A Guide to Productivity

Who doesn't feel better when they get everything done? No one, of course! Naturally, when we progress towards our goals and tick one more item off our to-do lists, the feeling is like no other.

But, unfortunately, productivity isn't linear. You can get so much done today and nothing at all tomorrow. And sometimes, you just feel like the day needs more than 24 hours to get things done. Do you relate? 

Yet, on the bright side, with just a few changes, you can become more productive than ever and make the most out of your day, which you’ll realise is actually enough for everything on your to-do list!  

Without further ado, here’s a guide to productivity that you can get started with right away. After you’re done reading it, you should be able to start managing your time better and put an end to procrastination and distractions. Let’s get into it!

1. Eliminate Distractions

Did you know that people spend approximately 47% of their waking hours thinking about anything else than what they’re currently doing? That’s close to half of the day, and naturally, it hinders your productivity.

While it’s quite normal for humans to have wandering minds, there’s still something you can do about it. The first thing to do is eliminate any distractions around you, starting with your smartphone. While you’re working, anything is probably more interesting to you than work, so it won’t be hard for a social media notification to let you drop your work and check your phone.

You can either put your phone on airplane mode altogether or if you're expecting an important call, you can set it to DND (do not disturb). Similarly, if you're logged onto your social media accounts on your laptop, it's best to log out or just close the tabs and disable push notifications. That way, whatever you're doing has your full concentration!

Remember, there’s no way you’ll reach your optimal productivity level if you’re constantly getting interrupted by notifications, voice notes, text messages, and calls.

2. Limit Your Screen Time

The thing about getting distracted by smartphones is that it doesn’t only happen during work hours – it’s also before and after, right? So, the moment you wake up, instead of having breakfast and getting ready for work (or starting work if you’re working from home), you lie down in bed and scroll through the news feeds of the different social media platforms.

Since resisting the temptation to check our phones constantly isn’t precisely easy, we can leverage the technology to our advantage to minimise screen time. Today, many tools set restrictions on the time you spend on your phone, like Screen Time for iOS devices and Digital Wellbeing for Android devices. 

Through these, you get the chance to see how much time you’re spending on your phone, and you’ll be able to set daily limits. If you exceed them, the phone will automatically exit you out. Basically, they serve to help you find a way to hit pause, even if you don’t want to.

Screen Time

3. Work on One Task at a Time

Multitasking really isn’t for everyone, so if you tend to get distracted by the many things you need to get done and end up doing nothing at all since you’re trying to do all of them at once, now’s the time to change.

To actually be productive and get things done, focus your attention on one thing at a time and give it your undivided attention. When you do one thing at a time, you're able to get more done in less time, and you're working smarter – not harder.

And that's actually backed by science. Our brains receive around 11 million bits of information per second. Yet, they can only process 40 bits per second, which means that the attention we have to offer to a given task is significantly limited. So, with that being the case, invest your attention wisely.

Also, if you think that multitasking is more efficient, remember that our brains can't focus on two things simultaneously. What happens is that the brain resorts to rapidly switching tabs between them, which spreads your focus then and prevents us from profoundly focusing on any of the two tasks at hand.

Again, this isn't to say that some people are genuinely good at multitasking and doing multiple things simultaneously (and efficiently!) But if you don't feel like multitasking is for you, don't hesitate to opt for single-tasking to boost your attention muscle by not doing a million things at once.

4. Optimise Your Workspace for Productivity

Everything about your working environment can immensely affect your productivity, from lighting and chairs to temperature and clothing. Despite that, these aspects usually go unnoticed, and it's about time we shed light on them since they're simple to fix.

How often did you feel like you couldn't focus on work because, say, the air conditioner was making you too cold? Or because you couldn't fix the chair you're sitting on to the correct height? While seemingly insignificant, these factors go a long way when it comes to impacting your concentration.

Since, as adults, most of us spend half of our days at work, you need to optimise your workspace for maximum productivity. While preferences differ from one person to another, here are some ideas that have been proven to boost productivity:

  • Allowing natural lighting to enter your workspace (white light or light from the sun) 
  • Clearing away clutter
  • Removing broken equipment and replacing it with updated equipment
  • Investing in ergonomic furniture
  • Mending flickering light bulbs
  • Fixing temperamental ACs and heating units
  • Having quality snacks and coffee around
  • Bringing in plants (artificial or natural)

When you take the time to handle the above aspects, you’ll easily notice how energetically affected you’ll be as a result, in a positive way, and you’ll definitely be in the mood for work! 

Desk Space

5. Plan the Night Before

How will you get things done if you don't know what they are in the first place? Instead of doing whatever you find in front of you or waiting for tasks to get assigned to you, it's better to prepare for each day the day before.

Take a few minutes every night to organise your to-do list for the next day, dividing it into priority tasks and secondary tasks. While this won’t take you more than 10 minutes to do, it’ll save you hours that you would’ve spent in distraction and lack of focus the next day. 

Because planning works wonders for productivity, many people don't just plan their days but go a step further to plan their weeks, months, and even years. That works if you have a larger umbrella goal that you're working towards, which you'll then be able to divide into smaller milestones that inform the tasks of every month and week to help you stay on track.

For instance, if you have targets in your job that you’ll be assessed for, you might want to plan for how you’ll achieve them since they’re usually long-range and can get pushed aside by the day-to-day “urgent” tasks that end up eating most of your workdays. 

Also, planning puts your workday into perspective and enables you to see how many free hours you'll actually have to get tasks done. By free, we aren't referring to breaks; rather, free as in not occupied by meetings, sessions, training, and similar activities. You'll easily pinpoint what time slots will be blocked out, and that way, you'll create a more realistic schedule for yourself.

Plus, to make sure you actually stick to your schedule, assign time blocks for each task so that you don't end up with more items on your to-do list than what you can get done. When you assign time slots, you stay focused, prioritise, and feel under pressure to accomplish what you said you would.

Remember, there are many techniques and methods for planning, and there’s no right or wrong way. The idea is just to create a certain outline or structure to discipline yourself into working productively. Otherwise, things will just come to you, and you’ll end up with a backlogged list of tasks that you have no time for.

6. Take Frequent Breaks

Contrary to popular belief, being productive doesn't mean sitting in front of a computer for the entire 8 hours of work without doing anything else. In fact, to boost your productivity, you need to get up every once in a while for a small break. Even if it's just for five minutes, a break gets you refreshed and recharged.

Have you ever heard of The Pomodoro Technique? If you haven’t, it’s a time management method that encourages you to use a timer to break down your workday into intervals of focus and rest. The intervals are called “Pomodoros” (Italian for tomatoes), and they’re separated by short breaks where you can do literally anything you want – from daydreaming to snacking. 

To apply the technique, you choose a task to work on, and you then set a 25-minute timer for it. During that period, you exclusively focus on that task with absolutely no distractions until the timer rings. Once it does, you take a five-minute break. Since the workday is usually 8 hours, you repeat the cycle four times, take a 15-minute break, and then restart.

The Pomodoro Technique has been tried and tested countless times worldwide, and people swear by its effectiveness in maximising productivity and concentration. There’s even an iOS app for it. 

Also, it’s quite flexible in that you can complete longer Pomodoros and then have longer breaks – whatever works for you! You can check the technique’s website for further resources to put you on the right track. 

In a nutshell, the technique empowers you to work with the time you have rather than against it while ensuring that you get your fair share of breaks to recharge. So, if you used to think that one break is enough, think again because those tiny breaks reboot your brain!  

Take a break

7. Establish Ground Rules With Your Colleagues, Family, or Roommates

Did you know that in 2018, 80% of employees in a study claimed that chatty coworkers were the top source of their distraction from work? So if you’ve ever felt frustrated by the coworkers who keep dropping in to give you the latest updates about anything in life while you were busy, you’re not alone! 

Even with remote work, while it eliminates the chances of coworkers distracting one another from actually working, there are still roommates, family members, and even pets, who all seem to be competing for your attention. Therefore, distractions at work and home are very real and need to be tackled.

To do so, you need to be straightforward and upfront with your loved ones (and coworkers) about your working hours, request them not to interrupt you during them, and respect your workspace. And to clear the air, you can even agree on some signals to give as to when you wouldn't want to be interrupted and when it would be fine for them to step in.

For instance, a signal could be a DIY “do not disturb” sign that you hang on your door at home, or it could be that if you have your headphones on at work, no one should interrupt you.

8. Have a Backup Plan for Technology Mishaps

In today’s digital world, most jobs require a reliable internet connection, and if it isn’t there, the work can’t be resumed. And since internet overload is far being uncommon, connection issues are equally recurrent and can hamper your productivity in many ways.

Therefore, you need to have a backup plan for when that happens. For example, instead of calling it a day, you could always have a mobile hotspot device with you, like a MiFi, to use when you're in that situation. Similarly, if you're working from home, you can head to a nearby cafe to work.

More importantly, what happens if your laptop crashes or you accidentally spill coffee on it? Do you have a backup of all the information on it so that you don’t end up having to start from scratch? Is that backup accessible? 

Unexpected losses of data can bring your entire to-do list to a halt. Not to mention, those technology disasters are frustrating, to say the least. With that being so, to keep your productivity steady, plan for the worst and have a plan B at all times to combat these technology risks.

That way, even if something were to happen, you’d easily be able to resume work from where you left off rather than have to restart everything all over again, which could take weeks or months to happen. 

Back up

9. Learn to Say No

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” - Warren Buffett.

How many times were you in a situation where you had an entire list of things to do to the extent that you’re just staring at it and not knowing where to start? Probably a lot. Well, how about this: how many times did your boss step in at that exact moment and give you an additional task? Probably even more.

Well, if you really want to be productive, you need to learn how and when to say no. Like Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important”, and that still holds.

When you say no, it isn't a synonym for "I don't want to work." Instead, it's just saying that you're saying "yes" to the tasks that do matter and that are urgent enough to be prioritised over everything else. It's never wrong to eliminate the not-so-important tasks for the sake of something you need to be working on right now.

Saying yes too often can be the root cause of the lack of your productivity, so teach yourself to no longer struggle to say no because otherwise, you'll end up with a pile above the existing pile of tasks. 

Long Story Short

For the longest time, we’ve all been accustomed to a certain persona associated with productivity – a “superhero” person who’s juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities at the same time, getting them all done flawlessly, and always being so busy.

But the reality of the matter is that productivity looks different on each person. You can appear busy (and be busy) but not necessarily be productive. Therefore, at the end of the day, it’s about how you work smarter to be efficient and productive without getting tangled in distractions.

Hopefully, with this guide to productivity, you’ll be more systematic with how you manage your schedule, and you’ll end up doing the very best you can each day!

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