How Productive Are You? Take Our Productivity Quiz To Find Out

Take The Quiz

9 Ways to Break Up Your Work to Stay Focused and Productive

By | 4 comments

Camera lens

This is a guest post by Sarah Landrum, a Penn State graduate, marketing specialist, and freelance writer. She is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and happiness blog. For more tips about growing your career and boosting your productivity, follow Sarah on social media and subscribe to her newsletter! You can find her tweeting daily @SarahLandrum.


Productivity is a time bomb that counts down every day. The hourglass of focus flips over as soon as you sit down at your desk. Your motivation and concentration are limited, which makes it impossible to work for a long time without any breaks. This theory is known as ego depletion.

A long to-do list exhausts your brain and sucks the focus right out of you.

You have to do everything you can to get it back and sustain your productivity.

Besides the refresh that comes with breaks, breaking down work makes big projects more manageable and helps you stay focused and motivated throughout the day.

Here are nine ways to break down your work, so you can keep your eye on the prize and take action on your goals to get there.

  1. Don’t Break the Chain

    wall calendar calendar with the number of days

What’s the deal with procrastination?

I’m sure Jerry Seinfeld has asked this question at some point in his career. Between creating a hit sitcom and constantly writing new bits for his stand-up, Seinfeld’s productivity must have been insanely high, and that might have something to do with the “Don’t Break the Chain” technique.

At the beginning of each year, Seinfeld would buy a big year-at-a-glance calendar and hang it on his wall. Seinfeld would then draw a huge red X through every day he wrote new material. After writing for consecutive days, a chain of red X’s would emerge on the calendar. The objective for the year was simple — don’t break the chain.

This method works because being able to draw a huge red X is so rewarding. It’s a sign that you’ve conquered the day and done everything you wanted to do. In the midst of those red X’s, a blank day seems insulting. It’s staring you right in the face, disrupting the pattern you’ve proudly created.

The Don’t Break the Chain technique can be used to break up your work. Let’s say you have one big task that’ll take all day to do. Break that up into four or five smaller tasks. Every time you finish a smaller task, put an X on the calendar day. When you finish another smaller task, draw a different colored X on the same day. If you don’t get something done, the absence of an X will be noticeable on any given day.

  1. Workstation Popcorn

    Laptop, hands, sun light

Whether you work at an office or from home, being surrounded by the same four walls can become exhausting. You start to feel trapped, and this certainly has an impact on your productivity.

The workstation popcorn method can solve this problem, especially if you work from home. Take everything you have to do for the day and write it all down in a list. These tasks should be specific and actionable. You should also write down how long you think each task should take to complete. Try to be realistic with the time. Next, group these tasks into three different segments. Each segment should take the same amount of time to complete.

Now choose three different locations. These locations can be coffee shops, the library, a personal office, a park, or any quiet place that allows you to get work done. Go to the first location and work on the first segment of tasks. Once you’re done with that, go to the second location and work on the second segment. Repeat this for the third segment.

Changing locations will be refreshing to your brain, especially if you work outside. Also, traveling from one location to the next will give your brain a break between segments. This method allows you to break up your work and efficiently get a lot done in one day.

  1. Work Breakdown Structure

Working on a big project and unsure how to manage it? The work breakdown structure is for you.

A work breakdown structure breaks down the entire process of your project and gives actionable steps to completing the project. It gives your entire team the scope of what needs to be done.

The work breakdown structure is made up of these four components:

  1. Statement of work
  2. Phases
  3. Deliverables
  4. Tasks

These four components make up the road map to completing your work. The road map clearly determines what the task is, who should be working on it, and when it should be completed. We’re going to take a look at each component in a little more detail.

Statement of Work

This is a sentence or short paragraph that clearly defines your vision. It lets you know what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re going to accomplish it. Anytime you aren’t sure if you’re doing the right thing, go back to the statement of work and see if it lines up.

Phases

Now that you have the vision of the project, you need to break it down into phases. These should be broad tasks you need to complete in order to finish the entire project. The number of phases relies on how large the project is, but there should be an average of two or three phases for each project.

Deliverables

Deliverables are more specific tasks that are necessary to complete each phase. You have to finish these deliverables in succession before going to the next deliverable or phase. Each should also have a statement that explains its purpose.

Tasks

Now that you have deliverables, you need to assign tasks for completing each deliverable. Tasks are the smallest component of the work breakdown structure. These should be actionable and specific. This is where details are important, and the tasks should give you the full picture of everything you need to do to complete the main project.

The work breakdown structure gives you a detailed plan for completing a major project. The idea of a huge project can be overwhelming, and you might dread working on it. By breaking up the work with the work breakdown structure, you’ll get a clear idea of every simple step you have to take to complete the project. The project now seems less scary, and you’ll be motivated to get your work done.

  1. Getting Things Done

    Successful business man

You may have heard about Getting Things Done before, or at least seen the acronym GTD floating around the Internet. Getting Things Done is a best-selling book written by David Allen, where he explains the art of stress-free productivity. In his book, Allen writes about the popular Getting Things Done productivity method. This intricate system is made up of five pillars:

  1. Capture: Write everything down. Any ideas, things you have to do, or everyday tasks should be written on paper or typed in a Word doc. Make sure you write everything down as you think of it. This means you should have a notebook or electronic device readily available.
  2. Clarify: Now that you have something written down, you need to be specific about how you’re going to get it done. Write down actionable tasks that will help you accomplish what you want to do.
  3. Organize: Now, organize these tasks by priority and category. Assign due dates and rank each item based on importance. Create a to-do list and put the most important tasks at the top. You should do these first.
  4. Reflect: Look at your to-do list and make sure everything is prioritized correctly. Make sure everything is broken down into actionable steps and that they’re all prioritized in the right order.
  5. Engage: Get to work! Choose what you’re going to do and accomplish each step to complete it.

These are the basic principles of the GTD method. You can tweak it to what works best for you, but you should keep the main idea in mind. Break everything down into actionable steps and complete the important tasks first.

  1. Must, Should, Want

This technique helps you break down tasks into tiers of importance. Every morning you should ask yourself these three questions:

  • What must I do to create the most impact today?
  • What should I do to build a better future?
  • What do I want to do so that I may enjoy today and life more completely?

This is called the Must, Should, Want method. Before you start your day, you should honestly answer these questions. Write them down and complete the following sentences:

  • I must…
  • I should…
  • I want to…

By doing this, you’re breaking down everything you have to do by how important it is to you. Things that you must do are absolutely urgent. You can’t wait another day without doing these tasks. These are also tasks that impact your immediate future.

Tasks you should do are those that will pay off in the long run. These tasks might not require immediate attention, but they still loom in your consciousness. You know that one day you’ll need to address these tasks, so you should get them done sooner rather than later. However, they don’t need to be done immediately.

Tasks that you want to do are for personal enjoyment. They aren’t urgent, and they might not be necessary at all, but they’ll make your day better. Maybe you want to watch a movie or start writing a book. These should be tasks you enjoy doing.

Now you have your tasks broken up by urgency and importance. This will help you evaluate what needs to be done, and you can plan your day accordingly.

  1. Biological Prime Time

    Coffee cup in morning

When do you work most efficiently? Is it early in the morning after you exercise? Is it in the middle of the afternoon? Do you work best on something late at night when most people are sleeping?

Ego depletion means our focus and motivation fluctuates throughout the day. There are certain times of the day where your energy, focus, motivation, and productivity are at peak levels. These times are known as your biological prime times.

It’s important to know these times of the day because they’re when your brain is ready to work. In order to find these times, you should track your energy throughout the course of the day for three weeks. Try not to consume coffee, and don’t take naps. You want to know your body’s natural prime time without the help of other substances.

Once you know these times, you should break your work up into these time intervals. You should then schedule these tasks for your biological prime time, so you’re ready to work and get a lot done. You’ll get more work done during these times than if you were to sit at your desk all day long.

  1. The Action Method

Some of these methods suggest you should put specific tasks on your to-do list and only work on those. While this may be helpful, the action method takes this a step further and declares every event is a task.

That’s right: Everything you do throughout the day can be put on a to-do list and broken down into actionable steps. The action method suggests you break everything down into three primary components:

  1. Action Steps: These are specific, concrete tasks that bring you closer to completing the main task at hand.
  2. References: Any information you might want to go back to for a particular project. This can be notes, handouts, manuals, or websites. References are any resources that will help you complete each task.
  3. Backburner Items: These are tasks that aren’t actionable now but that you’ll have to complete someday. They aren’t necessary for the immediate future, but at some point you’ll have to work on them.

According to the action method, everything you do can be broken down into these three components. By categorizing your tasks, you’ll have a better idea of when to start them and how to complete them, giving you a clear picture of what you have to do.

  1. 1-3-5 List

To-do lists can be extremely helpful if they’re organized and structured the right way. The other methods have taught us that your to-do list should prioritize each task by importance and that you should write down actionable steps you’ll need to take to complete each task. The 1-3-5 list takes the to-do list to another level.

The 1-3-5 list is a to-do list where you break down your daily tasks by importance. Every day you should complete one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. This means each day you’re completing nine different tasks with different levels of importance.

The 1-3-5 list helps you prioritize and rank each task. It also requires you to only complete nine tasks, so you won’t be overwhelmed. However, you’re still getting a lot done and you’ll have time to focus on each task.

  1. Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban is a method that combines the actionable steps of a to-do list with the visual appeal of Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain method. All you need is a board, some post-it notes, and your tasks.

The Kanban Board should be split up into three vertical columns:

  1. Backlog/To-Do: The backlog column is where you put tasks that you haven’t started working on yet but that you have to at some point.
  2. Doing: These are the tasks that you are currently in the process of doing. You can also have a post-it note for each actionable step you have to take to complete that task.
  3. Done: All of your completed tasks go in this column. There is nothing better than glancing at the board and seeing all the tasks you’re done with.

This simple method will certainly help your productivity. Moving each task from column to column provides a sense of progress that you wouldn’t get from a to-do list. You can also visualize everything you’ve accomplished, which will keep you motivated for the next task.

It’ll also limit you from doing too much, because you’ll be able to see the board become crowded. Your Personal Kanban board will help you visualize your productivity while scaling back on what you’re doing.

Break Up and Get to Work

If you want to boost your productivity and reach your goals, these are nine of the most effective techniques for doing so by breaking up your work. Now you just need to take action and become a more productive worker!


This is a guest post by Sarah Landrum, a Penn State graduate, marketing specialist, and freelance writer. She is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a career and happiness blog. For more tips about growing your career and boosting your productivity, follow Sarah on social media and subscribe to her newsletter! You can find her tweeting daily @SarahLandrum.

 

How Productive Are You?

Take our Productivity Quiz to find out. Learn the tactics and techniques that will work for you.

Take The Quiz

4 Comments

Posted by Pick Panda  | July 21, 2016 at 5:35AM | Reply

This is really effective. I tried to implement don’t break the chain and it feels really bad when I missed one cross. Now for my schedule these crosses are not getting missed. Thanks

Posted by Samantha  | July 11, 2016 at 4:56PM | Reply

I definitely need to try at least one of these, and soon… my productivity has been so bad lately. I just can’t seem to get my head right.

Posted by Alexandra  | June 30, 2016 at 6:07AM | Reply

Nice piece, Sarah! Your twitter feed is also neat, I’m very glad to be following you.
Thank you for sharing the calendar insight on Seinfeld, I feel that could also work for me.

Posted by Shawn Geddes  | June 29, 2016 at 2:48PM | Reply

Any advice on how to implement the Action Method with OmniFocus? Thank you for this article. I really like how you present several options for us.

Leave a Reply