The key to productivity is getting our brains to behave. You want to focus and get in the groove of some deep work. Your brain wants to rotate through the same three apps on your phone while watching reality TV.
So how do we harness the drunk monkey inside our heads and actually get some real work done?
Productivity breaks down into two categories – habits and tools.
There isn't a productivity tool out there that forces to you work against your will. If you don't have good habits the tools are useless. However, tools give our good habits a huge boost.
Productivity habits are the things we can do for free, without needing anything from the outside world.
Get Eight Hours of Sleep
If we want to calm down our drunk monkey minds then step one is making sure it's well-rested. Every parent out there knows what it's like when their toddler is overtired. They are cranky, impulsive, brats who won't calm down. Our brains are no different.
You don't need eight hours? Yeah, you do. Prove me wrong by actually sleeping for eight hours a night, every night, for a week, and then tell me you don't feel better.
Here is one of my all time favorite books – Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Keep a List
Knowing what you need to get done every day is huge when it comes to productivity. How can you expect to efficiently get stuff done if you're not even sure what it is you need to get done in the first place?
We'll dig into “how” to keep a list below but even if you just use a pen and paper, get in the habit of keeping a to-do list. Relying on your brain to remember everything uses resources you'll need for other stuff.
Do One Thing at a Time
If you are like me, two things kill your productivity when working — tab switching and your phone.
Do you ever get a notification but when you check it it's from some app you didn't even know was on your phone? But then, hey, while I'm on my phone I might as well check Instagram.
Oh, I know! I fall victim to this every single day. When I'm being serious about my productivity I will close all unnecessary tabs and put my phone in the other room. Then I am not allowed to switch tabs until the work is done — or the time is up.
They say it takes 15 minutes to get back into the groove if you get distracted. They also say that, on average, we check our phones every 10 mins. If both of those facts are true, then when on earth are we actually being productive?
This takes real effort to pull off but the results are worth it.
Have a Schedule
If your life allows it, keeping your work on a regular schedule can be huge for productivity — at least for me. I start work at the same time every day and do my work in the same order. It allows my brain to quickly get in the groove and stick with the program.
It also removes excuses.
At 7:30 am I'm going to sit down in front of my computer and work until 11 am. I don't need to decide that every day. I don't wait for inspiration to strike. Or wait until I'm in the mood to work.
This is the schedule and I do it without thinking about it.
If you struggle with writer's block having a schedule will help train your brain that it's writing time.
Pomodoros are blocks of extremely focused work with small breaks in between. The common example is a 25-minute block of focused work followed by a 5-minute break. Then a longer break of 20 minutes after four Pomodoros.
I do a 30 minute block of focused work followed by whatever length break I feel like. Sometimes that means no break — just straight back into another work block. Other times it means getting a drink and chatting with my family for a bit.
I also keep track of how many Pomodoros I do each day. Anything over five is a win. The most I've ever done in a day is ten.
I'll admit this is kinda half habit and half tool. You do need a timer of some sort but I'm listing it as a habit because it does help to build that focus muscle — which overall leads to better habits.
Both Pomodoros and meditation are training your brain to be more focused. Meditation is just sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing.
What makes us unproductive is not being able to stay on one task until it's complete. Forcing your brain to deal with the fleeting thoughts without reacting is great training for staying focused on your task.
I mean, if you can put aside your impulses for 30 minutes while you do nothing but breathe, you can certainly stay focused for 30 minutes while writing a blog post.
There are a gazillion apps and YouTube videos for meditation. Insight Timer is a popular free app that will help get you started.
Move to a New Location
Your phone is in the other room and you're working from your list at your regularly scheduled work time. But it's not working. Your Pomodoros aren't sticking and you feel restless and annoyed.
That's when I pick up and move to a new location. Sometimes that just means a new room in the house. Other times it means a coffee shop or library.
There is something about a new location that can kick things back into gear. Especially if there are other people around. I often work from Panera Bread and the last thing I want to do is sit in Panera and browse Facebook.
Like, really, I got dressed and packed up all my stuff to drive down here so I can be on social media? Puke.
When all else fails sometimes you just have to stop forcing it. I'm not above a good mid day break.
However, not all breaks are created equal. An effective break means NO SCREENS. No phone, no TV, no video games, no non-work computer stuff.
Read, meditate, go for a walk, etc. Taking your eyes on fingers off one screen just to put them on a different screen is not a break.
Get bored. That'll teach ya.
If you have good productivity habits you are well on your way to being productive. But that doesn't mean you have to do it all alone. There are tons of great tools that will make things easier.
To-Do List Manager
You need some kind of to-do list manager. You simply can not keep everything you need to do in your brain. It's too much and drains your resources. Every time you think “oh, don't forget to X” you've wasted your energy.
Amazing Marvin is crazy customizable and has a million ways you can set it up. That makes it great if you are willing to take the time to learn the program and need a special set up that you can't quite find anywhere else.
Todoist is definitely simpler but it's still a very strong to-do list manager that has a great app and browser extension.
Ticktick works similarly Todoist but integrates really well with your calendar. However, the browser extension isn't as good as Todoist.
What do I have on my list? I have reminders to schedule my social media posts, update certain articles at set times, and even to pay myself. I also use it to keep track of all my client work.
I don't trust myself to remember anything. So, get in the habit of writing stuff down in your list manager and get stuff out of your head.
Bloggers need a bit more than just a to-do list manager. Sure we all have a million things to do every week, but we also have to keep track of all of our content.
You will need some sort of system for this. If you want to use my system I have a template for you right here. It comes with full instructions on how to set it up and use it. This is the exact system I use to run five blogs and publish 50 times a month.
But even if you don't want to use my system, you'll need some kind of system to keep things organized.
This is different from a to-do list. This takes your to-do list and prioritizes it. While a to-do list gives you a list of things that need to get done a planner actually organizes your list into a plan of action. It's different.
I really like this planner. It's even called Productivity Planner — I mean, come on.
Each week I plan my activity for the upcoming week. I decide what I'm going to do each day and then use my productivity planner to keep track of what I should be doing and what I actually did.
I also review everything I accomplished the previous week and try to identify if anything went off track and why. That way I can identify patterns and fix bad habits before they become issues.
You don't have to have a fancy book if you don't want to — any piece of paper will do. The point is to plan your actions ahead of time and then track your progress against your plan.
They have figured out how music gets your brain to do different things. It's not normal music like you have on the radio. The beats in the music mimic brain waves of certain activities — such as focus — and listening to the music gets your brain into the groove.
It's called “entrainment“. It's a real thing.
Anyways, there are several apps out there that have music that gets you focused. I like Brain.fm but it's not free. There are also a lot of tracks on YouTube that say they play this type of music — try a few out and see if it works for you.
I used to have this specific meditation I did when I was having trouble concentrating. Trouble was, it was 20 minutes long and often times I would put off doing it because I didn't feel I had 20 minutes.
Ignore the fact that the alternative was to spend an hour flitting back and forth between my work and Facebook and not actually accomplishing anything.
Anyways, I created this Focus Worksheet from that meditation that I could complete in about 5 minutes. I literally have a stack of these sitting on my desk so I can just grab one when I need it and get back to work.
You can grab yours by filling out this form below.
A Place for Notes
Up above, in the habits section, we talked about the importance of not switching tabs or looking at your phone. A tool that can help support that habit is a lowly pen and paper.
When my mind wants to flit from activity to activity I find myself feeling a little panicky about not following through with whatever idea popped into my head.
For example, I'm sitting here writing and then I remember that I need to follow up with a potential client. My instinct is to drop everything and go do that right then before I forget again. Not being able to do it makes me feel anxious — which is not good for productivity.
The back of my focus worksheet is a place to write down all the little things that pop into my head when I'm working. So instead of jumping in to my email to follow up with that client I just write “follow up with Amy” on my Focus Worksheet and get back to work.
When my work is complete I'll have a nice little list of quick tasks I can knock out.
I hesitate to include this section but I'm going to anyway. There are supplements out there that do work. I have a tea that I drink each morning and some pills that I take when I need an extra boost.
I'm not going to share the exact products that I use. I'm no expert and you should really do your own research in this area. But I do encourage you to stay open to the possibilities that there is stuff out there that can help you focus in a healthy way.
Do I worry that it's just a placebo effect and the pills don't actually do anything? Not really, no. My take is “who cares?” Even if I'm just tricking myself into focusing, the work still gets done. So it counts.
Take vitamin = work gets done
Does it matter how we got there? Not to me.
What this Looks Like in Real Life
In my productivity planner, every Sunday I lay out my week as to exactly what I'm going to do each day.
Then, at 7:30 each morning I'm at my desk, tea in hand, to start my Pomodoro timer and turn on my focus music. I work in 30-minute blocks with short breaks in between — keeping track of the tasks I've accomplished and the number of Pomodoros I do.
I also have my Focus Worksheet next to me to jot down any tasks that pop into my head that need attending to, so I don't have to task switch while I'm trying to focus.
I usually stop for lunch at about 11 am. After lunch, I have a harder time focusing. I know this — so this is when I do my non-deep work, like answering emails. I also schedule calls or out of the house appointments in the afternoon when I know I'll be less focused anyways.
If I still have work I need high focus to accomplish I'll take a supplement to get back on track. I don't take these every day because they are pretty expensive so I want to only use them when I really need them.
If I find that none of my focus tricks are working I'll take a long break off the computer to recharge. Or I might even call it a day.
If I can't take a break because I have work that must be done that day then I'll grab my laptop and head down to Panera Bread or the library for a change of location.
Hang out with family after work for a few hours and then bed at 9 for a full night's sleep.