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Ever feel haunted by the idea that no matter how busy you feel, you’re just not getting enough done?
That too many minutes of your days are squandered on profitless activities?
That you’re going to wind up flattened under the tonnage of all the work you have or want to do?
Don’t worry–you’re not alone.
In fact, research conducted by Microsoft indicates that while people work about 45 hours per week on average, 17 of those hours are spent unproductively.
17 hours per week is a tremendous amount of time. That’s 68 hours per month and 884 hours per year. 36 full days of wasted time per year.
Imagine what you would do with those 884 wasted hours. I’m not just talking more work, either. You could read about 60 books. You could write your own book (or two!). Or learn a new language. Or work out every day and have time to spare for your family.
Even if you’re not one of the millions of people frittering a third of their days away, chances are you have room for improvement.
I know I do.
That said, I’ve also figured out how to be far more productive than the average person, and in this article, I want to share my 5 best tips for easily and effortlessly increasing productivity.
Do these 5 things today and you’ll see immediate results. Make them habits and you’ll discover just how much you’re really capable of.
Stop checking email so damn much.
“I basically try to spend as much time with my email as possible,” said no productive person, ever.
I’ve known and spoken with quite a few scarily productive people and, one for one, they talk about doing email like they were performing surgery. You wash up. You don your scrubs. You put on your game face and cut, probe, and mend, and you get out.
On the other hand, many horribly unproductive people are hopelessly addicted to email. I swear they would mainline it if they could.
In fact, research shows that knowledge workers spend upward of 28% of their time every day wading through their inboxes.
The problem here?
Well, email is a diabolical time waster. It’s the easiest way to feel productive without doing anything important.
Spending too much time in your email inbox is one problem. Another is starting your day with it.
You see, when you start your day with email, it prevents you from planning and prioritizing your time and tasks for the day. Instead, it sets you up to react to whatever other people want you to do with your time and attention. It gets you working on other people’s ideas and goals, not yours.
Remember that every minute you spend doing one thing, like email, is a minute you spend not doing something else that could be far more important.
Instead of starting your day with email, start it with laying out and reviewing what you need to get done for the day and dedicate your first block of work time to those tasks.
If you want bonus points, schedule your email routine. Personally I clean out my inbox once per day and once I’ve finished, I only return if my planned work demands it, and I quickly grab what I need and get out before my eyeballs can lead me astray.
Manage your priorities better.
This is a natural follow-up to the first piece of advice.
One of the best ways to get nothing done is trying to do too many things.
You have to treat your to-do list like it’s the hottest club in the city and you’re the steel-jawed hulk of a bouncer.
That kid with the sloppy fake ID? Get the f*&% out of here. The blowhard with the blowout, fake rolex, and spray tan? Back to the Jersey Shore with you.
The point is you have to be very picky with what you deem worthy of your time and attention.
Here’s a hint: if you can do it quickly and easily, you probably shouldn’t be doing it all. You can probably skip it with little or no consequences or find someone else to do it.
It’s usually the hard, arduous work that you know only you can do that is going to really get you closer to where you want to be.
My team and I use fairly detailed action plans to dictate and prioritize our daily tasks.
For each of our major projects, we lay out, step by step, what needs to happen from beginning to end. We then begin each day making a realistic list of which of these previously planned tasks we’re going to get done that day.
Eliminate all distractions.
Too many people are full-on victims of our modern “dopamine-on-demand” culture.
Who has time for deep thought or work when the penny arcade of the Internet beckons with its clanging bells and strobing lights and greasy food?
I guarantee you that if you can’t learn to work undistracted, you’ll never be good at getting things done.
Distractions make you dumber and more error prone and cause you waste a significant amount of time simply refocusing on the tasks at hand.
What kind of distractions am i talking about? Just the usual suspects…
- talking to others or listening to others’ conversations,
- mental wanderings,
- lyrical music,
- phone calls,
- text messages,
- instant messages,
- Web surfing,
- and so forth.
The bottom line is you’re sitting in a productivity strike zone when you’re trying to “work” on something while also thinking about the argument you had earlier, flicking through a few emails, watching a quick YouTube video or two, and carrying on a text conversation.
Hours can go by and with you genuinely impressed by how little you’ve actually gotten done.
The only way to escape this trap is to block out everything and focus deeply on your work.
Banish digital distractions. Put your phone on silent. Don noise-canceling headphones. Dissuade conversation with a blank, snarling rictus.
“I can’t just disappear though!” You might be thinking.
I know, you have meetings to snore through and bosses to suck up to and spouses to dote on. That’s why you need a personal routine…
Create a personal routine.
“I’m not sure how I get everything done. I just do things and hope for the best,” said no productive person, ever.
Too many people ask too much of their self-discipline, avoiding the reality that it’s in very limited supply.
The most productive people I know all do the same thing:
They save their willpower for the most demanding and creative parts of their work and lives and automate the rest.
And it turns out many of the most productive and ingenious people throughout history did the exact same thing. No matter how creative or eccentric their work, they robotically set about it every day, at the same times, in the same places, and in the same ways.
It goes beyond that, though. Many of these luminaries ate the same foods, drank the same beverages, walked the same routes, spoke to the same people, and read the same books…every day…without fail.
They did this for a good reason: the more of their lives they gave to habit, the less time and energy they had to waste pondering and deciding on trivialities.
This left them with more temporal and mental resources to dedicate to the truly meaningful parts of their lives. From Mozart to Voltaire to Franklin to Hemingway Tesla, the story is the same. This isn’t a coincidence.
A simple place to start in building an effective personal routine is reviewing all the activities you engage in regularly and applying the “80/20 rule.”
That is, sort the minority of your activities that deliver the majority of your progress and successes from the majority that poleax your productivity, and then rearrange your day to emphasize the former and eliminate the latter.
Manage your mood.
We don’t need to turn to scientific research to know that we work better when we’re calm and happy. And that we work like crap when we feel like crap.
That’s why many productivity systems miss the boat when they focus too much on managing time and not energy and mood.
As Shawn Achor puts it in his book The Happiness Advantage…
“…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”
Manage your mood as carefully as your work and you’ll get more done in less time and feel better to boot.
Particularly important is your mood at the beginning of the day.
Research shows that this has a marked effect on both the quantity and quality of your work. “Starting off on the right foot” is very important, it turns out.
10 simple, scientifically proven ways to improve your mood
Jot down a few good things that happen to you every day.
Make time to do things you’re uniquely good at.
Show gratitude for the nice people and things in your life.
Spend time with people you like.
Stop obsessing over making more money. It’s not going to make you as happy as you think.
Stop obsessing over yourself and your goals and help someone else with theirs.
Watch less TV and stay busy instead, maybe with mastering a skill.
Choose to be optimistic, even to the point of overconfidence.
Eat something sweet and take a nap.
Savor the little wins in life and stop holding out for big events you hope will make you happy.
The Bottom Line
A superhuman level of productivity doesn’t require superhuman genetics, education, or willpower.
Anyone can cultivate it by adopting and gradually strengthening the 5 strategies laid out in this article…
- break your email addiction,
- identify and prioritize high-value activities
- work in a completely distraction-free environment
- build an effective personal routine,
- and take regular actions to buoy your mood.