Move over time and money, a person’s greatest asset in today’s rapid-fire world is the ability to be productive.
Not to be confused with workaholism, productivity is the capacity to use one’s time and energy efficiently to excel at their job (and life) without exhausting themselves to the point of burnout.
Finding your productivity sweet spot involves taking deliberate steps to identify and create efficiency. Here are five super simple hacks that anyone can do—on the job and outside the office.
1. Eat the frog
Mark Twain famously said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
This slightly macabre adage has been co-opted by leadership guru Brian Tracy who wrote a book on it, Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.
The frog is a metaphor for the most intimidating, unpleasant or difficult task you have to accomplish for the day. You know, things like returning phone calls. Organizing your files. Writing a performance review. Having a difficult conversation with a colleague or boss. Insert your own version of most-procrastinated-on items on your list.
The truth is, procrastinating seems like it’s getting you out of doing something you hate, but it’s actually just as draining as simply getting on with it. These dreaded tasks take a mental toll.
“[If you eat the frog first], it’ll give you energy and momentum for the rest of the day. But if you don’t, if you let him sit there on the plate while you do a hundred unimportant things, it can drain your energy and you won’t even know it,” said Tracy.
The truth is, procrastinating seems like it's getting you out of doing something you hate, but it's actually just as draining as simply getting on with it.
He recommends taking a list of your daily to-dos, circling the frog, and doing it first. You’ll experience the relief and euphoria of having it off your plate—and you’ll be energized to take on the less taxing tasks.
[Also read: One-minute meditations to help you reset]
2. If it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it
This concept originally comes from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. Allen’s advice centers on always engaging with the world around you and avoiding adding to your mental clutter by taking small actions as often as possible.
- Recycle or file the mail as it arrives
- File documents and emails as you read them
- Hang up your coat when you walk in the door
- Put away office supplies as you use them
This simple but profound mindset has shortened my to-do list considerably and reduced the feeling of being overwhelmed, both personally and professionally. For example, sometimes it occurs to me that I need to email someone to ask a question, make a doctor’s appointment or transfer a friend my share of the theater tickets she bought for us. In the past, I would put things like this on my list or make a mental note to remember to do it later. But it’s shocking how quick it is to simply take care of so many of life’s small stuff in the moment, especially when my phone is usually within arm’s reach.
I save myself time and clutter at home with basic two-minute functions like putting my keys in the same spot when I come in the door, stowing dishes in the dishwasher right after I use them, and dealing with kids’ permission forms the day they come home. None of these things take more than a couple of minutes but, when you put them off, they suck energy and create stress.
“You want the ability to put your focus exactly where you need it, in the way you need it, and not use your mind to be trying to accumulate stuff,” said Tracy.
3. Map out tomorrow today
This one is from my personal library of productivity hacks. Like most people, I have a weekly list of things I need to accomplish and I usually break them down by day. And, like most people, my week can get derailed, often by Monday at lunchtime. By the end of the week, my to-do list often resembles the deranged scribblings of an illiterate dungeon master instead of the professional writer I profess to be.
"You want the ability to put your focus exactly where you need it, in the way you need it, and not use your mind to be trying to accumulate stuff." - Brian Tracy
To avoid things getting out of hand and to promote a feeling of organization and control, I now take a few minutes at the end of every day to review my weekly list and write a very brief list of things I need to accomplish the next day. Sometimes it’s exactly what I planned, but often it’s been altered based on what happened that day. Either way, when I sit down at my desk the next morning, I can get focused and feel full of purpose just by glancing at the list of tasks before me.
4. Block time for recurring tasks
Lots of experts are talking about time-blocking. There’s even an app to help with this. The basic premise is that you connect your calendar with your to-do list and block off dedicated portions of time to work on specific tasks. It’s a smart, though strict, way to get things done.
My hack is slightly different. Do you do some of the same types of tasks throughout the week? For example, send sales pitches, answer customer inquiries, sort out your quarterly budget, hold team/one-on-one meetings, research, or plan for the future. Instead of squeezing them into slots where your calendar allows, consider being more strategic.
As much as possible, dedicate entire days, mornings or afternoons to specific tasks you do all the time. Mondays could be all about the team. That’s when you schedule your team meetings, do performance planning and think about hiring or improving team culture. Wednesdays could be cordoned off for putting your head down and doing the work only you can do alone. Friday mornings could be reserved for administrative work.
As much as possible, dedicate entire days, mornings or afternoons to specific tasks you do all the time.
The benefit to dedicating the same time slots to recurring tasks is that you’re able to focus on one topic for a longer period, with your full powers of concentration. In time, you train your brain to get into the right mode at a regular interval each week. It may take a bit of calendar-wrangling, but it’s worth it—as long as you hold to it.
5. Work with your natural tendencies
We can thank “happiness bully” Gretchen Rubin for this one. In her book, The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too), she maps out four personality profiles that offer insights into how we all navigate the way we live, work, and relate to others.
Rubin’s argument is that the more insight we have about our personal tendencies, the better we can set up systems in our lives to be happier. For example, I’m an obliger, which means I meet outer expectations easily, but struggle to meet the expectations I impose upon myself. It’s true. This article was filed exactly on time, but I seem to never have time to work on creative writing projects, which no one cares about but me.
Understanding my tendency means I need to create accountability for the things that matter to me. I go to classes at the gym with a friend because she’s counting on me to show up. I use Weight Watchers to help manage my diet because there’s a system of accountability built into it. And I’m working on a non-fiction book with a friend who depends on me to bring the writing chops. Essentially, I try to tie everything that’s important to me to the needs of someone else so I have extra motivation to get it done.
[Also read: Is it time to redefine wellness in the workplace?]
The other part of working with your tendencies is understanding your natural rhythms and adapting your work priorities to meet with them instead of the other way around. My husband can get up at 5 a.m. to prepare for a presentation he needs to give at 10 a.m., but I’d be better off working on it until 2 a.m. the night before because my brain needs time to wake up in the morning.
Understanding my tendency means I need to create accountability for the things that matter to me.
This insight means that I set up my days so that I don’t have to write or think too deeply until afternoon. In the mornings, I exercise, answer emails, set up interviews, do administrative and planning work.
It’s been life-changing to recognize and work with my tendencies instead of fighting against them and trying to adopt best practices that simply don’t work for me.
And that’s really the point of productivity, isn’t it? There’s no “one way” to be productive. Use trial and error to find the best strategies for your personality, goals, circumstances, and job.
Just don’t eat any live frogs. That one was a metaphor.