Don’t miss the first part of this article: 21 Ways to Supercharge Your Productivity.
In the previous post I listed 21 of my best tricks and tips for keeping up your productivity and motivation, all of which I’ve used and improved over several years of working at home as a self-employed developer. Many of those 21 methods deal with motivation and higher-level issues, which of course are important parts of productivity.
The 19 items we’ll go through in this post are more practical in nature and relate more to the flow of working. These tips assume you’re already super motivated and know exactly what you want, they deal more with how to get stuff done.
Again, don’t feel you have to use all of these methods. The lists are only meant as an inspiration for things to look into. Also, some of the items may be somewhat situational, and I don’t personally use all of them all of the time. So feel free to pick and choose the ones that apply to you.
On the other hand, if something appears completely new or alien to you, don’t be afraid to try it out either. It could be the solution to a problem you don’t even know you have. It’s important to accept the fact that we aren’t always aware of all the issues holding us back, and often experimentation and trying new things can be the best way to move forward in life in general.
So here are my 19 more “practical” productivity tips:
- Stop multi-tasking. Research shows that multi-tasking is even worse for your concentration than smoking pot. To avoid this, force all your work sessions to focus on one task and one task only. Even better, pick one focus for the day, or even for each week. Push back everything else. You can schedule some “planned multitasking” time later to catch up to small neglected tasks.
- Work for 45 minutes. I love this method. Use a timer, and as long as it is running you are on the clock, in dedicated work time. When the timer runs out, you are DONE. I love it because it allows you to disconnect completely from everything while working, and then disconnect completely from work between sessions. Polarize your time into either 100% work or 100% free time. You don’t have to do exactly 45 minutes, but somewhere in the 45-60 minute range is optimal for most people.
- Make interruptions impossible. During your 45 minute work time, no interruptions are allowed. You are completely single-tasking during this time. That means no surfing, no cell phone (turn it off!), no conversations (lock the door!), no background TV or radio, no email or messaging (except if it’s part of the work), and certainly no Facebook, Twitter or similar. You’re not even allowed to go to the toilet, unless it’s an emergency. Yes it’s hard at first, but that’s why you’re limiting it to 45 minutes.
- Make procrastination impossible. Simply telling yourself “I have to stop procrastinating” doesn’t do anything. That’s the equivalent of buying a bunch of candy, putting it on your desk in front of you and saying “I’m not going to eat it.” Deal with procrastination by removing even the possibility of doing it from your life, or by putting significant hurdles in the way. You don’t have to eliminate everything, just find the ones that drain the most time and energy from your work, and block them. For me, it’s video games and certain websites. I deal with it by uninstalling the video games and using BlockSite on the sites.
- Worship the “zone”. The zone happens when there is an ideal match-up between skill and challenge. Not so easy that it’s boring, not so hard that it’s frustrating. This is where your maximum motivation and productivity lies. Align your tasks to match your current skill, and make sure the challenge gradually rises over time so you don’t get bored. Recognize slumps in productivity that come from either doing something too repetitive or from being overwhelmed with problems you don’t know how to solve.
- Drop tasks. Use the 80/20 rule, and ask yourself: Do I actually have to do this task? Will doing it (and all that depends on it) actually make my life better? Do things really depend on it, or am I just accepting that assumption without question? Don’t be surprised if as much as half of your planned work could actually be ditched without significant consequences.
- Outsource or delegate tasks. The number one biggest mistake people do, especially entrepreneurs, is thinking they have to do everything. Instead, give tasks to employees, partners, coworkers, people on Elance, or crowdsource it. Outsourcing only begins when you’re willing to say “I’m not going to do this boring sh*t myself, no matter what.”
- Higher-level optimization. Premature optimization is the root of all evil. We spend so much time trying to be “effective” at small tasks, when we overlook the bigger structural changes we could do that would make all those small tasks irrelevant. In the programming world, optimizing something before you know for certain that it’s necessary, is considered the highest of sins. Before getting lost in details and minutiae, ask yourself if that’s really the most important work you can do right now.
- Monitor your energy. Nothing works if your body does not cooperate. Are you tired? Unfocused? Hungry? Are you’re really in a state to produce top notch results right now? I sometimes visualize my energy as a percentage between 0% and 100%, with 100% being laser focused and 0% being unconsciousness. You should refuse to ever work at percentages below 70%-75%. And when you’re not working, do things that recharge your energy levels as efficiently as possible.
- Take naps. If the thought of faceplanting into a pillow sounds like heaven to you right now, chances are that’s exactly what you need to do. If you work in an environment without a ready supply of pillows, bring your own
- Take real breaks. I have short breaks and long breaks between work sessions. Short breaks last 10-30 minutes, or until I feel like working again. Long breaks are a minimum of four hours, and have to include eating, resting in a horizontal position, minimal computer time and ideally some form of physical exercise. The goal is to recharge those batteries and be well rested for the next work sessions.
- Guilt-free play. When you have time off, make it real time off. Don’t get stuck in the “gray zone” where you’re not really working, but still thinking about work. Create dedicated times every day where work ceases to exist and you can do whatever you want. Also take some days off every week. Some people do one week on, one week off. Remember that your work is there to support your life, not the other way around.
- Get enough sleep. I can’t stress this one enough. Besides having a severe impact on productivity, sleep deprivation has been linked to everything from depression and hormonal disturbances to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise has both short-term and long-term positive effects on productivity. Getting fresh oxygen pumping through your body increases your mental energy and clarity. Many highly successful people swear to starting every day with a run. Long-term cardio exercise has an enormous impact on your general energy levels as well.
- Keep a level blood sugar. Your energy and focus suffer greatly from dips in blood sugar. Try to eat regularly and avoid high-carb foods and snacks if they make you tired. Fixing your diet is one of those things (along with exercise) that people never expect to make a big difference, but that almost aways does. It’s worth a try.
- Avoid painful injuries. Chronic pain will make your brain associate work with pain, and it will subconsciously start pushing you away from work to protect you. You won’t know what happened, you’ll just not “feel like working” a lot of the time. It took me a long time to realize how much my stiff neck and shoulders were hampering my productivity this way. Do exercises to counteract repetitive strain injuries, stretch often, and find a good ergonomic work position that works for you. If your work is computer based, make sure you take breaks that are NOT in front of the computer.
- Focus on habit building. New years resolutions and sudden bursts of “motivation” to exercise, work more, eat healthy food etc rarely work. We are creatures of habit. Only by making these practices into regular habits will they actually get done. New years resolutions and other such feeble attempts are usually based entirely on guilt, not on any serious attempt to change anything. Instead, focus on only one new habit at a time, maybe for a few months each, and spend your energy on building it into a natural part of your life rather than on straining to do some activity you hate. And for Zeus’s sake don’t wait until January to get started.
- Study productivity. Thousands of highly successful and productive people have shared their very best thoughts on productivity in books, seminars, blogs and so on. Read some of them! My personal favorites include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (though it covers a lot more than productivity), The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and a video program called Wake Up Productive by Eben Pagan, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a link to (maybe google will be kinder to you.) This blog post also counts
- Make your own list. The final tip is to figure out what works for you, and write it down! It’s all too common to start doing something good, do it for a while, and then forget about it. Write down your own solutions and keep them around to be rediscovered later. Often when rereading you will go “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one! That DID work for a while, lets try it again.”
Make sure to also check out the previous post in this series and the follow-up, both linked below.
21 Ways to Supercharge Your Productivity