Take back your day with these 5 productivity tips

Have you ever had a coworker email you and then a few moments later send you an instant message in Slack or whatever chat tool you use? It happens. And more often than you think. Research from Gloria Mark from the University of California Irvine, who has studied multitasking, interruptions and workplace habits for the last decade, has shown that your productivity and stress levels can have adverse effects on your work/home life balance.

That same research shows that an employee gets interrupted every 3 minutes and 25 seconds. And each interruption, each phone call, each email, each chat, each drive-by (those working in a cube farm understand this term), all can take upwards of 25 minutes to get back to the task they were working on.

A lot of time is spent on getting back in the zone of doing productive work. What if I told you there was a way to could take back control of your day? Would you want to know some ways to make your day more productive?

Here’s how I structure my day so that I can do my best work and stay productive.

1. Day Before

This may sound simple, but it’s often a lot harder to do than I make it seem. When I end my work day, I spend 15 minutes jotting down the top 3 things I need to get done the following day. If it’s a Friday, then I do it for Monday. Why do I do this?

Well if you spend just 15 minutes thinking about the next day, when you go to sleep that night, your brain (yes your brain) will start thinking about that list, unconsciously of course, and you’ll wake up ready to tackle it.

The list is ordered with the most important task first. The rest of the list is also ordered by priority. Why only 3 items? Well I’m sure you like are like this to, but I like to have my days feel accomplished. I like to feel like I’ve completed my day. So I only make a list of 3 items.

It’s important to me to make sure that I finish all of these. I don’t end my day until these 3 tasks are done. Is that crazy? No. Remember. I want to feel like I accomplished something each day. No matter how long it takes me, I never stop work until I’ve done my list for the day.

2. Morning

When I first get to my desk (I’m a remote worker these days), I do the first thing on my list. I don’t check email, I don’t check Slack, I don’t do social media. I do the first thing on my list and I won’t do anything else until that first task is taken care of.

Because I want to feel accomplished throughout the day, I want to make sure that I do my first task, my most important task at the beginning of the morning. Having my list already be 1/3rd of the way complete, motivates me through the rest of the day. It’s like starting out the day with your best step forward.

Once my first task is complete, I immediate go through my inbox and Slack to see what needs attention.

Email

I tend to tackle my email like I tackle my snail mail. I first take a look at all of the email that’s new from the night before. I scan my inbox and group my email into 3 categories.

  1. Important emails needing attention. These could be from coworkers, bosses, friends, family, etc. Whomever it’s from, I make sure to work on answering these first. An important thing to note here is that this group is typically just directed to me.
  2. Distros. These are messages are likely ones that one or more persons on the list can likely answer. They are important, but they can wait a little before I respond. Or they might have already had a response from someone else on the list.
  3. Informational emails. This group is where I put everything else. Most of these are newsletters or content emails I’ve signed up to receive and I want to read. If the content isn’t interesting to me, than I delete it.

Slack

Once I’m through my email (which takes roughly a half-hour in the morning), I then go through my Slack messages. This includes private messages and a few channels I’m in. This gives me an idea, a pulse of what my teams are working on and if there’s anything I can either help out with or if there are tasks I need to add to my list.

Rest of the Morning

The rest of the morning is spent continuing to work on my task list or meetings. Some days I am able to get through 2/3rds of my task list before lunch. That’s a good day. But not all of my days are the same. Sometimes I have meetings that break up my day and I need to account for that.

By around noon, I’m ready for a break in whatever I am working on and I take lunch. I make it a point to step away from my desk. This gives me some time standing, so I’ll cook lunch, and usually go for a walk around the block or some sort of exercise type activity. If I’m lucky, with half of my work day done, I am more than half way through my task list.

3. Afternoon

The afternoons for me a bit different every day. So it depends on the day as to how I start my afternoon. Most days are like this. I immediately start my afternoon the way I started my morning, with my task list. Specifically, I start with the task I was working on before lunch.

I typically have to time box this until I have a meeting. This works for me as I typically have a meeting midway through my day.

After my meeting, I immediately check email and Slack, so that I’m caught back up on what’s going on before I spend the last part of my day back in the deep work that I’m doing to finish my tasks.

Depending on the task, I might finish with it before the end of my typical day (5PM EST). If that happens, I typically work on tackling other things that have come up and try to get them off my list. This actually happens quite a bit, so it makes for a less stressful afternoon.

Obviously, if I am not done with my task, than I keep working on it for the night.

4. Meetings

Now in any corporate setting, there’s no doubt you are going to have meetings. And most of the time that leads to interruptions of your day and thus causes issues with your productivity. Thankfully there’s a way to handle that. But it depends on the company you work at to allow it.

What I’ve done in the past to work around meetings is block out several two hour blocks of my day with “meetings.” They really aren’t meetings, but it allows your coworkers to know and understand that your calendar is busy during that time and you are able to have dedicated time to work on your tasks without being interrupted.

After all, if you plan accordingly you can get your work done and accomplished. It just takes proper planning and prep work.

5. Tools

Now getting into a productive vibe isn’t just setting up your day for success. It’s also the environment that you are in and the systems you put in place to make yourself be successful. Here’s some tools and things you can do to make your environment more conducive for your productivity. These might help you. They certainly help me be more productive during my work time.

Headphones

If you get distracted easily by noise, or you work in a cube farm and you get the occasional drive-by, consider investing in a good set of headphones. Having a good pair of headphones is going to help you really focus. You aren’t going to get distracted by a conversation that’s happening around you or even worse getting yourself sucked into that conversation. Someone walking by is less likely to interrupt you and ask you how your day is or how things are going. They allow you to forget your surroundings a bit and let you focus on the task at hand.

Different locations

If you are a remote worker, chances are you sit in a big house, in your office for 8+ hours a day. If you aren’t, then you likely work in an office setting, where you can fall into a time suck of conversations, that have almost nothing to do with the tasks you need to get done. Whatever your work situation is, I’m sure you can agree that changing a location, a coffee shop, small quiet office, is going to help you focus. People might not find you (you’re not at your desk) or you can get into a creative session that will allow you to focus on your tasks at hand.

I often do my best work in a coffee shop, with headphones on. There’s a great reason for it. See most of the people in the coffee shop likely aren’t in the same line of work that you’re in. So when you are doing something, especially writing, marketing, or selling to a different audience, you can bounce ideas off them. Some people, if you are friends with them, will offer advice and their feedback on something, to really help you capitalize on your idea.

Away Messages / Snooze notifications

If you have large screens and have a tendency to keep multiple apps open or even have multiple tabs in your browser open, you’re likely going to get notifications show up. Those notifications, no matter how small they are, are obtrusive and distract your from doing what you’re working on. Some applications do allow you to put up away messages or snooze notifications from that application.

Thankfully, if you are on a Mac, you can put do not disturb on. It’s a big help because it will turn off all notifications. You do want to be careful with it though. If you are a developer for example, you might have a code linter or analyzer running in the background and when you write code, you get notifications if you have issues or warnings with your code.

Most of us though, will appreciate fewer distraction, so some other ideas you can do here are close down apps that you aren’t using, use fewer monitors, have your application, whatever you are doing in fullscreen. That will help keep your focus on the screen and not elsewhere.

Pomodoro Method / Timer

Ok, this one is a bit out there. I’m not a big fan of the pomodoro method, but I’d encourage you to do your own research on it and decide for yourself. That said, the idea of setting a timer and working until it goes off, is going to help you keep you focused. You can work on what you need to get done and when the timer goes off, you stop. Get up. Stretch your legs. Go to the water cooler, or the fridge for us at home workers.

Setting a timer helps you ensure you don’t get so deep in your work that you forget about everything else, by the way, that has totally happened to me and it is the worse. Nothing like having your boss tell you that you missed a meeting 2 hours ago!

If you want to give this a try, you have options on your tools you can use. Personally, I use a timer tool called, Nag. Nag is pretty basic. It has a few buttons, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 2 minutes, etc. Set the timer up for the time you want and then get to work!

Bookmarking your place

When you stop whatever you are working on due to an interruption (doesn’t matter the interruption), I always find it helpful to make sure that you finish your thought or your ideas. Jot them down. Bookmark them so to speak. This is killer to making sure that when you come back to working on this task, you can get back into the task quickly and easily, allowing you to continue on with what you were doing.

I’ve found myself adding a few notes about where I was going with a though or an idea in my writing before coming back to it. Even when I was doing software development, I would write down the rest of the idea of what I was trying to get in my code, so that I could easily get back into it after a meeting or conversation that I needed to have.

What’s yours?

No matter where you work, doing productive work is something we all strive for. Using these tips can help make your time more productive and using these tools can help make it a more pleasant experience. What have you tried to do? Is there something that I missed that you’ve found helpful in your own effort to make your days more productive? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.

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