Productivity. It’s basically a meme at this point. From a young age, our generation has been pushed so hard to accomplish as much as we possibly can with no end in sight. These pressures can lead to some great outcomes, but they can also be overwhelming. Whether it’s your own ambitions, financial necessity, or the will of others that is driving you to be reading this article right now, there never seems to be enough hours in the day.
Personally, my productivity is hindered on a variety of occasions: whenever I get consumed by the enormity of my to-do list, my day isn’t spaced out enough, I’m alone for long stretches of time (for me, that's about an hour), or I’m actively avoiding a daunting task.
Literally just now, I was about to delusionally allow myself 30-minute Netflix breaks for each 10 minutes of working on this article. When I think for a moment about all that I could have accomplished or all the me-time I could have set aside by conquering my procrastination and distraction, I cringe pretty hard.
Thankfully, there are lots of ways you can structure your lifestyle to maximize your productivity and reach your goals. Whenever I get frustrated with my workload, feel like I’m not making the best use of my time, or need to get a ton of stuff done quickly (because I’ve already spent hours putting things off), I turn to these tips to break free from the procrastination nation.
1) Set Clear, Defined Goals
Setting specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.) goals is really important so that you aren’t working your tail off with no finish line. Not that when one goal is reached, you can’t set another one, but being clear about the direction you’re heading in is important for focusing your energy on tasks that will help you get where you want to be. In this sense, knowing what you want to achieve will automatically make you more productive.
If you’re intimidated by long-term goals, try setting shorter-term ones and then using those to determine what the bigger picture is. If crafting is relaxing for you, you can also use a vision board to maximize your productivity in a creative way. If you prefer to be really organized, try a calendar where you can set your own deadlines for your goals.
2) Eat Well & Stay Hydrated
This is a lifestyle tip that everybody has heard a million times before. However, when trying to maximize productivity in particular, it’s important to know that certain foods can boost your brainpower. Sneak these into your diet throughout the day for sustained energy and focus.
Additionally, staying well hydrated has a ton of productivity benefits. According to researchers, dehydration has a negative impact on cognitive performance, so drink up! I definitely struggle to drink water on a regular basis, and I’m pretty sure I was slightly dehydrated for several years in elementary school, but there are lots of tips out there to help you stay on track of those 8 cups a day. My personal favorite tip is simply having your water bottle accessible and visible when you’re working.
The link between exercise and productivity is strong, and the benefits of having a regular workout routine has been affirmed by many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.
For me, I have always found this to be true. In high school, I competed as a gymnast for both my high school and club teams. I had never been busier, but my grades had also never been better.
The three biggest factors for why I believe in exercise as a productivity booster are the benefits of having a set schedule that includes a variety of activities, the ability to spend time without needing to think, and the fact that exercising regularly makes you feel good about your health, so that you don’t spend any part of your day worrying about what you should be doing in the gym while, in reality, you should be working on something else.
And remember! Exercise does not have to look the same in everybody’s routine. You couldn't pay me to go for daily runs, but you could definitely catch me doing bodyweight workouts with some friends in a park. Work out at your pace and doing activities you like!
4) Know What Environment You Need
I did a lot of research about whether it’s more productive to work in a neat environment or a messy one. For me, keeping a neat workspace leaves me with no cleaning tasks I can use to procrastinate. For people primarily doing creative work, on the other hand, studies have shown that a little bit of clutter can support the generation of ideas.
Many people need the distraction of background noise or clutter to keep the parts of their mind they aren’t using occupied, and ultimately avoid getting distracted. For others, that makes no sense at all and they’ll be better off in a neat, silent room to get their work done.
5) Work During Your Most Productive Hours
The challenge with the standard 9 to 5 workday is that we are all different, and we all are most productive at different times. My grind time is from 11 PM to 2 AM, which is when I often read, write, or organize plans. These are the tasks in my life that take the most brainpower, and I often leave them for this time of day. Knowing this in advance about myself will prevent me from sitting with my laptop from 2 PM-6 PM trying to get something important done that I don’t have the brainpower for.
Learn what times (it’s usually a 2-hour window) that fuel you the most, and then make sure you set aside those times, in an environment that works for you, to work uninterrupted on tasks that are the most important to reaching your goals.
6) Incorporate Breaks
As you already know, I’m a self bargainer: “Ok Steph, if you write your thesis statement, you can watch half an episode of Friends.” As disproportionate my breaks may be to a healthy ratio, there are tons of productivity benefits to incorporating regular breaks into your workday.
Make it part of your schedule to check your phone, use the restroom, and stretch or rest your legs, depending on what work you do. This way, you won’t have as big of an urge to slack off between breaks.
I had a coworker once who drank a ton of coffee. An added benefit for him was that it made him have to pee every hour, which created a built-in break for him. I recommend replacing that caffeine with water, but this is an important concept for maximizing productivity.
7) Stick to Your Schedule & Avoid Distractions
Once you’ve set your list of goals and written out a to-do list, prioritize which tasks need to get done first and allocate the amount of time needed to complete each one. Stick to that schedule by not letting yourself get distracted while you’re supposed to be working on specific tasks.
You can signal to coworkers or peers that you are unavailable by working somewhere separate, letting them know in advance, or wearing headphones (giving off antisocial vibes can be useful in so many scenarios). Don’t forget to put your phone on silent, and even turn off email notifications to make sure you stay on task.
Reaching your goals is much more attainable when there is a timeline in place. Make it realistic so you can stick to it, but tight enough that it pushes you to be more productive than you usually are.
8) Utilize Downtime
Fun fact: free time can be productive. Remember that productivity doesn’t have to mean being the employee of the month at the office. It can mean fitting in your work, social, and self-care responsibilities while also progressing towards reaching your goals.
The most productive use of my free time is reading. It’s so easy to get lost in the black hole of Youtube or Netflix when you have an hour to yourself, but for me, the deeper I get into the internet, the worse I feel. The complete opposite is true for reading. Not only do I gain valuable knowledge and practice as an English major, but I feel better about myself because I know I have taken that time and invested it in my brainpower.
Lots of other people swear by listening to audiobooks or podcasts on their commutes or learning skills in their free time that could advance their careers. I'm also a big proponent of short naps, especially instead of endlessly scrolling through Instagram's Explore.
9) Monitor Your Productivity
After implementing any of these tips, make sure you are keeping tabs on your productivity in relation to your goals. Has it improved? Measure it in different ways. Keep trying out new techniques until you are happy with your pace of work.
This can be a way to keep yourself up to speed, but it can also remind you of how well you are doing!
10) Positive Self-Talk
Flashback to any paper I’ve ever written. Right as I first sit down to put together an outline, disaster strikes. I end up laying on my bedroom floor, questioning my mental capacity and wasting an absurd amount of time before getting over myself, sitting down to write, and getting something on the page.
Being internally constructive is an extremely important part of creativity. You can bypass my absurd creative process and get right to the good stuff if you simply tell yourself that you are capable, talented, and prepared for the tasks in front of you. As parents say to their kids, whatever you tell yourself about what you can or can’t do, you’ll be right.
The ambiguous “productivity” we are all striving towards can seem daunting, but simply adjusting your lifestyle to be conscious of the work you want to do can make all the difference. First, know yourself: your goals, your preferences, your weaknesses. From there, you will be able to channel your energy towards the work that you will look back on and be proud of. Make sure you define productivity as holistically as you can to ensure you aren’t discounting important acts of self-growth.
Finally, if you know there are certain behaviors or people that drain your ability to be productive, try your best to cut them out. Chances are, they aren’t making you happier or healthier.