Have you ever looked at another person’s daily accomplishments and thought, “How do they do it”? By the time most are pouring a second cup of coffee in the morning, some super-achievers have gone for a 5-mile run, hit inbox zero, and nailed the rough draft of that report due next week. Oh, and they figured out the day’s Wordle, too.
After more than a decade of writing and practicing productivity techniques, I’ve learned that these folks generally do know more about how to get more done. And you can adopt those practices, too.
But, why would you?
Getting more done in less time can mean that you have more free time to do the things you love with the people you love. Or, it can create space to fill with more work that could have a detrimental effect on your mental and physical health. I learned this the hard way last year.
Don’t make the same mistakes. Instead, practice purposeful productivity, which requires a more intentional approach to tasks and to-dos. By combining prioritization techniques and efficiency hacks, you can take back your time and use it more wisely. Here are the tips that work.
Think about what matters
When you are clear about the things that are most important to you in life, you have a touchstone that can help you stay focused. To thrive, we need to shift our thinking from rewards and incentives to values and purpose, says personal empowerment expert Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging. As she previously told Fast Company, the key to realizing that purpose lies in what she calls “MVP”: mindfulness, values, and purpose. Reprioritizing your life based on those values and your purpose can give you the resolve you need when it’s otherwise tempting to waste time or say “yes” to a nonessential task.
As personal development coach Kate Hanley put it in another Fast Company report, as you’re making decisions about your day-to-day life, think about yourself 20 years from now. Will your future self appreciate the way you’re spending your time now?
“It can also be helpful to frame a choice in terms of choosing your regrets. What would you regret more, saying yes to this opportunity, or saying no?” she said.
Track your time
Before you start trying to hack away at your to-do list, first make sure you understand where all that time is going, says productivity expert and executive trainer Peggy Duncan, because most of us don’t really know. Spend a week keeping a time log. Write down what you do during the day and how long it took. Also, note interruptions: who does the interrupting and why? This practice gives you good data to better understand your time usage, minimize interruptions, and learn a few key lessons. “The biggest time-management mistake people make is not realizing how much time they waste,” she said.
Understand your energy cycle
There’s one more bit of self-analysis that can help: know your energy high points and low points in your day. It may seem like a good idea to front-load your day with important tasks. But that might not be a great idea if you’re not a morning person. Performance consultant Heidi Pozzo advises scheduling your work based on your personal energy patterns. For example, if you’re best at doing creative or high-focus work in the morning, schedule that time accordingly. Save more rote tasks for lower-energy times.
Sallie Krawcheck, founder and CEO of Ellevest, a woman-focused investing platform, organizes her day that way. “I really try to leave time open in the morning because, many days, I wake up with a rush of ideas, and I don’t want to lose them,” she says.
Take on tasks that make a difference
People who are highly productive have established clear goals and a vision for what they want to achieve long term. They focus on what matters and realize that “80% of what you do doesn’t matter,” says performance consultant Paul Rulkens, author of The Power of Preeminence: High-Performance Principles to Accelerate Your Business and Career. Instead, they focus on the 20% that does and apply their efforts there.
Extremely productive people know that “important and urgent are two different things—many things are urgent, and that’s usually determined by someone who expects an immediate answer,” says professional organizer Alison Kero. If you get sidetracked by unimportant urgent issues, you spend your time fighting needless fires instead of getting done what matters.
Shift your mindset
Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated can put a dent in your productivity. When it feels like you can’t take a minute to breathe at work, that’s exactly when you need to push the pause button and think about what’s happening, says Beth Linderbaum, managing consultant at Right Management, ManpowerGroup’s global career and talent development unit.
“Any part of wanting to do things differently starts with gaining awareness of how we currently are and how we’re showing up,” Linderbaum says. By being mindful about what you’re doing and why, you can often get a clearer picture of what is necessary and what can be discarded or delegated. You can also see that what you’re taking on is often a matter of choice instead of feeling like you have no control, she says. Simply acknowledging that you’re not at the mercy of someone else and that you do have choices about how you proceed can help you refocus, prioritize, and get more done.
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “I thought you said/meant . . .,” you likely know how it feels to waste time and effort because of miscommunication. Be sure you understand the goal of the task, as well as its purpose and any expectations about execution.
In other words, “read the manual,” Duncan says. Investing some time upfront to understand the project and its tasks, asking questions, and getting the information you need can help you have a better understanding of how to best spend your time. Think about the last time you read the instruction manual for a piece of technology. Did you take a few minutes to get a good understanding of the device and how it works? Or did you dive right in and get frustrated when something didn’t work right? Reading the “instruction manual” and getting appropriate training can yield many hours of return on investment, she says.
Use the power of planning and routine
Take some time to plan each day, including priorities, to ensure you don’t get side-tracked by less important matters. Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours and the instructor of the popular “Maximizing Your Personal Productivity” class at MIT, stays on track through meticulously planning his to-do items around his appointments and then setting goals for what he wants to get out of each appointment.
Set yourself up for success by planning tomorrow. Every night before he goes to sleep, David Novak, founder and CEO of David Novak Leadership and former CEO of Yum! Brands, Inc., which operates brands like KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, visualizes his next day and the outcomes he wants. Whether it’s a tough meeting or a one-on-one interaction, he mentally walks through his day and pictures each interaction going his way. Time for planning your day.
Pozen also keeps his days highly regimented. He wakes at the same time and has simple morning routines. He lays out his clothes the night before. It may sound boring but think about how much time is wasted wondering what to wear or have for breakfast. Reclaim those valuable resources by making them a routine. When you make the more mundane aspects of life routine, you have more brain power and time for other things, Pozen says.
Leave some gaps
At the same time, don’t try to cram something in every minute. Sometimes you get lost on the way to the meeting or it runs long. Sometimes you just need some time to think. Highly productive people leave room for all of these things, Pozen says. When you’re too tightly scheduled, you can end up undermining your productivity because if one thing goes wrong, your schedule could be disrupted for the rest of the day. Give yourself time, which you can always find a way to spend wisely.
Improve your processes
Big organizations don’t seem like the best model for timesaving, but one thing their people often do well is systematizing, Duncan says. Some excel at examining tasks that need to be done for the company to function and implement the most time-, cost-, and energy-efficient ways of doing so. Process improvement has become an entire industry and specialization as more professionals try to make tasks easily repeatable with less time and effort while maintaining quality.
Look at the tasks you perform on a regular basis and how you can create a more efficient way of getting them done. Are you wasting time scheduling many appointments every day? Look at automating that function with a scheduling app. Are you managing a project with many contributors and version control issues? Look at how you can create a system of capturing feedback and ensuring everyone has the most current information, perhaps with a cloud-based collaboration system that color-codes and date-stamps feedback for easy tracking.
Make sure the meeting matters
Meetings are unavoidable and can help productivity when they’re used wisely. But poorly planned meetings waste precious time, says business coach Melissa Mizer, founder of the coaching firm MoreSeekers. Mizer says effective meetings must have five components:
- The right and necessary people in the room
- Clearly defined roles
- The meeting’s purpose stated upfront (e.g., brainstorming, decision making, etc.)
- Set objectives
- Defined next steps and action items (for before the meeting ends)
Use downtime wisely
Those 10 minutes before your next meeting or the two hours your flight is delayed can be great news for your productivity, Pozen says. When you keep a list of things that need to be done, you can quickly scan it and pick out the actions you can do in the time you have. Answer a few email messages or return a call in the few minutes before your next meeting or start the research for your next project while you wait for your plane.
Make a 15-minute list
Sometimes, you just need to feel like you’re getting things done. If getting a few tasks completed will make you feel like you’re building momentum, productivity expert Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, recommends creating a “15-minute list“—a list of activities that can be completed in 15 minutes or less. So, if you need to schedule a few meetings, return some quick calls, knock out a few email messages, and the like, make a list of several of them. Then, spend an hour or so getting them done, one after the other.
Keep your 15-minute list on hand for times when you feel yourself procrastinating, she says. “They’re just quick actionable things that can get the juices flowing,” she says—even when you don’t want to tackle bigger stuff.
Delegate (No, really)
High performers tend to think it’s easier to do things themselves, but “when it comes to working smarter, we often spend a lot of effort on trying to fix the problems that we see,” says Tomer Yogev, cofounder of leadership and performance consultancy TandemSpring.
To be more effective, you’ve got to ask for help and enlist people who are better at certain tasks and functions than you are, he says. That requires taking a hard look at your strengths and weaknesses and having the humility to admit that there are some areas you’re more skilled in than others. Delegating those tasks frees time, he says.
Bedros Keuilian, founder and CEO of fitness company Fit Body Boot Camp, tried doing everything himself, including marketing, managing his team, providing customer support, and even bookkeeping. “I was running out of time, feeling stressed, and quickly burning out,” he recalled. After he realized that just 5% of the things he was doing were tasks that generated revenue, he knew that’s where his focus needed to be. He delegated everything else to team members or subcontractors. “This has been a game-changer for my business as we continue to have massive growth year after year,” he said.
Break down tasks into smaller steps
Similarly, if you find yourself daunted by the next steps, you need to make progress on a project, Tate suggests breaking them down even more. Facing down a task that is complicated or time-consuming can make it tough to start. Divide it into more manageable chunks, and you may find it easier to make progress.
For example, if you’re working on a dense research project and don’t know where to start, pick three sources and begin there. Then, add three more, and so on. By placing parameters around the research steps, you’re not looking at an unmanageable task, which can lead to procrastination and avoidance.
Create the right environment
Once you’ve given your brain a rest, set yourself up to get back to getting things done, says productivity expert Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy.
Whenever Bailey sits down to write, he eliminates all distractions. He uses a website-blocking program called Cold Turkey, which allows him to disable “every distracting website,” he says. If he tries to check social media or news websites, he has to restart his computer to work again.
Turn off device and email notifications. If you’re in the office, find a quiet space or put up a “do not disturb” sign in your workspace. Using earbuds can also indicate that you’re in concentration mode. For some people, music sets the tone for their work environment. Create a playlist or choose a streaming channel that gets you in the mood to work, whether you need to get pumped up or calm down. A study from Cornell University found that upbeat music can make people more productive.
Play “beat the clock”
If you’re deadline-driven, try the Pomodoro Technique as a way to get motivated. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes. Then, focus on completing one task or as many smaller tasks as you can before the timer sounds. The urgency of the immediate deadline can be a great way to shift your mindset, says goal-setting expert Diana Fitts, author of Your Focus Formula: How to Successfully Stay on Task, Finish Projects and Achieve Your Goals.
It may seem counterintuitive but taking a break when you feel stuck could be the best thing for you, Fitts says. If you’ve been working at something for a while, you may need a diversion to resume your focus and creativity, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Cognition. Taking a 10- or 15-minute break can help you return to the task better able to concentrate and get things done.
“Walk around. Get a cup of coffee or water. We all need to dial down the anxiety,” she says.
Don’t try to power through, however. Doing so is ignoring your ultradian rhythm—the 90- to 120-minute pattern found in our sleep and waking hours. By taking more breaks and carving up your day into 90-minute segments, you capitalize on the periods of focus you naturally have, which can help you get more done.
Automate everyday tasks
Automation’s big payoff is supposed to be that it will release us from rote tasks and usher in a new era of freedom. That way, we can devote our time to more important activities. And while we’re not quite at the point where robots are attending to our every need, it’s possible to integrate readily available automation into your own life to save time and effort. Consider:
- Banking and bookkeeping software
- Subscription services for clothing, food, and other frequently purchased items
- Business apps and platforms that help you manage and automate marketing and project management apps
- Apps that connect your apps, like If This, Then That or Workflow
Let go of perfectionism
At the heart of procrastination, you’ll often find one of its root causes: perfectionism. Let that go, Kero says. It’s not attainable and will just lead to dread when it’s time to start big or challenging projects. “Your desk doesn’t need to look perfect all the time if you don’t want it to, and your proposal doesn’t need 10 drafts,” she says.
What you do outside the office has an impact on your ability to focus. If you’re tired and feeling bad because you’re not getting enough sleep, good nutrition, or exercise, that’s going to reflect in your efficiency and productivity, she says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call insufficient sleep a public health problem that costs the U.S. up to $411 billion per year in lost productivity.
“Think about what creates energy in you, versus what drains energy, and come up with approaches that keep you at your peak all day long,” Pozzo says. Assessing your skills can give you an idea of what energizes you and help you focus more where it counts.
Let go of what’s not working
Think high performers are the “quitters never win” types? Wrong, Rulkens says. Winners quit all the time—they’re just more thoughtful about it. Strategic quitting means saying no to the things that you shouldn’t (or don’t want to) be doing because they aren’t worth your time and delegating those things that can be done more cost-effectively or efficiently by someone else.
“I work with high-performance organizations. Whenever we do a workshop on quitting—what it is we’re not going to do—you see a lot of energy being released, and that energy is then focused on new things that really matter,” he says.
These tips and tricks can help you get more done in a day and find more time. Just be sure you keep in mind the value of that time and spend it well.