work tasks or a day to recharge and play — so you don’t have to waste time hesitating over decisions.
10. Color-Code Your Entire Life
I use a paper planner, and I have different colors for different areas in my life: green for work, purple for home schooling, orange for things that require me to leave home (an important, distinct “area” when you’re a work-from-home person, because the outside world expects you to wear real clothes…weird). You can do this digitally, of course, for your calendar, task list, projects, mind maps, everything.
I have four kids, and they each have a favorite color (except for Rob, my seven year old, who doesn’t do favorites but does have a strong preference for the color green). When buying duplicate items (toothbrushes, beach towels, backpacks, notebooks), I color-code for each child.
The point of color-coding is to give your brain less work. It’s an easy way to label things. Get creative. You can color-code almost anything in your life, and you can use washi tape for the stuff that doesn’t come in a rainbow of color options. I’d rather spend my limited intelligence writing an article or making up knock-knock jokes with my kids than figuring out whose headphones are whose.
The point of all these habits, in fact, is to diminish the energy your brain requires for daily life. The small but frequent needs to analyze and discern and decide can sap a lot of mental energy. The more you can give yourself operating cues, like music and color-coding, the more you can save brainpower for the more productive and fun things in your life.
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