Productivity can seem like a never-ending race towards something that’s always just out of reach. Or, you feel productive on days when you’re supposed to have set aside for laziness, or you can only be productive in ways not related to what you’re actually stressed about (y’know the idea: “productive procrastination”). While, like a lot of things (everything), there’s no cure-all fix, there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success and to maximize your knowledge on how to be productive in a given situation.
Think: When do you get the most work done?
Most of us have heard of (or prescribed to) the idea of the “early bird” or “night owl.” In that same vein, most of us have key productive hours where things seem to just flow and work comes easier. For me (I’m a night owl) it seems like it’s any time after midnight. I love the moments of stillness that come when the rest of the world is asleep. I can get everything from grocery shopping to email answering to writing done faster, since there’s hardly anyone else up to distract and slow me down.
However, this obviously isn’t convenient to a life that revolves around a job, school, and social schedule that all follows the normal hours of the world. In this case, when I’m not on vacation, and actually taking care of myself by not ruining my sleep schedule, I have to divert to other higher-than-average productivity times. For me, these “other hours” are similarly later in the day. Late afternoon and evening is good for me, because it’s usually the only time I have to focus on things that don’t require me to be in person at a scheduled location. This may be the case for some of us, where you have to divert to secondary peak hours, that’s still okay.
Finding your peak productivity hours could be easy and obvious (you already know you’re an early bird, or the only free hours you have are after everything else), it could also be harder than that. Try to think of the last time it really felt like you got work done—be it at your job or for school or anything else—and try and pinpoint what time of day it was. Just get a general sense, and lean heavier on the below tips.
Think: Where do you do your best work?
It’s become almost a common lexicon, that you should have a dedicated workspace. Most of these suggestions come as a way to better your sleep—as in, don’t do work in a place for rest, because you’ll pollute the calming energy of that space and get into a habit of doing work there instead of sleep. In that same vein, it’s good to know where you do your best work, so you can “train” yourself into doing work whenever you go to that spot (though I’m not disqualifying your bed as one of these places). This is a sort-of Pavlov’s dog technique: if you do work in your bed (or at a coffee shop, or at your desk) you’ll be taught that that’s where you do work, and thus, going to that spot will “flick the switch” and set you into a productive mood.
Depending on how spread out your life is, you could have a couple places that you know you do good work in. For me, it’s at the Wing, at my school library, or coffee shops in general (though even then I have my favorites).
Knowing where you’re able to do work can be a helpful tool to kickstart your productivity. So too, knowing where you just don’t get any work done, can be a tool of self-forgiveness and patience, and a way to avoid frustration with yourself. If you’ve recognized the fact that you can’t focus when you’re at home (or in the library or wherever), you’ll be honest with yourself when you need to get work done and you won’t set yourself up for failure by trying. Rather than sitting in bed and getting discouraged by how little you’re getting done, you’ll be able to remove yourself from that negative situation and move to a spot where you can succeed.
It can also be helpful to know where your friends or co-workers (or co-founders) are and aren’t productive, so you can figure out what works best for you both when you’re trying to work together. Basically the only spot where Molly and I overlap in productivity (unless it’s intense deadlines and there’s no other option) is at the Wing, which is why we decided to get our membership. We’re no longer frustrated at each other for not being able to do work in the others productivity spot that just doesn’t work for us.
Like I said, Pavlov yourself
If you’re constantly setting yourself up to do work at the times and places you’ve found that work for you, you’ll be able to just go to those places, or sit down at those times with the expectation to work, and you will succeed. Our bodies and minds love consistency and habit, and by leaning into those, we can set ourselves up for peak productivity even when you feel like you’d rather do literally anything else.
Beyond this overarching step, however, there are a few tips we have to get through some specific situations that could be preventing you from being productivity.
These could be some of the hardest challenges to overcome when you’re trying to be productive. Knowing you need to get things done, but feeling guilty about turning away from personal distractions (or feeling unable to overcome them) can leave you feeling frustrated with yourself, and the personal relationships in question can be harmed.
If it’s not possible to physically remove yourself from the distraction and use your productive time/place to get things done, the best option is to kindly and empathetically communicate your need to be removed from the situation.
If your productivity is being inhibited by something like a family member’s visit to town, calmly and kindly tell them, “I’m excited that you’re here and I want to spend time together, but I need X amount of time alone to get this done, so I can more fully enjoy our time together.”
If it’s something more self-contained, like your own emotions or mental health, the conversation may need to be with yourself. Rather than expecting that you can just plow through any turmoil or mental illness, you can try to show yourself empathy and re-evaluate your expectations. Lowering your expectations to a realistic place doesn’t mean you’ve failed, nor does needing to take time where you’re just not expecting yourself to be productive.
Now, before I get started here, I have a disclaimer: executive dysfunction is a set of real medical symptoms, showing up as being unable to keep the long-term in mind, an inability to plan or hold details in your memory, having a hard time with self-starting and problem solving. It’s commonly associated with ADD or ADHD, however it’s not exclusive to those diagnoses, nor is it something that you should ignore or only get advice about from online websites.
Despite this big disclaimer, it is something that people often feel very frustrated with when dealing with productivity and I’ve had some experience with it in low-points of depression, so we still wanted to address it. We didn’t want to ignore it and exclude people from this discussion, but did want to make it clear that we should not be your end-all. There are countless of other ways to make this symptom better, and others who are much more educated on the topic.
All this to say: the simplest way I’ve found to manage this, of which I was recommended by an old online friend with ADHD, is to speak, out loud, the things you’re supposed to be accomplishing. Do this with the smallest of steps. For me when I was using it (and I still do sometimes), it could have been anything from, “I’m getting out of bed” all the way to “I’m driving to work.” It’s thought that this works because it tricks your brain into thinking you’ve already started the task, which can often be the hardest part for people with executive dysfunction.
This can be one way to manage the symptom, for more information on this problem, check out this article, and talk to your parent, doctor, or therapist for more information.
The “Mountain” of Tasks
Another common place in which we feel trapped by a lack of productivity is when we just have too many tasks to accomplish, or a seemingly giant task. Either way, they feel like mountains that we can’t even begin to tackle—they’re just too big.
There are articles on articles on articles (mountains of them) that will tell you to break the tasks down into smaller pieces, and just start to get your momentum going. I’m going to tell you the same thing. As annoying that advice can seem, or as scary as the big final task may be, just starting is the best way to make that mountain smaller and more manageable. Like I said with the executive dysfunction section, something that can help is speaking your tasks out loud, or writing them down even if you’re going to check them off immediately. Anything that tricks your brain into thinking you’ve already started will make it easier to “continue.”
Perhaps the most feel-good way to avoid things you have to do, productive procrastination makes it so we can claim we’re not procrastinating or not wasting time because there are other important things you’re doing (they’re just slightly less important than the task you are, in fact, procrastinating). The issue of this is it can be really hard to make yourself stop doing it.
For me, this productive procrastination usually happens at home. In that case, and since I know that I do my best work out of the house, I just try to remove myself from the distractions. However, sometimes it shows up in the form of doing other easier homework, or writing other easier articles, and that’s more difficult to escape from.
If you can’t physically escape from the productive procrastination, you should do your best to hide the other ways you’re distracting yourself. Exit out of all the tabs that remind you of other things you could be doing, put away all the other papers, just leave yourself with what you have to do at that moment.
It can also really help to plan ahead for when you do the given task. If you see in your calendar that you’re supposed to be working on your resume or applying to jobs at 1pm on Wednesday, it’ll be harder to even let yourself do things other than that.
And, worse comes to worse, let yourself engage in the productive procrastination until the panic about your real assignment comes to the forefront, and you’ll automatically disengage from the procrastination. This is how most procrastination works, and it’s not super healthy, but sometimes it’s all that works, and at least in this case you’re being somewhat productive.
Finally, be realistic
There’s currently a culture that dictates we have to be constantly working, constantly productive, constantly on the grind—and we end up over-committing ourselves. This, one, isn’t healthy, and two, isn’t possible to maintain. The most important part of How to Be Productive is knowing how to say “No” and asking for help if you need it. Even the so-called flowstate can’t save everything if you’ve over-committed or even just ran out of time. Remember that, when dealing with deadlines others (bosses, teachers, etc) have created for you, they’d usually rather hear from you ahead of time, asking for an extension, than get subpar work. Don’t be afraid of having that conversation about extending your deadline, and don’t feel required to be busy 24/7. Learning how to be productive, and harnessing its power to the greatest extent, is a helpful skill to have, but don’t let the pressure to hustle ruin your life.