I should have written this article a long time ago. But I’ll take heed to the advice, “The first best time to start was in the past. The next best time is now.”
I receive emails asking for tips and tricks behind my productivity. I have replied to many people with my ideas and also guided various people over consultations.
So, this post is to help others who have the same question. I’ll explain my productivity system and the ways I structure my day-to-day life to extract the maximum efficiency by balancing long-term goals and short-term necessities.
Before I begin, I’d like to mention I’m neither a Ph.D. nor a certified expert. Consider me no different than your next-door neighbor. The only difference is, I have spent the last 15 years experimenting with different tactics to increase my productivity. Many of those were tips I found in different books/articles, and some were my own inventions.
Over the years, I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t, what yields results and what’s just hollow shiny advice, what I can apply in my routine, and what isn’t for me.
As you read through the tips, please keep in mind that my productivity system is optimized for my circumstances and personality. So, some of these ideas will neither resonate with you nor suit your needs. Therefore, feel free to tweak them for your situation or drop them altogether. After all, the purpose of any productivity system is to help you become more productive, not operate as a fancy strategy that is cool to talk about but yields no results.
Another disclaimer before I begin: My techniques are simple. When I share them with others, people react by saying, “That’s all? I’m sure you have more to it.”
But the truth is that’s all there is. I strongly believe that the beauty of productivity lies in simplicity. The more sophisticated your system is, the more unlikely you’re to stick with it.
You already know all the necessary tips to become productive. All you need is a touch of discipline and a stroke of organization to combine the pieces and follow them consistently. As you read through the tips, you might think, “Meh, I know this already.” Before you shoot down the tip just because you know it, ask yourself, “Am I implementing it?” Knowledge without practice is no better than ignorance.
So, let’s dive into the system I’ve built for myself.
- 1. Most of my daily work time goes as per a routine
- 2. Planning my day for 10 min before starting
- 3. Start the day with a few tasks which help your long term goals
- 4. 1 hour of learning time
- 5. 15 min thinking
- 6. Set aside time for ad-hoc work
- 7. Use the Pomodoro Timer
- 8. Other helpful pointers
1. Most of my daily work time goes as per a routine
I have a predetermined routine for each day which covers 70-80% of my daily work time. Each day, I wake up and follow the same cycle.
Make no mistake, my work isn’t monotonous. I work on new ideas and topics under an organized structure.
For example, as per my current goals, from Monday to Friday I do the following:
- Write 1000 words(takes about 45 min – 1 hour)
- Spend 20 min thinking
- Spend 20 min drafting content
- Spend 2 hours on building In The Zone productivity app
- Edit my upcoming book for 30 min
- Spend 1-hour learning
I can sense a thought running through your head, “but my work is dynamic. I can’t set such a structure.” I agree you cannot organize your workday entirely, but you can add structure to your day if you’re keen to do so. But, that won’t happen on its own. You’ll have to say no to certain tasks, decline things that disrupt your schedule, and even pass on some good opportunities.
The reason why people fail to have an organized daily routine is either that they’re not mindful about how they spend time or because they want to grab every opportunity available.
But, no matter what your job is, you can build a daily routine around it if you choose to.
“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.”Jim Rohn
2. Planning my day for 10 min before starting
I start my day by checking some random statistics such as my blog viewers, In The Zone app usage, feedback received, and so on. Though these are not activities that need a daily peek, they set the tone for the day and help me get going. I don’t spend more than 10 min on such activities.
Once I am done, I spend 10 min planning my day. I note down the 3 top tasks to target for the day, along with another 3-5 minor tasks.
Once I do this, I have a clear direction of what I should spend my time on. No confusion. No scrambling. No looking left or right. Unless something critical comes up, any new tasks don’t get my attention for the day.
If you don’t spend time in the morning to decide on a mini-plan for the day yet, you should set aside at least 5 min. The time seems too short, but the difference it makes is paramount.
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.Benjamin Franklin
3. Start the day with a few tasks which help your long term goals
A few years ago, my first work activity for the day was to check my email. “Maybe something important has happened and the people who have contacted me need a response,” I thought.
But, over the years I have observed how email is one of the biggest productivity barriers after the phone. If you check your email first in the morning, you’ll find yourself pulled into a task someone else expects you to do.
Don’t let that happen. Take control of your time.
Spend the first 1 hour of your day to move one step closer towards your long-term goals no matter what they are. You can pick one of the approaches:
- The eat the frog method: Working on the most difficult task first
- The momentum method: Working on a few easy tasks to warm you up
The approach you choose hardly matters. What’s important is that the early hours of your day are spent on goals that you care about.
After I finish planning my day, I spend the first 20 min drafting content and another 20 min putting words on paper(or should I say hitting keys on my computer).
If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.Barack Obama
4. 1 hour of learning time
In the last few years, I ensure I make time for learning every day. What I learn varies based on the goal I’m after. Currently, I spend 1-hour learning writing, blogging, and behavioral science(each for 20 min), most of which comes from books.
Earlier, I have used online courses from Udemy and Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Podcasts, or other learning material available on different websites. Grab knowledge from wherever your source of info is.
When I bring up the topic of learning, the most common response I receive is, “I already learn a lot at work.” Aye, Captain. Nobody’s denying that. But, deliberate learning effort makes an exponential difference compared to the knowledge you gain from what a job teaches you.
The combination of deliberate learning and on-the-job experience puts your skills in the elite bracket.
Several successful people emphasize the importance of spending 1 hour a day or 5 hours a week on learning no matter how busy you are. If Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Barack Obama, Warren Buffet have managed to spare time, what’s your excuse? By the way, before you argue saying, “They have the privilege to spend that time, but I’m busy,” please note that they have followed the practice of learning every day for decades before they rose to the pinnacle of success.
If 1 hour is a disruption in your schedule, start with 15 minutes a day. The duration is a smaller aspect. What’s more important is that you consistently follow it every working day, not only on the days when you believe you have free time.
There are days where I have postponed tasks to make time for learning.
One hour per day of study in your chosen field is all it takes. One hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years. Within five years you’ll be a national authority. In seven years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.Earl Nightingale
Important pointer: Way too many people are stingy about spending money on learning. But, the same people splurge on a large pepperoni pizza, a pina colada, or a designer handbag. These materialistic things last temporarily, but knowledge lasts forever. Besides, what you spend on learning will return its value in money multiple folds over time.
Don’t be a miser. Spend and learn.
5. 15 min thinking
Back in the day, I was so caught up in doing that I barely paused to think. When I finished one task, I had another waiting for my attention. I gave no thought whatsoever on what’s best for the long term. I was trapped in the quicksand of the priorities for the moment.
Spending 15 min a day doing nothing other than thinking added serenity to my chaotic mind and clarity to my anarchic schedule. It helped me turn more mindful of the projects that I should pursue and the tasks that I must drop altogether.
Take 15-30 minutes each day to think. During this time you can explore:
- Ideas for career growth
- New opportunities to pursue
- Tasks that eat up your time
- Any effort that isn’t yielding results
- New skills to learn
You don’t have to limit yourself to career-related aspects alone. You can even think of ways to strengthen your relationship with your partner, hobbies to pursue, places to visit, and any other topic which adds value to your personal life.
The short time you spend each day thinking will make your day more purposeful, your schedule more meaningful and your life more cheerful.
Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.Thomas A. Edison
6. Set aside time for ad-hoc work
No matter how well you plan your day, unexpected tasks will consume your time.
For example, I receive emails, meeting invitations, impromptu tasks which need attention before the end of the day. Earlier, I used to pick them as and when they showed up. Sure, I managed to get the required job done, but it killed my productivity because I was constantly switching between such ad-hoc and important tasks.
I fixed the problem by setting aside 90 min in the morning and 1-hour post-lunch for administrative work and unplanned jobs. When I had a specific time window for ad-hoc work, I was able to use my other hours to focus on my major goals as planned.
So, plan your unplanned tasks. You will need time each day for emails, sync-ups, meetings, follow-ups, or other tasks relevant to your job profile. Don’t let such tasks take control of your schedule. Instead, you need to control them. If not, they will disrupt your schedule, interfere with your tasks that require focus, and destroy your productivity.
Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.Cal Newport
7. Use the Pomodoro Timer
The Pomodoro technique is a time management methodology where you work for 25 minutes followed by a short 3-5 minute break. You repeat the same cycle 4 times and then take a longer break.
The crux of the technique isn’t in the 25-minute timing or the break duration or the repetition cycle. The magic lies in the countdown timer itself. When you have a clock ticking down, your brain enters into focus mode thereby reducing your distractions and time wasted.
I work on most of my planned tasks with a Pomodoro timer, but I rarely use a 25 min timer. I use 15 and 20 min slots more often, but I don’t take a short break after a short Pomodoro. Instead, I stop my task, turn on another Pomodoro and get going on a different task right away.
But that’s just me. Neither do you have to follow my technique nor the original Pomodoro guideline. Pick a timer that feels appropriate to you. If you need to regroup after, take a short break. You can choose to skip it if you can jump to a different task without any attention residue.
The bottom line: Play with the timer however you like, but use one. It’ll skyrocket the speed at which you complete a task by avoiding Parkinson’s law.
Success doesn’t just happen. You have to be intentional about it, and that takes discipline.John C. Maxwell
8. Other helpful pointers
Along with the above tips, I follow a few other practices which help me make my day efficient.
a. Start and end the day at the same time:
As much as possible, maintain a fixed schedule. When you have a fixed start and end time, you’re mentally prepared to match the work to do with the time in hand. Most people start their day at a specific time in the morning, but what about the time you wind up? Do you believe “Well, it depends on work?”
Occasional extensions are acceptable, but if you cannot finish your work by a specific time every day, you don’t have a workload problem, you have a time management problem. Set a time after which you’ll stop working for the day. It’ll help you prioritize the right tasks.
b. Complete all tasks you set for the day:
Strive hard to complete all the tasks you set for the day. At first, you’ll find it hard. But a few days later, you’ll get into a rhythm. A few weeks later, you’ll have a habit of completing the tasks you wanted to. With time, you’ll know what you can and cannot finish in the time you have each day.
c. Mark tasks as complete as soon as you’re done:
If you don’t have the habit of writing your tasks down, you should. This app helps you record your daily tasks within your browser.
Once you have a list of tasks, cultivate a habit of marking a task as complete as soon as you’re done. Finishing a task provides you with a dopamine rush to get more done.
d. Keep all the required items nearby:
Before starting any major task, keep all the required items nearby.
I have papers, clips, pens, markers, chargers around my desk. That way, I don’t have to step out should I need anything. “What’s the big deal about walking to the next room to get the pen? It would only take 30 seconds.”
The problem isn’t the time spent. When you fetch a pen, your mind loses focus on the task at hand.
e. Lock doors:
Since the last year, working from home has turned into the new norm. If you’re working from home, make a conscious attempt to stay away from distractions. If you work around the TV or in the hall where your family members walk to the kitchen, you’re inviting interruptions. Instead, find an isolated spot, even if it’s a corner in your bedroom, and lock doors when you’re working on important tasks.
f. Make daily progress on long term goals:
I ensure I make daily progress on my long-term goals. I have the habit of writing 1000 words daily and learning new styles of writing. Right now, I am working every day on In The Zone, a productivity tool that I’m developing. If I’m short on time, I postpone the routine tasks that I have to work on, not the tasks which aid my long-term goals.
If you decide to work on your long-term goals only when your schedule permits, you’ll never have time for them. Other priorities will consume your day and you’ll find yourself procrastinating the goals you care about.
To make productivity work for you, build a system that suits you. Don’t simply look up tips on the internet and blindly follow them. Even if the advice is written by an expert, their suggestions don’t apply to every person.
Productivity is subjective and only you know your strengths and challenges the best. Do take a look at the tactics others use, but tweak it to your needs. Don’t be afraid to invent techniques that help you get work done faster.
Productivity isn’t about following the most sophisticated ideas and tools. It’s all about finding the simplest ways which help you get more done, faster or effectively.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.