Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to workStephen King
Don’t you just hate that feeling: You’ve been really busy all day long… yet at the end of the day, it feels as if you haven’t accomplished anything?
It’s impossible to cram more than 24 hours into a single day, off course… But what if you could easily double your productivity?
Would you like to accomplish more in less time? Then have a look at these simple productivity hacks.
These are the 5 techniques that had a huge impact on my productivity. Enabling me to get at least triple my productivity.
Hack #1: Stop using simple To-Do Lists, Start Planning Instead
In the companies that I have worked for everyone worked with To-Do lists.
I hated them.
They often seemed endless. It felt as if they always become longer. Never shorter.
Just looking at them took away my motivation.
The worst part?
There were always so many items on the list that simply would not go away… They always kept hovering somewhere at the bottom. Each day. Day in, day out. With new items being piled up on top of them all the time.
And the longer the list the less became, the less motivated I was to actually do stuff. 23% Of list makers apparently spend more time making the list, than doing the tasks on them.
I think I was one of those people.
Then I found out what was wrong with my lists. And what needed to be done to fix it.
Step 1: Make actions very specific
First, many of my items weren’t very specific. They weren’t things I could actually really do straight away. I would have things on it like ‘solve client issue’.
So I changed that.
I began writing down exactly I wanted to do and exactly how much time I expected to spend on it. So instead of writing down “solve client issue” I would write “spend one hour defining the scope of the client’s problem”.
I began writing down what I wanted to be doing, rather than what I wanted to achieve. And how much time I estimated it would take. The benefit of this is that it turns a seemingly complex and overwhelming task into something that can be done right away.
Step 2: Assign time slots to your tasks
Then, I stopped keeping a list of specific items in random order. Instead, I started assigning time slots to them on my calendar. According to experts this forces you to do two important things:
First, it requires you to be realistic about the time I had available to complete the tasks. Second, it means you have to carefully consider the time you have available. And what you would realistically be able to achieve in that time.
Second, by actually committing time to it on your calendar, you make it much easier to actually get started.
Until you actually assign a realistic time slot to the items on the list, the list itself remains just that. A list. Wishful thinking.
Hack #2: Use Short Work Intervals To Beat Procrastination
As a high-school student, and later as a college and graduate student, I used to always postpone preparations for my tests.
I was always able to come up with an excuse to avoid having to do the work. Until the test was imminent.
Then… I would panic. And start cramming 1 or 2 days before my tests.
A research study done last year with a group of medical students showed that I am not the only one.
In this study, a total of 78 undergraduate medical students in a Year 2 pre-clinical course were randomly assigned to either one of two groups: Students in one group were assessed in weeks 4, 8 and 10. Students in the other group were assessed in week 10 only. The study showed that the first group spent 67 hours more in total on preparing for their tests.
This study demonstrated not only what typical college student behavior is…. It also shows that it is human behavior: To postpone doing the actual work. Especially if the work is a larger, more complex tasks with a distant pay off….
Especially if you’re facing a daunting, complex task, it is so much easier to get lost on Youtube watching grumpy cat video’s. No matter how well you’ve planned everything out, your Instagram or Facebook news feed sometimes feels just to powerful to resist, doesn’t it?
What actually happens here, is that your brain tries to ‘protect’ you. Let me explain.
When you feel emotionally overwhelmed by a particularly challenging activity, a part of your brain called the amygdala becomes more active. So if you are facing a daunting to-do list, a report due soon, or an exam you should be studying for, your amygdala activates.
And what the amygdala then starts to do is to induce a so-called fight or flight response. It does this in an attempt to protect you from negative feelings of panic, depression or self-doubt.
When it detects such a ‘threat’, it floods your body with a hormone called adrenaline. So, when you panic about the report that is due tomorrow, it makes you stressed.
The trouble with this ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone Adrenaline is that it isn’t exactly helpful for logical thinking and reasoning. That is because logic is controlled by another part of the brain: The prefrontal cortex.
But when the amygdala and prefrontal cortex disagree… guess who wins? Yup. Not the rational one.
If faced with a threat, or an uncomfortable situation, the amygdala’s emotional responses take over. The result: “immediate mood repair”. What can you do right now that will make you feel better?
That totally makes sense when you stumble across a tigers somewhere in the jungle. There, fight or flight are definitely your best responses, no rational thinking required.
But not so, when you are facing work chores. The result, however, is the same: You give in to what feels better. And that is usually that kick of dopamine that comes with instant gratification. And from past experiences, the brain knows what sort of activities can provide that instant gratification….
Enter Facebook and Youtube.
So, while it holds only very short-term advantages, your brain will actually just want to make you momentarily feel better. And with its neurochemical trickery will ‘motivate’ to look at cat videos instead of writing that report soon due…
Rationally we know perfectly well that it doesn’t make any sense to waste our time… but the short-term, short-lived happiness boost keeps us doing it over and over again.
That boost, that small dose of dopamine coursing through the brain, all caused by those seemingly innocent distractions, that keep you coming back for more and more, over and over again. So yes, again, Dopamine is to blame…
So your avoidance behavior really stems from a a split second emotional reaction. An emotional reaction that makes you run away from the tasks you’re facing because they make us feel uncomfortable. Signalling to your brain that you need to avoid that task. An emotional reaction that represses your reasonable thought processes (i.e. to be productive). And instead, drives you to seek a short term happiness boost.
To fix this … You can train your brain to see finishing the task itself as the dopamine-producing experience rather than the procrastination. This requires you to do two things:
Step 1: Avoid Unrealistic GoalsFirst, make sure you avoid any unrealistic goals. When you set yourself an unrealistic goal, you are also setting yourself up for double failure: When you fail to complete your task – and you will if the goal is unrealistic – your amygdala will again release a series of neurotransmitters that will make sure you will do anything, literally anything to avoid having to do what really needs to be done.
Not only did you not achieve what you wanted to do, you will also feel bad about trying again. So make sure you make your goals very realistic. You’ll accomplish a lot more.
Step 2: Break everything down into bite-size chunks with rewards at the endRemember that dopamine spike we talked about? Create a dopamine spike with a reward that actually makes sense. So allow yourself to have a small reward after having completed each chunk of work you set out to do.
By cutting it up in smaller pieces, you avoid punishing yourself for not getting it all done. If a reward (no matter how small) is in sight, the amygdala, and the rest of your brain will encourage working towards receiving that reward. You will be less likely to engage in other distracting behaviours.
So why not reward yourself? Let yourself have a few minutes of Facebook, Youtube or Instagram… But only after you’ve finished every piece of work you wanted to get done.
The next hack is a technique that I think really helps you to put this into practice….
Hack #3: The Pomodoro Technique
In the early ‘90’s Francesco Cirillo took this process a step further. He found that by working in intervals, followed by short breaks enables the brain to focus better. So he developed a technique for it called the ‘Pomodory Technique’, named after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student.
The benefits of the Pomodoro Technique come from the frequent breaks. Because of those breaks, your mind stays fresh. Cirillo himself suggests using 25 minute intervals. The intervals also force you to stick to fixed limits. This encourages you to complete a task more quickly. If a task is to big for a single pomodoro, you simply break it up into several pomodoros.
Here is how it works:
1. Choose a task to be accomplished.
2. Set a timer to 25 minutes (this is your ‘Pomodoro’)
3. Work on the task until the timer rings
4. Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break, in the order of 15-30 minutes or longer.
I have found this technique to be incredibly powerful.
Because you work in short sprints, it isn’t that hard to maintain focus.
When you begin, the end is already in sight.
The regular breaks are the moments you get to ‘reward’ yourself. With a drink, a bit of Facebook time, or a walk.
I find these regular breaks are really good to keep up my motivation and restore my energy. It keeps me more creative.
And because the intervals are so short, my work is divided up in chunks that are really easy to manage.
Important Things To Consider For The Pomodoro TechniqueNo matter how long you decide to make your pomodoro’s, make sure that they are an indivisible chunk of work. So don’t be tempted to do two tasks in one pomodoro.
Don’t let yourself be tempted to squeeze two different tasks into one Pomodoro. That also means that if you are distracted in the middle of a Pomodoro, you need to start again.
So if there is a co-worker that needs help, a meeting that comes up, or anything else that comes in between, end your Pomodoro right there and then. Or postpone the distraction until your Pomodoro is complete.
Since Pomodoro’s are such short intervals, it is often perfectly OK to tell your co-worker that you are in the middle of something and will get back to him (or her) in 10 or 15 minutes.
I have found that using this method consistently, gives you an enormous amount of control over your day.
Pomodoro AppsAnd the only thing you need to apply this technique…. Is a simple timer. You can use a kitchen timer, an egg timer, or your phone.
I myself like to use an app that also keeps track of my time. If I need to bill clients for time that I have worked on projects for them, I can pull that info straight from the app.
Here are a few tools you can try:
For Web BrowsersTomato Timer is a simple timer that runs in your webbrowser. Just open this link in a new browser tab and off you go. It is very simple, but the disadvantage is that you are stuck with 25 min intervals.
Alternatively, you can try Moosti, which offers more options. It also runs in a browser window. With the sliders, you can easily change the length of your intervals and your desired breaks.
If you also want to track your time (like I do) for billing purposes, you may want to give Pomodoro Timer For Toggl a try. Toggl is a free time-tracking tool that works in your browser, that let’s you record time spent on tasks, projects and clients. Pomodoro Timer For Toggl is a simple add-on to Toggl that works nicely on top of it.
For Windows/iOSFor folks who have a nearly perfect task management system in place, but want to try Pomodoro, there’s PomoDone. You can add PomoDone to your favorite tools, such as Trello, Wunderlist, Asana, Basecamp, and Todoist, or you can use the timer on its own. Once you set it up, PomoDone imports all your tasks from any connected apps, or you can create new tasks as you start timers.
If you prefer something other than the default 25min/5min set-up, you can simply change that in settings. What I also like about it that with the desktop app, your timer is only a click away. It even has a minimized view, (although it’s not as discreet as the one from Focus Booster) and powerful reporting options that let you filter your data and share logs with others.
For iPhonesPomodoro Time – Focus Timer & Goal Tracker is an excellent app for iPhones. It has many features. Among other things, it let’s you keep track of your tasks and goals, Track your progress throughout the day, week or custom period, etc. It also supports the Apple Watch.
For AndroidClockwork Tomato also gives you a fully configurable timer with many options. For example, you can ad an expansion to include task lists and activity logs, so that you can track time spent working for individual projects.
Hack #4: Make Sure You Get Enough Sleep
In an earlier post, I already talked about the effect of sleep deprivation on performance.
It makes sense, right? When you feel sleepy, you’re not as productive as you could be. But also when you think and feel that you are still doing fine with too little sleep, your performance is already substantially worse.
Let’s say that you only get 6 hours of sleep for several nights in a row. Many people live and work on just 6 hours of sleep. Doesn’t seem all that dramatic, right? Well.. actually it is….
One of the studies I highlighted in that earlier post showed this very clearly: Sleeping 6 hours each night consistently, has the same effect on your performance as not sleeping at all for 48 hours….
Sleepiness can manifest itself as a general fatigue, lack of motivation. Or you just find yourself nodding off. Stay awake for more than 16 hours and physicians will actually be able to see brain differences on an electroencephalogram (EEG), that correspond to a lower level of alertness.
The region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is particularly vulnerable to a lack of sleep. This part of the brain is the part that is responsible for higher-level cognitive functions, rational thinking.
So if you don’t get enough sleep, don’t expect to be very productive or very rational.
Try to get at least 7-8 hours of decent sleep each night. If you have trouble sleeping, have a look at these tips.
Hack #5: Batching
I have found that the following technique works really well for me. It works especially for those things that need to do regularly, but don’t like very much.
For example, I really used to not like having to make cold calls to potential clients. I would put it off for weeks.
But it also works really well for many other tasks. It is called ‘batching’.
Batching allows you to take advantage of your full concentration by grouping a bunch of similar activities together. And then do them all at the same time.
Batching has three key benefits:
- It reduces your start-up and slow-down time. The time it takes for you to go from one task to another might not seem like much, but it adds up over time. Especially if you include the time take it takes to switch gears mentally.
- It helps to avoid distractions.
- It reduces your daily clutter. Instead of on something on a different days you group it all together into one. It simplifies everything.
- You will be able to focus better. As you work on similar tasks consecutively, you can begin to enter what is called a “flow.” Flow is the state of mind where work becomes easy and distractions melt away.
Some of the activities that work really well with batching include:
- Email: Especially if you implement hack #2 (switching off notifications) you may want to try this with email. Set aside a 30 or 60 min interval once or twice a day to get all the important emails taken care of;
- Phone calls: This really is one of my favorite activities for batching. I keep a running list of people I need to call. And then make those calls once a day, or once every two days, depending on the length of the list. If I am unable to reach them, I keep them on the list for another batching session;
- Cooking: I love to cook. However, it does take a lot of time, especially if you want to prepare healthy meals with fresh produce. So I often cook much more than my family needs so that I can stock up my freezer with home-cooked meals;