Productivity is the modern worker’s elusive genie. Hiding in corners and crevices always feeling just out of reach. But being productive is not a constant state of being. So don’t beat yourself over the head with a keyboard if you need a minute to stare out the window, get up and stretch your legs or refuel. The most productive people can recognise when they are unable to focus, and learn ways to reorient themselves.
Since joining a company who specialise in learning, productivity has been top of mind for me. Thinking about the ways in which people learn and engage with learning content has encouraged me to think about how I practice productivity.
Recently, we released the 100 Most Useful Productivity Tips. It's a comprehensive guide of the most cited tips on how to increase productivity. Each hack was handpicked, categorised, and ranked according to utility and required willpower to implement. For the purposes of this post, my colleague Shola and I would like to share some of our top picks from this guide.
Let's start with the most controversial.
1. The early bird catches the worm
There have been a lot of articles circulating online about the benefits of early rising. Any article called “X amount of ways to become successful” is bound to list this tip along with a long string of super successful people, and purport that their early wake-up calls are directly linked to their success.
I did my own little experiment with this. For 3 months straight I woke up at 5:45am to go to the gym. My logic was, if I could wake up at 7:30am to get ready to go to work, I could wake up a few hours earlier to do something good for myself. For me, this meant the evenings were free to work on my passion projects, I was achieving my goal of five half an hour workouts a week and I still had time to squeeze in some trashy TV before bed. My findings? I felt like I achieved more with my day by maximising my morning routine, in some ways I had found time.
Now I know there are those who will say they are not naturally early risers and they need their sleep. We all do. Starting early does not mean sleep sacrificing. The misconception with this tip is always cutting down sleep. The health benefits and requirements of sleeping are well documented. Arianna Huffington built Thrive Global around this after collapsing from exhaustion. When I decided I wanted to incorporate an hour of gym into my morning routine I simply went to bed an hour earlier. Granted everyone’s situations are different but find something that works for you. If you work better by midnight oil and can still get a full 7 hours sleep before work, do it.
2. Unplug from the matrix
We live in a world of ever-increasing connectedness. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been out and seen friends responding to emails from their boss at 9 PM. You can see the dark cloud shift over the face and the weight of expectation squat on their shoulders.
The chances are (unless you’re saving lives) that email can wait. The monetisation of timehas led to a weird perception that time is money, and time spent not working is wasted. We need to be of the mindset that vacation time, time spent being the social beings we are with friends and family, is equally (if not more) important than the time spent working.
3. Productive procrastination
I am the self-proclaimed procrastination queen. It has taken years for me to cultivate this unique skill but my ability to procrastinate continues to amaze me. Have you ever had that experience where you set out to do one thing and then six hours later you realise you went off on a massive tangent? Well, that is me all over.
Lately, I have managed to funnel my procrastination in the right direction by and large through the use of audiobooks and podcasts. If I’m at home and I feel productivity slipping through my fingertips I remove myself from the laptop, switch on one of my favourite podcasts and clean, wash the dishes or just close my eyes. Similarly, if I’m at work I go for a walk or use this learning recommendation engine to find something interesting to learn that will benefit my personal development and satisfy my spirit of procrastination.
4. Sounds and music
Who doesn’t love a good bit of music? It’s been scientifically proven (read more here) that people who listen to music generally finish their tasks faster and are better at generating good ideas in comparison to those who don't.
If you’re like me, however, I can’t listen to Beyonce and try to work at the same time. I start imagining I’m slaying the stage with my vocals and outfit and an hour later I’m still staring at the same blank screen. So if you can work while listening to your favourite songs, by all means, do what works best for you.
For those who may have a similar problem to me, fear not you have a few options. For one, Spotify has a great selection of playlists which include instrumentals but also there are lots of ambient noise generators. I use Noisli frequently. It allows you to create and save your own playlist of sounds based on a few different options (ie. wind, leaves, waves, white noise, thunder etc). And you can easily access these through the chrome extension whenever you’re working for free. Here are some of the best sounds for working.
5. Time Boxing
An office worker may choose to time box using their Gmail calendar to block out their activity.
It can be a struggle to juggle your working day activities not to mention prioritizing, focussing and single-tasking, to finish your work to a high standard. Time-boxing is straightforward and something you will find super beneficial when organising your time - believe me. All you have to do is assign a fixed period of time to a task, schedule it, and stick to it. It's that simple!
One of the major stumbling blocks for many workers is unfocused idea generation. This means we procrastinate all day, deciding on different ways to accomplish the same goal. Timeboxing doesn't just help you get started - it keeps you on track, giving you that momentum until you reach your goal or solve your problem. For instance, when timeboxing there are frequent feelings of accomplishment, balance and it provides structure. Try it yourself.
It works because it touches on so many aspects of behaviour: single-tasking and focus to achieve more and feel less stressed, prioritising work to observe deadlines, frequent feelings of accomplishment, and being transparent so people can see what you’re doing and help. The tricky bit is chunking the tasks and estimating how long they’ll take, but this skill improves rapidly with practice. Key to this is time-boxing into a shared calendar and taking commutes, meetings, and other commitments into account.
6. Just say no
Stop trying to please everyone! I realize - It's much easier said than done, but by overloading yourself with work, not only do you risk being unable to complete tasks and meet deadlines, the quality of ALL of your work is affected. Sometimes it's best to politely decline so that you can focus on the most important work. If you do it right, colleagues will understand and respect you for it. Find out how Warren Buffet says no in this article.
7. You’re not the same when you’re sleepy
I touched on this earlier but we're making this its own point because it is that important. Sleep is essential for the proper running of every bodily function. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormones, hinders your ability to concentrate, control impulses, regulate emotions and retain information. All things that are necessary for productivity to thrive.
I listened to a really interesting NPR Podcast about the effects of going without sleep from Randy Gardner who holds the world record for the longest a human has intentionally gone without sleep not using stimulants. Do your health as well as your work a favour, and get your 7-9 hours, every night.
Moving does a lot for you. It gets the blood flowing around your body, can break you out of that daydream and helps stir creative thoughts. It's good for you and the perfect tonic to our desk-bound lives. On average we spend about 9 hours a day sitting and this has been linked to a number of diseases. Try a wearable that alerts you when you've been inactive for too long. Or take a walk for that call or even that meeting.
I want to give a shout out to my incredible colleague Shola Bold who was instrumental in putting this together. For those reading, I hope you are able to take something useful from this that you can start implementing in your daily routine today!
Choose your own top tips from the 100 Most Useful Productivity Tips guide. Use them to improve your working practices and generate results all week long.