Did you have a productive 2017? Don’t answer that. No matter how much you got done last year, or how efficiently you did it, you can probably give your work habits a tune-up for the year ahead.
Maybe it’s a change to your morning routine or a different approach to your to-do list. Or maybe it’s reducing your reliance on to-do lists altogether. Since everyone’s productivity problems differ, so should their solutions. So Fast Company asked 18 of the most productive people we could find–starting with our top contributors–to share their own tips, hacks, and habits.
1. Eat Cake For Breakfast
“It doesn’t literally have to be cake,” says Beyond the Headline podcast host Jenna Abdou, but “the point is to find a way to eat something that brings you joy in the morning.” Abdou believes this can double as a mindfulness exercise–and triple as a practice for cultivating gratitude–that in turn boosts your productivity.
Whatever your chosen breakfast, she says, “Savor it without using your phone or thinking about work and responsibilities. Enjoy the moment, and think about all of the things that are going right in your life.” You can use this time to do some journaling or set some intentions for the day, Abdou suggests, so you can dive into your work feeling focused and energized.
2. Build Your Day Around Your Toughest Tasks
Career strategist Adunola Adeshola kicks off her day by identifying her top one or two most pressing tasks. “Once I’ve scratched the most important thing off my to-do list, I immediately feel like I’ve conquered the day,” she says. “Sure, some days there are five to seven important things,” she admits, but starting by tackling something critical “helps me eliminate busy work and distractions so that I can end the day feeling accomplished.”
Lars Schmidt uses the app Wunderlist to do something similar, by creating a to-do list “for every client, project, and even personal (i.e., meditation) thing I need to get done.” Then Schmidt, the founder of recruiting agency Amplify, stars his highest-priority items and begins each day by working on something inside his starred folder. Since Wunderlist is “mobile and web-based,” Schmidt adds, “it’s always on any device, even Apple Watch. Huge fan.”
3. Overload Your To-Do List
“I create a huge task list that seems impossible to finish and give myself a deadline to complete it,” says Airlink Marketing founder Arianna O’Dell. “Having an ‘impossible’ challenge to undertake spurs me into action and often lets me complete double what I would on a normal workday.” Even if you don’t work as well as O’Dell does under pressure, drawing up a comprehensive–or even overly ambitious–to-do list can help prime your brain for productivity.
4. Reread A Book
“When I am feeling stuck or overwhelmed, I often turn to a book I’ve read before, reminding myself of what it taught me and internalizing its lessons further,” says Jason Shen, founder of the talent assessment platform Headlight. Shen finds this habit helps him hone his long-term memory and practice the art of thinking deeply. “Instead of getting a quick hit on Twitter, try to extract more wisdom out of something you know is high-quality,” he suggests.
5. Schedule Appointments With Yourself
Quiet Revolution founder Susan Cain schedules “deep work” sessions each day–usually at least three hours long–so she can focus on solo work that demands concentration, and commits to “honoring them the way I would any other commitment,” she says. Kristi Dosh, publicist and founder of Guide My Brand, also uses time blocking to do distraction-free work on a regular basis. She likes Todoist for “scheduling specific time blocks for each task, no matter how small.” Not only has that stopped Dosh from overbooking, “I also found myself being more productive when I knew exactly what I was going to work on each hour of my day,” she explains.
Want to take time blocking to another level? “Set a timer and make the alarm annoyingly loud,” suggests BAM Communications founder Beck Bamberger. “I’ll tell myself, ‘Okay, you get 45 minutes to create this piece of content.’ The self-declared deadline makes it a motivating and fun sprint and focuses you pointedly on the task,” whereas an annoying alarm “creates a negative feedback loop,” she explains. When you can finish your task in time to shut off the timer, the alarm sounds, “Your brain will start to adapt to an ‘alarm = bad, focus = win’ association.”
6. Stop Trying To “Push Through It”
When your brain needs a break, take one. “If you’re feeling stuck on a particular problem or are feeling like you aren’t getting anything done, don’t fight or resist that feeling; honor it,” says Humu founder and Work Rules! author Laszlo Bock. “Recognize that your body or mind is trying to tell you it’s overwhelmed, and go take a walk.”
Psychologist Art Markman agrees, explaining that “downtime makes you more productive by giving you more emotional resilience to the inevitable ups and downs at work, while also helping you to get some perspective on the problems you are trying to solve. So unless it’s an emergency, when you leave the office, leave it. Everything will be there when you get back.”
7. Follow The “Five-Minute Rule”
Beth Comstock, vice chair of General Electric, follows the “five-minute rule” to stay productive: “If it’ll take you five minutes or less, just do it now,” she says. “Send that email, look over that spreadsheet, or walk over to your colleague’s desk and have a quick conversation. A small action now can keep you moving toward a big deadline.”
Not only does this prevent your to-do list from getting clogged up with lots of quick tasks, it can also help keep your energy up over the course of a workday, says Reva Seth, author and founder of the Optimal Living Lab. After identifying “five emails or actions that I could take that would have the most strategic impact, I just do those and forget the rest of my to-do list,” she explains. “Usually by the second email or action, I have a greater amount of momentum, as a result of stacking small wins–a proven way to help increase motivation and productivity.”
8. Pick Up The Phone (But Don’t Answer Voicemails)
“This was the year I discovered how powerful the phone call is,” TrackMaven CEO Allen Gannett, who wrote for Fast Company about his weeklong experiment of jumping on a phone call every time he’d otherwise fire off an email. “Not only is it more human, but it saves time. A quick call can resolve most issues in two minutes.”
Also a phone junkie, journalist and Smartcuts author Shane Snow uses Call Recorder Pro to record his interview calls (which is legal in his home state of New York, “but I ask for permission anyway,” he says), “and then I have this little routine where I send the audio recording to Rev.com for transcription.” Snow also recommends Temi, which transcribes audio conversations “and lets me find the relevant spots in my conversations and replay the audio by clicking on the text.” Obviously, this is especially useful for reporters, but it could prove handy for anyone whose job involves important phone calls.
IDEO strategist and designer Lisa Baird has one additional time-saving phone hack: “I set my outgoing voicemail message to: ‘Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail for Lisa Baird, but I don’t check my voicemail, so please send me a text message instead, or an email. Thanks a bunch! Bye.’ Saves me hours per year.”
9. Train Your Mind To Stay Still
Career and executive coach Suzan Bond credits “strengthening my mental fortitude” for boosting her productivity lately. How? “A regular yoga practice where I held poses for up to five minutes.” She’s found it easier to stop taking breaks for “mindless” tasks in between harder ones. “Never discount mental grit,” Bond adds.
10. Delegate That Thing You’re Always Multitasking
“People have trouble handing things off and shouldn’t,” says Stephane Kasriel, CEO of the freelancing platform Upwork. “Stop taking on more than you can and trying to multitask or stretch yourself thin. Neither are effective.” Among the freelance talent available on Upwork are virtual assistants–not the robotic kind, but human administrative assistants who work remotely. These days, Kasriel claims, many such experts’ part-time rates aren’t prohibitive for those outside the C-suite. “Virtual assistants get to know you and become increasingly more effective at taking work off of your plate.”
11. Write A “Love-To-Do” List
Daraiha Greene, head of multicultural engagement at Google’s Computer Science in Media team, takes acting and dance classes. “Add the things you love to do to your plate!” she urges. “I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it serves as an outlet to keep you happy and your creative juices flowing.”
Coach and Fast Company contributor Daniel Dowling shared a simple method earlier this year for finding the time for those extracurriculars: Write a “love-to-do list.” It takes discipline, he points out, but deliberately scheduling time to do things you enjoy can make you more productive in the long run–just as Greene has found to be true.
“Once rejuvenated,” she says, “I’m able take on the workload the next day and create space in my mind for new information.”