Most of us get productivity all wrong.
We needlessly complicate things by turning productivity into a circus act of tricks, routines, and “hacks.”
Apps, routines, and hacks certainly have their place. But true human productivity, and we can substitute the term efficiency, is rooted in science — behavioral psychology.
In this article, you’ll learn twenty science-backed techniques for how to be more productive.
They’re simple. They’re straightforward. And most importantly, these tips on how to be productive just damn work.
How to Be More Productive #1: Intentionally structure your workday.
The most effective way to be more productive is through the act of structuring your workday.
The concept is known as calendaring or time blocking and it’s so simple that it might bypass your awareness.
All you do is schedule your day with blocks of time to accomplish your tasks. Here’s an example of my weekly planning view in KosmoTime.
Most of my day is covered in blocks of time. Each block of time has a specific task attached to it. I took those specific tasks from my weekly to do list that I created the Friday before the new week.
When you intentionally block each hour of your day with a specific task, you automatically know what you’re supposed to do next and you have the motivation and energy to do so.
KosmoTime is customized for easy drag-and-drop calendaring, so make sure you’re using the app to schedule your week.
How to Be More Productive #2: Time yourself for each task.
A while back, I heard about a gimmicky little tip for becoming more productive.
“Set your kitchen timer for ten minutes. Clean up as much as you can within ten minutes.”
I thought, “Hm. Cute. Might work for some people. Ha.”
Then I looked at my crusty stovetop and full sink and thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll try it.”
I set my phone timer for 10 minutes and started in on my not exactly clean kitchen.
Ten minutes later, when my phone chimed, I was surrounded by a very tidy kitchen indeed.
(This is not my actual kitchen.)
There is something inherently motivational about timing your tasks. Plus, when you time yourself, you can gain crucial insight into your task performance, improvement, and historical metrics.
The benefits are multifold: motivation, inspiration, deadlines, intensity, and self-competitiveness.
When you start each task, start a timer and see how long it takes you to accomplish your task.
This feature is built into KosmoTime. By clicking “start” on your next task, the timer automatically starts ticking.
Immediately, it’s off to the races. Your tasks will fly by like crazy.
How to Be More Productive #3: Meditate for three minutes before you begin work.
Don’t worry. This article isn’t about aligning your chakras and doing breath work all day. (Though I’m all for it!)
Meditation is a mental workout regimen, and a highly effective one at that. According to peer-reviewed research from the medical journal Neuroreport (2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893-1897) meditation trains the brain to better
- Exercise self-discipline
- Fight distractions
- Align productive behavior
- Make decisions
- Engage in judgment calls
- Focus on what matters
- Plan for the short- and long-term
Meditation consisting of only three minutes is enough of a workout to accrue these benefits before you dive into your workday.
You don’t need to do the whole sit-on-a-cushion-make-a-circle-with-your-fingers-and-hum thing. Even though that’s an excellent meditation posture.
All you need to do is sit in your chair and focus on your breath for three minutes.
How to Be More Productive #4: Take 60 seconds to visualize a productive day.
Visualization, another science-backed mental workout, can help to align your day in the way that you intend instead of turning your day into a melee of reactions and consequences.
Visualization is similar to planning. Planning helps to structure your day from an external perspective — ordering your calendar and setting your agenda.
Visualization, however, internalizes the reality of the day by configuring your mental state to experience and conduct that plan.
How to Be More Productive #5: Place one priority on your to do list.
Priority, by definition, is singular. It’s one thing.
When creating your todo list each day, place one thing as your priority.
This task is your day’s singular focus. You must achieve this.
In my KosmoTime, I’ve created custom tags, one of which is “Priority 1.” This is the one task that I must do each day.
Sure, you can have other items on your to do list, but you give specific mental emphasis to a singular priority.
By achieving this one task, you will activate your internal motivation system, catalyze your productivity, and feel better at the end of the day.
How to Be More Productive #6: Work in 90-minute cycles.
The science is clear. The body’s “basic rest-activity cycle,” founded on diurnal ultradian rhythms is clocked at roughly 90-minutes.
Science states these facts:
- Stop working sooner than 90 minutes in a cycle, and you’re squandering away essential energy.
- Work more than than 90 minutes, and you waste your energy in unproductive and risk producing sloppy work.
What do you do after 90 minutes of high-performance? Take a break for 20 minutes. Watch YouTube. Pet your dog. Water your plants. Take a walk.
Most people can perform at least two high-intensity 90-minute sessions in a day.
How to Be More Productive #7: Eliminate non-essential decision-making from your day.
Your brain is the single most important productivity muscle. Decisions take a ton of energy from the brain.
Example: Deciding where to eat, when to eat, what to eat, and with whom to eat makes your brain tired. The energy you poured into deciding to eat Thai with Kelly at 1:30 is energy you can’t give to your number one priority.
Therefore, you should reduce the number of decisions you have to make each day. Steve Jobs’s jeans and turtlenecks anyone?
Here are some practical tips:
- Food: Have someone order your food for you or eat the same thing everyday, at the same time and place.
- Commute: Schedule an Uber daily or use public transportation. Many knowledge workers are working from home each day. For that reason, it is smart to create a specific routine for starting your workday.
- Attire: Wear the same outfit every day. Buy multiples.
- Workday routine: Write it down and follow it precisely. You’ll develop muscle memory.
How to Be More Productive #8: Isolate email to scheduled times.
Let’s face it. Email can steal a lot of our workday. And it doesn’t need to.
I’m not naive. I know that email is something that you have to work on. You can’t just ignore it.
But you can work on email more effectively. How?
By batching your email, you can spend less time on it and slay more of it.
KosmoTime makes this process simple. You can close down extraneous tabs, isolate yourself in do-not-disturb mode, and make true progress.
- Set one hour to work on email each day.
- Do not check email outside of this time.
How to Be More Productive #9: Say “no” to at least one thing every day.
Your power to say no is one of your most formidable productivity superpowers. Build up this superpower by committing to a single no each day.
- Say no to a meeting
- Say no to a task
- Say no to a new project
- Say no to a conversation
- Say no to meal invite
- Say no to anything.
The power in saying no is that it builds your no muscle — a powerful force when establishing greater productivity.
According to Psychology Today, “wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.”
Rather than taking your energy, saying no actually gives you energy of a different kind of energy and freedom.
How to Be More Productive #10: Organize everything (and I mean everything) and keep it organized.
Looking for stuff is a shocking waste of time.
According to one survey, “the average American spends 2.5 days each year looking for lost items, collectively costing U.S. households $2.7 billion annually in replacement costs.”
Other estimates place the daily time waste at 15 minutes.
When it happens at work, the consequences are more pronounced. And it’s not just physical items like keys and remotes that we lose. It’s documents, Slack threads, emails, and data.
The solution isn’t easy, but it is essential — organization.
Organization is a productivity superhighway. Getting and staying organized also tricks your brain into thinking more efficiently and with far fewer distractions.
How to Be More Productive #11: Take the time necessary to create shortcuts.
There are myriad technical shortcuts that you can take to automate tasks, eliminate tasks, or streamline your daily tasks.
For example, let’s say that you manually open up Chrome or Slack every time you boot up your computer.
With a few keystrokes, you can automate this entire process and never have to click the Chrome icon again.
This is an example in miniature, but there are massive implications for your daily workflow. From automating reports to creating Zapier integrations, you can save hours of manual work and enormous cognitive expenditure with technical shortcuts.
How to Be More Productive #12: Schedule at least one hour of deep work every day.
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” according to Cal Newport, author of the book Deep Work.
While Newport refers to deep work as a “skill,” and it is, it’s also something that you can and should place into your calendar each day.
Deep work is about focus. And focus breeds success.
How to Be More Productive #13: Tell people what you need and how you work.
How about this for a science-backed productivity tip: tell others how they can help to enhance your productivity.
This isn’t some megalomaniacal power play. It’s about being a team player, signaling your desire for support from colleagues, and eliciting higher levels of team efficiency.
KosmoTime’s co-founder and CEO recently made this remark in a company-wide meeting. “We’re not a family. We’re a high-functioning performance team.”
Familial warm-and-fuzzies are great. But in all honesty, the family analogy breaks down pretty quickly when a for-profit company attempts to achieve goals and accomplish tasks.
In the interest of business-focused productivity, anything that you can do to help others foster your efficiency and productivity should be welcome.
Personally, I’ve requested that my colleagues do their best not to schedule important meetings with me after 4pm.
My rationale? My ultradian rhythms are such that from 4-8pm I’m in a cognitive lull. I don’t want to conduct essential business when my brain is foggy.
It’s for their benefit, my benefit, and the benefit of the business as a whole.
Let your colleagues know what, how, and when they can help service your maximum productivity. Chances are, they’ll be thrilled to help out and will reciprocate with their own requests to achieve maximum productivity.
You’ll effectively raise the productivity of the entire team by making your needs known.
How to Be More Productive #14: Know your ultradian rhythms.
This isn’t sorcery. Everyone of us has certain energetic rhythms throughout our day.
Above, I referenced the rhythm of my day — that 4pm to 8pm are not peak hours.
By uncovering your best time of day to work, you can unlock the portal to massive sprints for extreme productivity.
How to Be More Productive #15: Take a 15-minute walk during the middle of your workday.
According to research, taking a walk improves creativity and physical health.
Cognitive and behavioral researchers identified a 60% improvement of creative output after an average 15-minute walk.
The research abstract, published by Stanford scientists in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition concluded:
Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.
Whether wheelchair bound, walking indoors, or even plugging away on a treadmill, you can boost your productivity by getting some physical activity. The outdoor walking group, by the way, experienced the greatest boost in creative and convergent thinking.
How to Be More Productive #16: Take a 15-minute nap after two 90-minute cycles (optional).
Napping is one of the secret powers of some of the world’s most successful (or notorious) figures:
- Albert Einstein
- Leondardo da Vinci
- Bill Clinton
- Margaret Thatcher
- John F Kennedy
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Napolean Bonaparte
- Franz Kafka
- Lyndon B Johnson
- Winston Churchill
- Salvador Dali
- Helps you catch up on sleep. Let’s be honest. Are you getting enough sleep each night?
- Helps you earn more money. Research from the American Time Use survey demonstrates a correlative increase between higher wages and more sleep.
- Helps you sharpen your creativity
- Helps to restore focus
- Helps to improve memory
Your workplace might not have these cool sleep pods, but since you’re probably working from home, hit the couch or even your bed!
Go ahead, take a nap.
(Please don’t attempt to replicate Napoleon’s behavior, unless it’s by taking a nap.)
How to Be More Productive #17: Do not attempt to work during low-energy cycles.
Your body sucks at lying.
Your mind? Don’t trust it.
But your body? If it’s tired, it’s tired. If you can’t focus, you can’t focus. If you can’t write that darn article, then you can’t right that darn article.
Don’t fight it. Do something different.
Instead of working against science — the natural rhythms of your body — work with your ebbing and flowing energy and stop and start your demanding tasks accordingly.
How to Be More Productive #18: Do not hold demanding meetings prior to accomplishing your most important task of the day.
Often, meetings make a huge demand on your cognitive energy.
If you deplete this energy store before you try to accomplish a major task, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
This axiom is particularly true for those who identify as introverts. Introverts, by definition, derive energy from solace and expend energy in social settings. If an introvert uses up this energy in a meeting, they have little left over for their subsequent task.
Attempting to conduct a crucial meeting prior to executing on an important task can plunge the knowledge worker into a vicious cycle like the one below:
Use whatever scheduling autonomy you have to schedule any important meetings with the following parameters:
- Do not schedule important meetings before important tasks.
- If possible, schedule your important or demanding meetings during an energetic cycle after your important tasks.
- If you must schedule an important meeting before an important task, give yourself a time buffer to take a nap, a walk, a snack or something else that will help restore your energy.
How to Be More Productive #19: Become Attuned to Your Emotions Surrounding Your Tasks
Feeling productive and being productive are inextricably linked.
The feeling of productivity is an emotional response to environmental issues. And each one of us experiences emotions throughout the day. These emotions are connected to our tasks.
Atlassian (think Jira) teamed up with researchers to analyze projects, performance sentiment, and productivity analysis.
They then mapped the emotional response of research subjects’ emotional response to tasks.
These emotions were then placed task completion quadrants to determine their impact upon productivity.
Positive emotions were positively correlated with higher productivity.
Being aware of these emotions while engaged at work is a simply way to become more productive.
You don’t need to hype yourself into giddy hysteria about every work task. But you should be able to regulate your emotional ebb and flow with the tasks that you have set before you.
How to Be More Productive #20: Connect a Feeling of Accomplishment to Your Productivity
Productivity is not just about what you accomplish. It’s about how you feel about what you accomplish.
“I feel productive today!”
“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot today!”
Stated another way, productivity is more often a feeling than a measurable quantity of tasks achieved.
It’s important that you cultivate feelings of accomplishment and productivity. Those feelings will, in turn, fuel even more productivity.
Don’t underestimate the place and value of feeling productive in the scientific pursuit of being more productive. They are pretty much the same thing.
Throw away the pop psychology hot new gimmicky tactics for becoming superhuman.
Replace these hacks with science-backed productivity tips.
The best way to structure and align your workday for maximum productivity is by using the science-backed productivity task list, KosmoTime.
It’s free. And it’s packed with high-octane tools that will boost your productivity to new levels.