Getting things done in less time can serve two purposes: You can fit more into a day or you can free up more downtime. Whichever goal is yours, tapping into your personal productivity style can be your secret weapon. We all have a way in which we work best, says Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Living: A List-Making Journey to a Less Stressed You.
A former senior health producer for Fox News, Rizzo learned this lesson the hard way. After ignoring the physical warning signs, a burst appendix put her into the hospital, forcing her to take six weeks off of work. “I had to be intentional about what I allowed back in,” Rizzo recalls. “My big priority was getting better, and every decision had to go through that lens.”
Instead of waiting for a personal crisis, Rizzo recommends that you figure out your personal workflow to improve your output while reducing your stress. “One of the biggest hurdles people face when they’re trying to be more organized is figuring out what style works for them,” she says. “People often think you’ll be more productive if you’re a morning person, but that’s not true for everybody. If you’re not a morning person, trying to become one will make you cranky and resentful.”
To identify and take advantage of your style, Rizzo suggests asking yourself these five questions:
1. When do I work best?
You probably know there are three types of people, morning and evening people, and those who fall somewhere in between. Which category you fall into will determine the types of tasks you should do at certain times of the day, says Rizzo.
“I like to have a slow morning, read the newspaper, drink tea, and see what’s going on in the world,” she says. “This falls back to my routine as a TV news producer. I don’t like to jump into writing. I’m more creative in the afternoon.”
To determine your productive times, Rizzo suggests paying attention and tracking yourself for a few days. “When you’re doing so many things, it’s easy to not notice how you feel in the moment,” she says. “Then doing too many things becomes the norm. When you stop and look at what you’re doing, you can do an audit and figure out where you want to go.”
Matching your tasks to the right time of day will help you work with your productivity style. For example, you may find that you do your best, focused work in the morning while this type of task takes twice as long in the afternoon. Block off time to do the type of work at the best time, and set boundaries around it.
“You may [not] have total control over this, but do as much as you can,” says Rizzo. “You’ll get a lot more done than if you do what you think you should be doing at a certain time.”
2. Do I need deadlines?
For some people, setting a deadline can help you be more productive. “If I know I’m working on this project from 11:30 to 12:30, for example, I can focus enough to say ‘I’m only doing this now,'” says Rizzo. “Put it on your schedule. Preplanning with deadlines can help you be more productive.”
Working with deadlines requires that you know how long tasks take, which takes some time tracking. “Set a timer down to the minute,” suggests Rizzo. “As a TV producer, I’m very in tune with how long 30 seconds is. Taking time to figure out how long something takes will help you dictate where to put it on your schedule. Not knowing how long it takes to do tasks is what gets people stopped up.”
3. What is my most productive environment?
Pay attention to the environment when you’re doing your work to see if it takes longer or if it facilitates faster work. While you may not be able to control your environment, you might be able to take steps to make it better, such as wearing headphones or moving to another spot within the office, such as by a window.
“Look around where you are when you’re feeling charged up,” says Rizzo. “In a busy newsroom, I had no choice but to drown others out. Working from home, however, felt too quiet. I would go to a coffee shop or put on the TV for background noise.”
4. Do I need external accountability?
Some people are disciplined enough to get work done on their own, while others may need a push from others. “Know yourself,” says Rizzo. “Are you going to get something done without someone else checking on you? If you need an external push, build in systems to help make yourself more productive, such as having a peer, coworker, or a buddy.”
There’s no shame in needing external accountability, especially when you partner with someone else who needs that push, too.
5. What does success look like for me?
The answer to this question could be more money, clients, speaking engagements, sales—only you can define it. Once you know what moves the needle, look at what you’re putting on your plate.
“Does it serve a purpose?” Rizzo asks. “If you choose to do something because you like it, that’s good. But sometimes we feel obligated to do something.”
Rizzo suggests writing down your feelings right before, during, and after a task, taking mental notes. “You might not always love what you’re doing, but if you hate it, remind yourself not to do it again,” she says. “In the moment you might say ‘yes,’ to a request, but if you know in your heart it makes you anxious, it’s better to say ‘no.'”
At the end of the year, audit all of your work and decide what felt good and what didn’t. Then set priorities going forward. “Once you understand your productivity style, you can cater your work schedule around your needs,” says Rizzo. “The best part is that you’ll be less stressed.”