Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you’re going to get. – Forrest Gump
That saying sure seems appropriate as I sit here ruminating on productivity and the fact that every day seems to offer up a different experience. You might have a crazy good day getting a lot done followed by a day you file into the “waste of life” category. So what gives? Is there anything you can do to ensure that you have many more crazy good days than waste of life days? I can’t offer any miracles, but I can give you some tips that I have found useful in my own struggles to be a more productive human. You need to learn how to fight, even if your opponent is yourself. So here goes…
1.) GET RID OF POTENTIAL DISTRACTIONS
As I sit here writing this article, I find myself glancing over at my telephone as a notification pops up, illuminating the screen. Rule #1. Get rid of all distractions. Like, seriously. All these new gadgets that give you access to the world with the click of a button have potentially enormous distractive capabilities. If you are a compulsive, easily distractible person, you have to create the conditions that will engender your success. That means preparing your workspace, acknowledging potential disruptive entities, and clearing them out. That phone, the web, those video games, they all have to go. For example, when I need to do some work on my computer, I leave my phone in another room. I shut myself in my office and close myself off to any outside communication. Now, er, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go put my phone in the kitchen while I write the rest of this article.
2.) REWARD YOURSELF FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR
I have always found that giving myself a reward for a job well done does wonders for my productivity. But it all has to start with an ultimatum. First, you connect a sense of urgency and importance to the task you want to complete. YOU SERIOUSLY HAVE TO GET THIS DONE TODAY OR YOU’LL TRIGGER THE APOCALYPSE. Well, it doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but you get the point. Then, give yourself a reward after completion of the task. Let’s say you really love going on Facebook. In fact, scrolling through your Facebook feed is the reason why you are distracted from your tasks 90% of the time. Don’t try to fight the compulsion. USE IT. Steel yourself to the task ahead and then reward yourself with what you want. I find it helps to talk myself through the process out loud, like this:
Me to Myself: I HAVE TO WRITE THIS REPORT TODAY.
Myself to Me: How much time is that going to take?
Me to Myself: About 3 hours.
Myself to Me: K. If you work on the report for 1.5 hours, you can take a break and check Facebook for 3o minutes…and eat a piece of chocolate. Then you go back to writing the report. Got it?
Me to Myself: I’m on it!
A word of advice: try not to do this in public. If you do, make sure to keep your voice down so as not to attract any unwanted attention.
3.) MAKE A LIST OF TASKS & RANK THEM BY IMPORTANCE
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My nickname in high school was “last minute Sahy”. If that was a joke, my parents and teachers were all in on it. Now, I can certainly be proud of the fact that I was a high-functioning dysfunctional individual who could turn straw into gold (or at least make sure the straw was PAINTED gold) at the drop of a hat, but I sometimes wonder how much more I could have done, and how much the quality of my work may have improved, had I been more organized. Though I may thrive under pressure, I have learned that it is much more enjoyable NOT to be in a constant cycle of desperation and stress. Here are two things that can help:
1.) Make a weekly task list. Every week, I sit down and ponder the meaning of life…and everything I need to do during that week.
2.) Use the Eisenhower Productivity Box to organize your task list according to importance and urgency. Focus on completing the tasks in the the top two quadrants and tackle the bottom two if you have time.
4.) KEEP A WEEKLY BLOCK CALENDAR
Create blocks of time in your calendar during which you only work on a certain category of tasks. My blocks tend to be 1-2 hours in length. For example, in my calendar, I have a “create blog content” block, a “breakfast/morning chores” block, etc. I work on my most important tasks in each category first, without exceeding my time block. Whatever is left moves into the next day’s time block, or whenever I have some free time in another block.
One thing to keep in mind when you are creating your calendar is to be generous with your time – don’t schedule more than you can handle! We all think we will be way more productive than we ever actually are. I’m not saying you should only schedule one thing per day on your calendar, but you should err on the side of caution to avoid triggering negative thoughts. When you schedule a lot of tasks and don’t get half of them done, you can easily fall into a depressive spiral that will kill your productive spirit. My advice to you is to start small – focus on getting a couple important tasks done every day. Make sure you complete everything you have scheduled for that day. If you then find yourself with bucket-loads of hours spent twiddling your thumbs, start adding more tasks in, one by one.
5.) DO THE THING YOU HAVE TO DO BUT DONT WANT TO DO, FIRST
First of all, let me just say that I love procrastinating. I will drag my feet as long as I can in order to avoid doing something that I dread. The funny thing is, once I’ve actually completed the dreaded task, the process is almost never as bad as I thought it was going to be. I have learned over the years that tackling something you don’t want to do, first, clears the way for getting your other tasks done much more easily. Why? You have freed a part of your mind that would otherwise have been preoccupied with the task you were avoiding. Owning your day and feeling accomplished will help you manage pressure more efficiently. If you take care of the thing that is weighing you down, first, you will not only feel less pressured, but you will also feel like you are getting shit done. This will give you the boost you need to get even MORE done because of your positive state of mind. Let’s hear it for POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT! YAY! That feeling of success becomes addictive. And let’s face it, if you’re going to be addicted to something, that seems like a pretty good option.
6.) ONE STEP AT A TIME
We all claim to be really great multi-taskers when we are interviewing for a new job, but studies have shown that multi-tasking is detrimental to overall productivity. Sure, your brain might be able to handle a few simple tasks at once, but throw a couple of complicated issues into the mix and your brain will be on the path to a DANGER! DANGER! MALFUNCTION IMMINENT! moment. Don’t believe it? Google multi-tasking and productivity and you’ll see what I mean. So what IS the best way to get something done? Stay calm, breathe, take one small step for a man, and hold off on the giant leaps.
STEP ONE: If you have a large task, break it up into smaller pieces.
STEP TWO: Fully complete one task before moving on to the next.
STEP THREE: Take short breaks to rejuvenate yourself and refresh your mind for the next task.
A little something extra I like to do is make small boxes next to the items on my task list so I can check them off. It is so satisfying to see each box being checked off that I immediately want to move on to the next task just so I can check it off.
7.) TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Exercise. Sleep. Healthy eats. Nothing will kill your productivity more than staying up late watching tv and gorging yourself on cheetos and coke. Think of your body as a machine. In order for it to function properly (or better yet, optimally), you have to maintain it, repair it and give it the fuel it needs to operate. Exercise and proper nutrition can improve your alertness and give you the energy you need to thrive. And of course, though everyone is different in terms of how much sleep they need to recharge the batteries, you must have an idea by now what happens to you when you don’t get what you need. I turn into a lazy, cranky, appetite-less bear who dreams of an endless winter to hibernate through. Here are a few things you can do to nourish your mind and keep your body healthy:
- Drink lots of water. Eventually your body will get used to it and you won’t have to go to the bathroom as much.
- Get rid of all processed foods. Stick to fruits/vegetables and whole foods (grains, beans, etc.)
- Optimize sleeping conditions. Use earplugs, an eye mask or drink a soothing herbal tea in the evening to prepare for a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid extended seated periods. Make sure to get up and walk around as much as possible during the day.
Everybody has 99 problems, but productivity doesn’t need to be one of them. If this all seems overwhelming and the very idea of putting these tips into motion is stressful, take another look at #6 and remember, you can do this step by step. Tackle one guideline at a time. Understand that this will take time and effort, especially if you are an (almost) hopeless case, like I once was. It is only through repetition and consistency that good habits are formed. You can learn more about an effective strategy to create good habits that stick in my post about the 30-Day Challenge.
Try at least one of these tips out this week. Let me know how it turns out by leaving a comment below!
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