This week we’re discussing common productivity advice that might or might not work for you and ideas for how you can modify it to meet your needs.
Even the best productivity advice doesn’t work for everyone–but most can be adapted to work for you
There’s a lot of productivity advice out there, some of it good, some of it questionable. Whatever the source, each of us needs to evaluate any advice, tips, tools, etc., in light of her own life and priorities. Nothing works for everybody; our lives and needs are different and can change over time as we move from one stage of life to another.
I thought I’d look at some productivity advice I often hear or read in various sources and consider whether and how it might work for us, including some modifications and alternate approaches.
1. Get up early
Lots of productivity experts recommend getting an early start on your day–the common recommendation is 5 a.m. There’s a lot about this that makes sense, like starting the day early to get a jump on your work. Early in my legal career, I liked to get to the office very early because I could get a lot of work done before the phone started ringing.
This doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, though. For example, if you work a late shift, if your sleep gets interrupted by an infant or insomnia, or if you just are a night owl, you might be more alert and energetic later in the day. Getting enough quality sleep is more important to our health, well-being, and productivity than having the early morning hours to work.
As an alternative:
Be aware of your own circadian rhythms and chronotype, and to the extent you can, adjust your schedule accordingly.
Circadian rhythm – “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark and affect most living things, including animals, plants, and microbes. Chronobiology is the study of circadian rhythms.” [from Circadian Rhythms]
Chronotype – sleep type (article called Chronotypes, Sleep, and Productivity talks about 4 basic chronotypes and offers suggestions about when to work, sleep, etc., to maximize productivity)
2. Establish a meaningful morning routine of meditation, journaling, exercise, healthy breakfast, etc.
It’s a great idea to start your day, as Amy Landino (guest on episode 276) describes it in her Good Morning, Good Life book and other materials, “on your own terms.” Easing into the work day in a quiet and nourishing way that nurtures our spirit, soul, and body is a wonderful thing that can contribute in a significant way to our meaningfully productive life.
But this might not work for everybody, for some of the same reasons rising at 5 a.m. might not work. If, for example, you have small kids in the house who are early risers, or your work day (or your children’s school day) starts early, or you have a long commute, there simply might not be time in the mornings for a leisurely morning routine. That doesn’t mean your day can’t start well.
Incorporate some of the elements of a nurturing morning routine, but on an abbreviated basis. For example:
When the alarm goes off, before you lift your head off the pillow, take 30 seconds to stretch, and whisper a prayer or affirmation of thank you for the new day. While you drink your first cup of coffee, read a few lines from the Bible or other spiritual text that’s meaningful to you or a book of uplifting quotations or poetry, or simply stand outside or at a window and breathe while looking at the sky or the trees or whatever’s outside your front or back door. Practice being very present and mindful while you shower.
The point is that you can start your day off on a positive and productive note without spending an hour.
If you work from home, either at a paid job or business or as a homemaker, consider whether you can do your extended morning routine a little later in the morning after the kids are off to school and before you dive into your own workday.
As an alternative:
All those activities that are often thought of as components of the ideal morning routine can still add value if done at other times of the day. Consider journaling for a few minutes on your lunch break or exercise by taking a walk after dinner.
3. Do the hardest or most important task first
We often hear this advice (and I’ve probably suggested it myself!). One popular example is found in the book called Eat That Frog. The idea often is that by tackling that hardest task at the beginning of the day when you’re fresh, you’ll be sure it gets done while you still have the energy and focus to do it, and you won’t continue being distracted by the “open loop” hanging over your head. This is a valid approach to those tasks that you keep procrastinating on because they’re difficult or daunting. Most of the time, this is probably a good idea.
Sometimes, though, it might not work well. That “frog” might eat up so much time that you don’t get other things done that you need to do that day. Or if you’re one whose energy and focus peak later in the day, you might struggle to complete a task that requires energy and focus during a time of day when you’re not at your best or when your environment is fraught with distractions or otherwise just not conducive to attending to that particular frog.
As an alternative:
Be intentional about scheduling that hard or important task during a time of day when you are at your best in terms of energy and ability to focus, when you have sufficient time to get it done, and when your environment is less distracting. If the hardest task is intimidating, it might help to start the day with some of the easier tasks that can be completed more quickly, and get the confidence boost that comes with accomplishing things you need to do. Remember to break up those big, daunting tasks into the smallest possible components.
4. Check your email only twice a day
The rationale is that, as some have said, our email inbox consists of other people’s to-do list for us, and constantly checking email is a distraction that interferes with our ability to focus on priority work. Limiting your email time is absolutely a good idea, for all those reasons. If possible, close your email app except during those times so you’re not distracted by seeing an alert or a badge showing new messages have come in.
For those of us whose business is run via email, this might not be possible. For instance, when I have a closing going on, I have to keep a constant eye on email for communications from the client, the other party’s attorney, and the title company about the logistics, ready to deal with issues that come up.
As an alternative:
Turn off notifications to minimize distraction when you’re working. Instead of only checking email once or twice a day, do the reverse when you need to be watching email: block off an hour or so when you can close your email and focus on other work. For me, that comes after the closing has been confirmed. Then I can turn email off for a while and get some focused work done.
5. Keep working until everything on your to-do list is complete
This is theoretically good advice. Making a to-do list serves no purpose unless we take action on the items on the list. And failing to do the things we’ve committed to do teaches us to not trust ourselves to keep that promise we made to ourself. But this might not work if you’re too ambitious with your list for the day, or if some tasks take longer than expected, or life happens . . .
Go ahead and keep a comprehensive list of everything that needs to be done, but make sure you limit your list for any given day to 3-5 tasks, and do your best to make sure you get the “must-dos” done before moving on to any of the “ought to dos” or “would be nice to dos”.
6. Use the Pomodoro technique to get your work done
Traditionally, a Pomodoro is a 25-minute focused work session followed by a 5-minute break (and a longer break–15-20 minutes–after every 4th Pomodoro). The concept is a good one. The mind can only focus effectively for a finite period of time and regular breaks actually are very productive.
The specific time periods might or might not work for you, though. It could work well for physical tasks (housecleaning, yard work) or administrative tasks. Some types of work actually take a bit of time to get into, and breaking at the 25-minute mark might disrupt your momentum. This would be the case for me when I’m drafting a set of documents for a client or writing fiction or non-fiction.
Incorporate the concept of the Pomodoro technique but use longer time periods for the Pomodoros; perhaps an hour, or 55 minutes.
7. Time yourself doing tasks so you know how long each takes, so you can plan your workday accordingly
This is useful to know, and I do recommend getting a realistic idea of how long it takes you to do things you regularly do.
The problem with this approach, though, is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law: the adage that work expands to fill the time available to it. That means taking this approach might end up with you spending far more time than you want to complete certain tasks. (Example: cleaning house might take all day . . . and yet if you get word that unexpected company will arrive in an hour, you’ll get the house in good order before they arrive.) On the other hand, when time is limited and you believe there’s not enough time to do Task X, you likely will end up neglecting it entirely.
As an alternative:
For tasks that need to be done, decide how much time you’re willing to allocate to each. Set a timer and then get to work. When the timer goes off, you stop, whether or not you’re “finished,” and you move on to the next thing. This serves the idea that something is better than nothing–not everything has to be done perfectly.
8. To that point: Anything worth doing is worth doing right. (Whatever that means.)
I absolutely agree with the importance of doing good work and pursuing excellence . . . where it matters. But not everything has to be done perfectly. Sometimes “B” (or even “C”) work is sufficient. Perfectionism too often leads to procrastination, right?
Be thoughtful and intentional about what things you’re doing need your 110% best efforts, and what things can do with something less than that. Put your best energy and attention toward the things that matter most to you, and give yourself permission to do a “good enough” job on others. Progress beats perfection nearly all the time.
The internet and bookshelves are full of advice about how to be more productive–how to use our time more effectively to accomplish the things we need and want to do. A lot of that advice is good, but almost none of it works for everyone. Each of us needs to evaluate the tools, techniques, and recommendations we come across in light of our own lives, priorities, and values, use what works, and discard what doesn’t.
What do you think?
What’s the best productivity advice you’ve heard that helps you be as productive as you want to be? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
- Amy Landino’s YouTube Channel
- Amy Landino’s website
- TPW276 with Amy Landino
- The 20% of Productivity Advice That Produces 80% of the Results – Ambition & Balance
- Productivity Tips That Don’t Work | The Muse
- 5 Stupid Productivity Tips That Usually Don’t Work | by Sinem Günel | Personal Growth | Medium
- How Your Chronotype, Sleep, and Activity Connect
- Experts Share The Best And Worst Productivity Advice
- The Pomodoro Technique — Why It Works & How To Do It
- Circadian Rhythms
- Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy
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