Better productivity doesn’t have to mean your alarm is set to the sunrise, but I’m getting pretty sick of the urge to run back to bed and hide my head under the covers. I work from home, and the scheduling freedom that allows tends to turn people (me) into overthinkers who struggle with perfectionism. It’s tough to find somebody who’s immune to that productivity paralysis, and I’m certainly no exception when left to my own devices. Luckily (at least that’s my spin on it), I’ve got OCD and no shortage of time to have obsessively researched how more productive people manage to get things done.
That translated to many hours spent prepping food or playing video games while listening to the interviews or audiobooks of folks who, by my estimation, have got it together. It also earned me many battle royale losses because you can’t pause an online game to take notes when you hear a useful point – and it’s not like I was scoring more than rookie numbers in the first place.
But that humiliation and note-taking come to benefit you, dearest procrastinator, because we can save you time with this summary of my (informal) education in motivation!
The aim here is to cover productivity basics and tricks (‘hacks,’ if you’re trendy) that I learned to trick my squirrel brain into motion over the past several years. And I’m doing it in one post because you shouldn’t have to bother with the digital legwork I’ve already done.
I want to give you actionable tips you can’t unsee, but in a primer that takes minutes of reading instead of the hours I’ve spent consuming this sort of content.
The Building Blocks of Productivity: Fuel and Rest
I’ll give you the bad news first: The basics of becoming a more productive person are the toughest part. To sustain long-term productivity healthily, your diet and sleep cycle should be on-point. That’s a significant struggle for many of us, but you can start by arming yourself with bits of information to help make the right choices as you go along.
Let’s start with the hint that kicks me the hardest:
Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep on most nights* is not negotiable.
Yeah, yeah – you think you’re the individual case who can get away with less, but in the background, your body is paying for every lost hour. The severity of sleep deprivation symptoms will vary from person to person and I know it’s no fun to start winding down for bed when it’s the last thing on your mind, but forcing yourself to is a critical area of discipline that can improve your life exponentially if you’re not getting enough rest. There’s even evidence that not getting enough sleep harms your ability to lose fat.
*The asterisk is here for us smartypants who frequently negotiate with our bodies for less rest. Every few days, maybe missing a little is okay. But over time this tactic will undoubtedly fail, and you don’t want to be that grouchy guy, do you?
What You Eat Affects Your Energy
The other rough point is nutrition. Maintaining a (generally – even The Rock loves pancakes) healthy diet is hard in the sense that it requires some education going in and takes discipline to balance out, but it’s the other non-negotiable part of the puzzle.
I’m aware of how aggravating this can be to hear repeatedly, but even the tiniest improvement in your eating habits *will* benefit every aspect of your health. Don’t think of it as a vast, daunting overhaul of your life or any of that strict madness, because that’s the kind of overwhelming thinking that led me to avoid making changes. Make a couple of healthier choices at a time and watch your habits change for the better.
To avoid turning this post into a sciencey nutritional sesh, I’ll share my biggest takeaway from a few years of trying to clean things up:
Stop doing what you already know you shouldn’t.
You don’t need to spend time studying or buy a book to start cleaning up your eating habits a little. When you’re standing in the checkout line and reach for something that you know *probably* isn’t nutritionally dense or valuable, thinking to yourself “I know I shouldn’t, but…”
For once, that voice in your head isn’t just a jerk. It’s *correct*.
“PUT THAT COOKIE DOWN NOW!” – Arnold Schwarzenegger in the cinema masterpiece Jingle All The Way
Yes, there are more psychological layers to dietary habits than that, but what I’m trying to drive home more than anything is that you already have the tools to start by altering some small choices. You don’t need a rundown of macronutrients tailored to your daily activities if you’re just looking to improve a lazy or unhealthy diet — at least not right away.
If you like lists…
Now you’ve got two ways to practice a little self-improvement:
1. Work toward being that ‘boring’ person who prioritizes sleep.
2. Pick a part of your diet to adjust for the better – big or small – and gradually develop healthier habits that way.
Those basics help provide the energy that fuels accomplishment. They work differently from person to person, but you don’t have to eat and sleep like Michael Phelps at the Olympic Village just to improve your health a bit beyond the (lacking) average.
Combine this balance of fundamentals with some of the points I’m about to run down, and you’ll have a solid base for achieving whatever it is you’re determined to do.
Better productivity by asking questions
Giving yourself prompts is essential!
You can better direct yourself by asking some fundamental questions to establish a framework of what needs to get done. This creates a hierarchy and keeps you from wandering from task to task, potentially wasting a lot of time half-completing little nothings.
If these sound like the words of experience, well, lazy as charged.
Consistent forward momentum is far more critical than taking giant leaps all at once, so focus on small, incremental progress more than knocking half your work out of the park in one sitting. An idea of the goal and the structure it’ll take to accomplish will get you there a lot faster than aimlessly flailing at a disorganized, overwhelming ‘To Do’ list with no obvious entry point.
Let’s start with a manageable grip of questions. Introducing…
What Do I Ask Myself?
1. What task will make another easier *or* obsolete?
This is your most important question, and even though the old ‘Kill two birds with one stone’ adage is crass, it applies. Any job that covers multiple items on your to-do list means far less work for you in the future, and it’s tough to see that as anything but good!
2. What can I accomplish in bite sizes/the time I currently have available?
You don’t have to complete something all at once. Even if you’re jumping around your list, tackling anything that can be worked on in pieces is better to progress than staying idle.
3. What will most impact the next 24 hours?
This one is pretty simple: If there’s something on your list that would have a noticeable impact or make you feel significantly better in the next day or two, prioritize it! Take every opportunity you can to ‘rig the game’ and set yourself up for little hits of reward and accomplishment this way.
Feel overwhelmed by the task ahead?
Plan to do less than you’re capable of. More often than not, you’ll exceed it, but even if you don’t, you’ll still have accomplished something useful. Forward momentum is far more important than how much you’re accomplishing if you traditionally struggle to get started.
Don’t hamstring yourself by worrying about not having the time to get the task done perfectly or all at once. One percent every day is still great progress. Sure, it’s more comfortable to sit back and say “I shouldn’t bother because I can’t accomplish enough,” but that’s just as crippling as letting perfectionism get in the way of your progress. Even half-doing something (that you can edit later) is better than reconsidering and later regretting having nothing to show.
That’s great when you’ve already scheduled. But how much time, relative to the rest of your day, should you devote to working? That’s up to you, but if you give some time to working on being more efficient with your time/energy each day, you’ll find yourself getting more done in a shorter span of time.
Accomplishments while depressed
Be willing to be uncomfortable at the moment to achieve your higher goal and build the bigger picture for yourself. It’s important to remember that depression and anxiety commonly cause people to withdraw, closing the border walls of their world while making it harder to push outside of those boundaries without substantial discomfort. Your world will want to get smaller, and it’s up to you to keep stretching your comfort zone ever so slightly as it tries to recceed.
When you feel aimless, help someone. Make that your purpose at the moment. It’s almost a mindfulness or meditation practice on its own to focus your efforts on improving somebody else’s situation. Not only is it rewarding and better than being idle or stagnating, but you’ll also find mirrors to your position and see first-hand how looking at the bigger picture can lead to a much deeper understanding of the control you *do* have over many outcomes in your life, even when you feel helpless.
Further Your Free Time: Choose Your Adventure
What happens if you don’t have to do anything immediately? Say you have a regular job and you find yourself finishing your day’s work, coming home and relaxing. But you feel you’re in a rut. Maybe it seems like you’re not moving forward with your life outside of surviving. If you’re not very attached to your primary source of income, or maybe you don’t have one, it’s natural to want to stimulate your mind and inspire yourself to grow.
But how? You’re not the kind of person who has a library of leather-bound encyclopedias in your house for fun – you’re not quite sure how to direct your free time.
Patience! Time for a preachy moment.
I see too many people complaining that they’re stuck in a rut because they don’t have the free time or extra money/loan potential to further their learning. That’s just not true. I understand many feeling they’re in an impossible situation, but most of us genuinely aren’t, and there are at least a couple of moments in a week where we could put a little extra time into growing our potential. Again, this is easier said than done, but a potential employer (or recruiter, LinkedIn lurker) is going to look favorably on the candidate who’s shown initiative to better themselves by learning on their own time.
Let’s say you don’t have any work commitments at the moment (and you’re not on the clock), but you’re not *quite* in the mood to sit back and play that latest game you bought. Aside from throwing money at your favorite “guru”’s course to hear some fluffy language, why not look into the free or cheap learning available to you? I’ve got some personal recommendations for young professionals or people just generally seeking to sharpen their skills. I don’t have any more formal education than you do, most likely, but I’m confident that these are accessible resources for almost any level or style of learner.
- DuoLingo / TinyCards
- Google Digital Garage (Digital & Marketing Fundamentals)
- Google’s Academy for Ads
Not Only For Over-Achievers (Or, ‘If I can do it…’)
If you’ve got a sweaty brow and growing desire to smack me around for making this all sound casual and easy, hold on.
Aside from there being plenty of better reasons to be annoyed with me, I want to emphasize that next to nobody does this stuff overnight. You grow healthy habits in tiny pieces, *so start!* Move toward the smallest action with the most significant impact, but don’t spend too much time thinking about doing it or you’ll end up paralyzed – like many of us have been – by your quest to perfect it before you even get started.