Life is a marathon, not a sprint. I believe our best work comes from periods of focused intensity, balanced with meaningful leisure.
In this article, I'll share my favorite productivity tips that helped me improve the quality of my work, save time, and make time for activities that keep me strong in the long run.
Over the past two years, many of us have switched to working from home. And for some of us, we've quit our jobs entirely, to pursue our own endeavors. I've done both, but I've faced a few challenges in this new situation...
I've lacked some self-accountability to get the work done. I've become easily distracted. Big projects can overwhelm me. And there are no boundaries between work and home, which lead to over-working or never-working.
I've become fully aware of these problems, so I've been making intentional adjustments to change the outcome of my situation.
Inspired by the tips I've learned from the internet and from others, here are the things that have worked for me, organized into 4 sections.
The hardest part is starting. Not the emails or the busy work, but the real work. The work that brings you closer to your goals, to the impact you want to make, and the person you want to become.
We face a lot of resistance because hard work is far less appealing than easy stuff. Here are three things you can do to overcome that resistance.
Prepare the environment: Remove interruptions and distractions.
It's the hardest yet simplest thing you can do to improve the quality of your work. Close your door. Turn off your notifications, set yourself to "do not disturb", close your email, close your browser tabs. Hide anything that doesn't relate to your work.
Don't worry, you're not going to miss anything by going offline for a short while.
Preparation: Set clear goals.
Create a to-do list, something easily visible that you can check off, and set a goal for that work session.
If it's part of a big project, break it down into smaller pieces. Something that you can complete in one sitting.
Start with a small time commitment, and go.
Just like the previous tip, we can make the task seem really small. You can start by setting a timer for 5 minutes and commit to working distraction-free. That 5 minutes will go by quickly, and you'll find yourself with a little momentum built. Extend that timer to whatever increment feels realistic.
On difficult days, I usually start with 5 minutes, then escalate to 30 minutes. I usually end after 60 to 90 minutes of work. Then I intentionally take a short 10-20 minute break to recharge.
When you take a break, it's important not to jump back onto your distractions. Leave all of those things off. Instead, get up. Stretch your legs, make a coffee, sit in silence, or lay down and close your eyes. Any stress and tension you've just built up will calm down. You'll collect any lingering thoughts, and you'll be ready to dive into another session of deep work.
I usually end up working a total of 6 to 8 hours throughout the day, using this method. The work that comes out of this focus is higher-quality and better output, compared to my normal, unstructured approach.
Starting small and checking-off tasks is something I can celebrate each day, which is incredibly rewarding for my morale.
If you want to be more efficient and effective at your work, we need to look at what’s slowing you down and where we can make improvements.
Consider your current workflow: What are the most common, repetitive micro-tasks you do often? How many steps do you take to execute them? And how much friction do you experience in the process?
The goal of these next tips are to remove barriers and reduce redundancies, to optimize your workflow.
Design your environment.
When all of your most-used tools are within arms reach, the time you spend setting up tasks and switching between them is greatly reduced. If everything is organized and has a designated place, you'll spend less time searching for things and will have more time and focus on your work.
Learn your shortcuts.
Most of us use digital tools to do our work. When you first start using an app, you tend to use menus and submenus to find your tool, adjust it, and then execute your task. It can be a lot of steps. But if you spend time learning and practicing your keyboard shortcuts, you can reduce the number of steps it takes to get the same task done.
While it might seem disruptive at first to change your habits, once you train yourself to utilize shortcuts, you'll move so much faster through your work.
Automate repetitive tasks
As part of our work, there are many repetitive tasks that we do. Like setup meetings, responding to common inquiries, and miscellaneous admin tasks. These days there are tons of tools that can help you automate your processes that will eliminate the trivial busywork from your life.
Here's how I automate my meeting scheduling: When someone wants to meet with me, I send them my Calendly link, which shows my availability, based on my synced calendars and preferred days and times to meet. Once they choose a time, it will send them a video meeting link, add it to both of our calendars, and I'll get notified.
What used to take several emails back and forth to coordinate, now takes a single message to accomplish.
Protect your time, your energy, and make fewer commitments. So you have the ability to focus when you're working while leaving space to think and recharge.
When you define clear boundaries, it's easier to determine what deserves your time and attention.
Here are two things that have helped me set better boundaries.
Check your compass. If it's not a definitive “yes”, just say “no”.
You may have heard this advice in other forms, but how do you practically become more decisive about what you take on?
Whenever a possible opportunity appears in my life, I tend to evaluate it with a few simple questions:
Listing out at least three reasons is usually good enough to justify why you should let this enter your life. If you're having a hard time answering these questions, just pass.
When you become more decisive, it's easier to prevent overwhelm and decision fatigue. Because you can decipher what's meaningful and what's trivial.
Listen to your body.
Working from home for the last few years, I've become more familiar with the rhythms my body goes through during the day. If you're like me, you know what times your energy typically peaks, based on past experience. If you don't have a good sense of this yet, you can measure it by trying to work at different hours of the day (morning, afternoon, night), then record how productive you felt in each session. Track it for as long as you need to see an obvious pattern. Then shift your schedule to work at your optimal times.
For me, I'm most creative in the mornings from 9 am to noon. My energy is lowest in the afternoons, and the evenings are a hit or miss for me. So I try to focus on all of my difficult work in the morning and take care of any busy work like emails and meetings later in the day.
Scheduling your important work, when you’re most creative and energetic, tends to yield the best results.
Leisure can be a powerful part of your everyday routine if you make intentional, quality time for it. Time away from your work is as important as time on it. For our health, our relationships, and to make space to think. Distance gives us perspective. And how you spend your downtime will determine how energized you feel when you return to your work.
I think this is where a lot of us get messed up cause we end up spending our free time on things that don't enrich our lives, but rather, simply occupy our time. I'm not immune to this either, as I spend a good amount of time playing video games. Judgment aside, our goal should be to strive for activities that give our minds time to rest, think, and wonder. Our leisure should refuel us rather than deplete us.
A simple test to determine the value of your pastime is to simply ask yourself: Does this make me feel inspired and energized, or do I feel drained after?
My current goal is to become a better developer. I think a good developer is not only a good coder, architect, programmer, whatever. A good developer is a polymath, with soft skills, managing skills, who knows how to talk to business, not technical people, etc.
So much of my free time is invested in research, and reading documents that I can study. I also like to discuss with people who have a similar path to mine. In this boredom, I hear or see something that connects to the work I've been ruminating on. Even though I'm not actively working, my curiosities are always trying to connect the dots for me in the background processes of my brain.
These are just a few of the activities I spend my free time doing that is personally fulfilling to me. For you, they could be very different. They can change based on your goals and current interests. Whatever you determine is valuable to you.
Taking meaningful downtime is often the thing we need to complete our ideas. To open our minds to other possibilities and to give our brains the space to see the bigger picture.
Leisure is fuel. This helps you return to your work every day with new ideas, refreshed energy, and a clear focus.
With that out of the way, It's time to get back to work.