The moment we lay our heads on our pillows at night, many of us dwell on one thing: how productive were we during the day? We feel anxious and guilty. We obsess over unfinished tasks and promise to accomplish more the next day, but unexpected things pop up and we are unable to cross many tasks off our to-do lists… they linger there, waiting for their turn. We continue to live in this loop until we get stressed, insomniac, burned-out and even depressed.
I’m a multitasker and I tend to have a short attention span, but I always surprise everyone by getting so much done during the day, thanks to these feasible productivity tips.
1) Break tasks into small, achievable steps and write them down on post-its of different colors.
Say you were assigned the task of planning a small book signing event. This can be broken into: write down the guests list, write the invitation content, hire a graphic designer to create social media ads and invitations, choose location, contact press, etc. And note that some of the smaller tasks can be further broken down into much smaller ones.
Buy post-its of different colors. Use a flashy color for the most urgent tasks, and then less flashy colors for less urgent ones. For a stress-free night, by EOD, sort out the tasks you need to finish the next day and stick the post-its behind you–not in front of you or else you’ll keep staring at them and feeling overwhelmed.
The moment you finish a task, turn around, throw away the task’s post-it and pick what to do next.
2) Make sure you finish three of the most important, most urgent tasks before 12 p.m.
On a 9-to-5 workday, your midday should be at around 12:30 p.m. Finishing 3 of the most important tasks in the morning before 12 p.m. will give you a sense of accomplishment. Now you can enjoy your lunch with your teammates instead of either skipping it or eating at your desk.
Yes, some of us are morning people, others are most productive in the afternoon and there are also the night owls. I am a night owl myself, but it seems the early bird does get the worm, so I had to make lifestyle changes, which did wonders for me. Besides, taking work home every day is bad for your well-being on the long run. I used to postpone the most difficult of tasks till nighttime until I found myself working day and night for more than a year.
In his HBR article, Biologist Christopher Randler from the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany noted that his research, which was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Volume 39, Issue 12, Dec. 2009), concluded that “Though evening people do have some advantages—other studies reveal they tend to be smarter and more creative than morning types, have a better sense of humor, and are more outgoing—they’re out of sync with the typical corporate schedule. When it comes to business success, morning people hold the important cards.”
“My earlier research showed that they tend to get better grades in school, which get them into better colleges, which then lead to better job opportunities. Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them, my survey showed. They’re proactive. A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.” He added.
3) Work in 90-minute bursts.
Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, mentioned that the human brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break. This is called the “ultradian rhythm”, a cycle present in both our sleeping and waking lives and, according to Peretz Lavie, author of The Enchanted World of Sleep, it’s the cycle which governs our energy levels.
In a 2011 article published on Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project and co-author of Be Excellent at Anything, wrote, “For nearly a decade now, I’ve begun my workdays by focusing for 90 minutes, uninterrupted, on the task I decide the night before is the most important one I’ll face the following day. After 90 minutes, I take a break. To make this possible, I turn off my email while I’m working, close all windows on my computer, and let the phone go to voicemail if it rings.”
“Over the course of 90 minutes, especially when we’re maximally focused, we move from a relatively high state of energy down into a physiological trough. Many of us unwittingly train ourselves to ignore signals from our body that we need a rest—difficulty concentrating, physical restlessness, irritability. Instead, we find ways to override this need with caffeine, sugar, and our own stress hormones—adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol—all of which provide short bursts of energy but leave us overaroused.” He explained.
Turn your phone’s internet connection off, stay off your email and social media accounts and focus on a certain task for 90 minutes. After the 90 minutes are over, unplug for 10-15 minutes. Go for a walk around office, socialize with your coworkers, quickly check your email, watch a funny video or do a few stretches.
4) Do not multitask.
I know you’re sick of people telling you how harmful and anti-productive it is to juggle several tasks at once… but it’s true. In 2009, researchers at Stanford University found that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time”.
MIT neuroscience professor, Earl Miller, advised in his Fortune article against multitasking. “It ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought.” He wrote, “In fact, studies show that people who think they are good at multitasking generally have a lower capacity for simultaneous thought. It’s a rationalization fest.”
He also explained to The Guardian that our brains were not wired to multitask well, so when people think they’re multitasking, they’re in fact switching from one task to another very rapidly. “And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
5) Work is endless and you are human, so give yourself a break.
There is a Syrian saying which can be translated into, “Your life will come to an end, but work never will.”
I used to beat myself up over my to-do list which only kept growing. I wished to see it empty, but then I was finally convinced this was impossible. The more I worked, the faster my to-do list grew. I had to work more than 12 hours a day, but the list never shrunk. My duties started to lay eggs.
When I moved a new role at a new company, a senior colleague said to me, “Do you think we expect you to work 8 hours non-stop? We know you’re human, take a break!”
If you act like a robot, others, especially employers, will start treating you as such. You may think working from the crack of dawn and far into the night is good for your career growth, but in fact it’s only hurting you and your career.
J. Maureen Henderson, entrepreneur and marketing firm founder, says in an article published on Forbes, “A little overtime is inevitable, but when it becomes habitual, you appear to be someone who has either allowed yourself to be overburdened with more tasks than can fit into the 9-5 or a person who wastes those hours and has to make up for them when everyone else is already at home.”
So what if the clock hit 5 p.m. and you hadn’t finished all your tasks? It’s not like you were slacking all day long. And so what if you had to slack for a couple of days every month? You’re human and sh*t happens. Take care of yourself or else you won’t be able to take care of your work.