How to be more productive
The other day, I was reminiscing about my undergraduate and graduate school experience. They were similar in some ways, but also significantly different. I realized that in graduate school, I made some changes to my approach which drastically improved my productivity. And it was done out of necessity.
In addition to being a full-time graduate student, I taught the undergraduate guitar class, I supervised practicum students, I ran a small private practice and lesson studio, and I worked part time for a hospice agency. I was also still managing my websites, www.aperfectlullaby.com and this one, all while gigging with my band almost every weekend. Honestly, when I look back now, I’m a little surprised that I was not only able to graduate, but I had a better GPA than when I was finished my undergraduate work.
I’m not writing this to get a pat on the back. There are people who have juggled many more responsibilities (um, moms). I actually look back on this time with fondness, because I still had plenty of time to hang out with friends, go to football games, and listen to live music. I’m simply using this as a jumping off point for a look into productivity and efficiency.
What it all comes down to is habits. What habits can we change or employ in order to maximize the time that we have?
I’ve created a list of habits you can incorporate NOW to take control of some of the crazy, overwhelming responsibilities we often take on.
We all have routines, but they aren’t always beneficial to us. One of the most important things to consider when building your routine is your most alert/awake periods. For most of us, it will be in the morning, as our brains are fresh after a (hopefully) good night’s sleep. I highly recommend waking up early, like really early, to begin your morning routine.
When I was in graduate school, I got up between 4:00 and 5:00 most mornings. Now I typically wake around 5:30, but I’m working on moving that up a bit.
Why so early? Well, it allows you to get into your routine earlier, when your brain is fresh. Also, no one else gets up that early. This means fewer distractions (emails, text messages, etc.). There is also a calm, peacefulness to morning that just feels good.
After setting your wake time, decide what the first two or three hours of your day will look like, and try to stick to it.
For me, I like to start with a protein-rich breakfast. By 6:05 I am at my desk, deciding what the most important actions for the day are (ideally I’ve thought about this the evening before).
But instead of diving right in to my to-do list, I take some time to journal. I spend about thirty minutes free-writing. Sometimes it ends up relating to my tasks at hand, and provides important insights into what I’m about to do. Other times it is merely an enjoyable little burst of creativity that puts me in the right mood for content creation. I’ve tested all of these tips and wrote about them in my journal, and now it is turning into content for you.
Some other things people often build into their routines are: meditation, instrument/voice warm-ups, reading for pleasure (I’m trying to add this, currently), exercise, coffee and conversation with a significant other, etc.
Focus: Don’t Multi-Task
As a society, we have come to value multi-tasking. I can’t quite figure this out. With advances in technology, we’ve created enough distractions to easily turn a ten-minute task into a 60-minute task. Who is this helping?
I mentioned a to-do list earlier. When you have that made, focus on one item at a time, get it done, then check it off. Our brains work best when we only have to focus on one thing.
If working on one item reminds you of something else you need to do, don’t stop in the middle of what you’re doing to take care of it. Write it down and do that next.
One great book about productivity and workflow is Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
When you have multiple related things to do, batching is the most efficient way to get it done. It goes hand in hand with the last tip of focusing and not multi-tasking.
Perhaps one of the best tasks you can batch is email. Like Tim Ferriss suggests in The Four Hour Work Week, choose two times per day to tend to email. Get in a groove and take care of all of it at once.
If we get email alerts on our phone, it constantly distracts us from other things – projects, the dinner we are making, family members, etc. This is no way to live! Plus, it gets us out of the flow. If you can help it, try not to check your email first thing in the morning. Take care of any tasks that require significant focus or creativity first.
Other things you can batch:
correspondence with friends and colleagues
Let small stuff slide
Ask yourself honest questions about the importance of what it is you are planning to do. Is it something that really must get done? What are the consequences if you don’t (or already didn’t) do something? If it’s very small, then don’t worry about it.
One area where I really had to get comfortable with this was email. When I was in grad school, I did not get to every single one of my emails. I didn’t even open all of them, let alone respond to all of them. I responded to emails from my professors, my students, and people wanting to book my band. Unfortunately, I had to let a lot of emails go by the wayside. But you know what? I didn’t lose any friends. I have a job. My family still likes me. Although I’m able to respond to more people now, I still let emails slide if they appear unimportant.
It feels kind of icky at first, but we don’t always have to answer the phone, and we don’t always have to respond to low-impact emails. Do only what is going to help you be more productive, and avoid distractions.
It’s important to be “on” when we’re “on”, but it’s also important to shut off every so often. Just like our bodies, our brains need rest. What’s interesting, though, is that our brains don’t actually rest. Even though our conscious attention shifts to something else, our brains are still working on whatever project or creative endeavor we put on pause. This is often when solutions or brand new ideas come.
How can we harness this potential? Take breaks. I recommend doing something completely different from your task. For example, if you’re working on the computer, don’t take a “Facebook break”. Get up, go for a walk, and honestly clear your mind. If possible, get some exercise. I don’t know how many song verses I have unintentionally written while running, but the number is high.
To sum it all up:
These 5 tips WILL help you to be more productive. They have all worked for me, as well as for many high-performing individuals. Even if you just implement one or two of these tips, you will see improvements in productivity. But you have to commit. You have to give it an honest try.
On the flip side, don’t beat yourself up if it’s hard at first. I do a pretty good job of doing these things, but I’m certainly not perfect. They are habits we are striving for, and there will be bumps along the way.
Do you know someone who is graduate school or who has a lot on their plate? If so, please feel free to share this article.
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