Ever feel like you’re not making the most of your days?

If it’s any comfort to you, you’re not alone. Studies show that a whopping 70% of American workers don’t feel engaged at work. And part of that is simply being human — it’s the nature of the game. We can’t be “on” all the time, and we can’t be Gary V-hustling 18 hours every day. Because even those that claim to be working 12 hours per day most likely don’t .

In fact, over an eight-hour workday, most people are estimated to work efficiently around three of those eight hours. But that doesn’t actually mean that your capacity is maxed out. Could you realistically pull eight hours of efficient work every day? Nope. But you could probably stretch it to a solid four or five hours if needed. And doing that consistently means you’d increase your output by around 60% — which isn’t half-bad.

Before we get started — it’s a long post, so you can skip directly to any section here:

So first, what are some traits of those who actually manage to be super-productive? Well, for one — they don’t necessarily work more hours. In fact, some research suggests that they simply take more breaks.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review identified seven traits of super-productive people. These are:

  1. They set stretch goals. By aiming high, you force yourself to eliminate distraction.
  2. They’re consistent. Show up and do the work in a steady rhythm. Every day.
  3. They’re knowledgeable. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it will be hard to be productive. But if you’re an expert in something, naturally it will be easier to do well.
  4. They drive for results. Highly productive people enjoy ticking stuff off their checklist. In that, there’s an element of competitiveness — not only with others, but themselves too.
  5. They’re problem-solvers. Most productive people are strong problem-solves, and also good at anticipating and avoiding problems before they arise.
  6. They’re proactive. If you want to be proactive, don’t procrastinate — get to it. The top producers work along the lines of asking for forgiveness, not permission.
  7. They’re collaborative. No man is an island, and that’s also true in the workplace. Most elements are highly interconnected, which requires strong collaboration for productivity.

So that’s all fine and dandy. But so what, you say? Maybe you’re still having trouble being consistent or proactive. And knowing that others are more productive doesn’t necessarily help you that much.

Not to worry. In this guide we’ll show you techniques you can use to maximize your output in a way that works well for you.

Sound good?

Great. Let’s start with the science behind productivity.

1. The science behind productivity

Why do you procrastinate? 

You’ve been meaning to start that blog post for the past 23 minutes but for some reason you’re still looking at that Facebook newsfeed. Why is that?

Well, part of it is simply because you’re a human being. A ton of people have the same struggle every day. So cut yourself some slack. It all starts in the old portion of the brain: the limbic system.

That’s the part that tells you to pull your hand away from the hotplate — so it’s quite primitive. In essence, it has many functions — but one is helping you escape unpleasantness. And that includes certain tasks too.

The prefrontal cortex, however, is a newer addition to the brain. Additionally, it has less say in what you do or don’t do. And for modern productivity — that’s not great. In short, the prefrontal cortex allows you to process information and make decisions.

Unlike the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex must be consciously engaged. If we’re not consciously engaged, the limbic system jumps in and takes over — thus we procrastinate an unpleasant task.

Adding to this, we have to battle something called the “urgency effect.” It simply means that our brains are quite myopic — they prefer immediate satisfaction over long-term rewards. Diet is an excellent example of this.

Starving, have you ever opted for McDonald’s as opposed to a more nutritiously balanced meal? If you’re truthful, the answer is probably yes. Even though you likely knew that chowing down a Big Mac might not be the wisest decision — especially if you’re in the process of losing weight. There’s the urgency effect in play. Instead of feeling good and healthy a few months from now, your brain much prefers to feel full and satisfied in the next seven minutes or so.

There’s an interesting way this comes effect in productivity. Research has shown that people are more likely to perform small-but-urgent tasks with a deadline than bigger, more important tasks, without a deadline. In essence, your brain prefers to tinker with the layout of a new business logo as opposed to writing a compelling business plan. If there’s an urgent task with a short completion window, it’s more likely to get done than a larger task where the reward is further down the line.

Your brain isn’t always working in your favor. The goal, of course, is to conquer your own brain if you will.   

The basics of conquering procrastination

  1. Get started

The biggest barrier to productivity is actually getting started. Before you embark on a task, your brain will start visualizing the difficult parts that lie ahead.

The brain visualizes the hardest part to come, and then tries to simulate real work by focusing on mindless tasks — like browsing Facebook or Instagram. But if you simply get over the initial threshold and get started, it’s half the battle. This can be attributed to something called the Zeigarnik Effect.

The Zeigarnik Effect was discovered by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. She noticed how people were far more likely to remember tasks that were interrupted as opposed to tasks that were completed. This hints to the fact that interrupted tasks create mental tension. This tension brings them to the forefront of our memory.

And how does one relieve this tension? By completing the task. Because of this phenomena, we are more likely to complete a task once it’s actually started.

  1. Give yourself a deadline

Struggling to get started? If you want to get over that initial hurdle, set a deadline for starting — and don’t expect too much. Maybe it’s simply opening a Google Document and writing the first sentence. That qualifies as starting.

Research shows that we are more likely to do tasks that have a deadline. So set a deadline for all your tasks to help you get over the initial obstacle of actually getting started.

  1. Don’t multitask

The final basic tip is to not multitask. The science is pretty clear on this: it doesn’t work. Dividing your attention to multiple tasks instead of just one can hamper our ability to perform the most menial of tasks. This, for example, is why it’s so dangerous to text and drive.

Instead, what we do is task-switching. Since our brain cannot focus on more than one task at a time, what we do is simply switch back and forth between tasks. Adding to that, there’s a “switching cost.” This switching cost is the price you pay for switching between tasks. It takes a minute or two for your brain to get into the flow of doing a certain task, and by constantly breaking this flow, it hampers your flow — dramatically.

Again we’re dealing with the prefrontal cortex. When conducting one task only, the left and right side of the prefrontal cortex work together. When we’re multitasking however, the two sides split up trying to do simultaneous tasks.

So the key here is focus. The second key to productivity is actually consistency. Which brings us to habits.

2. How to form productive habits

Having a productive day is good. Having two is great. Having 365 is amazing. When it comes to creating a consistent impact, consistency is key. Going to the gym once every quarter over a year won’t do much. However, if you go three times per week over a year, you’ll be sure to notice results.

The bottom line? Habits have effects. But creating habits isn’t easy. Especially when it comes to creating good habits. Maybe you’ve excelled in creating a smoking habit. But what about when it comes to building an exercise routine? Or even breaking the smoking habit?

Not so easy, right?

Thankfully, there’s a method to creating habits — good habits. Change is incremental. Getting 1% better every day, is far better than aiming for 100% success overnight. Since the latter is very unlikely — not to say impossible.

James Clear is one of the gurus of creating habits. He’s developed the “3 R’s of Habit Change.” These are:

    • Reminder (the trigger that initiates the habit)
    • Routine (the actual habit)
    • Reward (the benefit from the habit)

These three R’s appear in a cycle. Let’s illustrate this with an example — smoking:

    • You’re having your morning coffee (reminder)
    • You light a cigarette along with it (routine)
    • You feel the effects of the nicotine (reward)

So this is what you might call a bad habit. But you can also engineer healthy habits in the same way. Let’s take an exercise routine:

    • You wake up to see your gym clothes that you put out the night before (reminder)
    • You put them on and go to the gym (routine)
    • You feel good from the benefits of the exercise (reward)

Got it?

Good. So clearly, you see that these habits can be created. James clear recommends the following process for establishing new habits:

Use a current habit as a reminder

You can’t rely on motivation. Because frankly, a lot of the time you’re going to feel like not doing your new habit. So the first step is to tie it into an existing habit. For example:

  • Having your morning coffee
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Sitting down for dinner

And so on. You get the picture. The second step is to map out things that happen every day:

  • Getting an email
  • Seeing an ad
  • Getting a text

With all these things mapped out, you’ll have plenty of triggers to choose from. For example, “every time I get an email, I’ll think of one thing I’m grateful for.” Or “every time after my morning coffee, I’ll do 50 crunches.”

Make your habits easy to start

The second thing James Clear recommends is to make your habits easy to start. Again, remember how starting something helps you finish it? Same thing here.

Choose something that is extremely easy to start. Don’t feel like going to the gym? Then just commit to going there and doing one exercise. That’s it. Chances are, you’ll actually end up doing more — but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. You can build up your performance as your habit becomes stronger. For now, simply showing up to the gym for ten minutes is enough.

Make sure to reward yourself

If you’ve successfully completed a behavior — even if it’s a minor version of the habit, such as only going to the gym for ten minutes. By rewarding yourself you’ll help creating a habit that sticks. That could be getting a piece of chocolate after the gym (even if it’s not ideal) or simply giving yourself some positive self-talk.

So how does this apply to productivity?

By having your habits down, you create consistency. This can mean getting to work at 8 am and starting your work at 8.30, and doing work-intervals until lunch. Consistent work-habits mean productivity.

Okay, so we’ve got the habit-forming down. But how should you actually work in order to be the most productive?

3. The process: How to structure your work

There are several methods for how to structure your work. And ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all, and you’ll have to find something that works for you. But here, we’ll go through some of the most common ways to structure your work for optimal productivity.

Let’s start with the basics.

Set goals

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. So the first thing you need to do is to set goals. You’ve probably heard about SMART goals before, and they’re a good place to start.

SMART is an acronym that stands for:

So what’s an example of a SMART goal?

“I want to grow my business” isn’t one of them. A better one would be:

  • Specific: I want to get three new clients this quarter.
  • Measurable: I will contact at least 30 new leads per week.
  • Assignable: I will do the outreach and my partner will identify the leads.
  • Realistic: By contacting 390 leads, I’ll have a 0.7% conversion rate.
  • Time-related: I will finish this by the end of the first quarter.

As you might recall from the introduction, productive people have stretch goals. So set ambitious goals, but also remember the “R” in “SMART” — keep it realistic. If you keep setting unattainable goals, you can be sure to see your motivation dissipate along with your productivity.

Break projects into smaller tasks

The second important thing you need to do is to break projects into smaller tasks. Let’s say you need to write a report — break it down into sections. Start with the outline, intro, body, and conclusion — don’t make the report-writing one single task. This is a key element that you need to master. By breaking your projects down into manageable chunks, you can easily monitor your progress. And almost most important of all: You get the dopamine hit of completing tasks. Working on and making progress on something meaningful is indeed one of the most valuable things you can do as a human being.  

How to prioritize

Once you know what you want to do, you need to prioritize your tasks. A good way to do this, is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.

The matrix works by helping you decide what tasks you should do today.

  • Do-quadrant: The tasks that need to be done today or tomorrow.
  • Decide-quadrant: These are important but less urgent tasks that you need to schedule.
  • Delegate-quadrant: These are less important but still somewhat urgent tasks that you can delegate.
  • Delete-quadrant: This is exactly what it sounds like — the tasks you should not be doing at all. This includes things such as browsing social media, watching TV, and so on.

Try to limit yourself to no more than eight tasks per quadrant. Your tasks should be manageable, and actually possible to complete. Remember the R!

Batching

Next, you should look into batching your work in an efficient manner. This means doing related tasks in one go. By grouping regular tasks into concentrated sessions, you can transform multiple tasks into one task. In that way, you can create longer uninterrupted time-blocks for completing more time-demanding tasks.

This can mean replying to emails only in the morning, or filing expense-reports in one session.   

Ultradian rhythms

Your body operates in something called “ultradian rhythms.” This is a 90 to 120-minute cycle where you’ll be at your peak productivity. Following this peak, you’ll then be at a lull for around 20 minutes. That means you can schedule your most demanding work during your peak-period, followed by a 20 minute rest. By understanding your body’s own rhythm, you can schedule your work for optimal productivity.

How to find your ultradian rhythm

Everyone’s different, but the ultradian rhythms seem to be active in most people in some shape or form. The best way to map your own peak-productivity, is by creating a log of your own energy-levels and motivation during a two-week period.

Note what times of the day you’re feeling energized and when you’re not. Hopefully you’ll start noticing a pattern. For example, maybe you’re close-to-useless before 9am, but between 10am and 11.30am you usually feel fine. Good — then start your ultradian cycle there.

In the end, you can use this to map our your own productivity schedule. Maybe you’ll find that you’re an early bird or that you’re a true night-owl. If you have a flexible workplace or have your own business, this can be tremendously useful in optimizing your productivity.

Now you’re armed with enough knowledge on how to properly plan your work. Next up, we’ll give you some more techniques on how to conduct your work for optimal productivity.

4. The techniques: How to tackle your work

Now it’s time to get down to business. Once you have your work structured, it’s a matter of how you actually tackle it. This can be done in several ways, but here we’ll outline a few of the most popular ways to do it.

First, make sure you have:

  • A decent grasp of your most productive hours
  • Your to-do-list
  • Realistic deadlines
  • Established priorities
  • Outsourced the right tasks

All good?

Perfect. Now let’s start with your mental state. Before you get going, try to…

Silence your inner perfectionist

Perfectionism can — to a certain degree — be good. But too much of it can be paralyzing. Either it makes you go back and edit drafts ad infinitum and endlessly check for errors, or it just prevents you from starting in the first place. If the task itself — achieving perfection — seems so daunting, it can be difficult to start.

Furthermore, if the work isn’t flawless it might be considered a failure. Even if it’s very good. All in all, perfectionism is the enemy of productivity. Accept the fact that you will never be able to produce something 100% perfect. Instead, aim to meet deadlines and produce good work.

With that covered, let’s get to the environment.

Get your space in order

Are you one of these people who struggle to focus in an office? You’re not alone. A lot of people who struggle with open-office plans claim that they are bothered by noise. But research suggests that it’s not only about the noise itself — it’s about who’s making the noise.

In fact, most of us don’t prefer dead silence when it comes to work. We actually want some background noise; it seems to boost our productivity. In one study, researchers found that people exposed to 70 decibel of background noise when completing a certain task, significantly outperformed control-groups exposed to between 50-85 decibel. And 70 decibel is approximately the noise-level you can expect in a mellow coffee shop.

If you need further motivation to get out of the office, a study from Stanford showed that working from home actually increased productivity — they produced a whopping 13% higher output. Furthermore, it also increased employee retention.

But everyone’s different. What works for you, might not work for others. If your work allows it, maybe you’re the kind of person who’d like to work from home or a coffee shop a few days per week. Or maybe you’re the kind of person that needs an office. So find what your ideal work environment is, and post up there.

Create your ideal playlist

Get your ideal tunes to boost your productivity. There’s something called the “Mozart Effect” that says that by listening to Mozart on a daily basis, you can boost your “abstract reasoning ability.” This, however, is quite controversial and shouldn’t be accepted as truth. With that said, there are a few things you can tune into in order to increase your productivity — according to science.

In general, you should avoid:  

  • Music with (too much) lyrics, as it can be distracting.
  • Music with a complex musical structure.
  • Music you’re very unfamiliar with.

Aside from that, HubSpot has put together a solid list of music that can increase your output that includes:

  • Classical music
  • Video game soundtracks
  • Nature sounds
  • Pump-up songs (think “We will rock you” by Queen)
  • Instrumental songs
  • Feel good songs
  • White noise (refer back to the “coffee shop”-effect of 70 decibel above)

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to you. If you feel classical music to be absolutely dreary, and maybe you’re better off listening to Metallica — go for it. There are no set rules here, but the above can be seen as guidelines. Try it out and see what best works for you.

The Pomodoro Technique

Now we get into the actual work. There are many versions of this, but the Pomodoro Technique is a way of working that batches up your productive time in 25-minute intervals. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late ’80s, the Pomodoro Technique breaks work into intervals separated by short breaks. Each work-interval is called a “pomodoro.”

You can find an online timer here.

The basics of the Pomodoro Technique are the following:

If you prefer working in 60-minute intervals with 30 minute breaks too, that works. The idea is simply to divide your work into intervals to maintain your focus. If you try to go for too long at a time — or try to focus on an unspecified task — chances are your productivity will suffer soon.

The basic message of the Pomodoro Technique: Schedule your productive time, and be sure to take breaks in between.

Get accountability partners

The final thing you should set up is an accountability partner. One of the best ways to keep yourself accountable for your work — especially if you’re working from home and/or as a freelancer — is to have an accountability partner.

Let’s say you’re in the process of forming a gym routine. You’ve had a rough day at work and stressed yourself out over meeting a deadline. You come home, cook dinner, and collapse on the couch. And now it’s time to go to the gym.

Don’t think so, huh?

If it’s only up to you, you might just stay on the couch. But if you have your friend waiting for you, reminding you that that six-pack isn’t going to appear all by itself, you might just get off your caboose. Going at something alone without any external accountability can make it too easy to slack off sometimes.

Therefore, try to get a friend or a colleague to keep you accountable for the work you’ve set out to do. Show them your schedule and say “this is what I’ll accomplish today.” By simply doing that, you’re more likely to get it done. You’ll know what they expect from you, and if that’s not delivered, you’ll have to explain why.

There you have it — those are the basics of productivity. But as we all know, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. So let’s address what to do when things don’t exactly go as planned.

5. How to redeem an unproductive day

We all have unproductive days. It happens. But just because you’ve had an unproductive day or two doesn’t make it the end of the world. You can definitely turn it around with a few simple techniques. The first thing you should do is to not be so hard on yourself.

Forgive yourself

Maybe you had a fight with your partner in the morning and your whole day has been feeling off. Or you didn’t sleep well and got off to a bad start. Either way, forgive yourself for having an unproductive day: it happens to the best of us.

Don’t beat yourself up over it, since it won’t make things better. Instead, accept that you’ve just had an unproductive day. Next up, you can plan how to recover from it.

Get back to the drawing-board

What to-dos need to get done? Check your to-do-list or your Eisenhower Matrix. Is there anything that doesn’t have to get done this week? If so, push it to next week and focus on the truly crucial tasks. Re-prioritize and get a new to-do-list in order. Maybe you didn’t get jack done today. But that doesn’t mean tomorrow must be the same.

As mentioned in the introduction, the most productive people actually set stretch goals. So make your goals for tomorrow ambitious, but realistic. That should help you stay focused.

Start early 

As you get up in the morning, get your mindset straight. There’s no need to dive head-first into work first-thing, though. Take your time to do something you enjoy in the morning and take your time to fully wake up. By rushing things in the morning you’re unlikely to be better off than yesterday.

Then focus on getting your priorities straight for the day. What do you need to accomplish? How will you do it? And by what time?

So where do you start? There’s something to be said about polishing off your most challenging task first thing in the morning. If that aligns well with your energy levels — start there.

Get your Pomodoro on, and ensure you get off to a good run before lunch. As you might recall, simply getting started is half the battle.

Limit distractions

Maybe you’re already good at limiting distractions. But when it comes to making up for lost time, limiting distractions is even more important. Keep your tabs to a minimum, turn off your phone, and for the love of whoever-you-please, don’t check Facebook. Just don’t.

Once your pomodoro stops, you can immerse yourself completely in social media — but no more than five minutes. Structure your breaks and honor them too. That means no work during breaks. Instead, just unplug for a few minutes so that you’re ready to get on the next work-interval.

6. Productivity hacks

You’ve probably seen them before — the productivity hacks. Or you’ve googled that very term and ended up here. While there’s something to productivity “hacks” in general, the real key to productivity is planning and consistency. In whichever way works best for you.

However, if you’re looking for some interesting techniques to try to boost your productivity, here are a few to try out.

Turn off phone notifications. Obvious and effective. Turn your phone notifications off and commit to checking it no more than once per hour. If you also have realistic stretch goals, you’re more likely to actually buckle down and do the work.

Take cold showers. Here we’re getting into the more controversial and less scientific realm. But some people swear by it. Cold showers have been shown to have certain health benefits:

    • It improves your circulation;
    • It improves your skin;
    • It could possibly increase your testosterone; and
    • It could boost your energy.

But cold showers take some getting used to. Give it a two-week run and see if you can deal with it. If so, evaluate the benefits. Perhaps you’ll find you’re an avid cold-shower-fan.

Schedule no-screen time. If you’re reading this guide, chances are you’re spending a lot of time facing a screen. By taking scheduled screen-breaks, you can give your mind some well needed rest. You know how people tend to get their brightest ideas in the shower? When the mind unplugs, you allow creativity to flow. By having regular moments of no-screen time, be it reading, going for a walk or simply meditating, you’ll increase your chances of actually stumbling upon some interesting ideas.

Only check email at specific times. This actually aligns with the phone-point, but we’ve made it a separate point since it’s important. Batch your email-checking into certain points during the day, for example in the morning. When it comes to other types of communication, such as Slack, you can simply turn off notifications for certain set amounts of time.

Apply the two-minute rule. If a task can be done in two minutes, do it. This is another idea from James Clear, stating that you should scale down any habit into a 2-minute portion that can easily be started. For example:

  • You want to meditate each morning: Meditate for one minute.
  • Read before bed: Read one page.
  • Go to the gym: Put on your gym-shorts.

And so on. Essentially, you’re tricking your mind into starting a certain habit. And because of the Zeigarnik Effect mentioned above, you’re more likely to complete it.

Use site-blockers. Again, somewhat self-explanatory. Install site-blockers to help you avoid social media sites or news-sites, or whatever your poison is. By actually preventing yourself from visiting these sites, the allure of even trying will be gone.

Work near natural light. 40% of workplaces with good daylight had a 3-40% increase in productivity and sales. Overall, natural light can make you feel more alert and increase your general wellbeing. Especially if you live in northern regions, you should try to get as much daylight as you can, or invest in a daylight lamp.

7. Tools

Finally, let’s tackle some productivity tools that can help you get the work done. You might already be using some of these, and some might be new. Maybe you don’t need help with distraction, but you need help batching your time. Everyone’s different, so have a look at the list and see if something appeals to you.

Focus

OneTab

Are you a tab-abuser? Don’t sweat. OneTab is a Chrome extension that helps you convert all your tabs into a list. When you need to access them again, you can either restore them individually or all at once.

Flipd

Flipd is an app that nudges you to spend time off your phone. That way you can be more present and stay focused on what matters.

Time management

Pomodoro

The Pomodoro Technique explained above. Either as a desktop app or for Android or iOS.  

Toggl

Toggl is a time-tracking app software. It’s timer with a powerful timesheet calculator that helps you keep track of your time.

RescueTime

RescueTime runs securely in the background on your computer and mobile devices. Then it records the time spent on applications and websites, ultimately giving you a detailed report on your daily activity. Though there’s a certain risk you won’t like what you see…

Organization

Unroll.me

Cluttered inbox? Unroll.me cleans up your inbox. It shows you a list of all your subscription emails and allows you to easily unsubscribe from those you don’t want.

Evernote

Evernote keeps your notes organized. Your memos are synced so they’re accessible and searchable anywhere.

Task management

Trello

Trello is a mobile and desktop app for task management. It helps you keep track of things and create boards and lists to your liking.

Asana

Similar to Trello, Asana is a project management application. It helps teams manage and organize their work in terms of boards and lists.

Basecamp

Basecamp is a communication tool. It’s not like a traditional project management tool for long-term scheduling, but more so for to-do-lists, calendaring, and file-sharing.

Conclusion

Productivity isn’t rocket science. The fact is, you don’t need fancy tools or advanced methods to increase your productivity. It’s a matter of principles, first and foremost. And as Emerson said:

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Start with the basics of breaking down your tasks and tackling them in alloted intervals. Measure your results, and see if you’re actually improving your productivity. Since what doesn’t get measured can’t be improved. Gradually, you’ll find what works for you. And whatever your goals are, you can find the most efficient method based on the fundamental principles of productivity.

So no need to go crazy and download the latest productivity apps and jump head-first into freezing showers. Remember that consistency is key. Small incremental improvements over time are a thousand times more valuable, than a large spurt that simply ends up scaring you away from any productivity-venture.

Do that, and soon you might just find yourself among the super-productive people mentioned in the beginning of this piece.

And as a final, pensive word — here’s a post you can read if you feel yourself stressing out over productivity. From one of the founders of Basecamp, here’s a reminder to let yourself relax too.