7 productivity tips I really use (because they really work)

The internet is full of tips for making people more efficient. You could procrastinate for weeks by reading such articles, or books on how to be more productive. Since I write about these topics, I’ve waded through a lot of the literature. Some is…eh. But these are the strategies I actually use in my life, over and over again — because I find they make life so much better.

1. Plan your weeks on Fridays. This tactic is really two ideas combined into one. The first realization is that life is lived in weeks, so the best unit of time to plan for is the week. As for Friday? It’s best to think through your weeks before you’re in them, so you can take a step back and ask what matters and what doesn’t. On Friday afternoons, I plan out my most important professional and personal priorities for the next week, and see where these items can go.

2. Measure what matters. I have a few logs going. One is a time log, which tracks my time in half hour blocks. In the two years I have been faithfully recording each day on this log, I have developed a much more holistic and accurate sense of my time. It is truly precious and plentiful. But that’s not the only log! I log my runs, which has helped me stay motivated to keep running daily (the streak hit 6 months this weekend). I also track books read, which has inspired me to devote more of my leisure time to literature. I’ve finished 75 books already in 2017!

3. Figure out three “anchor” events for the weekend. Since I have four kids and a house to manage, it would be easy for my weekends to be taken over by chores and children’s activities. Sometimes it feels like my weekends are taken over by these things. On Saturday, I had karate belt graduations at 10:00 and 12:15, and I managed to get my daughter to the pediatrician in between (for an 11:15 appointment; my personal brag here is that I was only 3 minutes late to the second belt graduation. And I was able to stay at the first graduation long enough to put the new orange belt on my son). On Sunday I spent an hour cleaning out the van, which was positively disgusting. Pro tip for anyone pondering procreation, or purchasing a minivan: do not let your children eat raisins in the car. HOWEVER, I also knew I had a few events planned that would add to my energy levels. I did two runs and my husband and I went to the Summer Ale Festival at the Philadelphia Zoo. We ate pulled pork, drank a lot of craft brews, and looked at the animals without our children. I really think all zoo trips would be improved by beer. We also did a family bike ride on Sunday. While that had some not-fun moments, parts of it were good, so that could be a semi-anchor event. Knowing fun stuff is coming up helps me get through the less fun stuff. And I hit Monday feeling pretty good.

4. Tackle the toughest work first. I aim to do any first draft writing, or deep editing (when stuff is clearly not working and needs to be fixed) first thing during my work day. I can do so much more with a cup of coffee or two between 8:40-11:40 a.m. than I can between, say, 1-4 p.m. If I wait until later, I get distracted and things take much longer.

5. Use bits of time well. Remember those 75 books in 2017? I owe much of that to the Kindle app on my phone. In the past, I would surf the web in the 10 minutes before a phone call started. Now I generally read. Those 5-10 minute spurts happen more often through the day than one might think (waiting for kids at practice, waiting for my daughter to go potty while I’m putting her to bed, etc.). Added up, that turns into a lot of reading time.

6. Make very short to-do lists. I do make daily to-do lists, often the night before. But I aim to keep these quite short. They’re never more than 10 items, and if they’re 10 items, 3 of those might be “email so and so” — that is, short tasks. Often the lists are much shorter than that. If something’s on the list, I’m going to do it. There’s no point putting something on a list and then not doing it. I revisit the list toward the end of the day to make sure I’m on track, and to plot out the rest of the day based on anything that’s come up.

7. Have a bed time. I really am aiming to be in bed around 10:30 p.m. these days. It doesn’t always happen, but I feel so much better in the morning when I get enough sleep. And given that the little guy is still waking up way too early, I need to feel decently in the morning.

What productivity tips do you use all the time?

In other news: Congrats to Gladys, who won the abandoned books giveaway! She selected The Wedding Bees. I hope she enjoys it.

Photos: Photo with beer, and giraffes, then pulled pork from a food truck at the zoo. With candied bacon on top. Talk about a weekend anchor event!

20 thoughts on “7 productivity tips I really use (because they really work)

  1. Thank you for a needed reminder in this post. This was my birthday weekend. Like any span of time, it had good and not so good moments. I ended Saturday having really enjoyed the day but ended Sunday feeling not so great. Unfortunately, the Sunday disappointment dictated my Monday morning mood. This post reminded me that one the whole, this was a pretty fantastic summer birthday weekend. Monday is always brings a fresh opportunity to conquer the world.

    1. @Judy- happy birthday! It’s all about framing the narrative. We can point to a few bad moments and let that be the thesis, or point to the good ones. They’re both true.

  2. I revisited my goals last night using the Oola Gurus basic plan. (Fun, friendship, finance, fitness, Faith, field, and family)I added “faraway” because travel is important to me. “Fulfill” because I have side gig goals, and “fiction” because I want to branch out of educational writing.
    I came to the startling conclusion that much of what I put on my daily to do list has nothing to do with any of these goals. I’ve been a student of time management and goals for a very long time. Yet, I had the strangest “a-ha” moment.
    I have come to the conclusion that I fill my days with unimportant busy-ness to avoid tackling those important projects. In daily life, I look highly efficient, but when I really look at my personal goals I am failing.
    Not exactly on your topic, but I would suggest adding some soul searching to your productivity list. Make sure you are working towards what you really want and doing not just being productive for the sake of being productive.

    1. I love this comment and could have written it myself. I like the Oola Gurus basic plan, which I hadn’t heard of.

      I also think there are times you’re too productive in certain areas. I have read a lot this year, which is important to my career (librarian) and for stress relief, but I feel like I am now focused too much on reading, to the detriment of other hobbies I have. Time for another week of time logging & goal setting to look into this further.

    2. @Jennie- I agree that soul searching is productive. Definitely worth carving out time for. Plenty of people write down their goals and then notice that day-to-day life has very little in common with the list!

  3. Love these! In general, I try to be intentional with my time. I work part-time and must make the most of my work time.

    I prep for the next day for a few minutes during the night before. I also use batching and the Pomodoro method to make the most of my time and be most efficient. And finally, we take advantage of the fact that we have early risers when it’s the weekend. We can have a light breakfast, do a short hike with our young boys, eat a full breakfast at a fun spot, and be home by 10am. That’s huge since we live in Texas, where it can be 100 by noon in the summer.

  4. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!

    Reading your posts about how you use your time productively always inspires me not to procrastinate (I used to do it a lot!). Oftentimes, I waste an hour here and there for doing nothing i.e. surfing the internet, FB, etc.
    This is the reason why I love reading your blog when I find myself in the brink of procrastination.

    1. @Gladys- I aim to be motivational! But I’m actually quite curious about what inspires people to take action. It’s really the holy grail of self help if anyone can figure it out.

  5. Love these! My #1 and #4 look a little different because peak productivity for me is between 1-3 pm. I try to honor this by, at the end of each day, leaving myself a little ‘present’ of easy work to jump into the next morning. I am also better at planning my next week on Tuesdays once I’ve gotten revved up for the week – it also syncs up with a staff meeting we have on Tuesdays that is a recap/forward look type thing (not the most productive in and of itself).

    1. @Byrd – it’s always good to know yourself, and if you’ve figured out that 1-3 is your peak time, by all means use it! Unfortunately, I think a lot of people either don’t know when their peak hours are, or if they do, don’t think about planning their days to take that into consideration. Some work can’t be controlled/planned, but much can be too.

      1. Alas! My peak hours are 4-8pm. It’s a terrible time! Before i had kids it clashed with my favourite group exercise activities. Now that i have small children, I can’t exactly not pick them up from childcare/give them dinner/put to bed! BUT I do carve out once a week to use those peak times, which is better than nothing. Something I’ve learned over the years of reading your stuff.

        1. @Danielle – something is better than nothing! If your peak hours are 4-8, then, yes, you probably won’t get them daily. But you can get them sometimes. And once a week (maybe twice a week if you try!) is certainly better than not getting them at all, or telling yourself it’s impossible.

  6. Nice post. For me, I don’t check work email on the weekends. Period. I still go into work on the weekends when my projects require it but email, nope. I don’t want to mentally be pulled into thinking about work when I would rather (and need) to be relaxing and enjoying time with my family.

    1. @Monica- I sometimes look at email on weekends, but I generally won’t answer until Sunday night. I assume a lot of other people are only checking sporadically (if at all) so there’s no rush.

  7. Hm, question: My experience tells me that reading 75 books in 6 months AND running every day would be impossible for me as a childless guy. My wife and I are regularly stressed out between our jobs, house chores and hobbies. Trying to squeeze in some exercise even once a week is a challenge. Add a whole family to the mix, and I can’t see how accomplishing the goals mentioned here could even be remotely possible, unless the person works only 3 hours a day and doesn’t sleep any more than another 3. So what am I missing? 🙂

    1. @Daniel – I probably average about 35 hours/week for work. Running takes about 4 hours weekly, as I only average about a 5k/day. It doesn’t take that long to run 3.1 miles! As for reading, I’ve calculated it at somewhere between 10-15 hours/weekly, usually in the time that other people would watch TV (which I really don’t do much of).

      I can see that jobs and chores might be stressful, but hobbies shouldn’t be a source of stress! Those are for fun!

  8. Two things work for me:

    Getting things out of my head by writing them down on a note (I always keep a pencil in my pocket and small notes in my cardholder). That way I don’t feel like I’m missing things or appointments.
    This is advice I’ve taken by listening and reading things by David Allen.

    I do a simple morning workout before work each morning at 05.30. The workout is available both on DVDs and YouTube and is Gilad’s Bodies in Motion. It covers warmup, exercise, and (most often) situps and only takes around 20 minutes. That way I never feel guilty for not exercising enough. For free days or hoildays I have two longer workouts – one called Abs and one called Fat Burning. These are around 40 minutes each and I rotate them.

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