We all have many things to juggle—career, family, friends, community, health, interests—and wish that we had 48 hours a day!
Aren’t you jealous of that friend or colleague who seems to get it all done and still have time to breathe? What’s their secret to checking everything off the to-do list so efficiently?
The good news is that they don’t have any superpower nor are they robots. They simply have cultivated a set of habits that allow them to be as focused and motivated as possible—and you can do it too!These habits help them overcome some common challenges that sabotage productivity, such as procrastinating on or avoiding important tasks, getting distracted or multitasking, as well as having difficulty staying energized and motivated throughout the day.
By incorporating these habits into your daily life, you can become more productive in your professional and personal lives:
1. Tackle the most important tasks first
Being productive means you’re efficient and effective. You not only need to get things done fast (efficient) but you also need to be doing the right thing (effective). Identify high-value activities so you can focus your time and attention on what matters in the long run.
It’s often easier to deal with small and easy tasks on your list instead of tackling the more challenging but important ones. However, if you don’t get those important tasks done, you’re not maximizing your productivity.
Prioritize your to-do list and identify one to three important things that you must finish each day. Tackle these high-valued activities first when you’re the freshest and most energized. Also, delegate the less important tasks so they don’t take up unnecessary time and energy.
2. Cultivate “deep work” and intense focus
We can do a lot of things on mindless autopilot but they’re not activities that will make a difference in the long run. On the other hand, there are tasks you need to devote serious time and mental efforts to complete. Such intense focus is coined “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and it refers to the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
To become highly productive, you need to master the skill of intense focus and deep work in today’s increasingly distracted world. But the truth is that doing deep work isn’t easy—especially in the beginning—so you need to exercise discipline to turn it into a habit.
Block out dedicated time for deep work on your calendar every day. Become comfortable with “boredom” because meaningful deep work can be frustrating instead of exciting at times. Also, turn off any distraction (e.g., phone, email) and “train” people around you to respect this time.
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3. Keep long-term objectives on your radar
Management legend Peter Drucker once said, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” If you’re putting out other people’s fires all day, you may be busy but not getting anything meaningful accomplished.
Instead of getting trapped in the hamster wheel of short-term tasks, you need to have your eyes on your long-term goals. You can use the Eisenhower Matrix to help prioritize your tasks so you can focus on what matters in the long-term.
It’s a 2x2 matrix that consists of four quadrants. On one axis, we have “important” and “not important” and on the other, “urgent” and “not urgent.” You should do the tasks listed in the “important and urgent” quadrant and make plans to complete those in the “important but not urgent” one. Meanwhile, delegate items in the “not important but urgent” quadrant and eliminate those in the “not important and not urgent” one.
4. Break down big tasks into actionable chunks
When we look at a daunting task, we often feel overwhelmed and as a result, we procrastinate. Anything that is large in scope and not specific can be challenging because we have no idea where to start. Instead, eat the elephant one bite at a time by breaking down big projects into smaller steps.
Each of these smaller steps should consist of one action with a specific outcome. All you need to do is to buckle down, tackle them one at a time, and check them off the list. The combined results will contribute to the big picture and before you know it, you've accomplished that big hairy task!
Breaking down a big task into smaller actionable steps also helps you get rid of analysis-paralysis. When you start achieving results, you gain the positive feedback and momentum you need to keep moving forward.
5. Reduce unnecessary decision-making
President Barack Obama once said, “I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” (Same goes for Steve Job’s black turtleneck “uniform.”)
Making decisions is mentally “expensive” because it requires our attention to evaluate various options, which is the energy we can spend on important tasks. By minimizing the number of unimportant decisions you need to make on a daily basis, you can focus your mental energy on what matters.
Design a daily routine that eliminates as much decision-making as possible. For example, make it nonnegotiable to hit the gym every day at 7 a.m. so you don’t have to spend 15 minutes debating whether you should work out or not. This may seem inconsequential but if you compound the effect of streamlining tens or hundreds of decisions you have to make every day, you’d be surprised how much mental space you can free up!
6. Follow the 80/20 rule
Also known as the Pareto Principle, which states that in any pursuit, 80% of the results will come from 20% of the efforts. To maximize your efficiency, identify the most important and impactful 20% of activities and focus on doing them well.
Then, look for ways to cut down on the other 80% on your to-do list. Revisit the Eisenhower Matrix and decide what you can delegate and eliminate from your to-do list. This will not only clear your schedule for the highest value activities but also free mental space and reduce unnecessary decision-making so you can focus on what matters.
7. Keep a “distraction list”
Distraction is the enemy of productivity, whether you’re doing deep work or tackling smaller tasks. However, it’s unavoidable that we come up with ideas for one thing while working on another. Instead of pausing the task at hand, you need a place to “park” the new ideas so you can revisit them while preventing them from becoming a distraction.
Create a list and keep it accessible—whether it’s on a Google Doc, your phone, or a note pad—so you can write down anything that comes to mind and return to the task you’re working on.
Not every idea that pops into your head will deserve your attention. When you come back to tackle the “distraction list,” make sure to use the same process, such as the Eisenhower Matrix or 80/20 rule, to make sure you’re focusing on the right things.
8. Spend time to recharge
All the techniques discussed here won’t do much for you if you don’t have the mental clarity and physical health to execute them. Highly productive people prioritize self-care to make sure they’re in tip-top shape every day. After all, you can’t get much done if you’re always sick or tired.
To stay healthy, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthfully. Did you know that poor nutrition not only affects your physical health but also causes brain fog that impacts your ability to think clearly? Meanwhile, exercising aids the release of hormones that create a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.
Of course, we can’t afford to overlook the importance of sleep. It helps you stay focused, prevent burnout, improve memory, and make better decisions. In fact, sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity!
To ensure that you’re getting high-quality sleep, create a relaxing bedroom environment. Minimize screen time, which exposes you to blue light that can keep you awake, at least an hour before bedtime. Last but not least, select a mattress that’s right for your needs—for example, some mattresses are designed for side sleepers while others can help relieve back pain.
Establishing the habits to boost your productivity can take time, effort, as well as trial and error. However, after you've put in the work and get over the hump, you’d be amazed how you can overcome seemingly daunting challenges and get more done without sacrificing the quality of your work or other things that you enjoy in your life.