Improve your productivity with habit stacking

17 Small Changes to Increase Your Productivity

Productivity is simply a measure of your work efficiency during any given day. While there are many time-consuming habits that can help you get things done, it is possible to make small changes that will positively impact your level of efficiency.

I’ll agree that some of these actions might seem like common sense, but if you add them to a solid 15- to 30-minute routine, you’ll see a dramatic improvement in both the quantity and the quality of your efforts. So let’s talk about how to add small changes to your productivity.

1. Drink a Large Glass of Water

Even mild dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, affect your concentration, impair short-term memory and impede mental function. If you want to be at your most productive, it’s important for your brain to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, you should make sure you are sufficiently hydrated before starting work.

Sidebar: Obviously you want to drink more than a single glass of water every day. The rule of thumb is eight 8-ounce glasses per day (or a total of 64 ounces.) To be honest, this number could vary according to your weight and level of physical activity. The key lesson here is to add the consumption of water as a daily habit.

Action:

Fill a 16-ounce glass of water and drink it. Either warm or cold water is fine—there are health benefits to both, so pick whichever you prefer. If you find plain water unpalatable, try adding ice and a squeeze of lemon.

Herbal tea (iced or hot) is an acceptable alternative if you really don’t like drinking water, but don’t add any sugar. Avoid black tea and other caffeinated drinks.

Time required:

Two minutes.

2. Schedule Your Day and Prioritize Your Tasks

Without at least a basic schedule, it’s frighteningly easy to get to the end of the day and realize you’ve achieved nothing of importance. At the very least, you should make a list of the tasks you want to accomplish during the day and decide where your priorities lie.

Actions:

Make a list of the tasks you want to complete by the end of the day. Try to be realistic, rather than planning too much.

Rate each task’s importance as 1 (vital), 2 (important), 3 (important but not time-sensitive) or 4 (unimportant).

Assign an estimated time to complete each task. Be generous with your estimates.

Schedule each task for a specific time. Plan to do your most important tasks first. Don’t forget to schedule breaks. If you feel restricted by a tight schedule, you may prefer to split your tasks into morning and afternoon sessions instead.

Time required:

Five minutes.

3. Focus on Your Three Most Important Tasks

Another way to plan out your day is to focus on your Most Important Tasks (MITs). With a daily schedule, it’s easy to try to do too much. Then, when you get to the end of the day and haven’t completed everything, you feel like a failure. Picking your MITs each day gives you something to focus on so you don’t waste your day on tasks of low importance. If you manage to complete your MITs, you’ll feel productive—even if you do nothing else on your list.

Action:

If you’ve already prioritized your tasks, this step should be easy. From your day’s to-do list or schedule, pick the three tasks that have the highest importance or must be done today. Don’t work on anything else until you have completed your MITs.

Time required:

1 minute.

4. Turn Tasks into Manageable Steps

Sometimes a task can seem so overwhelming that you simply don’t know where to get started. This leads to procrastination and unnecessary stress. Taking an extra five minutes or so to write a list for each project or task can make your workload seem more manageable and help with your productivity.

Action:

For each task on your schedule, consider how it can be broken down into smaller steps. As an example, if one of your tasks is “write a blog post,” you could break it down like this:

  1. Write the title.
  2. Conduct research.
  3. Write headings and an outline.
  4.  Write the post.
  5. Check spelling and grammar.
  6. Format the post for the Web.
  7. Source and resize images.
  8. Insert images.
  9. Upload and schedule post.

By breaking a task into specific steps, you’ll have a better understanding of what needs to be done and how to schedule your day.

Time required:

Five minutes.

5. Create Accountability by Telling Others

Planning out your work in meticulous detail will not do you much good if you never get around to acting on your plan. When you’re only accountable to yourself, you’re much more likely to procrastinate, delay working on tasks or simply never complete the items on your list.

If your tasks don’t have accountability built into them (like a client deadline), creating accountability by letting others know your intentions is a great way to discipline yourself into staying on task. You won’t want to embarrass yourself by admitting you didn’t get any work done, so you’re much more likely to achieve your goals if you make them public.

Action:

Tell someone your productivity and work goals. You can do this by having a productivity partner that you email or talk to regularly in order to keep each other accountable. Alternatively, you could write about your goals on a forum, post an update on social media, create a public blog post or use an app like Lift.do. All of these actions can keep you accountable to your goals.

Time required:

Five minutes.

6. Reward Yourself for Task Completion

If you schedule your day to be all work and no play, you’ll soon burn out and feel demotivated. To keep your energy up and motivation high, alternate your work tasks with small treats. These treats not only act as a break to replenish depleted levels of concentration, but also work like a carrot on a stick—you’ll work faster and with more enthusiasm when you have something to look forward to at the end of it.

Action:

For each task on your list, plan a suitable treat you’ll look forward to. These treats don’t have to be anything fancy as long as they feel like a treat to you—a cup of coffee, a five-minute yoga session or sitting down with a magazine is just fine. For the completion of bigger tasks, you may want to plan a more substantial treat like meeting a friend for lunch or buying yourself something you’ve had your eye on for a while.

Time required:

Five minutes.

7. Remove Distractions Before Working

Humans are curious creatures, and most people find it almost impossible to ignore their email and social media notifications until the end of their work sessions. If you’re being interrupted every few minutes by a ping or flashing browser tab, it will greatly reduce your productivity and concentration.

Additionally, these social activities are pleasurable—they give our brains a little hit of dopamine, otherwise known as the happy hormone. In other words, social media can be addictive. A quick five minutes on Facebook can easily turn into an hour, as many of us can attest to.

Rather than struggling against your brain’s natural inclination to procrastinate, save yourself a lot of time and hassle by simply closing your email tab and banning social media during work time.

Actions:

If you’re not tempted to access your email or distracting websites if they’re out of view, simply close them when you start a new work session. If you’re in need of a little willpower boost, there is a wide selection of software available that will block your access to tempting websites and software when you should be working. Use an app like StayFocusd or Cold Turkey to remove temptation at the start of each work session.

Time required:

1 minute.

8. Clear Your Desktop

It’s difficult for your brain to stay focused and ordered when you’re surrounded by chaos. Spending five minutes clearing your work area at the start of each day will help to mentally prepare you for being productive, like turning to a fresh new page of your notebook. A cluttered desk can also be highly distracting, constantly reminding you of all the other things you need to do. Remove these physical distractions and you’re sure to see an improvement in your concentration levels.

It’s not just your physical environment that needs organization. A cluttered computer not only works to distract you but also means it will take longer for you to find the files you need. Get organized and you’ll be instantly more productive.

Actions:

Clear all paperwork off your desk except what you will need that day. Put everything else into physical folders, file boxes and drawers—out of sight, out of mind.

Clear your computer desktop by deleting temporary files and downloads you don’t need any more. File everything else in the appropriate folders.

Time required:

Three to five minutes (it depends on how messy your desk has become).

9. Play Music or White Noise to Improve Focus

Calming music, ambient nature sounds like rain or ocean waves, and simple background noise like a fan or the babble of conversation in a coffee shop may help you to concentrate and stay focused on your tasks.

Low-level background noise helps muffle any distracting sounds that could interrupt your work and has been shown to improve creativity and focus for many people.

Actions:

Experiment with different types of noise and see what helps you to concentrate the most. You could try a fan or air conditioner, nature sounds, or a website like Coffitivity that simulates the background noise of a busy coffee shop. There are also several white noise apps for iPhone and Android that offer a selection of different background noises.

The best music for concentration is usually classical, ambient or instrumental, without lyrics. Most people find music with lyrics to be very distracting, but author Stephen King writes to a backing track of heavy metal—you may be surprised what works for you! You can find productivity playlists compiled by other users on YouTube and Spotify.

Once you’ve found your ideal work soundtrack, play it whenever you’re ready to get down to work.

Time required:

One minute.

10. Do the Hardest (or Most Unappealing) Task First

When you look at your list of tasks, it’s tempting to choose the smaller, easier tasks to do first. If you have a big project that fills you with dread, you’re much more likely to procrastinate and put it off until later. However, if you get that task out of the way first, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s crossed off your list and the rest of your tasks will feel like a breeze in comparison.

A study of elite musicians found that rather than practicing more than their peers, they were instead engaging in more deliberate practice, focusing on their hardest tasks and being more productive during their practice sessions. If you look at the hardest task on your list, you’ll probably find that it is also the task that will give you the most benefit.

Action:

Look at your list of MITs and underline the one that you know you’d put off indefinitely if you had the chance. Get started on this task before you have a chance to think about it. Don’t work on your other tasks until it’s finished.

Time required:

One minute (to choose the hardest task).

11. Commit to a Very Small Goal

Often, simply getting started is the hardest part of getting work done. Before we start a project, our brains naturally fixate on the hardest parts and avoid this unpleasantness by inventing other things to do (checking Facebook, reorganizing your paperwork, etc.). Once you can get over the hurdle of starting, it’s likely that you’ll happily continue working well past the time limit you’ve set.

Committing to a ridiculously easy goal like writing for only five minutes reduces the difficulty of the task in your mind and allows you to get over the hump of getting started. (This is why I love the simplicity of Stephen Guise’s book, Mini Habits.)

Action:

Look at your hardest task and plan a small, easy first step to completing it that will take only a few minutes. Pick a simple metric that you know (without a doubt) you can complete.

Time required:

Two minutes.

12. Work in Small Blocks of Time

As previously discussed, our brains generally do not react favorably to the idea of large, difficult tasks. However, we can trick ourselves into making these tasks more acceptable by breaking them into small chunks. If you sit down and tell yourself you’re going to work for three hours, your brain will balk at the idea and procrastination is likely to follow. Instead, divide your work sessions into smaller blocks of time, with breaks in between.

The Pomodoro technique is probably the most well-known version of this technique. It involves working for twenty-five minutes and then taking a five-minute break. Twenty-five minutes doesn’t work for everyone, though, so it’s worth experimenting and seeing when your concentration starts to wane.

Actions:

Set a timer for 25 minutes (or your ideal time for a block of work). You can use a physical kitchen timer or stopwatch, or use an app. There are several Pomodoro timer apps available for Android and iPhone, or you could try a website like e.ggtimer.com.

Time required:

Less than a minute to start the timer.

13. Track Time for Different Activities

Have you ever gotten to the end of the day and felt like you’ve worked all day but have very little to show for it? Most people overestimate the amount of time they spend doing actual work and spend a surprisingly large amount of time doing mindless tasks.

By tracking your time, you become more aware of how you’re spending it, and you can start to spot patterns in your schedule that are reducing your productivity.

Actions:

There are time-tracking apps available, or you can simply write down the time that you start and stop each activity.

RescueTime is a very helpful software application for tracking how you spend your time on the computer. It runs in the background and sends you a report at the end of each week so you’ll know exactly how much time you spend in different software applications and on different websites. This can be eye opening to say the least.

Time required:

If you use an automatic app, you can set it and forget it. Writing down tasks will probably add up to five minutes over the course of a day.

14. Use the Two-Minute Rule

We often put off unpleasant tasks or things not directly related to our current projects, even if they will take only a couple of minutes of our time. This leads to a backlog of tasks that will end up taking much longer to deal with.

For example, it’s more efficient and less unpleasant to wash your plate straight after eating than to have a sink full of dirty dishes to do at the end of the day.

Action:

If a task will take you two minutes or less to do, deal with it immediately and move on.

Time required:

Two minutes.

15. Capture Every Idea

Very few people are able to keep their minds solely on the task at hand. Instead, it’s more likely that your mind will wander and you’ll come up with all sorts of ideas and thoughts for other projects and tasks, distracting you from your work.

Trying to ignore these thoughts is futile (have you ever tried not to think about something? It’s impossible!). So instead, capture them in a physical or electronic notepad. Once they’re out of your head and down on paper (or a screen), your brain will forget about them so you can get back to work.

Actions:

Keep a notepad on your desk so you’re always ready to jot down thoughts as they come to you while you’re working. Alternatively, use an electronic program like Evernote to make notes on your computer or mobile device.

Time required:

Less than a minute per idea.

16. Write a Done List

Most people are familiar with to-do lists, but these lists can easily make you feel overwhelmed and demotivated if you try to plan too much. A done list has the opposite effect. By writing down everything you achieve each day, you’ll feel motivated to continue.

Action:

Make a note of tasks as you complete them, or reflect at the end of the day and write down a list of everything you achieved. You can do this on paper or in an app like iDoneThis.

Time required:

Five minutes.

17. Review Your Goals

Everybody has goals. Whether they are big or small, we all have things that we want to accomplish. Sadly, the daily hustle and bustle of life can make us get off track. You need to review your goals so that you can create plans to reach those goals, put your day in perspective and know what’s important to accomplish.

You can set goals for the day or the year, but you can’t just aimlessly wander around on a day-to-day basis. Make sure you use every minute for what it’s worth and accomplish what you set out to do.

Actions:

Keep your goals in an easy-to-access place. This could be a binder or an app like Evernote. Once or twice a day, pull out this list and review your goals. Take time to read each goal out loud and think about the specific actions you’re taking to achieve it.

Time required:

Five minutes.

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