If you look up productivity tips, you will notice that the Internet is flooded with them. There are dozens of experts online that want to share the information that they have discovered, and they make lists, articles and infographics. They want you to know how to be productive. Unfortunately, these lists are packed with humdrum advice like “Don’t watch so much TV” and “Get up early, everyone works better first thing in the morning.” However, many people get a significant amount of work done throughout the day, and still manage to watch an hour or two of TV in the evening. It helps them relax.
Being productive isn’t about working more hours. Being productive is about understanding how your mind thinks, and how you can maximize the hours during which you work. Here is a look at what can make you more productive, and why it works.
1. Make a To-Do List
For years, I have had a to-do list. Actually, I have had several of them. At the beginning of the week, I make a big list of everything that needs to be done throughout that week. This list is organized based on clients, but it’s not in chronological order. Meaning, if I started at the top and worked my way to the bottom, things would be all messed up.
Every morning, or sometimes in the evening before calling it quits for the day, I make a smaller list on a scratch piece of paper. This list organizes, in chronological order, what I need to get done for that day and some extras. I make a mark on my list that shows where I absolutely must get to for the day, and anything beyond that mark is a bonus.
Barring outside circumstances, I never miss my mark.
If you want to accomplish more than you thought possible, make a to-do list.
2. Why a To-Do List Works
Many people believe that a to-do list isn’t necessary if you have a good memory. Why waste the time writing it down if you know you’re not going to forget? The reason is more than just being able to remember something.
Every duty that we perform is analyzed and categorized by our brain. Whether it is something as simple as closing the cupboard door or as complicated as designing a new rocket ship, our brain puts it into a category as “undone” until it is done… or until it can find a new place for it. When you have a lot of projects to tackle throughout the day, your brain is hanging onto every one of those projects, and subconsciously they are slowing you down.
When you make a to-do list, it takes the project away from being in a limbo, to a more concrete status. It won't be at the top of your priority list until it’s time to worry about it but a visuals reminder is always helpful. For more on this, I highly recommend the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
3. What to do: Eat Better
I rarely eat breakfast. It’s not a time-saving technique, it has everything to do with the fact that I’m simply not hungry in the morning. Instead, the first thing I do in the morning is take an L-theanine supplement (an extract from Japanese green tea) and do some light reading as my body wakes up. After I have been up for half an hour or so, I have a cup of coffee, and I get to work. I am generally awake for two or three hours before I feel hungry, and then I eat something (usually whole oats based cereal, sometimes eggs).
For lunch, I often have leftovers from the night before, and I drink a smoothie made from cucumbers, apples, oranges, carrots, ginger, grapes, or whatever other fruits happen to be on sale. Along with my lunch, I take a B-100 complex vitamin, and I drink a cup of tea before starting in on the afternoon. This process has transformed my afternoons from lethargic to almost being more productive than my mornings.
I attribute the increased productivity not as much to the supplements (although I have found that I can concentrate better when I take the B-100 than if I forget), but to having plenty of fruits and vegetables. I highly recommend a Nutri-Bullet (or similar easy blend device) for getting enough fruits and vegetables during the day.
Why Eating Better Works
Your brain probably weighs about three pounds; or roughly 1.5% to 2% of your body weight. But it uses 20% of the energy that your body needs throughout the day, and potentially even more when you are vigorously using it. When you burn through your average amount of calories for the day, your brain lags behind, and no amount of coffee or energy drinks will help you catch up.
But it’s not all calories; you can get thousands per day by just eating spoonfuls of sugar. Instead, you need to have a balanced diet, rich in omega 3 fatty acids (found in high concentrations in fish) and make sure you’re getting proper nutrition.
What to do: Take a Break
I love taking breaks from my work. I get up from my desk, go downstairs, and sometimes merely look out the window as I eat a handful of pretzels. When the weather is nice enough I go outside to see which plants are growing, feel the wind on my face, or if I need a longer break, I take a walk around the block with my dog.
When I get back to my desk, I am reinvigorated and ready to tackle the next project on my to-do list. My breaks will vary between 30 seconds to 20 minutes. Nevertheless, almost every time I take a break, I am far more productive than if I simply tried to push through and keep working.
Why Taking a Break Works
Like your muscles, your brain gets fatigued. Suppose you wanted to do 100 pull-ups every day, you might be able to do them all in a row after many months of practicing, but you'd be lucky to hit 10 on your first try. But if you do 10 pull-ups every 30 minutes, accomplishing 100 of these would probably be a piece of cake when taking into account that 30 minute time interval for each rep.
But your brain works a little differently than your arms. Taking a break distracts your conscious mind from the task at hand and allows it to rest for a while. Subconsciously, however, your brain continues to turn the idea over and over. When you get back to work, things will come more naturally and easily because your brain has already solved the problem.
Try this with a crossword puzzle. When you get stumped, set it aside for a few hours, and then come back. You will likely get a few more answers readily because your brain was working on the puzzle even when you weren't actively working on it.
The Bottom Line
There are some people who are highly productive, and the rest of the world just stares and wonders how they do it. I can tell you exactly how; they pay attention to what works for them, and replicate the process.
The three tips I have laid out should work for everyone, but probably not in the way that they work for me. Everyone's methods in their quest to find a physical, mental and emotional healthy balance is completely subjective. Therefore, focus on tweaking productivity tips that'll fit you needs and personality.