When it comes to productivity, most of us start each day with the best intentions. We plan on plowing through every task that comes our way with maximum energy and creativity -- and minimal distractions. And, occasionally, things actually work out that way.
But more often, they go something like this: You’ve got so many important things to take care of that it seems impossible to prioritize. Or a project takes longer than you thought it would; then an unexpected meeting comes up to steal what precious spare time you have left. Or, you can’t focus for more than a few minutes at a time because you keep checking your phone.
In other words, being productive isn’t always easy. But by building your to-do list the right way, taking steps to avoid distractions or time traps and having the right attitude, you can usually achieve most (if not all) of what you set out to do each day.
Here are seven simple secrets that business and time management experts swear by that can help you get more done in less time.
1. Write down your to-do list the day before.
Walking into your office without a plan for your day makes it more likely your time will get derailed with nonessential tasks. Instead, recommends life coach Danielle Faust, create your daily to-do list the night before, so you know exactly what you need to do once you sit down at your desk.
You can build in as many tasks as you want, but schedule dedicated time for each of them (with a couple of breaks thrown in) to keep you on track. If you need to prioritize, star the top three items that you absolutely have to complete, Faust advises.
2. Don’t start your day with email.
Replying to other people’s messages first thing in the morning is almost guaranteed to derail your priorities -- so don’t do it. “Instead, start out on your own schedule and include 30 minutes at 11 a.m. and 30 minutes at 3:00 p.m. to go through your emails and messages,” recommends Michael Maven, a marketing strategist with Carter & Kingsley.
If you can’t hear your phone's distracting dings without feeling that you must respond immediately, turn your phone and email notifications off.
Related: The 7 Rules of Personal Productivity
3. Tackle the tough stuff.
You may be tempted to ease into your day by starting off with the simpler or less demanding tasks. But if that’s your way of avoiding the toughest, most dreaded item on your list, it’s really just procrastination. Instead, start with whatever thing you’re looking forward to doing least -- and relish that satisfied feeling that you’re done with it. “Everything else will be downhill from there,” says Faust.
4. Make the most of meetings.
We’ve all sat in conference rooms for hours on end where nothing gets done. Avoid that by scheduling meetings for as long as you think you’ll need -- but never longer, and invite only the people that truly need to be there, recommends executive coach and leadership expert Michael Beck. Another tip? Don’t waste time disseminating information. “A much smarter way to deliver information is in written form. If you had everyone brief you in writing in advance, then the actual meeting would be devoted to discussion and/or making decisions,” Beck says.
5. Give yourself a pep talk.
Doubting yourself can lead to negativity, and feeling negative about something means you’re more likely to avoid it. “If you believe you are going to fail, you are pretty much guaranteeing that outcome,” says workplace psychologist Michael Woodward. Instead, find ways to pump yourself up and make yourself believe that you’re up to completing a tough task; think about the last time you triumphed over a challenge.
When you remind yourself that, yes, you are capable of tackling whatever’s on your plate, you’re more likely to dive in -- and less likely to procrastinate out of fear.
Most of us feel compelled to make sure that our day is as productive as possible, which can lead to feeling guilty over taking breaks. But short rest periods can help you reset and recharge, which can actually help you get more done in the long run, says business and marketing coach Sarah Dann.
“I like to use the Pomodoro method, 25 minutes of working, followed by a five-minute break,” she says. Whatever schedule works for you is fine, as long as you stick to it. Set a timer if you need to, and take advantage of productivity tools (try Google Chrome extension Strict Workflow) that block you from visiting distracting websites (we’re looking at you, Facebook).
7. At the end of the day, toss your to-dos.
Hopefully, you were able to cross every item off your list before it was time to close up shop. But if you weren’t, don’t leave that half-finished list hanging for tomorrow, because it’s a morale killer. Instead, toss it and make a new list with the unfinished items plus whatever else you need to accomplish the next day, says life coach M.A. Haley. “Throwing out the prior list, or filing it, is a great way to reclaim energy for the to-do list ahead,” Haley says.
I couldn't agree more.
Share in the comments: How do you manage your to-do list? What do you find most helpful for banishing productivity stealers?