If you think I'm over-promising here, think again. There's a huge, huge difference between a day that feels productive and one that feels annoyingly not so, and the difference is not just in the amount of stuff you get done: it's about how you feel. You can absolutely learn how to be more productive. Not feeling frazzled, wasting time you don’t have on doing things you don’t need to be doing, and actually being able to say, “Yeah! I got a lot done today!” are all huge benefits that can come if you put these 5 tiny productivity hacks into action:
1. Only read each email once. When you open an email, decide what you will do with it. You can reply, delete, forward, or archive it. What you can’t do is leave it for later. This is how your inbox becomes a monster that haunts you with “all those emails I still have to get back to.” I’ll be honest with you: Getting into the habit of doing this is not easy. I’ve been working on it for more than a year and still sometimes slip and leave emails to just hang there. But on days when I stick to my “only read email once” rule, my world is just more awesome.
2. Write down things to remember as soon as they pop into your mind. I stole -- OK, borrowed -- this hack from a friend of mine, who carries around a little notebook and as soon as he thinks of something he needs to remember later, jots it down. You can use a notebook or a digital to-do list (Wunderlist is my favorite), but the goal is to move clutter from your mind into a list that you can check later.
3. Schedule “stress” time. This might sound really odd, but if you’re constantly spending time stressing over things or feeling anxious over something that’s coming, or a decision you have to make, your brain is a lot less effective at doing other things. None of us can totally get rid of stress, it’s just part of life. But what helps is scheduling a block of, say, 20 minutes, when you allow yourself to just give into your stress. I’ve tried this a few times before I made it a regular weekly practice -- it’s one of the most surprisingly helpful things I’ve done to be more productive and drive myself (slightly) less crazy.
4. Procrastinate productively. You know that feeling you get after you realize you’ve just spent half an hour aimlessly browsing through your Facebook feed? Yeah, not a good one. So if you’re going to procrastinate, do it in a productive way. Look for something specific that doesn’t have to do with your work, so your mind can relax. My favorites are new recipes or new books. Read something interesting that’s outside of what you would usually read -- for example, check out the Science section of The New York Times if you usually go for news. Set a tiny goal for what you want to get done with your procrastination time and you’ll feel a lot more energized and focused afterwards, instead of frustrated that you wasted your time.
5. Only write down 5 things at a time on your to-do list. I can tell. You're shaking your head “no way” right now, but give it a try. You can have a bucket list somewhere else and write down all the things you want to remember there (see hack #2 above). But for your daily to-do list, try to just focus on 5 things at a time. You’ll force yourself to figure out what’s really important, you’ll feel less overwhelmed, and then when you are able to get most of it done, you’ll feel like a real-world superhero.