As someone diagnosed with ADD who, without medication, has been able to accomplish some truly focus-dependent projects (like writing a 250-page book, for example), here are 10 ways I have found to increase productivity:
1. Prepare before you get started.
Productivity doesn't just happen "in the moment." It happens long before you even sit down and get to work. The more you prepare ahead of time, and get clear on exactly what it is you want, need, or should do, the easier and faster you will move once you start. The reason why so many people struggle with "being productive" is because they skip this step, and when they sit down, they expect to start flying even though they haven't even decided where it is they want to fly to.
2. Turn off all distractions.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that every time your phone buzzes, your e-mail pops up on your screen, your office door opens, your train of thought is ruined. We like to believe we can both participate in a group chat via text and write our best-selling novel, but the truth is, we can't--and to think we can is wishful and naive. Your best work comes in silence. It's why people retreat and take vacations away from the busyness of life--to distance themselves from distraction.
3. Make your expectations flexible.
The hardest part about "productivity" is that we want it to exist on a static playing field. We want there to be one formal definition for "being productive" and we want that definition to mean we got from point A to point B. But, depending on what you're working on, sometimes you have to take the scenic route. Sometimes the most productive thing you could possibly do right now is to brainstorm a million random ideas, play with a few of them, watch them fail before your eyes, and then come to a more refined conclusion of what it is you're actually trying to build or "get done." In many cases, people would see this as an afternoon failure. But on the contrary, it is necessary in order to better understand whatever it is you're doing. Don't fight yourself when that happens.
4. Measure, measure, measure.
"If you can't measure it, don't do it." This is something my own mentors have gone to great lengths to teach me, and rightfully so. If you can't measure it, you don't know how to improve it--or worse, you spend too much time on the "scenic road" and you never actually reach a point of conclusion. Measurement doesn't always have to do with time, or money, or something tangible. Sometimes, the best way to measure is to simply look back at old pieces of work and see how and where you've improved stylistically. But be conscious of measurement, so that you can tweak as you go along and see where you can become more efficient.
5. Share what you're working on--for feedback.
For the longest time, I never wanted to share or talk about anything I was working on. I thought it was "bad luck" or would take me out of my flow. And I'll admit, there are those moments when your ideas are best left to ruminate in your own head, but you should not be hesitant to share what you're working on. Feedback is extremely important, and a lot of time can be saved by a single conversation where someone points out, very clearly, something that isn't "working." It might not be easy to hear in the moment, but you will be thankful for it later.
6. Practice In public.
When we talk about productivity, we often think of ways to seclude ourselves in our bedroom or office, alone, in the dark, with only the light of our laptop to keep us illuminated. But sometimes that approach actually ends up netting a poor return on your time investment because you aren't getting outside feedback. Find ways to practice in public. Use the digital tools we have access to, like social media, to release test versions of whatever it is you're working on: Whether that's a book, an album, a startup, a comedy sketch, anything. Practicing in public gives you feedback, and feedback speeds up the learning and development process.
Need we really explain the productivity benefits of a black coffee with an extra shot of espresso?
To some, this would be a distraction, but I have always found light instrumental music in the background (Beethoven and Mozart, especially)to be quite the productivity booster. As long as it isn't filled with catchy melodies that take you out of the task at hand, music can be like that whirring fan in the background that acts as a subtle cue to your subconscious to stay on the task at hand.
9. Take Breaks.
Again, being "productive" does not necessarily mean sitting still for eight straight hours. You might be able to swing that for a day or two, but you are not a robot. You will burn out. Productivity is all about flow. It's about knowing your limits and being conscious of how to move within your own constraints. Maybe you need to take 10-minute breaks after every 50 minutes of focus. Great. Do that. Or maybe you can work for four hours no problem, but then you need to take the afternoon before diving into another four-hour work session at night. Great. Do that. Do what works for you, and you only. This isn't about being productive based on someone else's habits or way of doing things. This is about knowing yourself, and using your habits to your advantage.
10. Create a routine.
It is said the best musicians, athletes, innovators, etc., follow a daily routine that trains their subconscious to know when it is time to work and when it is time to relax. There is absolutely something to be said for always practicing at the same time, or always going to the gym at the same time, or always writing at the same time, every day. You train yourself to know, as soon as that hour strikes, to fall into that mode of focus required to do your best work. Trying to be productive when one day you are working in the morning, the next day you're working at night, the next day you're working in the middle of the day, it gets exhausting. Routine is extremely helpful, and inherently removes the distraction of adjustment to something "new." Consistency is what you're after.