I was extremely unproductive a few years back. I had jam-packed days which yielded poor results. After tons of mistakes and years of experimentation, I figured a better approach.
I do not want you to repeat my errors or go through a similar experience. In this article, I will share tips on how to build a habit of having productive days. If you feel you’re having tiring long days but no results, it’s time you gave your day a brand new outlook.
Here is my story of how I used to go by my day earlier. Let us rewind the clock to 5 years ago.
“I will knock off all the important tasks on my to-do list,” I told myself, rolling my sleeves up in the morning, in front of the dressing mirror. “I will ensure today is unlike other days,” I said, determined to start the week on a positive note.
Soon after I reached my workplace, I opened my emails. I saw an email which wasn’t exactly urgent, but I decided to work on it.
After spending some time on such emails and replying to others, an hour had already passed. Besides, I had picked up a few more things to work on, which had come up after I entered the office.
By evening, all the plans I made in front of the mirror had gone down the drain. I had managed to work only on one or two important tasks that mattered to me. My entire day had passed, attending to tasks that were a priority to others.
“Why can’t I focus on the tasks which add value to my long term goals?” I murmured to myself as I rolled into bed, tucking the quilt over me.
- The normal flow of events of an unproductive day
- How to have a productive day
- 1. Stop checking emails when you start the day
- 2. Start your day working on your long term goals
- 3. Have a small plan for the day
- 4. Keep aside 30 minutes a day for learning
- 5. Spend time thinking
- 6. Work in time slots
- 7. Work on one thing at a time
- 8. Avoid unnecessary meetings
- 9. Use your commute time
- 10. Make yourself less available
The normal flow of events of an unproductive day
Here is a visual to explain how I used to go through my day:
The morning begins with a mental plan to make the day as fruitful as possible. Once the day starts, you focus your attention on other tasks that seem important at the moment.
One thing leads to another, and you lose sight of your long term goals because you cannot take your mind off these so-called “urgent tasks.”
More often than not, these tasks are not urgent. It is only your perception which convinces you to believe so. Here are a few examples where you spend time on a task which you could have postponed:
- Answering every phone call as soon as your phone rings
- Replying to an email as soon as you notice the notification
- Accepting a last-minute meeting
Think again. Do you need to react to such scenarios as you did? If you leave your phone on silent in the drawer, you would not realize that someone called. If the call was important, you could have returned the call after a while.
Did people expect your reply within 5 minutes, or have you made a habit of replying to emails so fast that it has now become an expectation?
Did you consider if the 30 minutes spent on the meeting would add any value? What if you chose to decline the meeting instead?
How to have a productive day
I modified my style from approaching the day as it comes. Instead, I put in some structure to my day with a productive day schedule so that I could spend a part of my day working on my long term goals.
1. Stop checking emails when you start the day
Check your emails first thing in the morning destroys the tone of a productive day routine. Once you read through emails, you lose focus and start working on tasks others asked you to.
Each email and your reply triggers a chain of events which snowballs into job after job.
“But my work demands me to check emails as soon as I start my day. I cannot delay that,” you argue.
Well, have there been days where you have reached work an hour late? Did all hell break loose because you did not check your emails for the first hour? I doubt it.
Only you choose how often you check and respond to your emails. The people around you set their expectations based on your behavior.
If you choose to reply to emails after the first few hours of the morning have passed by, people learn about your style with time. If an email needs your attention, you will receive a call.
2. Start your day working on your long term goals
You already have a long term goal in mind which you wish you could chase. If you do not have a clear idea yet, you can use these three questions to help you identify your long term goal.
If you work at a job that does not align with your long term goals, do not neglect your goal altogether. Spending an hour before you start your official work can work wonders towards progress.
Once you begin working on tasks from your job, they cascade, consuming all your time.
If you manage to take a step forward towards your long term goals early in the day, before getting swamped by other work, you keep moving closer to your goal. If you plan to work on your goal whenever time permits at the end of the day, your dream will remain a dream forever.
3. Have a small plan for the day
If you have a to-do list, you assume you have a track on the things you need to work on.
I had a to-do list. Even after having a to-do list, I would end my day with a feeling that I could’ve done better. I was terrible at prioritizing and picking the right task to work.
To-do lists grow longer over time, making it difficult to decide which task you should work on next. To make sure you have a productive day schedule, spend 5-10 min to determine which are the most important things you need to complete today.
Writing those tasks on a notepad makes the plan even more robust and yields maximum productivity. Having a clear idea on your target for the day leads to a more productive day compared to going by a to-do list alone.
4. Keep aside 30 minutes a day for learning
No matter what your field of expertise and your current level of experience is, you always have a scope to improve. There is no saturation point when it comes to education.
Even if you are the best in the world, you can still work on improving your performance further. Many Olympic champions follow such an approach.
Spend 30 minutes of your time learning and improving your skills.
Today, you can read a book in a few seconds by purchasing one on a kindle. An online course is only a click or two away.
You might question, “What difference can 30 minutes make?”
In a week, you might notice no change. Six months later, the compound effect of your daily learning will lead to a significant difference.
Considering the returns in the long term, learning is one of the best things to do in a productive day.
5. Spend time thinking
The human brain is the most complex object known to exist. No supercomputer can perform some of the things your mind can do.
Thinking is one such activity. Yet, most people do not spend time thinking about what they could do better.
Spend 15 minutes a day thinking, “What can I do better?”. You will have myriad ways to improve your life in any area if you take the time to think.
During the allocated minutes, you can generate new ideas, fix current problems, or find new ways of doing a task efficiently. Keep track of the essential thoughts you come across. If you do not note your ideas down, you will soon forget them.
You can also use the time to identify your mistakes and achievements. List them down and analyze every single one.
You do not have to analyze in detail like a forensic detective hunting for evidence. Think about the bad you can avoid and the good you can continue.
Thinking is one of your most powerful abilities. Use it.
6. Work in time slots
When you have ten tasks to complete, working in time slots help you make progress towards all of them. If you work on one task, wait to finish it and then move on to the next, you can get caught up on some tasks.
If you spend more time to complete one task, all other pending tasks taking a backseat.
Instead, make a daily schedule for yourself. Set a time slot for each task. For example, you allocate 15 min for the first task, 30 minutes for the second, 20 min for third and so on.
You do not always have to plan in advance. You can decide the time allowed before starting the task.
If you overshoot the timeline, leave the task pending and move on to the next one. If time permits at the end of all tasks, you can come back to what you left behind.
Such an approach is easy to state in theory but difficult to apply on a day to day basis. But, try to have a rough mental estimate on what is the maximum time you should spend on the task.
You can also allow a specific amount of time for a project you procrastinate regularly.
For example, if you wish to become an entrepreneur, you can assign 1 hour a day to work towards your long term goal. By doing so, you make slow but steady progress compared to “I will start my business in the future.”
7. Work on one thing at a time
Switching from one task to another gives an illusion of getting things done. Scientific studies have shown how switching between tasks leads to attention residue and loss of focus, causing extra time spent in total.
Less than 2% of the world population can multitask effectively. The funny fact is, the other 98% believe they are among the gifted multitaskers. The real 2% do not multitask because of their lack of awareness.
You cannot multitask. Period. Nothing against you. It is just that the numbers aren’t in your favor. Make your time productive by working on one thing at a time.
If you still believe you can multitask, try holding a conversation with complete attention and replying to an email at the same time.
8. Avoid unnecessary meetings
Meetings have become a platform for people to highlight their work and grab attention. Often, an email or a call will accomplish the same result as an hour-long discussion.
What do you do when you receive a meeting invitation? If you accept the invite right off the bat, hold on and pause. Ask yourself if the meeting holds any value.
Make it a habit to decline meetings that you feel are a waste of time. If required, add a small note of why you did so. You might even have to phrase your words with diplomacy to avoid bad sentiments.
You will have a hard time in the beginning, but over time people will learn to invite you only for the right meetings.
Also, be wary about the duration of a meeting. If you have a practice of setting meetings of 30 min or an hour, ask yourself if you need that long? As per the Parkinson’s law, the more time you have, the longer you will take to complete the task.
Do not shy away from setting up meetings for 15 or 20 minutes. If you need more time, you can stretch it but do not start with the opposite mindset of, “I will set the call for 30 min but finish in 15 if we have nothing to discuss.” You won’t!
Start with a smaller slot and expand when necessary.
9. Use your commute time
If you travel half an hour to get to your job, you have an opportunity to use it to your advantage. An hour of travel a day, summed up for five working days, adds up to 20 hours a month.
If you used all that time, you gain an extra half a week each month.
You can use your commute time to listen to a podcast, take up an audio-based course, or digest an audiobook. If you do not drive to work, you can use the time to do easy tasks such as making some pending calls, thinking how you could make your day productive, pondering how your day went by, and more.
10. Make yourself less available
I had the habit of checking emails and chat messages as soon as they came in.
When someone pointed out saying such a practice is devastating for productivity, I shot back, “My job demands me to check email all the time. If I do not check them on time, it can lead to consequences.”
A mentor challenged me to stay away from email and chat for half a day. When I did, there were no consequences whatsoever. I had built a misconception in my mind that I need to attend to every incoming chat and email immediately.
Since I have got over the habit of making myself available all the time, I hear countless other people saying, “My circumstances are different. I cannot do it.” But none of them have ever tried.
So if you believe you fall under the same bucket, here is a challenge. Stay away from email and chat for 2 hours and measure the consequences. I can guarantee you that you will have a productive day.
Sure, someone might grumble about your offline status. But soon, people will know that they can reach out to you in person for urgent attention.
Working long hours gives you the wrong impression of productivity. If you attribute working 12+ hours a day as a day well spent, you need to take a look again.
A well-structured approach to your day does volumes to your results compared to going about a long to-do list with long working hours. Learning how to make your day productive will give you a lot of hours to spare.
Do not strive to make your day longer; strive to make it efficient.
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.