When it comes to our to-do lists, we start the day with the best intentions and motivation to get things done. Yet so often we end the day feeling frustrated when we see how many tasks still haven’t been checked off that ever-growing list. If you’re stumped on how to be more productive than you already are, consider how much of your day is spent mindlessly, suggests Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done and Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities. “Time keeps passing, so it’s easy to spend it without thinking. We spend our time on effortless things like scrolling through social media, checking email inefficiently, or puttering around the house,” says Vanderkam.
Plus, there is such a huge demand for our attention these days, says Grace Marshall, author of How to Be Really Productive. There are work projects, household tasks, emails, and text messages, to name a few. “We’re constantly getting distracted and pulled in different directions, which often means you’re unable to give anything your full attention,” says Marshall. Want a little guidance on how to start making the most of every minute? These genius, expert-approved productivity tips will help you maximize your time, get stuff done, and leave you with a sense of accomplishment every. single. day.
1. Track how you spend your time
“It’s hard to figure out how to spend your time better if you don’t know where it’s going now,” says Vanderkam. For ideally a week (but at least a few days), monitor what tasks you’re working on each day and how much time you devote to each one. You may be surprised to see just how much time you’re wasting on things you care less about. Once you recognize which tasks are getting too much attention, you can reallocate that time for to-dos that are more important.
2. Keep a “tangent log”
It happens all the time: You’re in the middle of working and you suddenly remember you forgot to text your sister back. Oh, and you need to make a doctor’s appointment. Plus you’ve got a genius idea for a different project you’re working on. Instead of acting on these thoughts right away and potentially hindering your progress, keep a notebook beside you and whenever a task or idea pops into your head, write it down, recommends Marshall. “Writing it down tells your brain, Okay, it’s safe, I don’t have to stop and chase that other task right now. I can come back to it later,” she says.
3. Turn off phone notifications
Devices make our lives easier in so many ways, but they’re also incredibly distracting. When you really need to concentrate, tailor your notifications so you only get the essential pings (like texts from your kids) and temporarily mute notifications for incoming emails, social media activity, and anything else that may cause you to check your phone. “Once you get over that period of wondering, What am I going to miss out on?, you’ll get into a deep dive working mode and find that you produce higher quality work at a quicker rate,” says Marshall. “Then when you’re back online, you’ll see that the world has carried on without you and everything is fine.”
4. Limit your to-do list
It’s better to choose 3 to 5 important tasks to do every day and check them all off of your list than to aim for 20 and check some of them off at random, according to Vanderkam. “The problem with universal task lists is that you might not truly need or want to do all of your to-dos, it’s just something that occurred to you. Certainly make a running list of anything you think of, but when you’re assigning yourself tasks for any given day or week, be much more judicious,” she says.
5. Remember the perks of completing a project
Sometimes all the motivation you need to get off the couch and into the gym is a reminder of how good your body will feel after. The same goes for being productive and getting a big task done. “Think about the benefits you reap from the work that you’re currently dreading,” says Marshall. If getting started on a big presentation for work feels daunting, consider what you’ll gain from it. Is it the chance to show off your creative side to the higher-ups? Is this presentation a stepping stone to working on more impactful projects for the company? Once you identify the positive outcome, it’ll be easier to get started.
6. Find little ways to add fun
Play upbeat music as you get stuff done around the house. Take a walk outside as you brainstorm ideas. “Someone I know thought working with spreadsheets was really boring but needed to use them when writing financial reports for her creative business. She discovered that simply changing the colors on the spreadsheet made it more interesting,” says Marshall. Small adjustments can help you find joy in tedious to-dos.
7. Make tasks less intimidating
When the importance of a particular to-do feels overwhelming, tell yourself, it’s really not a big deal, suggests Marshall. For example, you’re not really writing a book, you’re just jotting some ideas on paper. You’re not working on a massive presentation in front of important people, you’re just sharing ideas with some colleagues. This little mental trick helps dial down the scariness of your task, making it seem painless and doable.
8. Reward yourself
Sometimes you just need a little extra motivation…and who doesn’t love the promise of a treat? If that treat happens to be a delicious cupcake then go for it, but keep in mind that a reward doesn’t have to be an indulgence or splurge. “Take the afternoon off or have coffee with a friend or read a good book,” says Marshall.” A reward can be as simple as giving yourself permission to do something you enjoy.
9. Take breaks
Too few breathers can lead to burnout while too many can disrupt your flow. The trick is to figure out the right balance for you. “Treat it like an experiment. One day, try getting up after every hour or so and then at the end of the day, ask yourself, How much work did I get done? and How do I feel?, says Marshall. If you’re still strained and the quality of your work is subpar, it might mean you require more frequent breaks. The key is to evaluate and adjust accordingly.
10. Plan your weeks on a Friday
You know that lull you hit on a Friday afternoon when it’s already the weekend in your head and you’re not getting much done? “Repurpose that time for planning the upcoming week and you’ll turn wasted time into some of your most productive minutes of the week,” says Vanderkam. Look at your calendar, figure out your top priorities and where those can go, and evaluate what appointments are musts and what you can potentially get rid of. “A big reason people feel Sunday trepidation is that they don’t know what’s waiting for them on Monday morning. When you make your plan on Friday, you can relax on the weekend.”
11. Leave open time in your schedule
Being productive doesn’t mean booking every minute of your day with “productive” work. “Try to leave two hours or so open per day, or a few hours on one day, like Friday,” recommends Vanderkam. “You probably won’t sit there twiddling your thumbs. Something will come up to fill it, but by not committing it ahead of time, you leave it open for what is most pressing in the moment, or for deeper thinking.” When you build in time for the unexpected, you won’t need to rush a task or settle for mediocre work.
12. Give yourself a bedtime
You may not be a kid anymore, but adults can benefit greatly from forcing themselves to hit the sack at a reasonable hour. “We can do much more when we’re well-rested than when we’re sleep deprived,” says Vanderkam. And since most adults are required to wake up early, whether that be for work or to get the kids ready for school, and don’t have the opportunity to sleep in, the best alternative is to get sufficient rest by going to bed early.
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Andra Chantim, Deputy Editor Andra Chantim is Woman’s Day’s deputy editor and covers any and all lifestyle topics, including travel, relationships, organization, career, self-care, and more.
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