A Checklist of 20 Crucial Productivity Habits.
This is part of the “Wellness Wheel Habits Checklist” series where I look at habits associated with the 6 areas of life (Occupational, Physical, Emotional, Social, Financial and Spiritual).
As you go through this checklist of 20 productivity habits ask yourself which of these do you do consistently? And which of these do you need to do consistently?
1. The Cornerstone of Productivity
What’s the massive, but often not mentioned, payoff of keeping a to-do list?
It prevents tasks-to-be-done from clogging your mind up like a cheap portable toilet at a music festival. This is because rather than wasting precious energy and thought on trying to remember what you need to do, you offload it onto the list and free your mind to think great thoughts.
2. VIP treatment for certain tasks
Not every task is created equal. There are some tasks on your to-do list that if done, will deliver far more impact than all the others put together.
For example, “Plan my new Las Vegas cabaret show” is probably going to have more of an impact on your life than “Put cover sheet on TPS reports”.
So don’t blindly work through your to-do list. Prioritize the most important tasks.
3. Log it
Can you be more productive if you don’t know how you’re spending your time? Of course not. And the best way to figure out why you’re getting much less done than you thought is to keep a time log: Write down how you spend your time throughout the day.
You may discover that you’re flitting between too many different tasks, so never get a chance to develop momentum. Or it may be that you spend so much time chatting with co-workers that you don’t actually sit down to work till 4.30pm. Or you may discover that every day there is a 4-hour block of time that you have no memory of, and when you come out of it, you’re holding a bloody knife and the blood isn’t yours.
4. 1826 days of unhappiness
Imagine having a goal that takes 5 years to accomplish and only allowing yourself to be happy on the day you finally achieve the goal? That means one day of happiness and 1826 days of unhappiness.
If you only allow yourself to be happy once you’ve reached a big goal, you’re going to spend 99.9% of your time unhappy. When you get better at celebrating small wins, you’ll find it more motivating and easier to be more productive.
5. Down the reptile
Most people’s natural instinct is to start the day with an easy task. But what if you did the opposite and completed the most difficult, important task first? If you do this, you’ll ensure the vital things get done, and the rest of the day will be much easier. Brian Tracy called it “eating the frog” (When I was at university that phrase meant something else).
6. Free yourself from email
When you check your email, you never know what you’re going to get. Could be something exciting, lucrative or interesting. Maybe a new client enquiry, maybe an old flame getting in touch, maybe a Nigerian prince looking to award you a diploma.
In other words, email provides variable rewards, which pigeons, dolphins and humans love. But clearly, obsessively checking mail is also a complete productivity killer. Instead, set aside certain times of the day to check your email.
(Ask yourself how many truly important emails you receive a week, and how much time it takes to deal with just those emails. Any time spent beyond that is well and truly wasted).
7. Break it down
Do you ever feel so overwhelmed by a task that you can’t even get started? This happens to me quite often, and every time it happens I have to remind myself to “break it down”.
If you’re overwhelmed by a task, that should be a signal to you that you haven’t broken down the task into small enough parts.
In these situations, your aim should be to break the task down to something so small it’s ridiculous. Take the pressure off.
For example, if you just can’t get started writing a report, then just aim to do 20 words. 20 words! Anyone can do that. If that seems too much, make it 10 words.
Make it so un-intimidating that you can’t help but get started. Once you’ve started writing, 10 words turns into 20 words and soon you’ve got momentum on your side, and next thing you know you’ve written 85 words. Oooh, look at you, big man on campus!
8. Three things
Do you often finish the workday bemoaning your lack of progress? Does this happen every single day, regardless of whether you spent the day looking up celebrity heights on Google or worked solidly for 10 hours? If so, you’re probably focusing on how much work you still need to do rather than how much you actually did.
Instead, at the end of each workday, write down 3 things you achieved today. This will shift your focus on to work accomplished and make you feel much happier about the progress you’re making.
9. Find the fear
You know those tasks that keep getting shuffled across your to-do list for days or weeks (before sometimes even vanishing altogether for a few months)?
Why do they never get done? Because there is something about the task that you fear doing. And the thing about those feared tasks is that there is probably a massive payoff associated with actually completing them.
So look at your to-do list and notice any tasks that seem to be eternally on your list, then grit your teeth and just do one of the tasks, without hesitating or second-guessing.
Each day, look for one of these tasks and just do them. This isn’t easy but there’s a big payoff for the effort expended.
10. Heathrow airport is not a role model
We live in an over-optimized society. Heathrow airport runs at 99% capacity and it’s a disaster. Because even one delayed plane can screw up the entire day of flights.
Why not build some slack into your systems so that if and when something bad happens, you can absorb the shock? For example, when you are planning something, incorporate a bit of extra time for the deadline just in case things go wrong.
11. Bury the app
My day-to-day work is focused on thinking about triggers and behavior and this tip still astonishes me in its simplicity.
Maybe you have an app on your phone that you use all the time and is really bad for your productivity.
A ridiculously easy way to reduce your use of a particular app is to move it away from the home screen on your phone; bury it in a folder somewhere far away from your home screen (next to iBooks and Compass) and resolve to only use it by finding it in the folder.
12. Someone else can do this
Regularly review your daily tasks and see if there is anything that can be easily delegated.
Thanks to the gig economy, this is becoming easier and easier to do. For example if you need to update the mobile version of your website, there’s someone in the Philippines who is better looking than you and can do a better job than you in a fraction of the time. Your time should be used for things that only you can do.
13. Chunk it
I am always surprised by how many people I meet who spread out similar tasks over an entire week and then complain that they don’t have enough time to get all their work done.
When you group together similar tasks, you get them done more efficiently. For example, if you have two meetings in the same part of town you should schedule them one after another, not three days apart. This might seem obvious but it’s a common mistake.
14. Pull the trigger
Your environment is one of the most powerful triggers for getting into a certain frame of mind (think of your frame of mind and behavior at a nightclub vs. your great-aunt’s funeral).
You can use this to your advantage by having different environments for different work activities.
Make a list of work activities you perform regularly like writing, doing spreadsheets, gentle sobbing or making phone calls and if you can, have a different place for each. That way, going to that environment instantly puts you in the right frame of mind for that task.
15. The perfect break
Although “We used to walk through the snow backwards to get to school”-type-people think that taking breaks is for wusses, most people will find diminishing returns in their effectiveness even after a couple of hours.
Rather than soldiering on, why not take a break? Strategic use of breaks can make your work time much more productive.
Use the break to go for a walk, meditate, climb a tree, lie in the park, have a nap or take a bite out of a big hunk of cheese, like it’s an apple. By the way, checking email is not a break.
16. No more spontaneity
Being spontaneous is good for when you’re on a second date (the first date should always be planned), but not good for a workday.
You’ll get more done if you plan your day. The day before (or in the morning), write down what you want to do and when you’ll do it.
17. We’ve never met
Large meetings are often a complete waste of time. Not because meetings are bad per se, but because most meetings with more than three people are badly run, ass-covering exercises often hijacked by people who feel an ego boost by talking too much. Try and avoid meetings as much as you can (mentioning that you have an airborne parasitic illness can help with this), and if you can’t avoid them have clear agendas and set timings that you stick to. If that doesn’t work, find a game that you can play very surreptitiously on your phone.
18. Do not disturb
If you needed to concentrate on something, would you be better to have 10 lots of 1 minute, or 1 lot of 10 minutes? Clearly a stretch of 10 minutes is better.
Meaningless tasks like checking email or talking to your spouse can happen in short bursts whenever you have time. But for true creative productivity, you need to schedule in long un-interrupted periods of time. At least 2-3 hours (including short breaks where you don’t switch to another task). This is when you can develop momentum on a task.
19. A place for everything
Do you spend a non-trivial portion of your day looking for things that you have misplaced? 3 hours spent looking for your car keys is clearly not being productive.
Instead, determine a specific place for everything and then follow your mother’s advice and put things back where you got them. This will cut down time spent tidying up and you’ll always be able to find what you need.
20. All’s well that ends well
To make sure that you draw the line between work and home life (especially if you work at home), have a specific routine when you finish work. It could be turning off your computer, taking a deep breath, playing a particular song or reenacting your favorite scene from Seinfeld (“Jerk store’s the line!”).
So how many of these habits do you have? Not necessarily all of them will be relevant for you. But if you’re not as productive as you want to be, maybe you’re missing one or more of these habits.
Your aim now isn’t to suddenly develop all of the habits at the same time. Instead, look at the ones you don’t have and figure out which particular one will deliver the most impact to your life. Focus on that one. Remember, even one new habit might deliver that burst of productivity that allows you to get much more done in a day.
But don’t stop there. Once you’ve created a new habit, look at the next habit you don’t have, and work on that one. Slowly, surely, you’ll be getting more and more productive.
The Wellness Wheel covers 6 areas of life. Productivity is part of the “Occupational” area. To get notified when the habits checklist for other areas are published, sign up for my email list:
The Wellness Wheel
Get notified when the next article in the habits checklist series is available.