This post throws back a little to the more hardcore “how to build self-discipline” type of posts that I used to write often (I say that like this blog isn’t six months old.) If you’re looking for cutesy little tips like “Have your hubby clean the kitchen for you!” you’ve come to the wrong place. I’ve been described as “no-nonsense,” and that’s where this post is headed.
This is the post to read if you really want to get things done. These tips aren’t going to magically knock things off of your to do list; they’re going to show you how to use your time and energy efficiently so that you can fit more into your day and stay focused on the things that matter. If you want to see progress, this is the post for you, you soon-to-be productivity master.
Before we get into this, I want to remind you to set realistic expectations. Acknowledge that you are one human person, and you have limits. Yes, it is possible to go all out and push yourself to your limits for a bit, but that’s not sustainable long-term. We need balance, and ultimately, you’ll get more done at a slow but consistent pace than you will in a cycle of high productivity followed by burnout.
Just because you can push yourself to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week doesn’t mean that you should. I did that in college, and it’s exhausting. Be reasonable with your expectations and gentle with yourself if you don’t meet them. This article is one of the most interesting things that I’ve read lately in relation to productivity, and it’s helped me a lot in accepting my productivity limits.
I also want to emphasize that getting more done in a day means that you have to buckle down and do those things. It doesn’t matter how many fancy productivity tips you read if you don’t get off of the couch and implement them. There’s no magic button and no secret advice that makes it all happen.
I can give you some tips to be more efficient and see more progress, but nothing happens unless you make it happen. (Unless you ask someone else to do it for you, but, again, this isn’t that kind of article. This is about you.)
One last thing before we get into it—make sure you’re working toward the right things. Now, no one can tell you exactly what “the right things” are; we’re all just working off of our current best guesses. But I’m here to encourage productivity in a healthy way that brings you happiness. If you want to apply these tips to your work life, that’s cool, but when I say “be more productive,” I’m not talking about making more money for The Man. This is about you, your goals, and your success.
That said, I am all for ambition. If you’ve got dreams, I’m not going to tell you not to go after them. So now that we’ve handled the “don’t work yourself to death” disclaimer, here’s how to get more done in a day.
Get up early.
You know why I love waking up early? Because my day is half over before most people have even sat down at their desk in their open-plan workspace. Speaking of open layouts, they are terrible for productivity (Google “open plan office research” if you want to dig into it more). If you have any say over where you work, choose somewhere quiet and distractionless.
But I digress. Get up early.
By getting up early, you get a few hours of quiet you-time in the morning to focus on whatever it is that matters most to you before anyone else comes to bother you or take away your time. Time is your most precious resource. Protect it.
I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, and there’s a reason for that—it works. The few hours after we wake up are a great time to do work, and many of us are giving those hours away to someone else. You’re better at problem-solving, staying focused, and absorbing advice in the morning, so using those hours to work on things that matter can make you more efficient—though creative endeavors may be better left to the afternoon.
Your morning sets the tone for the day. If you have a focused and productive morning, you’re setting yourself up for a productive day. It’s hard to feel unmotivated and sluggish when you start your day with a glass of water and a run, but rolling out of bed five minutes before you have to leave and flying out the door wearing yesterday’s clothes and eating a donut is likely to leave you feeling frazzled and unfocused.
Create a morning routine. Figure out what your goals are when it comes to mornings. Do you want to spend your time working on personal projects? Getting your life organized? Working out? Your morning routine will look different depending on your goals, but knowing where to direct your morning focus makes it easy to kick off the day with a couple of hours of productivity.
If mornings aren’t currently your thing, I’ve written a whole post about how to become a morning person, written by an ex-night owl (me), so go check that out if you’re looking to make a change.
That said, if mornings really are not your thing and you’ve found that your most productive time is in the evenings or late at night, embrace that. You don’t have to be a morning person to be productive and successful. Self-discipline isn’t one-size-fits-all.
The thing to consider isn’t whether or not you like mornings, it’s whether or not you can be productive at night. If you’re too tired to do anything productive in the evenings, you might be a morning person.
If you’ve never tried embracing mornings, give them a chance. Many people—myself included—are surprised to find that they love waking up early once they’re used to it. Don’t write off waking up early just because you hate getting out of bed. Becoming a morning person isn’t about loving those first few minutes out of bed, it’s about powering through them and then using the hours that follow to their fullest so that you can make the most of your time and energy.
Whether you end up loving the morning-person lifestyle or sticking to your night-owl ways, getting more done in a day requires that you use those first hours of your day intentionally, be they at 5 a.m. or 12 p.m. Waking up at noon to go for a run and meditate is going to set you up for a better day than waking up at noon and scrolling on your phone in bed for an hour.
You get more work done if you:
A. Work for one hour, stopping halfway through for a ten minute break to go get a snack
B. Work for one hour without a break, but you pick up your phone every few minutes to check your notifications
The answer is A. B demonstrates a severe lack of focus, and lacking focus is one of the biggest productivity killers. This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone, but picking up your phone, aimlessly getting on Reddit, and staring off into space are usually huge time-wasters and prevent you from really committing to your work.
(I say “usually” because a bit of daydreaming, mind wandering, and procrastination can help you find inspiration, connect your thoughts, and prevent burnout, but that’s a post for another time.)
Put your phone on airplane mode. Put it in another room. Block YouTube. Block Reddit. Figure out your triggers. If you’ve got a distraction habit, that means that there’s something that triggers your mind to want to find distraction. What is it that happens right before you get distracted?
For many people, it’s boredom. For others, it’s running into a difficult situation. I know that when I can’t think of the word I want or don’t have any ideas for my next paragraph, I’m prone to getting distracted. And, of course, many people are triggered by notifications. That’s what they’re made to do, and that’s why you’re going to put your phone on airplane mode and put it in another room.
Figure out when you’re most likely to get distracted. The more you know about your habits, the easier it will be to modify them and work with them, instead of against them. If you often find yourself getting sucked into Reddit at 4 in the afternoon, you likely experience a 4 p.m. slump. Use that time to go do something else to give your mind a break, like going for a walk or reading a book.
Find your focus zone, both the physical location where you’re able to focus best, and how long you’re able to focus before needing a break. As I said a bit ago, open offices are pretty terrible when it comes to working productively. I also know that I work more efficiently when I’m sitting at a desk, rather than slumped on the couch. Find a location that promotes focus and productivity.
Most people can’t focus on mentally draining tasks for hours on end. Divide your more involved tasks into manageable chunks and separate them with easier tasks that allow you to give your brain a break. Personally, I find that the 25 minute chunks used in the Pomodoro method are good for me, but many people prefer to work for longer to attain more focus.
Take care of yourself.
When you aren’t feeling your best, you’re going to have lower energy, a shorter attention span, and be less on-the-ball than normal. Taking care of yourself is one of the best things that you can do to up your productivity.
Eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly may take time out of your day, but they give you energy and focus in return, and the tradeoff is worth it. They’ll help you produce better work because you aren’t battling headaches and brain fog, and yes, this post is about getting more done, but it doesn’t matter how much you do if it’s all crap. Quality over quantity.
Pretty much the best thing that you can do for yourself is get enough sleep. Seriously, if you haven’t been getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night, you don’t even know what you’re missing out on. When you’re well-rested, you’ll work faster and more efficiently than when you’re tired. Your work will be better, and it will be easier to create. When it comes to producing quality, valuable work, eight hours a day done on eight hours of sleep outweighs twelve hours a day done on four hours of sleep. Seriously, you need to get enough sleep.
By the way, hustle culture is canceled. Trying to work for sixteen hours a day isn’t going to create good work. It’s going to wear you down and cause irreparable damage to your body. Taking care of yourself is priority number one when you’re trying to be more productive or improve your life in any other way.
Plan out your day the night before.
This is another one of those things that you’ll see recommended on those lists of habits that successful people have, but that’s because it really works.
When you plan out your day the night before, you’ve got a game plan. You no longer wake up and waffle away half of your day before wondering what you should be working on. Instead, you know what’s up and can hit the ground running.
Planning out your day takes only five minutes each night, and you’ll save way more time than that the next day because your time is planned out. I personally swear by calendar blocking and have been doing it for years, but there’s more than one way to pet a cat. If you’ve got another method that you like, go for it.
In general, proper time management is one of the best things that you can do if you’re trying to get more done in a day, and planning out your days the night before is like Time Management 101.
The more often you plan your days ahead of time, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll get a feel for how much you can realistically fit in a day, how long the things that you do take to accomplish, how many breaks you need, etc. It’s also harder to sit around and watch YouTube when “Do the laundry” is staring at you from your calendar. (Pro tip: do the laundry while you watch YouTube.)
I love to make a to do list (mine lives on Habitica) but then put those things onto the calendar so I know when those things need to be done. The to do list helps me see what I need to do each day and is good for getting ideas out of my brain, but without a few minutes of planning, I end up trying to cram the entire to do list into the last two hours of the day, and that doesn’t work.
You’ve got more time than you think. Calendar blocking it out will show you visually just how much time you’re working with, and diving into time management helps you make sure that all of your time is used with intention.
I assume you’re reading this post because you want to accomplish things that matter. Knowing your priorities helps you spend your time on things that produce the results that you want to see.
When we say we want to “get more done in a day” what we’re really saying is that we want to do more of the things that matter to us. Because, technically, we all do something for 24 hours a day, even if that “something” is just lying in bed doing nothing. That still counts as “doing something.”
To get more done in a day, you’ve got to know which “somethings” matter to you and produce results so that you can focus your time and energy on them.
Make a list of all of your priorities right now. To start, write down anything that comes to mind. Then organize it from highest to lowest priority.
Now pick the top three to five, and focus solely on those until you’ve accomplished them. I don’t care if you want to do a dozen different things—focus on just a few. If you spend half an hour working on 32 different things all day, you’re not going to feel like you’ve done anything, and it’ll be discouraging.
On the other hand, if you pick just a few things to focus on, and spend an hour or two on them each day, your results are going to add up quickly. You’ll make progress, feel like you’re getting things done, and have an easier time continuing to be productive long-term.
While we’re on the topic of prioritization, say no to the things that don’t matter to you. In fact, say no to anything that isn’t in your top five. Even if something is a good idea and you want to do it, it may still be necessary to say no so that you can focus on your priorities and put in the effort to finish what you’ve started. And, by the way, “No.” is a complete sentence.
I’m going to end this post by reminding you that nothing is going to happen unless you go do it. It doesn’t matter how many “how to be productive” posts that you read, or how much you know about productivity if you never implement anything. If this is the fifth post you’ve read today about how to make a change in your life, but you haven’t implemented any of it yet, it’s time to go make that change.
Put your phone down, get up, and go do something. The most important step in getting more done in a day is doing.