Getting a lot done during the day feels amazing. Unfortunately, everything from being tired to a lack of resources can make productivity tank. You can fight this tendency, but you have to be proactive about it. These are some of the best productivity tricks you can try right now, most of which have solid science backing them up.
1. Put rewards up for grabs.
Researchers have found that the brain releases dopamine in anticipation of reward. So if you have a carrot to work for, be it a massage or just a candy bar from the vending machine, you'll likely be in a better mood as you work. If you're relaxed and happy, your fight-or-fight stress response won't kick in and shut down the critical thinking parts of your brain. You can look at your projects with a more rational eye and make good decisions you don't regret through the day.
2. Keep only relevant apps open.
You probably know all about the programs that can block you from certain websites (think, oh, I don't know, *cough*, Facebook, *cough*). But go one step further and commit to keeping apps closed if they're not relevant to your immediate task, too. There's no need to have Chrome, a chat client, your email and whatever else running as potential distractions if your only immediate job is building an important Powerpoint.
3. Make to-do lists instead of pinging from thing to thing.
You go to wipe off your desk and notice a file you never delivered it. When you deliver it, your coworker asks you to check on some figures, so you do that. When you go to email them the numbers they need, you see 15 new messages and start reading them.
And so it goes, through the whole day, and at the end, your desk is still dirty.
Doing things as you're thinking of them easily can cause delays in other jobs that truly deserve priority. Instead, add the task to your to-do list so you don't forget it and then get back to your original job. Ideally, schedule the time you're going to address whatever you write down as you add each item to the list. That way, you know you'll be able to tackle it and don't have to feel anxious, even if you're scheduling a lot.
4. Hack five minutes off your estimate of how long a task will take.
Years ago, British historian Cyril Parkinson observed that the time people took to complete a task expanded or contracted according to the time allowed. So, for example, if you have 20 minutes to do a 15-minute job, you'll probably use the whole 20 minutes to do it. This is known as Parkinson's Law. Shaving five minutes off the time you think you need--for example, giving yourself 10 minutes for a job you think will take 15--will make you feel just enough of a pinch that you work a little faster and don't overcomplicate what you're doing.
5. Handle it once.
While there certainly are tasks that are too big to do in one sitting, aim to complete jobs in such a way that you don't have to come back to them whenever you can. For example, don't open your physical mail until you know you can attend to whatever the messages hold and scan, shred, file or recycle the paperwork. This way, you'll avoid feeling anxious as half-done work accumulates. When you do complete the job, you'll get a quick shot of dopamine that will keep you feeling happy and motivated to do even more.
6. Write more down.
You know how it goes. You think you're going to remember. But do you remember? Oh, ho, ho--nope. Then you end up rushing, needing to check facts again, or rearranging everything else you have to do. Simply writing notes to yourself can halt this problem. Ideally, use pen and paper for this. Researchers have found that using longhand actually improves memory and understanding. This is partly because you're building networks in the brain based on visual and fine motor input at the same time. But it's also because, since there's simply not enough time to write every word, your brain analyzes what's most critical and focuses on that.
As you work with these productivity hacks, keep in mind that any "extra" time that comes from the tips doesn't have to fill with more work. There is always something else you could add. In this sense, the goal isn't necessarily to be able to do more. It's to meet your current obligations as efficiently as possible so you aren't robbed of what you love, like time with your family or just enjoying a good book. Set your objectives, use these strategies to get there fast and then draw the line in the sand.