Looking to increase your productivity? You’ve come to the right article. I don’t claim to be a productivity master (I always think there’s room for improvement), but I am very passionate about increasing productivity. I’m always looking for different ways to be more productive – stealing pockets of time where I can, deprioritizing the unimportant, getting system overhauls, etc. And I love it when I see my efforts pay off in the form of increased outputs at the end of the day.
In this article, I have selected 13 of my best productivity strategies – tried, tested and validated. If you follow all of them to a tee, I can guarantee you that your productivity will double, triple whatever it is right now – or even more. I personally make it a point to follow these steps every day. During the days when I don’t do that, my productivity plummets. The days I do, my productivity soars. The correlation is obvious. I have also compiled a list of the best resources for some of the steps for your further reading.
Here they are :D
1. Set your productivity targets
Probably half of the self-help articles out there keeps telling us to set goals and set targets. Do you know why? It’s because it really works. When you set goals, you focus your energy on the things you want to achieve. Things which you wouldn’t be achieving by default. That automatically makes you more productive.
I do regular goal setting to maximize my output. For example, one of my goals for the upcoming month is to write 30 articles, which is an average of 1 article a day. These articles will include articles for my blog, The Personal Excellence Blog, and guest articles for other large sites, including LifeHack.Org. My average output in the past few months was only been an average of 1-2 articles per week, so I decided to set a 30 article goal to stretch me to write a lot more than I normally do. By virtue of just setting this goal and striving for it, I’m naturally increasing my output more than if I didn’t set it.
Be clear on what exactly you want to achieve. What do you want to accomplish for the upcoming month? What is a goal that will make you feel absolutely exhilarated and surging with pride if you achieve it? Set that as your goal. From there, set your weekly goals. Finally, you can set your daily goals which become your day-to-day targets.
2. Maintain a work environment conducive to productivity
Does your work environment encourage you to work? Or does it distract you more often than not? Your environment sets the stage for your work flow, so pick the right environment to work. What is the kind of environment that encourages you to work? This might require a bit of experimentation. After trying out different places, I find that I work best in quiet spots where there are minimal people around – such as my room, the library, cafes and in my neighborhood. So I only do my work at these areas.
Those of you who are employed can’t exactly choose the environment to work in. If that’s the case, then modify your environment to make it conducive. Organize your work desk (next step). Decorate it with your favorite pictures and inspirational quotes. Put up a photo frame or two. Have your favorite mug there. Sometimes you may not enjoy all the work you have to do, but that doesn’t mean you have to make yourself miserable. If you feel like home, you will be more inspired to get things done.
Having an organized work desk will undoubtedly help improve your productivity. If you have a messy workspace, you will feel disorganized and sluggish. You won’t even feel like doing anything since it’s so disorganized. Whereas if you have a nice, tidy and organized workspace, you’ll be inspired to get work done. You can find your things easily rather than waste precious minutes sieving through your pile of papers for something you saw just a while ago. If you are self-employed like I am, it’s especially important to be organized and on top of things.
I have a small work desk in my room which I make a point to keep clean and tidy. My reports, folders and random papers are stashed into a magazine organizer (which I got from Ikea 3 years ago for a few bucks only – one of my best investments ever). Pens and stationery are placed in the stationery holders. I leave enough space for my laptop and a writing area on my right side. Throughout the work days my table will get cluttered naturally, so every few days I will do some cleaning and tidying to get things in order. Even my own laptop is considered a part of my work desk – and I use post-it notes and excel sheets to organize my task lists. All these create an inviting space for me to work at any time of the day.
Habit # 3 in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. First Things First refers to putting the important things first before anything else. And why does this matter? That’s because there are 24 hours a day. There are about a million different things we can pick to do. Some will be important things that make a difference. The rest will be unimportant things that actually don’t make any difference at all. Out of this million things, we have to pick and choose, otherwise we’ll forever be drowning in work and never get anything done. Focus on the important and deprioritize the latter.
One question I use to filter out the unimportant tasks is “Will doing this make a difference in the next 6 months?” If the answer is no or a small yes, I put it aside. If it’s a big yes, then I give disproportionate focus to it. Of course, we can never give a 100% accurate assessment since we can’t see the future, but we have sufficient knowledge to give a good assessment. For example, my key goal for this year is to develop my blog, which is an essential part of my personal development business. When I apply that question to my list of blog tasks, I automatically focus on tasks like (1) guest posting which lets me reach out to significantly more readers and gains new long-term readers and subscribers to my blog (2) writing new, quality articles to my readers and (3) writing my book which will be a personal milestone and establish a new income stream at the same time. Other miscellaneous tasks like checking emails, sorting them, editing the site and reading facebook/twitter messages get deprioritized to later parts of the day.
Time boxing refers to boxing your tasks within fixed time slots. For example, boxing task A from 9-10:30am, then task B from 10:30-1pm, then task C from 2-4pm. Time boxing is good because it prevents your task from dragging on and on. There’s a saying that your work will take however long that you want it to, and I find it’s very true. Ever have a project deadline where you need to burn the midnight oil to get the work done? Most of us usually feel that we wouldn’t need to rush like that if the deadline was later on. Fact is, it doesn’t matter when the deadline is. Even if it’s 1 week later, 2 weeks later or 1 month later, the same last minute rush will still take place before. We take that long to do the work because that’s the timeline we give ourselves.
Hence, time box your tasks. If you set a specific time period and strictly adhere to it, you will find a way to get the work done. Of course, set a time that is challenging yet achievable. If a task requires 3 hours, don’t set 4 hours because you will use up all the 4 hours. Set 3 hours – preferably lesser so you can learn to optimize your output during the period (again, provided you enforce the time box strongly).
Of course, it may be hard for the neurotic perfectionists among us to limit the time spent, because that’ll result in a compromise in quality. That goes to our next principle, which is…
6. Use the 80/20 rule
80/20 refers to the phenomenon where 80% of the outputs is brought about by 20% of efforts. The remaining 20% of the output can only be achieved by putting in 80% effort.
So let’s say you have a report due, and to produce the absolute best report you are capable of, you need about 100 hours. 80/20 rule says that you can get 80% of the quality in by spending 20 hours (20% of 100 hours). On the other hand, the finishing touches to boost this report from a 80% to 100% quality requires you to spend 80 hours (80% of the time). From effectiveness standpoint, that doesn’t cut it at all. 80/20 rule tells us to just get the 80% quality in and chuck the remaining 20% since the time needed doesn’t justify the increment in value we get.
Hence, by the 80/20 rule, we have to learn to let go of the nitty gritty. Forget the little details that no one but you notices. You can keep revising something to perfection, but that time is probably better spent working on a whole new task. The key is to focus your energy on producing the 80% of every thing you do – which is also the 80% that matters. Draw a mental cut off limit and let go of everything that lies outside of the limit.
If you’re like me, you are going to get a whole streaming list of random, miscellaneous tasks to do throughout the whole work day. I used to give attention to these things when they come immediately. Say extra task # 1 comes in now, I’ll do it immediately since it takes just 5-10 minutes. This is the same for extra task # 2, #3…. all the way to #15. After a while, I realized these things take a lot of my time and I don’t even get any meaningful result out of them. Not only that, I never get to finish my real work for the day because I’m so busy with the random stuff. I may think I’m being very productive when I finish them, but truth is it’s just fake productivity.
So nowadays, I just use a separate list for these urgent tasks. I dump all the incoming tasks into the list and focus on my daily goals list. Then at the end of the day, I allocate a time slot to clear these tasks. I batch the similar urgent tasks, then clear them at one go. Turns out I’m always able to get them cleared less than an hour, compared to the few hours I’d have taken if I attended to them in the day.
8. Upgrade your skills
Our limitations in output come from limitations in our own skill level. Upgrade your skills and you will increase your output. It’s like updating our computer software with newer versions so we can create more. Our skillsets are our tools that help us create. We need better tools to create better materials.
For example, now that I want to write an average of a new article a day, I need to learn to maintain/increase the same quality of writing as before, while writing in lesser time. In preparation of that, I’m reading more A-List personal development blogs (to be more in-tuned with A-list writings) and writing blogs like Copyblogger and Write To Done to pick up writing techniques/skills. These will undoubtedly help me to write faster.
What key skills do you use in your work? How can you upgrade them to become more productive?
9. Know your motivation triggers
You know how there are times when we are really inspired to work, where other times we’ll feel like a total sloth? It’s normal. The sloth-like times come when we lose touch with our inner muse. If you are aware of your motivational triggers, you can connect with them and jumpstart your productivity.
For example, I’m usually inspired to work on my blog, and I find I’m even more inspired knowing I have a target to achieve (such as achieving X subscribers by the month), or when there’s (friendly) competition (benchmarking my traffic against larger personal development blogs), or when there’s a cause bigger than me (recognizing that there are many people out there who stand to gain from my articles). When I sieve out these triggers and integrate them with my daily life – such as subscribing to the feed of those A-list blogs, having open communication channels with my readers (comments area, facebook, twitter, email) and talking to fellow bloggers, my momentum increases dramatically. It becomes an upward spiral that reinforces itself.
How about you? What are your motivational triggers? When were the times when you felt inspired? How can you integrate these triggers into your daily life to reinforce your motivation? Doing this will definitely boost up your productivity.
10. Utilize time pockets
The time pockets refers to the little pockets of time you have in between one event to the next. Time pockets usually appear during waiting / traveling times, such as waiting for buses / trains, commuting, waiting for appointments to start, etc. Have some ready activities to be done during the time pockets. You will be amazed at how much can be done in just a short amount of time. Some activities I do include listening to self help podcasts and typing my articles on my laptop. Usually I make sure I get a seat on the bus by taking the earlier buses. In a 40-minute journey, I can get about 20% of my articles typed in a 40 minute bus journey, or about 400~500 words. That’s a good amount of work done compared to if I just slept on the trip.
Progress tracking is essential to know how you are doing. We can be frantically working to up our productivity but if we know there’s no accountability, at some point we’re going to slow down. I have a weekly review with myself every Saturday morning, where I review my progress in my goals the week before. If I met my goals, I give myself a big hug and pat on the back. If I didn’t, I understand what went wrong. Then from there, I plan out my action plan for the next week to achieve next week’s goals. These weekly goals ladder up to the monthly goals at the end of the month, where I do a monthly review.
This may be specific to individuals, but I’ll just share this as it’s true for me. Waking up early really does make me work faster and better. Personally I don’t think there’s any scientific rationale behind waking up early and being more productive. I think it’s more of a psychological feel-good factor – Since you are up before 99.99% of the world, you want to maintain the lead, so that spurs you on to work fast. When you work fast, you finish more things, and that motivates you to maintain the lead and do even more stuff.
Another reason why waking up early helps is because the quietness in the morning is a conducive environment to get more done. I love being up early (5am) and hearing absolutely nothing in my neighborhood. The birds have not even broken into song yet, cars are not on the road and my family isn’t up either. Perfect time to get things done.
We are not machines or robots. We can’t sustain the same output endlessly without rest. When the time comes, we need to rest/sleep to recover our energy, so we can continue on the next day. Remember, it’s about quality of work produced, not quantity of hours spent. I find that when I choose to continue on when I’m tired, I’m still able to produce stuff, but at a dismal pace. When I get my rest though, I can get a lot more done, even though the total number of hours spent is actually lesser.