Productivity tips always make for a popular topic for an article, as everyone is looking for the silver bullet, that one weird trick that turns you into a productivity machine. However, the tips that work well for one person may not work so well for another.
We asked the community on Twitter and Facebook to share their best productivity tips, and in this article I’m going to round these up alongside some things I’ve learned that work well for me. Let us know your own advice in the comments, or tell us the popular tip that would never work for you!
I am a big fan of the to-do list. I live by the lists I have created in OmniFocus, and follow the Getting Things Done methodology. My day begins with my to-do list — adding things to it and deciding what I’m going to do today.
Many people recommend not looking at email first thing; however, that is always my first task. I try to hit inbox zero once per day, in the morning. I grab a coffee and reply to everything that is urgent or can be dealt with in less than two minutes. I then create a to-do in OmniFocus for anything that needs doing before it can be replied to, and file the emails. By that point, I know that I can close my mail client — no one waiting for an urgent response, and anything that needs attending to is now on my list.
I then do something of a brain dump of anything else that I know needs to be done today, and I check that things in other inboxes — Slack, Twitter, Trello card notifications and so on — are logged. I don’t differentiate between home and work, or between learning and the different projects I am working on. Everything becomes a to-do item.
Once I know what needs doing, I pick out my top three tasks for the day. These are the most important things that I need to get done. There are often many other things that need to be done, but I can go back and flag those later once I have done the top three.
This is all short-term planning; it deals with what I am going to do today. It’s also important to plan longer term. My to-do list also contains my longer-term goals, and I link those to the projects I’m working on. When I have more time to think about these goals, I make sure that I am doing things that move me towards them. Your day to day can too easily become an endless churn of tasks that don’t move you forward to achieving the things you want to achieve.
Something to try: Doing email first thing goes against what many productivity gurus would say you should do. It works really well for me, though. Don’t be afraid to test out something for a week or so and see how well it works for you.
|“So simple, so effective: Make lists. Also: Find patterns in your work.”||Felix Klippe|
|“Make your deadline tight.“||Martina Flor|
|“Daily to-do lists. Small things, big things, prioritize them, view often.”||Harrison Tonne|
|“Easy and faster tasks first.”||Pablo Zarate|
|“Writing short, realistic, and with at least one fun thing, to-do list before sleep, for the next day. And getting up early, too.”||Momcilo Popov|
|“Using the priority matrix (aka the Eisenhower Box) for tasks.”||Dino Quarin|
|“First two hours of the day work on to-dos — no email or socials till 12. Only have two tabs open in browser. Time box tasks. Listen to your own advice.”||Alex des Forges|
|“Log/write/note everything. Don’t trust your brain to remember stuff.”||Amit Das|
|“Tracking time with @toggl gives insight into how much time I think I spend on a task vs how much time I really spend.”||Paula Vermeulen|
|“Bullet journal works!“||Thei Nava|
|“Time management. Work harder at beginning of week or sprint. Easier to manage changes or defects you know are coming.”||Phiber Optik|
|“Write down 3–4 critical tasks you want to achieve next day and keep it next to you when you wake up. Keeps you on track for a productive start of the day.”||Vitaly Friedman|
|“Split big tasks into small ones that you can finish quickly.”||Bruno Herrmann Leite|
|“List list list, organize organize organize.”||Zakia Vazquez|
|“Task list using calendar.”||Chris Evans|
|“Break down your tasks into very small steps to keep you going, even if you’re not productive at all.”||Augustina|
I have very little visual memory and, as such, am really bad at learning my way around a new UI. I do as much as possible in the command line, in order that I don’t waste time trying to remember what that button looked like!
Being someone who is bad at learning interfaces, I’ve found that reading a tutorial about just one feature at a time works quite well for me. Once I’ve found a good tutorial, I note it down so that I can refer to it later. And, as many people in our community have pointed out, another way to save a lot of time in applications is to learn the keyboard shortcuts.
I also document all of my processes constantly. In fact, many of the articles I write are purely the result of this documentation, tidied up in order to make sense to someone else. Documenting processes is incredibly useful. For me, writing things down is how I learn. It also makes it easier to outsource that part of your work to someone else, because you’ll have a guide. So, if you go back to do that task again in the future, you won’t have to remember what you did the first time.
Something to try: Make notes the next time you are learning a new tool or working out how to do a certain task. See if the act of making notes helps you to remember — or just enjoy the fact that you won’t have to figure it all out again next time.
|“Break down everything to the most basic steps, even mechanical actions.”||Андрей Пономарёв|
|“If something takes too long, learn how to do it faster for the next time.”||Scott Ledbetter|
|“Learn keyboard shortcuts instead of using a mouse. Muscle memory is faster and more reliable.”||Mariela|
|“Spend a day or two improving workflow (shortcuts, terminal, etc.). It really pays off. The less stress, the better.”||Shane Hudson|
|“Put the big pieces in first; fill in with the little stuff. Email is the bane of productive people (me, anyway!).”||Nanita|
Tools and Techniques
I am a huge fan of automating tasks and of finding tools that do useful things that would otherwise take a lot of manual work. One such tool for me is Pandoc. Pandoc is a command-line tool that converts one document format into another; so, it is very handy if, for example, you have a bunch of Markdown that needs to be HTML. I use it to turn HTML documents into EPUB files that I can open on my iPad. I turn all of my workshop notes into an EPUB file, then use it as a reference when I am presenting a workshop. I turn CSS specifications into an EPUB so that I can easily refer to them on a plane.
Something to try: Is there a task you do manually that could be automated? Any task for which you have to follow a few steps to achieve the result is a good thing to look at. Does a tool exist for what you want to do — for example, using Zapier to copy something from one service to another? Or could you record an action in software such as Photoshop or even write a little script to do this?
Which Tools And Techniques Does The Community Love?
We had a wide range of tips from our community. Several of them speak to the need to get away from problems, to take a break or go for a walk. Getting away from your desk is one of my top productivity tips. If I am struggling with anything, whether an article or a presentation that I don’t seem to be able to write, a code problem, or an interpersonal issue with someone I am working with, I go for a run. I have solved so many problems while running. I sometimes do need to stop to make a note on my phone or arrive back home and run straight to my desk to quickly type something down!
You can’t always run away from your desk, especially if you work for someone else in an office! If I’m under too many deadlines to get outside, I make use of the fact that I need to get many things done and switch tasks for a while. If an article is causing me to hit a wall, I’ll make that phone call I need to do today or tackle the CSS of a component in one of our projects. While constantly switching around can make you less productive, if you are just going to sit and stare at the screen, then it might be better to take your brain somewhere else for a while. Inspiration often strikes once you do that.
Something to try: Task switching works best if you have a list of tasks ready to go. Define some tasks in your task list, and when you find yourself struggling, try doing something entirely different as a positive action. Does it help?
The Comunity On Strategy
|“It’s better to push your product out to market today and be a little embarrassed than wait until it’s perfect.”||Joe Cianflone|
|“Not working is key to getting things done. By this, I mean breaks, like the #Pomodoro technique. These breaks give you another perspective!“||Daniel Pox|
|“When the current solution isn’t working, go for a walk. The solution will find you.”||Tim Scheman|
|“Don’t be stubborn.”||Ram Nimbalkar|
|“Avoid ad hoc meetings. Automate the boring stuff. Do not hesitate to purchase tools that make automation easier.”||Pankaj|
|“You achieve your goal by solving the problems that you are not qualified for.”||Hujjat Nazari|
|“Adventitious obliques. Mind maps. Make notes in the moment. Plus, a good supply of chocolate.”||Custranz|
|“Always ask your team to challenge your design decisions. If you don’t have the right argument, then you need to work more on the issue.”||Julien|
|“‘How can I get someone else to do this?’“||Inayaili de León|
|“Never try to do someone else’s job.”||Khaled Saad Farrag|
Several people in the replies reminded us of the importance of saying no to things. I find that having your longer-term goals in mind can really help when someone asks whether you can do something. Will saying yes help you towards one of those goals? Sometimes it is absolutely OK to say yes to things purely because you think it might be fun or you really want to help that person. However, to move forward with your own goals, you do sometimes need to say no.
Something to try: Say no quickly. We often procrastinate in saying no because we don’t want to upset the person asking. Practice being deliberate and quick when you know that this isn’t something you want to or are able to do.
Your Thoughts On The Subject Of Communication
|“Only check email twice a day, and turn off most notifications.”||Kimberly Skaggs|
|“Only thing I think works for all: Kill all communication. No Slack, email, phone or social media.”||Jonathan de Jong|
|“Don’t be afraid to follow up.”||Jonathan Rick|
|“Check your mail and phone only two times per day. Make breaks. Start with paper and pen. Collaborate.”||Benoît Henry|
|“Don’t say no — and have to defend it. Say, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ I’ve been regularly surprised.”||Cheryl Ayres|
|“Say no when you know no will bring yes.”||Swagato Bhatta|
Focus And Concentration
At the start of this article, I described the way I deal with email, and I’m not someone who tends to just browse social media. However these “social” tools are also used for work for many of us. So, we can’t always just close them for the day. You can, however, be ruthless with your notifications! The only Slack channels that send me a notification or show an unread messages badge in the dock are those that I use for work; the others I have to go to in order to see if there are new messages.
Another trick that can be useful is not to use your computer for these messaging tools; instead, put them on your phone or tablet. Having alerts or dock badges constantly telling you that there is something to look at when you are trying to write code or do other tasks that require attention will slow you down. Putting these on a different device means you can keep your computer all work, all of the time.
Another thing to try when social media is work as well as play is to give people a channel for urgent messages, where non-urgent notifications won’t be flagged. That might mean telling people to use Skype messaging for urgent things, rather than Slack, or sharing a mobile number so that someone can SMS. Take control of how and when you are notified; people will generally respect that once they realize you do respond quickly to truly urgent matters.
Something to try: Be mindful of the notifications that appear on your computer or phone. Can you make it so only truly important ones distract you?
|“If something requires deep focus, do not open email or chat windows, and limit human contact. Work from home or a cafe if possible.”||Erin Weigel|
|“Turning off my email/Slack notifications. And bullet journal.”||Tina Park|
|“Don’t get distracted by the Internet.”||Bhabesh Rai|
|“Cleaning my office prepares my brain for focusing. Oh, and music, up loud, after my staff goes home.”||Nanita|
|“Noisio – for better concentration, no music allowed! Fresh air and sunlight are really important! Skip the coffee – drink tea!”||Daniel Pox|
I am not the type to sit around waiting for motivation. My early training as a dancer taught me that if you want something, you work for it, even if it seems like the result is a very long way off. I do think that the muscle for getting things done can be developed with practice. Do the work. Accept that not everything in life is going to be intrinsically motivating. Keep those goals in mind.
I think that sometimes what people describe as a lack of motivation is linked to them feeling overwhelmed or feeling that no end is in sight. Breaking those big projects down into small chunks and single items on a to-do list can really help. If you do one of them, you will feel far more inspired to tackle the next. This can work for anything. To write a 2000-word article, create a to-do for each section in the outline. To sort out that terrible mess in the garage, find the distinct tasks — down to sorting out individual drawers — and make a to-do for each of them. That huge UI you have to develop, each component is a single item you can tick off.
Something to try: Find a task you have procrastinated over and break it down into the smallest possible chunks, then add just the first task to your to-do list and get it done. Does that help you feel more motivated to get through the rest?
How To Get And Stay Motivated: What Works For You?
|“A wise man told me not to wait until I felt like it. Just take step 1: ‘First the action, then the motivation.’“||Nanita|
|“Wake up every day.”||Daniel Simon|
Work, Life And Health
I work from home; I am half of a company that I run with my husband. I also have very nerdy hobbies. It is very difficult to separate my work from the rest of my life. Instead of trying to do so, I make sure that I am doing things that take me away from computers, get me outside and keep me fit. I’ve already mentioned that I’m a runner; I also swim and have recently started CrossFit. I’m working towards my private pilot’s license — there is no chance of thinking about CSS while attempting to land a single-engine, two-seater plane while being yelled at by my instructor!
It’s about balance. Most of us work at a computer, so it is probably a good plan to have some hobbies that don’t involve sitting down. If you are a professional athlete who does web development on the side, then you can probably afford to enjoy a hobby that involves sitting down! Do things that make you think differently, move differently, meet different people. You will find that your work benefits from the time away.
Something to try: Is there some activity you have always really wanted to do? What would be the first step to doing it? Do the first positive step towards that as a priority, and start to make it real for yourself.
Our Community Of Work, Life And Health
|“Don’t think that working more and more hours will always equal more and more useful output.”||Simon Minter|
|“Ignoring sleep and water is more catastrophic than ignoring the trends. Good self care leads to good productivity.”||Anirudh Shrinivas|
|“Take a break and enjoy life.”||NextDesign|
|“Take vacations often for sustainable productivity.”||Aditi Kulkarni|
|“Don’t work at night. Spend time with yourself.”||Adelina Croitoru|
|“Learn to say no.”||Cory Underwood|
|“Sometimes, regardless of the time crunch, take a walk, let your brain reset, and problems just seem to solve themselves afterwards.”||Santiago Javier Sosa|
|“Among things already said, use good-quality coffee. Your body will thank you!“||Rene Merino|
|“Sleep well, share what you learn.”||Alessandro Carrara|
Over To You
I hope that these collected thoughts give you something to think about as you plan your 2018. I would love to know if you have any tips to share. Have you a productivity method that seems to go against all of the mainstream advice but really works for you? Have you found tools, ways to automate things or shortcuts in applications that you think everyone should know about? Let us know in the comments and have an amazingly productive (and fun) 2018!