Getting things done--getting the right things done--makes you happier. Feeling productive makes you happier.
Feeling like you're making better progress towards your goals, that your efforts have value, that you're growing and learning and improving at a faster rate...all those things make you happier.
Becoming more productive means making a few changes, though: Do the same things, you get the same results.
Here are 43 changes you can make that can have a major impact on your productivity. Some you can adopt in minutes. Others might take a little longer, especially if you need to create a new habit.
But don't say you don't have the time to add something new to your daily routine or to build a new habit--becoming more efficient means you have more time, not less.
1. Make temptations hard to reach.
Call this the "pain in the butt" technique: When something is hard to do, you'll do less of it. Store sodas in the refrigerator and keep bottles of water on your desk. Put the TV remote in an upstairs closet. Shut down your browser so it's harder to check out TMZ. Use a "productivity" laptop that intentionally doesn't have a browser or email, leave your phone behind, and move to a conference room to get stuff done. Convenience is the mother of distraction, so make it a pain in the butt to satisfy your temptations.
2. Maximize the most important tasks.
We all have things we do that make the biggest difference. (For me, it's actually sitting down and writing.) What two or three things contribute most to your success? What two or three things generate the most revenue? Eliminate all the extra "stuff" to the greatest extent possible so you reap the benefits of spending time on the tasks that make you you.
3. Read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.
I loved Cal's last book, So Good They Can't Ignore You. It's a book I often mention when people ask me for recommendations.
Deep Work is just as good. It's the perfect antidote to all the alerts, distractions, and multitasking that make you feel like you're getting a lot done, but aren't what you really need to get done.
After all, busy is very different from productive.
4. Allow yourself less time for key projects.
Time is like a new house. We eventually fill a bigger house with furniture, and we eventually fill a block of time with "work." So take the opposite approach. Limit the amount of time you allow yourself to complete an important task.
You'll be more focused and motivated, your energy level will be higher, and you'll actually get more done.
5. Chunk "housekeeping" tasks.
Even though we'd like to focus solely on our most important tasks, we all have other stuff we need to do. Instead of sprinkling those activities throughout the day--or, worse, taking care of them when they pop up--take care of them in a preplanned block. Better yet, schedule that block for when you know you'll be tired or in need of a mental break. That way, you'll still feel (and be) productive even when you're not at your best.
6. Say "No" a lot more often.
You're polite. You're courteous. You're helpful. You want to be a team player. You're overwhelmed. Say no at least as often as you say yes. You can still be polite while protecting your time. And you should protect your time--it's the one asset no one can afford to waste.
7. When a goal seems daunting, start small.
Say you've decided you should cold-call 20 new prospects every day. Great idea...but one that also sounds really hard.
Instead, start small. You can call two people a day, right? Sounds easy. That you can do. Then, over time, you'll feel comfortable increasing the number. (Especially as you start to have success.)
Whenever you want to create a new habit, start small so you will actually start, and then stick with it through that tough early period when habits are hard to form.
8. Build in frequent breaks.
Small, frequent breaks are a great way to refresh and recharge. Like the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management strategy in which you work on one task for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. (To time yourself, use a kitchen timer or your phone.)
The key to not burning out is to not let burnout sneak up on you. Scheduling regular short breaks ensures that won't happen.
9. Follow the two-minute rule.
From Getting Things Done by David Allen:
When a task takes less than two minutes, don't schedule it, don't set it aside for later, don't set a reminder--just take care of it now. Then it's done.
Besides: Don't you have enough on your schedule already?
10. Actively schedule free time.
Free time shouldn't just happen by accident. Free time shouldn't be something you get around to if you get a chance.
Plan your free time. Plan activities. Plan fun things to do. Not only will you enjoy the planning and the anticipation, you'll actually have more fun.
The happier you are, the more motivated and productive you will be over the long term.
11. Exercise first thing in the morning.
Exercise is energizing. Exercise will make you healthier. Exercise can make you smarter. Plus, exercise can improve your mood for up to 12 hours after you work out. So there you go. Work out for 20 minutes first thing. Feel better. Be smarter. Be less stressed. Have a more productive day. Can't beat that.
12. Read Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and in Business, by Charles Duhigg.
The best books don't just make you think, "Wow. I never realized that." They also make you think, "And now I know what to do differently."
Duhigg shows how to build better teams, make better decisions, build a better workplace culture, and be more personally productive.
Can't beat that.
13. Bring a healthy lunch to work every day.
We've all eaten a heavy lunch that seemed to kill the rest of the day. So take a different approach. See lunch as fuel for your afternoon--and as one meal you know will be healthy. Plan to eat a portion of protein that fits in your palm and a couple of vegetables or fruits.
Make it easy and pack your lunch. Then you won't waste time driving to and from a restaurant.
14. Say to yourself, "I will be OK with less-than-perfect."
Yes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Yes, perfection is the only acceptable outcome. Unfortunately, no product or service is ever perfect, and no project or initiative is perfectly planned. In fact, the quest for perfection can often be your worst enemy.
Work hard, do great work, do your best, and let it go. Your customers and colleagues will tell you what needs to be improved, and that means you'll get to make improvements that actually matter to people.
You can't accomplish anything until you let go. Do your best, let go, and then trust that you'll work hard to overcome any shortcomings.
15. Take a productivity nap.
A quick nap can improve creativity, memory, and your ability to stay focused. Besides that, neurologists promote the learning benefits of midday siestas. Silicon Valley companies compete to see who can design the coolest napping rooms.
Napping is not just napping anymore; it's a skill. And it's a skill that can supercharge your productivity. (Here are some great tips for productive napping.)
16. Use your mind for thinking, not remembering.
Here's another Getting Things Done tip: Don't clutter your thoughts with mental to-do lists or information you need to remember.
Write all those things down, then you can focus on thinking about how to do things better, how to treat people better, how to make your business better.
Don't waste mental energy trying to remember important tasks or ideas. That's what paper is for.
17. Turn off alerts.
Your phone buzzes. Your email dings. Chat windows pop up. Every alert sucks away your attention. So turn them off. Go alert-free, and once every hour or so take a few minutes to see what you might have missed.
Chances are, you'll find out you missed nothing, but in the meantime you will have been much more focused.
18. Stop working when you're at a great point.
Take it from Ernest Hemingway: "The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day...you will never be stuck."
His advice applies to all kinds of work. When you stop in the middle of a project, you know what you've done, you know exactly what you'll do next...and you'll be excited to get started again.
19. Eliminate one "permission."
You probably don't think of it this way, but everything you do "trains" the people around you how to treat you. Let employees interrupt your meetings or phone calls because of "emergencies," and they'll feel free to interrupt you anytime. Drop what you're doing every time someone calls and they'll always expect immediate attention. Return emails immediately and people will expect an immediate response.
In short, your actions give other people permission to keep you from working the way you work best.
A friend created an "emergency" email account; he responds to those immediately. Otherwise, his employees know he only checks his "standard" email a couple of times a day, and they act accordingly.
Figure out how you work best and "train" the people around you to let you be as productive as you possibly can.
20. Eliminate one report.
You're not reading most of them anyway. And neither is your team.
21. Eliminate one sign-off.
I worked at a manufacturing plant where supervisors had to sign off on quality before a job could be run. Seemed strange to me--we trusted the operators to ensure jobs met standards throughout the run, so why couldn't we trust them to know if a job met quality standards before they started running?
You probably have at least one sign-off in place because somewhere along the way an employee made a major error and you don't want the same mistake to happen again. But in the process, you reduce the amount of responsibility your employees feel for their own work because you've inserted your authority into the process.
Train, explain, trust--and remove yourself from processes where you don't belong.
22. Prune your to-do list.
A to-do list with 20 or 30 items is not only daunting, it's also depressing. Why start when there's no way you can finish?
So you don't.
Try this instead. Create a wish list: Use it to write down all the ideas, projects, tasks, etc., that occur to you. Make it your "would like to do" list.
Then pick three or four items off that list that will make the most difference. Pick the easiest tasks to accomplish, or the ones with the biggest payoff, or the ones that will eliminate the most pain.
Make that your to-do list. And then get it done.
Then, you can make a new list of three or four items.
23. Drop one personal commitment.
We all do things simply because we feel we "should." Maybe you volunteer because a friend asked you to...but you feel no real connection to the cause you support. Maybe you have a weekly lunch with some old friends...but it feels more like a chore than a treat. Or maybe you keep trying to learn French...just because once you started you didn't want to feel like a quitter.
Think about one thing you do out of habit, or because you think you're supposed to, or simply because you don't know how to get out of it...and then get out of it.
The momentary pain (or, in some cases, confrontation) that results from stepping down, dropping out, or letting go will be quickly be replaced by a huge sense of relief.
And you can use the time you save to do something you feel has real meaning.
24. Create a window of reflection.
Most small-business owners spend a lot more time reacting--to employee issues, customer requests, market conditions, etc.--than they do reflecting.
Eliminate 20 or 30 minutes of reacting time by creating a little quiet time. Close your door and think. Better yet, go for a walk. Exercise does more to bolster thinking than thinking does; walking just 40 minutes, three days a week, builds new brain cells and improves memory functions.
And don't worry that something bad will happen while you're gone--most of the time the issues you "avoid" will solve themselves.
25. Decide who will decide.
Instead of making serial decisions, try making just one: Decide who will decide.
Say you regularly need to decide whether to expedite shipping because of work-in-progress delays. Instead of being the go-to decision maker, pick someone in the organization to make those decisions. Provide guidance, parameters, and advice, and turn that person loose. Then check in periodically to see if he or she needs more direction. That way, you get to spend time figuring out how to eliminate the delays instead of dealing with the repercussions.
Almost every decision you currently make can be taken over by people you trust. How will you learn to trust them?
Teach, train, guide, verify. In time, you'll give your employees the authority and responsibility they've earned.
26. Map out your week every Sunday night.
Sunday evenings, sit down with your list of important objectives for the year and for each month. Those goals inform every week and help keep you on track. While long-range goals may not be urgent, they are definitely important. If you aren't careful, it's easy for "important" to get pushed aside by "urgent."
Then look at your calendar for the week. You know what times are blocked out by meetings, etc., so look at what you want to accomplish and slot those tasks onto your to-do list.
The key is to create structure and discipline for your week. Otherwise, you'll just let things come to you, and urgent will push aside important.
27. Actively block out task time on your calendar.
Everyone schedules meetings and appointments. Go a step further and block out time to complete specific tasks. Slot periods for "Write new proposal" or "Craft presentation" or "Review and approve marketing materials."
If you don't proactively block out that time, those tasks will slip. Or get interrupted. Or you'll lose focus. And important tasks won't actually get done.
28. Add time blocks to your to-do list.
Create to-do lists and don't assign times to each task and what happens? You always have more items on your to-do list than you can accomplish, and that also turns it into a wish list, not a to-do list. If you have six hours of meetings scheduled today and eight hours' worth of tasks, then those tasks won't get done.
Assigning realistic times forces you to prioritize. Assigning realistic times also helps you stay focused. When you know a task should only take 30 minutes, you'll be more aggressive in weeding out or ignoring distractions.
29. Set specific (and appropriate) meeting durations.
Whoever invented the one-hour default in calendar software wasted millions of people-hours. Most subjects can be handled in 30 minutes. Many can be handled in 15 minutes--especially if everyone who attends knows the meeting is only going to last 15 minutes.
Don't be a slave to calendar tool defaults. Only schedule an hour if you absolutely know you'll need it.
30. Leveraging every drop of "edge time."
Your biggest downtimes during the workday may be when you drive to work, when you drive home, and when you're in airports. Focus hard on how to use that time.
Look at your day. Identify the downtimes. Then, schedule things you can do during that time. Call it edge time--because it really can build a productive edge.
31. Make lunch productive.
Your lunch can take an hour. Or 30 minutes. Or 10 minutes.
Whatever time it takes, be thoughtful about what you do. If you like to eat at your desk and keep chugging, fine. But if you benefit from using the break to recharge, lunch is one time where multitasking can be great: You can network, socialize, and help build your company's culture--but not if you're going out to lunch with the same people every day.
Pick two days a week to eat with people you don't know well. Or take a walk. Or do something personally productive. Say you take an hour for lunch each day; that's five hours a week. Be thoughtful about how you spend that time. You don't have to work, but you should make it work for you.
32. Protect family time.
You're probably a bit of a workaholic, so be very thoughtful about your evenings. When you get home from work, make it family time: Have dinner as a family, help your kids with their homework. Completely shut down. No phone, no email.
Every family has peak times when they can best interact. If you don't proactively free up that time, you'll slip back into work stuff. Either be working or be home with your family. That means no phones at the table, no texts. Don't just be there; be with your family.
33. Streamline goals.
It's tempting to add a few "Hey, while I'm at it, wouldn't it be great if I also..." items to a task.
Deciding what to do is important, but often deciding what not to do is even more important.
Every position, every project, every initiative has a primary goal, and 90 percent of the effort of those involved should go to accomplishing that primary goal. Achievement is certainly based on effort, but achievement is also based on focus. Strip away the ancillary stuff to get on with what is really important.
You'll not only do a better job on this project, you'll have more time to devote to the next project.
34. Eliminate every "ego" commitment.
We all do things that have more to do with ego than results.
Maybe you serve on a committee because you like how it looks on your CV. Maybe you teach at a local college because you like the words adjunct professor. Or maybe, like me, you do radio interviews just because it seems cool to be on the radio, though it in no way benefits me professionally. (There are a few I would do no matter what just because I like the hosts.)
Anything you do solely for ego is a waste of time. Think about things you do mainly because they make you look important, smart, or cool. If it provides no other "value," drop it.
Anything you do that serves the greater glory of you is a waste of time; besides, the best glory is reflected, not projected.
35. Don't struggle for that last 5 percent.
I'm fairly competitive, so when I start to do something, I soon start wanting to do it better than other people. (OK, I'm overly competitive.)
Take cycling. I'm faster, fitter, etc., than the average person. But compared with the fast guys, I'm nothing. They can drop me within a few miles. And it drives me crazy. That makes me ride more and train more and spend tons of hours on a bike--and for what? So I can hang with them for a couple more miles? So my time up a certain mountain is only 30 percent slower than theirs instead of 40 percent?
This kind of improvement has no real importance. Sure, I may get in better shape, but at that point the improvement to my overall health is incremental at best. And, in the meantime, I have to spend hours on cycling I could spend working toward more important goals.
Or I could just spend more time with my family, the most important goal of all.
Think about something you already do well but are trying hard to do even better. Then weigh the input with the outcome.
Sometimes "good" truly is good enough, especially if that 5 percent gain is hugely disproportionate to the pain required to reach it.
36. Eliminate useless "me-time" commitments.
I used to play fantasy baseball and football. But when I thought about it, I had no idea why. Sure, I could rationalize it created a nice break in the week. I could rationalize it was a "mental health" activity that let me step aside from the stress and strain of business life.
I could, but that wasn't true. I just did it because I had always done it, and once I start every year I don't want to quit because, um, I'm not a quitter. (I know that sounds stupid, but I'm willing to bet you do at least one thing for the same reasons.)
Look at the things you do because you've always done them and decide if it's time to stop. Here's an easy test: If you wouldn't do something while you were on vacation, there's no good reason to do it when you're not.
37. Set hard limits.
Deadlines and time frames establish parameters, but typically not in a good way. We instinctively adjust our effort so our activities take whatever time we let them take.
Tasks should take only as long as they need to take--or as long as you decide they should take.
Try this: Decide you'll spend only 10 minutes a day on social media. Just 10.
The first day, you'll get frustrated because you won't get everything done you "need" to get done. The second day, you'll instinctively skip a few feeds because they're not as important. The third day, you'll re-prioritize and maybe use a tool like Buffer to get better organized. By the fifth day, you'll realize 10 minutes is plenty of time to do what you need to do; all that other time you used to spend was just fluff.
Pick a task, set a time limit, and stick to that time limit. Necessity, even artificial necessity, is the mother of creativity. I promise you'll figure out how to make it work.
38. Establish a nighttime routine...
The first thing you do is the most important thing you do, because it sets the tone for the rest of the day.
So be smart and prepare for that "first thing" the night before. Make a list. Make a few notes. Review information. Prime yourself to hit the ground at an all-out sprint the next day; a body in super-fast motion tends to stay in super-fast motion.
39. ...and a morning routine.
Make sure you can get to that task as smoothly as possible. Pretend you're an Olympic sprinter and your morning routine is like the warmup for a race. Don't dawdle, don't ease your way into your morning, and don't make sure you get some "me-time" (hey, sleep time is me-time). Get up, get cleaned up, get fueled up--and start rolling.
My elapsed time from bed to desk is about 15 minutes (easy, since my commute is two flights of stairs), so there's not much I can improve. So I do something else: I get my most important task done before I check email.
Think about it this way: Sprinters don't do cool-down laps before they race. Neither should you.
40. Fix what you frequently break.
I used to be terrible about putting meetings and phone calls on my calendar. I figured I'd get to it later, and then I never did. Then I spent way too much time, often in a panic, trying to figure out when and where and who....
All that time was wasted time. So I finally decided I would immediately enter every appointment into my calendar the moment I made it--no matter what.
You probably have at least one thing you tend to mess up. Maybe you don't file stuff properly. Maybe you put off dealing with certain emails and then forget them. Maybe you regularly find you're unprepared for a call or meeting.
Whatever your "things" are, fix them. You'll save time and aggravation.
41. Change the way you measure tasks.
Over time, we've all settled on ways to measure our performance. Maybe you focus on time to complete. Or quality. Or cost. Each is effective, but sticking with one or two could cause you to miss opportunities to improve.
Say you focus on meeting requirements--what if you switched it up and focused on time to complete?
Measuring your performance in different ways forces you to look at what you regularly do from a new perspective.
42. Adopt a successful person's habit.
Successful people are often successful because of the habits they create and maintain.
Take a close look at the people who are successful in your field. What do they do on a regular basis? Then adopt one of their habits and make it your own.
Never reinvent a wheel when a perfect wheel already exists.
43. Use a notebook.
Richard Branson has said on more than one occasion that he wouldn't have been able to build Virgin without a simple notebook, which he takes with him wherever he goes.
How many great ideas have you forgotten? Ultra-productive people free their minds by writing everything down.