Leaving Work Behind

How to Be Productive

Written by Tom Ewer on September 17, 2012. 36 Comments

How to Be ProductiveI have always had a fascination with productivity.

Each and every one of us only has 24 hours in each day to achieve our goals. When it comes to simple time investment, no one person is more advantaged than another. Time is the great leveler.

But productivity gives you a cutting edge. Leveraging the time available to you effectively can be the key difference between success and failure.

Over the years I have taught myself to be more productive, and these days, I would like to think that I’m not too shabby on the productivity front. With that in mind, I thought that it would be useful to share what I have learned.

Understanding Productivity

Productivity: achieving a significant amount or result.

When most people write guides on productivity, they’ll give you tips on managing your email better, or “how to do stuff more quickly”. I want to take a slightly broader view, as to me, productivity means far more than that.

To me, productivity is the difference between achieving great things, and simply existing (tweet this). It’s what separates the men from the boys (or indeed, the women from the girls). It isn’t necessarily about doing things quickly or efficiently — it’s about doing the right things, more often than not. When you consistently do the right thing, truly awesome things can happen.

Productivity starts with goals. In order to be productive, you must first know what it is that you are trying to achieve. It is all to easy to feel like you’re being really productive, when in fact you are simply doing a whole load of relatively inconsequential things in a speedy fashion.

So, in order for this guide to be of use, you must first read my post on goal setting. If you skip this step, you will benefit from the advice below, but it probably won’t lead to anything of note. And I don’t know about you, but I have ambitions to achieve a lot, not a little.

Prioritization

Once you know what it is that you want to achieve, it is a case of breaking each goal down into manageable tasks, and prioritizing them accordingly.

Prioritization is a very personal thing. I am not going to tell you exactly how you should prioritize your work. But I am going to tell you that the way in which you prioritize your work can make a huge difference to your productivity.

For instance, going back a few months, I was struggling to work a full day without losing focus. That loss of focus was leading to a notable drop in productivity. I would find myself twiddling my thumbs come 3-4pm (or even worse, out on the golf course).

However, I found that by switching my freelance writing work to the afternoon, and working on my own projects in the morning, my productivity increased massively. This worked for two reasons:

  1. In the morning I’m typically fresh and ready to work.
  2. In the afternoon I’m not quite so fresh, but I am accountable to my clients, and wouldn’t dream of missing a deadline.

However, the exact opposite approach could work for you. For instance, if you currently have a job and are a morning person, you could find that working on your side projects at the crack of dawn, before you go to work, could be the ideal time for you (like it was for my friend Bon). If however you’re a night owl, you may well benefit from working on your side projects in the wee hours (like Mark Mason does).

Ultimately, it is up to you to figure out what unique timing and scheduling of your tasks makes you productive.

Task Logging

Let’s get something out of the way immediately — do not multitask. It is not the most effective way of getting things done. In fact, according to some researchers, it can reduce productivity by 40 percent.

If you want to be productive, do just one thing at a time. And I mean that in an absolute sense. In an ideal world, you would dedicate yourself wholly to just one task at a time. No distractions, no tangents, no absent-minded wanderings. Whilst this isn’t always possible, it is something that I always strive for.

If you’re starting from a position of unproductiveness, I would suggest a fairly radical course of action. You should set up a spreadsheet in which you log everything that you do. And I mean everything. You put in a start time, and begin a task. If you find yourself subconsciously checking your social media account, you go back into your spreadsheet, log the time period for which you were doing your original task, then punch in the social media time — even if it was just for a minute (or less). As a rule of thumb, the less entries you have in your spreadsheet for the day (compared to the average), the more productive you were.

Task Logging

An example of task logging I did back in July.

I did the above exercise for over four weeks, and it was immensely helpful. With all the times inputted, I could even see what percentage of my time was taken up with what tasks. I could figure out my precise equivalent hourly rate for any given task, or group of tasks.

But that’s not all — perhaps the key benefit was the fact that I actively discouraged myself from trivial distractions such as social media and compulsive email checking, because I knew I would have to log it.

Tasks

A scrap of A4 paper that I was using to write up my to dos. It worked beautifully.

Once you have established the kind of discipline that allows you to carry out tasks in a relatively distraction-free style, you can wean yourself off this kind of task logging.

What I most certainly still do however is start each day by deciding what I am going to do. I write down all of the tasks I want to achieve, and I plot out how much time I think each one is going to take me. As I go through my tasks, I cross each one off when I have completed it.

This work really well for two reasons:

  1. Although you may have more tasks than you are capable of doing, you can clear your head of everything else by including only what you can do on your daily list.
  2. There is something uniquely satisfying about crossing something off a list (it may sound stupid, but try it).

Whilst I do use a task manager (The Hit List), I still manually write out my tasks on a daily basis. It only takes five minutes, but allows me to clear my mind of all other tasks and focus on what I can do with the time available to me.

Establishing Banished Tasks

As far as I am concerned, if you want to maximize your productivity, your most productive hours must be sacred. You want to do your most important work at the time at which you typically do your best work.

Any less-than-important tasks (or secondary tasks that you really enjoy doing) should be banished from your most productive hours. For instance, here are four of the things that I either avoid or do very little of during my normal 9-5 hours:

  1. Leaving Work Behind comments
  2. Low priority emails
  3. Analytics
  4. Social media

I could quite easily spend an hour or two on the above activities at the start of the day, and it would do very little to advance my business. I could even go as far as to tell myself that I was being productive, but it would be a lie.

Remove all instant notifications and push alerts. You don’t need to know immediately when an email has been received. You should operate in a distraction-free environment.

Any task that does not directly contribute towards the furthering of your business should be banished outside of your most productive hours. No ifs, no buts. The fact is that most of these tasks are typically quite enjoyable, so you will be happy to do them at other times. For instance, it is easy for me to respond to comments on this blog when I am watching a bit of television the evening. I can interact on Twitter whilst I am traveling, waiting in line at the post office, or otherwise engaged.

Taking a Break

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. So when you have your lunch break (or if you take shorter breaks during the day, which is certainly not a bad idea), you need to get away from your screen.

Your lunch break shouldn’t be an opportunity to spend 30 minutes catching up on your social media accounts. I often have a nap at lunch time — 20 minutes of silence. That rejuvenates me more than anything.

A break should be just that — a break from your work surroundings. Move around, go for a walk, have a lie down — whatever works for you. Just make sure that you get that separation from what you will be doing for the hours following on from your break time.

Motivation

I spoke a lot about motivation in my goal setting post — about how it is borne out of understanding what you want, and why you want it. But with the best will in the world, sometimes you will just not feel motivated to do your work.

This does not necessarily mean that you do not have enough intrinsic desire — we all have our off days. The key is in stepping back and honestly assessing your lack of motivation. Is there a genuine deep-seated issue regarding your desire to achieve your goals, or are you just tired and fed up at that particular moment?

If you really feel like you can’t get your chosen task done due to a temporary lack of motivation, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, focus on what you can do with that time. It may not be the most important task on your list, but if you can do it ably (rather than procrastinating endlessly over a more important task), you will have made the most of your available resources. Do not be afraid to adapt to circumstances, and remember that you are only human.

Removing Distractions

We’ve already spoken about distractions in the form of emails, push notifications and so on, but I also want to discuss distractions in your working environment.

Momentum is a wonderful thing. If you can kick off your morning in a productive fashion, more often than not, you’ll have a great day. However, if you suffer from distractions, your productivity can stop in its tracks.

For instance, I was working at home a few weeks ago when my handyman came around to fix my dishwasher (which he failed at miserably, but that’s another story). Unfortunately, he was in a very chatty mood, and I was too polite to ask him to leave me alone. I ended up talking to him for twenty minutes or so, and not only did that stop me from working in that time, but it also knocked me off my game for the rest of my day. I got distracted, and lost my focus.

I could have got far more done on that day — it was the distraction that ruined my productivity. So be fully aware of how powerful distractions can be, and do your best to remove yourself from situations where you might face them.

Your Environment

The quality of your workspace can make a massive difference to your productivity. I use the world “quality” in an entirely subjective manner, because it can mean different things to different people.

For instance, I found that moving from working in my home to working in my local library helped me be a lot more productive. That simple change of environment helped me great deal (and I’m sure that the walk to and from the library is beneficial too).

But it may not be something as drastic as completely changing your working environment — it could be as simple as clearing clutter from your desk. This is another example of getting rid of distractions. If you have a clear desk, you can work with a clear mind.

Giving Yourself Time to Breathe

If you book each and every day solid, you will work more hours than you anticipate. Life has a way of ruining your best laid plans at times, and if you are always fully booked, you will have no contingency time to work with.

Whilst you should plan to work full days, you shouldn’t put yourself in a position where you have to work those hours.

Dog Bite

Not the most friendly dog I have met.

For instance, I had a nightmare week last week. I was attacked and bitten by a dog on Tuesday morning and spent half the day in hospital. Then on Wednesday I had to spend the day in court, serving as a witness to a civil suit relating to my previous job. The week ended up being a bit of write-off, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It just meant that a few of my projects were pushed back a couple of days.

If on the other hand I was working say ten hours a day on freelance work, last week would have been enormously stressful, as I would have had numerous client deadlines to meet. I just don’t need that kind of stress in my life if I can avoid it.

Balancing Productivity with Sanity

Finally, I want to touch upon what I view as the important balance between productivity, and actually enjoying your day-to-day work. After all, whilst I do want to be successful, I don’t want to work myself into the ground in order to get there.

So when it comes to setting and managing my tasks and projects, I always bear the following three things in mind:

  1. An unproductive day or week is not a disaster. Focus on the future.
  2. Never rush — always focus on quality.
  3. If you’re just not feeling it, don’t force it.

Productivity isn’t defined by a day, or a week. It is defined by months or years of hard and smart work. Beating yourself up for the times when it doesn’t quite come together is a pointless exercise. Instead focus on what you learn, and how you can apply what you have learned in the future.

There is no such thing as perfect productivity. All you can do is define worthwhile goals, work on them, and achieve them. Many things will happen between those stages, but as long as you continue to grow and improve in what you do, you can be content that you are heading in the right direction.

Creative Commons image courtesy of joe.ross

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36 Responses to “How to Be Productive”

  1. Anabelle
    September 17, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    This is interesting. I like your balanced approach, but I also find myself more distracted when I *think* about “being productive”. I work on a “life priorities” list that defines every single day.

    1. Writing. This is my SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT task and I quit a job because it was in the way of it. There is nothing more important to me than writing, and it’s why I do it first thing in the morning. I don’t do it for long, but I need to to do.

    2. Paying the bills. This is where my paid work comes in. It varies, but of course I am responsible enough to do it so that I will keep my clients/employers for a long time.

    3. Breathing. This can include cooking, walking, reading, anything that isn’t exactly related to writing or paying the bills.

    4. Finding new business. Lowest priority, unless I find myself without #2, in which case #4 goes up.

    I don’t like the way people quantify everything they do–the task I hated the most at my old job was to fill in my timesheets.

    But maybe I’m just a more “go with the flow” person than others. The more structure I have around my work, the less productive I am. That’s why 9 to 5 jobs have never worked for me.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      Hi Anabelle,

      It’s definitely a case of different strokes for different folks. I certainly find that structure makes me more productive — if I leave myself to “go with the flow”, my “flow” doesn’t tend to be very productive 😉

      Cheers,

      Tom

  2. Kristi Hines
    September 17, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    I feel like my productivity has increased greatly just by implementing Remember the Milk. Instead of feeling like I need to do a million things every day, I just look at my task list and do whatever it is I set as priority for the day. Great tips!

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm

      Hey Kristi!

      I’ve tried Remember the Milk on more than one occasion but for some reason have never quite gotten along with it. Perhaps I should give it another go…I think a task management app of some sort is essential, but I don’t see myself moving on my from daily to do list writeup either — it’s really helped me be more productive.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  3. Jessica Kihara
    September 18, 2012 at 12:09 am

    The spreadsheet idea sounds really interesting. I can see how it would be very helpful to analyze your time like that. You do need to be disciplined, though.

    Sorry to hear about your dog bite… looks painful 🙁

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      Hey Jessica,

      It really helped me, that’s for sure. I think doing it helps to breed discipline.

      The bite’s healing nicely 🙂

      Tom

  4. Shawn
    September 18, 2012 at 6:54 am

    I’ve been using a similar method to track my activity for about 15 years. I use Notepad (F5 to insert a timestamp) to record the starting time, tab, stopping time, tab, notes, tab, billing modifier. This is then copied to my billing sheets which calculate the total time at the client’s rate and allows me to tag things based on the specific project. I don’t know how I could be remotely productive without this type of tracking. It keeps me on task knowing that I’m working for a client on a specific task and need to ensure that I don’t drift.

    I’m less productive on my own projects, though, since I don’t make the effort to be as focused and I allow myself to be distracted when, for example, my wife asks if I’m doing anything “important” or could I help her? That tends to get prioritized before anything else I had going on, sucking the time from my own projects.

    I think I’m going to add myself to my billing worksheet and see if that makes a difference.

    Thanks, Tom!

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:18 pm

      Nice tip Shawn — never knew that F5 inserted a timestamp in Notepad! I’m a Mac user now so it’s irrelevant to me, but as a Windows user for 20 years, it’s still interesting to know 😉

      I’m also nowhere near as anal when it comes to tracking my own projects, but I really think I should be. If I logged all of my time, I would be able to see exactly what return on my time investment I was getting on all elements of my business. And although people say that it’s a pain to do, I think an extra 5 minutes per day to get that kind of information at your fingertips is worth it.

    • Nicolas
      November 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      Nice! I didn’t know F5 could give a timestamp in Notepad! Thanks for the tip!

  5. Sean Hodge
    September 18, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    You’ll save time by using a good time tracker, rather than a spreadsheet to track your time. Harvest is one that works well. Thx.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      Hey Sean,

      You’re absolutely right. The one thing I would say about the spreadsheet system I recommended is that it is very deliberate. You really have to take the time to put your times in etc. When you’re really struggling with productivity I think it can be a good way of disciplining yourself.

      Having written up this post though, I think I’m going to start tracking all of my time (not just freelance work) in Freshbooks.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  6. Valerie
    September 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    What a great post. Comprehensive. Useful. Insightful. Well done! I also think using a daily to-do list is helpful; I get a lot of satisfaction from crossing things off my list! =)

  7. Liz
    September 18, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Great post Tom. Setting ourselves up for success is the key component here. Appreciate your advice.

    Liz

  8. Charley
    September 18, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Good advice about multi-tasking. We are humans, not machines. I’ve been using my smartphone’s “to do” list feature to keep track of tasks of the highest essentiality as opposed to listing all the tasks I have to perform for that day. After completing all essential tasks, I postpone all others that I can’t complete for that day. Though this method hampers my productivity, it makes my life easier. But who doesn’t want to achieve more? Definitely not me! Therefore I’ll implement some pieces of advice here, which btw are all practicable.

    The “dog bite” incident was unexpectedly hilarious and I still can’t determine why. I shoulda been sympathetic but you can’t blame me. I was…in a good mood 🙂

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2012 at 6:23 pm

      Hi Charley,

      On the contrary, it doesn’t sound like you’re being unproductive at all. Prioritizing the most important tasks, doing all that you can, and deferring the least important tasks that you don’t have time to complete to a future date…sounds pretty productive to me!

      As for the dog bite incident, I’m glad someone found it entertaining 😉

      Cheers,

      Tom

  9. Annie Sisk
    September 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Interesting post, Tom! I think it’s a question of finding what works for *you* — your goals, your projects, your vision for your life + your business. But kudos on figuring out the bottom line “secret” (which is so obvious most folks just miss it altogether): that being “productive” means “producing SOMETHING.” Start at the top with your vision, break the vision down into goals, and the goals into habits + tasks, and take daily action to get closer to those goals — inevitably, it all comes together, as long as you take the time periodically to analyze your results and adjust your plan as needed.

  10. Mandy Kilinskis
    September 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Tom, this was exactly the post I needed this morning! I was stressing over everything that I needed to get done and how I needed to get it done as quickly as possible. But after making a list (an old habit that I dropped but really need to re-implement again) and taking a reminder that I need to slow down and focus, I’m ready to face the rest of my day.

    I should really do the spreadsheet exercise. I check email and social media more than I should. :/

  11. Adam
    October 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Ah I sorely need a banned task list. Gonna try it out. I think once I consciously try it for a few days it should come easy. But most likely not haha…

  12. Nica Mandigma
    October 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    To have encountered this post now is great timing! I also noticed that my productivity is very low since August. So I decided to embark on a personal experiment. For this week, I will continue to do what I have always done this past few weeks but to determine where I am losing my time, I installed Time Track for Google Chrome. Basically, it tracks the sites I have visited in a day. I want to see how much time I am spending on Facebook, etc.

    Then next week, I will religiously follow a to-do list and see what it does to my productivity.

  13. Fred
    October 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    This is without a doubt a refreshing post. Just rejuvenated my spirits.

  14. Nicolas
    November 25, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    Wow Tom thats a very very complete article about Productivity! I love it! I actually each section could have made a post on his own, don’t you think?
    I also use a table to track the time i spend on each thing – even when i’m home after work, it helps me realize that I just spent 30 minutes checking Facebook for example!
    I would advise anybody to do the same – its really the best way to have an idea of what you REALLY do during the day, how many interruptions there was, …

    Back two months ago, i read your article for the first time and it made me change the way I use the hours of my day. Now, in the early morning, I write my blog posts while I use my quiet time at work to take care of social media, commenting, ….

    Thanks again a lot Tom, you are really inspiring!

    N.

    • Tom Ewer
      November 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Hey Nicolas,

      Yep, it could have been several posts, but I wanted to provide one comprehensive resource 🙂

      Glad to be of help!

      Tom

  15. Rudee
    December 28, 2012 at 1:07 am

    My desk is a mess, along with my brain. I don’t prioritize my work so I am all over the place. I do a little of something but don’t take the time to make goals. I guess I pray alot and say to myself, I hope this gets done today. I think your idea of setting up a spreadsheet in which you log everything that you do. How in your face can that be so you can see how you waste time. I am always saying I don’t have enough time in the day. Just looking at the spreadsheet will give me a clear picture how I am wasting time. Thank you for a great article.

  16. Kally
    March 26, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Hi Tom,

    “Turn of all push notifications” – that has to be the best thing I’ve read all day to be honest! It’s funny how sneaky those sorts of things can be, I never though before about how much those little ‘pop’ and ‘ding’ sounds can make it so easy to justify goofing off.

    Thanks for a totally invaluable tip and wonderful post 🙂

    – K

  17. Mariana
    April 18, 2013 at 1:05 am

    Thanks for this 🙂

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