First, the bad news: There is no universal, foolproof way to ensure perfect productivity — no magical cure-all for distraction, procrastination or any one of the many other things that can interrupt an otherwise ideal work day. On to the good news: You aren’t alone. Everyone falls victim to these things, probably more often than you realize.
We have all felt we’re falling behind, bogged down in the minutiae of a to-do list that just keeps getting longer, our creativity and happiness stunted by the worry that we aren’t getting the right things done. It may seem like putting in more hours will solve this problem. After all, hours spent at my desk have to be more productive than hours spent away from it, right?
It turns out that’s not entirely true. Instead, studies have found it’s a matter of intentional, structured and focused work. Here are a few methods designed to help increase your productivity and give you more time to nurture other parts of your life, leaving you more space to breathe and balance.
When you have what feels like a hundred things to do and not enough time to do them, multitasking might seem like your best bet. However, studies from the American Psychological Association have given us all the perfect reason to take a step back from this exhausting strategy: Our brains are not cut out for it.
APA research has found that humans do not have the capacity to switch between multiple tasks without significant reduction in both productivity and accuracy because our brains have only a certain amount of capacity to focus. Even if we think we are multitasking effectively, the study found the time it takes for our brains to adjust to each new task — sometimes just a few tenths of a second — can add up to big losses in time, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the workday.
A Stanford study further concluded that attempting to perform multiple tasks at once, or switching quickly back and forth between two, often results in the individual being more easily distracted and more likely to make a mistake. Take the pressure off yourself and try to focus on one task at a time.
Even if you set a course for your day with the intention of avoiding the trap of multitasking, distractions can quickly divide your attention. While these are inevitable, there are a few ways you can be proactive in limiting them.
• Consider an app like StayFocusd or Freedom. Both give you the option to block the websites you may find yourself wasting a bit too much time on for an allotted amount of time.
• Turn off email and text alerts that can easily sidetrack you. When you plan out your day each morning, work in blocks of time specifically for checking your inbox, and stick to those whenever possible.
• Set boundaries with others. It can be tricky to block employees, coworkers or clients when you’re in the middle of a task. If closing the office door isn’t an option, try communicating to them that you will be unavailable for a set amount of time except for an urgent concern.
Holding yourself accountable means checking your progress each day, which often means a to-do list. Chances are you already have some version of this, but there are some small things to keep in mind that can make tackling it a bit easier.
• Focus on one day at a time. Creating a long list for the whole week can be overwhelming, so outline two or three of the biggest goals for your week, and then take the rest day by day.
• Break the big projects down into smaller, achievable tasks. Having a vague statement like “finish presentation” on your to do list is a hard thing to tackle, but if you outline what steps you need to take, it becomes doable.
• Try crossing off the biggest, or most intimidating, task on your list first. Doing this first thing means you will have the energy to tackle it, less time to put it off, and the other tasks on your list will feel easier as you go about the rest of your day.
Take a Break
Like the myth of longer work weeks, the concept of skipping breaks leading to more productivity has been disproven in study after study. Working straight through a workday can lead to mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating and, ultimately, burnout.
When structuring your day, map out your breaks, using whichever structure works best for you. This may be the popular Pomodoro Technique, in which 25-minute stretches of work are broken up by shorter breaks, or the newer 52/17 method, in which every 52 minutes focused on a task is rewarded with a 17-minute break.
No matter the length, be sure to use your break as a chance to refresh your mind — whether that means taking a quick walk, catching up with team members or friends, or going for a coffee — so you come back to your task recharged.