I love productivity hacks. If you poke around, you’ll find plenty of clever tips and tools that are supposed to help you get more stuff done in less time. You’ll read fascinating articles on the topic at Inc., CNN, and Forbes, not to mention whole sections of sites like Lifehacker. To an organizational leader, the idea of squeezing extra results out of limited time is alluring. Sadly, I’ve often gotten so wrapped up in playing with productivity techniques that I’ve failed at being productive.
Many years ago, I heard the inimitable Merlin Mann say, “Don’t get so hung up fine-tuning your process that you never get any actual work done” (or something very much like that). I really should have paid attention.
If you’re looking to amp up your productivity by trying out some new techniques, here are a few things to keep in mind (to which I can testify from personal experience)…
There’s no “magic bullet”
What works for one person won’t work for everyone, and what comes easy to you may be exactly where I need the help. Also, there’s no tip or trick that will overcome a fundamental lack of motivation or discipline.
You can’t do it all (at once)
I’m usually tempted to fix everything at the same time, which leads me to take on more change than I can handle. When you’re trying to remember all ways you want to work differently, you’ll spend all your mental energy on your processes, not your work. Instead, focus on the one bad habit or major distraction that keeps you from doing what you really want to do.
It’s not about the hack. It’s about the productivity
A productivity hack isn’t really going to help you until it’s no longer a “hack.” As long as you’re focused on the technique itself, it will take that much attention away from the task you’re trying to accomplish. It has to become second nature — an unconscious part of your workflow — before it really pays off.
My advice? Pick one productivity technique that makes sense to you. Try it out, adapt it, and work with it until you’ve mastered it. Then (if you want), pick another one. Before you know it you’ll have a unique productivity recipe that’s tailored just for you.
If you’re looking for a place to start, here are three techniques that have become part of the way I work week in and week out:
Productivity Hack 1: The Pomodoro Technique
Back in the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro Technique as a way to improve his study habits, and it began to catch on in corporate settings in the 90s. The technique is named after the little tomato-shaped kitchen timers that are common in Europe (“pomodoro” is Italian for tomato), and is based on the idea that 25 minutes is an optimal length of time for the human brain to focus on one task.
To use the method:
- Identify the tasks you need to complete
- Organize the tasks into 25-minute segments. Smaller related tasks (emails, calls, etc.) can be clustered together. Bigger tasks can be broken up.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes (one “pomodoro”) and focus on the first task. When possible, turn off your social media, phone, wifi, etc. If you’re interrupted more than momentarily, you’ll need to abandon the pomodoro and try again later.
- After the timer goes off, take a five minute break. Leave your desk, stretch your legs, get a cup of coffee. This mandatory break is part of the process.
- Move to the next task and repeat steps 3-4.
For me, the hardest part is beginning a particular task, and the Pomodoro Technique helps me talk my brain into getting started. It’s easy to convince myself that I can focus on something for a mere 25 minutes. Once I get going, momentum is on my side. If you need a timer, there are quite a few apps designed specifically for this (I use Eggscellent).
Productivity Hack 2: Getting Things Done
It’s a bit of a cheat to describe Getting Things Done (“GTD” to its many fans) as a productivity hack. It’s really an entire system that’s made up of several common-sense hacks. GTD is a time management method that was developed by David Allen in the 1990s, and was detailed in his book of the same name (a 2015 update is fresh off the presses). The approach is built on the idea that when we try to track everything in our heads, we can’t really do a good job at any of them (like a computer with too many apps open). To solve this problem, Allen proposes that we take all the “stuff” that is stealing our focus and put it into a trusted system, then focus on one thing at a time.
It works like this…
- Do a “mind dump” to collect everything that has your attention — major, minor, personal or professional.
- Process everything you’ve collected. Is it actionable? No? trash it or file it. Will the next action take less than two minutes? Do it now. If not, delegate it or put it on your “next actions” list.
- Sort your lists so related tasks are lumped together into projects or by type of action—calls you need to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.
- Review your lists regularly. On a weekly basis, clean things up, refresh your memory, and plan when you’ll tackle actions. Once a month, take time to review major projects and look through your “someday/maybe” file.
- Execute your “next actions” list. When new things start to steal your attention, process them into the right places.
Some GTD users get very elaborate with their tools and legalistic with the process. I prefer to keep it simple. I’ll go through seasons of not following the steps, but when I start to feel overwhelmed, a “mind dump” and sorting process is just what the doctor ordered. There are some great software packages purpose built for GTD. Omnifocus is incredible, and follows the methodology fully. I use Things, and recommend it if you’re looking for something simple and intuitive.
Productivity Hack 3: Batching
As it turns out, “multi-tasking” is a misnomer; you can really only do one thing at a time. When people use the term, they’re actually describing task-switching. Constantly switching between tasks is a real drain — researchers estimate that it could cost you 40% of your productivity. It saps time and energy, creates stress, kills creativity, and causes more mistakes.
One strategy to minimize task-switching is doing your work in batches. Set aside blocks of time when you will focus on a particular type of task. Check and deal with emails all at once, do all your writing in a single block. Each type of task takes a particular mindset, so you can find your groove and get more done.
Michael Hyatt builds on this with the idea of designing an “Ideal Week.” What would your typical week look like if you could control 100% of what happens? You would be able to proactively set aside blocks of time to do things that are important to you. You could cluster your meetings or calls on particular days, leaving others for special projects. Of course, it never works that perfectly, but it’s a lot easier to accomplish what matters most if you have something to aim for.
If you’re like me you can’t always control your schedule, particularly when it comes to meetings — some will always be set by others. However, as a week approaches, I begin to identify which days will be “meeting days,” and schedule blocks of time on the other days to handle other work. Knowing my own rhythms, I plan my creative work in the mornings and busywork (expenses, emails) in the afternoon. Using pomodoros, of course.
Final word: These three techniques work well together. I recommend that you focus on mastering one at a time, but give all three a chance if they look useful to you.
Do you have a favorite productivity hack that you’ve made your own? I’d love to hear about it.