Productivity is not just getting more done. It’s an upward spiral of getting better at what you do. Conceiving an idea or starting a task → seeing it through → maintaining your wellbeing as you do it → learning from the whole process → and starting again on better footing than the last time. And it’s personal for everyone, we’re not robots…yet.
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” — Henry David Thoreau
Different kind of tools work well for different people. The pillars of productivity are organization, creativity, efficiency and stress management. We waded through all the listicles and read the leading research to whittle it down to the best in every arena.
(Please share if we help you work smarter. Add your best tips and tricks in the comments!)
Time and task management
Top daily productivity technique?
“Keep it very task-oriented, goal oriented.” — Rachel Cohen, Co-Founder of Snowe
Let’s start with the Bullet Journal. While I personally use most of the tools on this list, this is the one that changed my life. That is not hyperbole. I’m one of those people that has a whole box of old journals each with about three pages filled. I just couldn’t get myself to stick with it, until I tried Bullet Journaling.
The video below is the best way to get a sense of how it works. Don’t be daunted, once you’ve done it one time, it’s actually simple.
There’s a lot of hype about a Bullet Journal being a beautiful work of art. Mine looks like crap because my handwriting is horrible and I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler. So if you’re discouraged at all by an unsteady hand: don’t worry, the magic is in the technique, not how it looks.
Pomodoro Technique & 90-minute focus sessions
The Pomodoro Technique was inspired by 25-minute kitchen timers. It’s especially effective for people whose biggest hurdle is just getting started. (Hello fellow self-aware procrastinators).
Break the task up into pomodoros and all you have to do right now is work uninterrupted for 25 minutes. Less than half an hour is a lot more motivating than eight hours of work ahead of you.
Take a break, then do it again. After four pomodoros, it’s time to take a longer break.
With some practice you’ll be able to estimate how many pomodoros a task will take. You can break your days and weeks into manageable, predictable chunks. By tracking your work on the Pomodoro To-Do sheet or Toggl you can also see exactly how you’re using your time. (Toggl has a lot of other useful features for tracking efficiency and billing clients by the hour).
Photo by Lucas Mascaro
Personally, I like to work for longer and take longer breaks. Scott Tousley from HubSpot swears by the transformative power of 90 minutes of work with a half hour break. He drowns out distractions with Focus@Will — music and time-management rolled into one.
There’s a dearth of research on periods of focus interspersed with breaks. Within our daily 24-hour circadian rhythms there are shorter cycles called ultradian rhythms. Our sleep cycles, for example. Circadian rhythms determine whether we’re night owls or morning people. Ultradian rhythms determine our individual optimal lengths of distraction-free focus time throughout the day.
The bottom line is figure out your ideal length of focus time → remove all distractions → stick to it → and then let your brain relax.
Digital bulletin boards and secretaries
Ok so you’re not convinced by the idea that using a pen and paper can change your life. Or you want to be able to have digital and analog organized together. Both valid. Thankfully there’s Evernote and it’s free (for the basics). You can also link it with Google Drive and just be a rockstar.
Clear your cluttered browsers full of tens of tabs that you opened to read during a free moment. When you find something interesting, put it in Pocket. Like Evernote, it has an easy browser extension. The best part about Pocket is that once you grab something, you can read it on or offline on any of your devices.
An AI-powered secretary that sorts your email. Simple as that.
Avoid the back and forth of deciding when to meet with someone by handing that job to “Amy” from x.ai. You just CC her on the email and then she’ll let you know when it’s been set up. There is a waiting list for free trials.
Body & mind
Blue light blocking
Light of any kind at night will disrupt your sleep cycle. Period. But the blue light emitted by electronics really is the worst. If you can’t keep yourself away from your devices, at least block the blue light with f.lux. iOS 9.3 and higher have built in Night Shift. (Settings → Display & Brightness → Night Shift). You can turn it on manually or schedule it.
Time stretching. In essence it just involves setting aside a time every day to do something that puts your body in a state of sustained, intense focus (not working). Once you reach a certain level of proficiency: running, playing an instrument, painting, meditating, etc. all do this. It not only makes you more perceptive of details overall, it does dramatic good for your health. Morefrom Psychology Today.
When we go without food for 12 hours or more an evolutionary adaptation from our hunter-gatherer days kicks in that makes our minds sharper. Who knew? Our body stops running on glucose and starts producing ketones (made from breaking down fat), which are particularly good for brain metabolism.
So this is the new body hacking trend in Silicon Valley for increasing productivity. Start your morning of fasting with a little Bulletproof coffee(good fats), and you’ll be a whole new you, apparently.
Visualize & daydream
In Fast Company’s 2016 compendium of productivity secrets from a range of people, two themes stood out. Most people took a moment before starting their day to reflect and visualize, whether they did it while walking their dogs or just moment of peace before the kids get up. Research shows that this happens to be a natural technique of many Olympic athletes while competing.
“Your brain has to decide what deserves attention and what deserves to be ignored.” Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Smarter, Better, Faster
Most of them also advocated the importance of taking breaks throughout the day.
“Taking 30 seconds or five minutes to take a step back actually drives efficiency and productivity.” — Carter Reum, Co-founder Veev Spirits, former Goldman Sachs investment banker
Most productive day ever
If you were going to put all this together, your day might look like this:
- Wake up and do some Attention Training through something you enjoy like meditating or exercising
- Take some time to reflect and visualize how you’ll maximize the day by filling out your Bullet Journal or making a to-do list in Evernote
- A few times a week, have just coffee (maybe with butter) and relish the mental clarity of working on an empty stomach (works for the folks at Nootrobox)
- Break your tasks into pomodoros or whatever length of focus time works for you
- Do more Attention Training during your breaks by going for a walk or reading something that fascinates you
- File potential distractions in Pocket
- Let Amy schedule your meetings and SaneBox sort your inbox
- Block blue light in the evening while you’re reading what you filed in Pocket so that you actually rest
Plus all the other habits, big and small, that we hope you’ll share in the comments. Perhaps the most important thing is: learn what works for you.To a certain extent that’s the best productivity trick. Here’s a real day-in-life, for some more inspiration.
“I’ve always been a competitor. [But] I’ve learned that productivity should not be a competitive sport. You’re never going to win.” Cathy Engelbert, CEO, Deloitte
Please share if we help you work smarter. Add your best tips and tricks in the comments!
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