There is no one definitive strategy to being productive, and it may take a little trial and error to find what works best for you. But if you’ve resolved to make 2017 the year you finally slay your to-do list every day, it can help to find out what’s worked for some of the most productive people.
In that spirit, we turned to some of our top experts and contributors to find out what approaches keep them productive all year long, in the hopes that a few of these can help you do the same in the year ahead.
The early bird only catches the worm if it plans the night before, says PR strategist Christina Nicholson. “By filling out my specific planner the night before, I don’t feel rushed or like I have to get to something right away,” an approach that some time-management experts endorse. Simply having a battle plan is like waking up to find your work already started. Right away, Nicholson finds, the start of her day has “already been scheduled for me”–by her.
“This past year, my work became infinitely more complex,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, who now directs the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. Her solution? Scrapping her long, unfinished to-do lists and replacing them with a single daily goal.
“By acknowledging I had limited time, limited bandwidth, and too much to do, and forcing myself to choose just one thing and getting it done every day, I wound up accomplishing some of my most important goals,” she says.
“The more I walk, the more ideas I have,” says Ellevest founder and CEO Sallie Krawcheck, opting for a low-tech productivity approach. “I put on some well-worn background music–so I only half pay attention to it–and go. Sometimes I get only an idea or two, but sometimes they come fast and furious and I’ll stop repeatedly to write them down.”
These impromptu solo brainstorms have proved surprisingly fruitful. “I can come up with four to eight ideas for newsletter updates, business initiatives, website improvements, people I should connect–you name it–over a four-mile walk.”
“Some think that stopping work on a project is a failure,” says Viv Goldstein, leader for global innovation acceleration at GE, but backing away when you’re no longer adding value is crucial. “Don’t be afraid to stop work,” she says. “It creates capacity to work on things that truly matter and ends up saving time, energy, and resources.”
This includes mental resources that can ebb and flow. Allen Gannett, CEO of the marketing analytics company TrackMaven, says that just being “willing to switch between projects to match my mood, I get much more done in a typical day.
“For example, if I’m working on a client presentation and I start to notice my attention waning,” Gannett explains, “I’ll go and answers emails for 30 minutes rather than just sit there pretending to continue working.” He hasn’t given up for good, just for the time being. “Usually by the end of that time, I’m ready to dive back into the presentation–and I got a dozen emails done” in the meantime.
You may think that to truly be productive, you need to stop procrastinating, but it might be better to embrace it. “I love procrastinating, and I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’ll never stop procrastinating,” confides Tacklebox Accelerator founder Brian Scordato. “So I make an effort to only do things I love when procrastinating–exercise, [spend] time with friends and family, etc.” That’s helped put his less productive time to better use. It “eliminates the time-wasters we usually procrastinate with,” so you can get back to work without feeling guilty.
If many of these tips sound pretty low-tech, count on a futurist to change that. Liz Alexander relies on a scheduling app to keep her schedule in order. “In an average week, I probably have a dozen or more people wanting to get onto my calendar. It used to take three or four emails just to nail down a single appointment,” she says. But after outsourcing that “tedious back-and-forth” to Calendly, Alexander says she’s found more time “to do more revenue-generating work.”
We waste inordinate amounts of time just yapping, says writer and designer Lisa Baird. “Conversations get so much further, so much faster when you close your mouth, open your ears, deprioritize your own agenda, and truly understand someone else’s.”
That matters more as organizations get flatter, says Baird. “Today’s consensus mode of doing business, where everyone has veto power, makes the notion of ‘stop talking’ a crucial productivity tool if you want to design or ship anything at all.”
How? “Ask open-ended questions, but sparingly,” she cautions. “Speak just enough to get the ball rolling, then be quiet. Suffer silently through awkward pauses.” Baird admits that “this may feel a little weird, since most of us view productivity as doing, doing, doing.” But it’s the most efficient method she’s found for “moving from thought to action,” especially on teams.
“I’m a huge fan of the Boomerang plugin for Gmail,” says The Muse cofounder and CEO Kathryn Minshew. “I use it to schedule emails to disappear out of my inbox and ‘boomerang’ back in at a later date, like ‘7:15 a.m. Tuesday’ or ‘5 p.m. Friday’.”
MailChimp’s VP of customer support Jon Smith does something similar by pushing less urgent but important emails into a small handful of folders, leaving the most crucial ones marked “unread,” and archiving the rest.
This way Smith’s top-priority messages stay front and center. “I try to have no more than 60–70 emails in my inbox at any given time,” he explains. “That’s the number I can comfortably process in one sitting, and I try to get through all of my ‘unread’-marked emails by the end of each day.”
Behavioral scientist David Hoffeld prefers “preloaded decisions that link a behavior with an external reference,” which researchers in his field have found can increase the likelihood of completing a task. These “action triggers” are simple formulas, Hoffeld explains: “When X happens, I do Y”.
While working on his latest book, Hoffeld would decide earlier in the day to do some writing after putting his kids to bed, and “then when that time came, I simply sat down and wrote for a few hours,” he says. “Preloading this decision and connecting it to an environmental stimulus enabled me to avoid decision fatigue, and gave me a boost in productivity.”
“Productivity is really about what you don’t do,” says Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. Glei proposes sitting down and listing six to 10 things “that you commit to not do in 2017 because they are keeping you from focusing on your best work.” Think of them as your anti-resolutions, she suggests–“things like not sleeping with your smartphone in the bedroom, not opening your email first thing when you arrive at work, or not checking social media before lunch.”
Psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic backs her up. He says that “saying ‘no’ to irrelevant tasks, or outsourcing them” is the real secret to productivity. “Realize what you love and do well, and focus on that.”