Productivity learnings over the years

Today, we’re constantly interrupted by tools, notifications, emails, messages, social media—you name it. In our attention(rather distraction) economy, chaos has become the norm.

It’s nearly impossible to focus on what truly matters or know if you’re prioritizing the right work at the right time. Your intentions for the day fly out the window in the face of high-priority tasks, seemingly urgent messages, and never-ending notifications. To keep up with the pace of work, 80% of knowledge workers report working with their inbox or other communication apps open. As a result, workers are less efficient, with messages, actions and deadlines more likely to be missed.

Time management can help you take back your time and bring more mindfulness into your daily routine. Instead of letting others dictate how you spend your time, you can use time management strategies to intentionally set your daily priorities and focus on the most relevant work.

There isn’t one right way to manage your time. Try experimenting these different tips, strategies, and quick wins and find out what works to help you take back control of your time.

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What is Time management?

Practice of managing your work in order to ensure you’re spending your time as intentionally as possible. Time management can increase productivity—but the biggest advantage of effective time management is the ability to better prioritize your day so you can make space for rest and self care.

The benefits of time management

Good time management strategies can help you organize and prioritize tasks so you can:

  • Feel like you have more time in your day. When you’re intentional about where your time is going, you may find that you reduce unnecessary tasks, de-prioritize work that doesn’t need to get done today, and accomplish things in less time. You won’t have more time in your day—but you’ll accomplish more in the same amount of time.
  • Establish boundaries between work and personal time. Improving your time management isn’t about squeezing out every second of productivity you have at work. Rather, these strategies can help you get your most important work done—and identify what work can wait until tomorrow. By prioritizing the work that needs to get done today and clarifying what work you can defer to a later date, you’re also establishing boundaries between your work time and your personal time.
  • Reduce stress. Without effective time management, it can feel like you never have enough time. You might feel like you’re running around all the time—which can lead to increased stress and, ultimately, burnout.
  • Improve productivity. There are a variety of time management tips to help reduce procrastination and increase productivity. By identifying your main priorities for the day, you won’t just be more productive—you can also feel confident that you’re working on the right things each day.
  • Break bad habits. No one wants to procrastinate. But over time, bad habits can pile up and get in the way of high-impact work. (I’ve been there too.) Time management strategies can help you identify and break out of bad habits.

6 time management strategies to increase productivity

One of the easiest ways to build your time management skills is to incorporate a time management strategy into your daily routine. Time management strategies help you set time limits on work, tackle one task at a time, and schedule your day with more intention.

1. Timeboxing

Timeboxing is a goal-oriented time management strategy where you complete work within “timeboxes.” This strategy is particularly effective if you aren’t sure how much time you’re spending on each task and want to approach your to-do list more intentionally.

Timeboxing helps you break down large tasks into smaller pieces, and then complete those pieces in a reasonable amount of time. Each task should have its own unique timebox that lasts no more than three hours. For example, if you need to write a blog post, you might create a two-hour timebox to write an outline. Then after taking a break, you can create another three hour timebox to begin the first draft. By breaking the work into smaller pieces, you can make steady progress towards your goal over the course of days or weeks.

2. Time blocking

Time blocking is similar to timeboxing, but instead of scheduling specific time for each individual task, you’ll practice blocking off set periods of your calendar for related work. When you use time blocking to schedule your work, you’re effectively breaking the work week into discrete time slots where you can work on projects, communicate with coworkers, take a break, or even exercise. Time blocking can help you dedicate more time to flow and deep work by allowing you to focus without being interrupted.

To create a time block, start by figuring out your daily or weekly priorities. Then, group similar tasks so you can work on them in one time block. Finally, practice scheduling blocks of focus time on your calendar to help you stick to your time blocked schedule.

3. Pomodoro method

Pomodoro method helps you tackle work within short time frames and then take breaks between working sessions. This is particularly helpful because it actively encourages regular breaks, which are good for intrinsic motivation—and good for your brain. In fact, research suggests that taking breaks makes people more creative.

To use the Pomodoro method, you need a timer, a prioritized to-do list, and a “snooze” feature on your notifications. Start by setting your timer for 25 minutes, and try to spend that time exclusively working on a task—avoid checking your text messages or social media. Then, once time is up, take a five minute break. Ideally, aim to do something physical during your break, like grabbing a snack or getting up to stretch—see if you got an important ping while you were focused on your task.

Repeat the process of working for 25 minutes and then taking a five minute break four times. Then, after the fourth working session, take a longer 20-30 minute break.

4. Eat the Frog

Mark Twain famously said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” The Eat the Frog time management strategy takes inspiration from this quote and encourages you to tackle big or complex tasks first before working on your less important or less urgent work. This strategy is particularly helpful if you split your days between regular, daily work and high-priority tasks.

With the Eat the Frog method, you can ensure you’re getting to your most important work every day. To get started with this time management strategy, make sure you’re tracking your work and priorities in one Task/to-do management tool. Look for a way to connect(OKR) your daily tasks to your life goals. That way, you can better identify which tasks to prioritize every day, and make sure you get those to-dos done first. Then, once you’ve eaten your frog for the day, you can move on to the rest of your work.

5. Pareto principle or 80/20 rule

Don’t like eating a frog first thing in the morning, you might prefer the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle is the opposite of the Eat the Frog method—this strategy encourages you to get quick tasks out of the way, so you can feel more accomplished and motivated as you head into your day.

This has one fundamental rule: you spend 20% of your time on 80% of your work. If you can get those 80% of your tasks out of the way in relatively quick order, you free up your workday to tackle the 20% of your work that will take 80% of your time.

6. Getting Things Done (GTD)

In Getting Things Done method, the first step to getting things done is to write down everything you need to do. By freeing up brain power and instead relying on task management tools, you can focus on taking action—and not remembering what you need to do.

To use the GTD method, capture all of your upcoming work in one place. Then once you’ve written down everything you need to do, sort and prioritize your work. For example, you might have work you no longer need to do (should go in “trash”), work you want to do eventually but not right now (should go into a “later” project or folder), work that is dependent on other tasks, and so on. The tool should capture all the details—it’s your job to take action on them.

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6 time management tips to get more done

You may or may not like using an established time management strategy to organize your work. Not every time management strategy is effective for every person—that’s why there are so many of them in the first place. Instead, try these six tips to build your time management skills.

1. Connect daily work to goals

Time management isn’t always about getting all of your work done—rather, it’s about identifying and prioritizing your most important work. In order to do that, you need to connect your day-to-day work to team or company goals so you can identify the most important tasks to tackle daily. But, according to a recent survey of over 6,000 global knowledge workers, only 26% of employees say they have a very clear understanding of how their individual work relates to company goals.

The best way to coordinate work and priorities across all levels of your organization is with a work management tool. With work management, you can connect daily work and team projects to company objectives, so your team members always understand how their work impacts company priorities.

To ensure we’re prioritizing the right work, we use OKRs to set quarterly goals that ladder up to bi-annual goals. On a weekly cadence, our team leads make sure that the work the team is doing ladders up to these goals.”

2. Prioritize and organize your work

Whether you like the Eat the Frog method or prefer the Getting Things Done approach, it’s critical to know which tasks are important. Inevitably, you’ll have a task that shifts in priority or a deadline that gets moved up or down. If you don’t have clarity on which work is more important, you won’t be able to adapt and prioritize the right work.

Why does prioritizing work matter? You might be familiar with burnout, which impacts a growing number of global employees every year. But what’s less documented is how unclear priorities contribute to burnout. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 29% of the knowledge workers who reported feeling burnout cited feeling overworked from a lack of clarity on tasks and roles as a contributing factor. Knowing which tasks to prioritize can help reduce that feeling and increase confidence that you’re working on the right tasks every day.

3. Plan ahead at the end of each day

The workday often feels like a scramble because we’re already behind by the time we get started. If you’re the type of person who goes through emails every morning trying to figure out what to prioritize for the day, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

Instead of trying to figure out what you should be doing in the morning, spend the last five minutes of each day preparing for the next one. This can increase motivation because you know exactly what you’re doing every day before you even log on. It’s also a valuable way to make sure you’re going to get your most important work done every day. Instead of reacting to an email or request at 4:30 in the afternoon, you can make sure to incorporate that important work into the next day’s schedule.

4. Say “no” or delegate

One advantage of clarifying your priorities is that you gain an understanding of what’s less of a priority as well. It’s not always easy to say “no” to work—but it helps when you can explain that you’re saying “no” because the work doesn’t align with your current priorities. Defining priorities for yourself—and sharing those priorities with your team members—can give everyone more clarity.

If the work has to get done, but still isn’t a priority for you, see if you can delegate it to another team member. Keep in mind—delegating doesn’t mean the task isn’t important, it just means the work isn’t in line with your current priorities. It could be that this work is more relevant for someone else’s expertise—and when you reassign it to them, you’re ensuring the work is done by the best person for the job.

A strategy we have put in place to make sure our team is efficient is to be clear around what you will and won’t do as a team… Having clear visibility of your work makes decisions easier around what you will focus on and what you won’t focus on. If you can be very clear around that it helps drive efficiency and clarity around what our teams need to be focusing on.”

5. Audit your tasks

Similar to saying “no” to work, take some time to look through tasks you committed to a while back and are still working on. Is there anything that’s currently on your plate that no longer aligns with your team’s goals?

When you find these tasks, ask yourself if this work needs to be done at all. If it’s no longer important to your team, consider putting the work on hold. If the task still needs to be done, ask yourself if you’re the best person for the job—and if not, go through the same delegation exercise to figure out who is.

6. Ditch handwritten to-dos—use a tool

If you’re still tracking your work by hand, it’s time to upgrade to an online tool. As satisfying as it can be to take notes manually, written to-do lists are disorganized, prone to mistakes, easy to lose, and ineffective.

Instead, make sure the majority of your project management is happening in a dedicated tool. Project management tools offer a variety of features that make it easier to get the most out of your time. With a project management tool you can:

  • Coordinate cross-functional work and track exactly who’s doing what by when.
  • Communicate about work, share feedback, and report on project status in one place.
  • Track progress in real time to accurately see where work stands.
  • See due dates and dependencies so you can hit your goals without scrambling.

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6 time management quick wins

The time management strategies and tips we outlined above are helpful—but they take some time to implement. Looking to get started in the next five minutes? Try these six quick wins to improve your time management right now.

1. Snooze notifications

We’re constantly bouncing between apps, notifications, and tasks. In fact, the average knowledge worker switches between 10 apps up to 25 times per day. That’s why it’s harder to focus on the task at hand and get into a good flow—which means work takes longer.

When you can, turn off your notifications or use “Do not Disturb” features to temporarily disable notifications. That way, you can dive into deep work—while also letting your team know you’ll be getting back to them later. Most tools show that you’re temporarily snoozed, so team members know not to expect a reply from you right away. If necessary, they can usually choose to override the feature, so you’re never too far out of reach.

To be most productive, I find it helpful to block off time between meetings when I intend to work on different projects, making sure to leave time for short breaks. I also find it helpful when I (and folks around me) update Slack statuses to “Heads down” so nobody expects an immediate response.”

2. Organize your physical space

Think back to how clean your desk was when you first set it up. You likely had a computer monitor and a keyboard, maybe a notepad, but probably not much else. If you’re anything like us, that clean desk didn’t last long. Over time, you’ve inevitably accumulated papers, boxes, books, sticky notes, and stray wires.

A messy desk might not seem like much, but visual clutter can influence mental clutter, and make it hard to focus. Take a quick five minute break to organize your desk. Throw away any papers that are no longer necessary, stack your books in a neat row, and coil any stray wires that might be lying around. Then, when you get back to work, you may find that it’s easier to focus.

3. Group like tasks

Every time you switch between tasks, your brain has to find the relevant context and information for that new task and bring that knowledge to the forefront of your mind. Sure, it takes mere seconds for your brain to do that—but if you’re constantly switching between tasks and projects, that means you’re forcing your brain to work overtime.

This can lead to reduced productivity—not to mention increased exhaustion at the end of the day. So instead, try to group like tasks. See if you can work on all of your tasks for one project, or all tasks for the same deliverable, in the same time block. When you do, you’ll spend less time context-switching and more time focused on getting high-impact work done.

Working in batches, especially with planning, really helps you prioritize the work while still giving you the ability to be dynamic to what’s happening or what may be coming.”

4. Work on quick tasks in between meetings or focus time

You likely have a few tasks every day that take five or 10 minutes to complete. These can be quick responses to a team member, fixing a typo on a document, or submitting a work request form to another coworker.

If you have this type of work, store it somewhere that’s front and center—like a project management tool—but don’t immediately work on it. Instead, save these tasks for those five minutes between meetings or 10 minutes immediately after lunch as you get back into the swing of things. Not only will you be able to quickly tackle this work—and feel good for doing it—they also won’t take up valuable mental energy that could be spent on more complex work.

5. Stop trying to multitask

Simply put, multitasking is a myth. While it might feel like you’re doing more than one thing at the same time, when you attempt to multitask you’re actually forcing your brain to quickly switch between tasks. Every time you switch between work, your brain needs to find the information and context for that task. Not only does this take more effort than simply focusing on one to-do, it also exhausts your brain.

Instead of multitasking, aim to work on one task at a time, so you can get into flow while working. Flow state happens when you’re so focused that you feel like you’re “in the zone.” When you get into flow, you’re able to get more work done more efficiently, since your brain is only focusing on one task at a time.

6. Take breaks

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do to improve your time management is to take a break. We tend to react to feeling behind on work by just doing more of it, but your brain needs time to rest and recharge. If you’re overworked and burnt out—you won’t be able to get anything done.

As per research, 32% of knowledge workers who feel burnout report not being able to disconnect and separate themselves from screens, as something that fuels their burnout. Because they can’t switch off, they get burnt out, and when they’re burnt out, they can’t switch off—it’s a never-ending cycle.

If you struggle to remember to take breaks while working normally or remotely, consider adding them into your calendar or use a timer. Once the break time pops up, just go for it—even if you just get up and move around, stand up to stretch or drink water, you’ll feel better once you do.

We don’t look down for inspiration — that’s an action reserved for our less than stellar moments, but the next time you find yourself hanging your head, take a lesson on productivity from the ants wandering below.

Productivity is about deletion (not addition). As much as we hate to admit it, you can’t ever make more time. But you can get wiser with how you use your time.

Here’s a simple trick for establishing priorities: 

As we progress in our professional lives, a challenge arises:

Our time and energy become increasingly scarce, but our opportunity set becomes increasingly abundant.

• Time 📉
• Opportunity 📈

To manage this, we need a system. It starts with learning to prioritize your tasks.

At the start of each quarter, sit down with blank sheet of paper.

Start by writing down the 10 most exciting opportunities in front of you for the quarter.

They can be for your job, your side hustles, or your passion projects. Zoom out and look at your list.

Think deeply on each opportunity:
• What makes it exciting?
• What resources are required?
• What tradeoffs are required?
• What is success with it?
• Will it create energy?

Now take your pen and cross 7 of the opportunities off the list… 

This forced deletion feels draconian, but it’s so important.

You’re left with the 3 most exciting opportunities for the quarter ahead.

These are the opportunities that become your primary focus for the quarter.

They provide a lens through which to evaluate daily decisions. 

As you progress through the quarter, let those priority opportunities guide your daily actions.

Is this daily habit or system important for my core opportunities? If not, how can I tweak it?

Is this task going to create progress against one of my core opportunities? 

Productivity is about deletion, not addition.

When new and seemingly exciting opportunities come your way, assess whether they fit into your core priorities. If not, just say no.

Be sure to log them for later—maybe they become a core opportunity for a future quarter. 

We’re bad at turning down opportunities. But by running for everything, we accomplish nothing. And that’s why Focus is the key.

The trick works because it forces constraints—it forces focus. 

Note: I use a quarterly system, but you could do this monthly if you prefer a higher frequency cadence.

I find quarterly to be great, but if it is too scary, start with a monthly audit and adjust from there as you see fit.

Does it ever seem like there’s a clock in your brain that wakes you at the same time each morning and sends you to sleep at night? No worries, we all have it ticking. Its scientific name is the circadian rhythm. And it regulates the cycles of alertness and tiredness you experience over a 24-hour period.

Learning to tune into the patterns of your own circadian rhythm is helpful both inside and outside of your personal life. Because at work, this internal clock can help you structure your workflow around the times when you’re most energetic. This way, you improve concentration, increase efficiency, and maximize the overall performance on the job.

Tidy by category, not location. 

Take a step back and look at the complete picture.

Where are you spending the most time? Where would you like to be spending more time?

Consider which tasks are the most important to you and the organization, and drop the rest. Also, consider if there’s duplicate work, if you can automate any assignments, or if you can cut any process from tasks.

Follow the right order.

I think of this principle as organizing your day according to your energy levels.

Humans are not machines that can endlessly be at their best at all hours of the day—our energy levels ebb and flow throughout the day according to our circadian rhythms.

Hack this ebb and flow to be more productive by working on more difficult/creative work during peak energy levels and doing more mundane tasks like responding to emails during periods where you feel less energetic. 

To achieve this segmentation at work, try blocking out your calendar to create “focus time” and use a form of “do not disturb” signaling during your peak periods.

And learn how to use the circadian rhythm as a way to boost your work performance.

What circadian rhythm is and how it affects your mind and body

Circadian rhythm is the human body’s 24-hour wake and sleep cycle. It influences many internal processes, like gastrointestinal balance, hormone release, neurological function, immune defense, and energy metabolism, according to Frontiers in Physiology.

On the other hand, disruptions in this cycle will cause insomnia, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression or other mood changes. Over time, this could also result in chronic issues such as cardiovascular disease, cancer or mental illness, suggests Translational Psychiatry.

Your circadian rhythm occurs at the cellular level, and it’s impacted by both physiological and environmental factors, researchers explain. The brain responds to light and dark in your environment. And this signals the nerve cells to either alert the body into wakefulness or relax it into sleepiness, based on the time of day.

This pattern can fluctuate depending on the season or the region where you live. However, biology and behavior also play a role. For example, genetics, core body temperature, age bracket, cortisol and melatonin levels, and eating habits all affect this cycle. This means, to a certain extent, your circadian rhythm is unique to you.

The connection between circadian rhythm and work performance

A consistent circadian rhythm is essential to optimize executive functions in your brain, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine reports. These executive functions include working memory, flexible problem solving, decision making, planning and self-monitoring. All these are crucial elements for job performance. Maintaining consistency with your wake and sleep cycle can also increase your attention span in the daylight hours.

When your mind is clear, sharp and alert, you’re able to better focus on the task at-hand, which boosts productivity. If there’s a disruption in circadian rhythm, however, performance can take a nose-dive. For example, too much stimulation at night when you should be at rest can cause fatigue, lack of concentration or delays in processing information the next day.

Instead of feeling active and refreshed, your attention (and therefore productivity on the job) will suffer. It’s hard for your crucial executive functions to work as they should when your energy levels are out of sync.

How to take advantage of peaks and troughs

A full 24-hour circadian rhythm sequence is marked by intervals called peaks and troughs that occur in a wave pattern over the course of each day, explains Neurologic Clinics Journal. Here’s a breakdown of these two elements of your circadian rhythm:

  • Peaks: Time when energy levels spike, causing the body to feel active and the brain to feel alert.
  • Troughs: Time when energy levels decline, causing tiredness or inactivity to set in.

For an average well-rested person, the first peak window usually occurs in the late morning, followed by another in the evening. The two main trough windows most often take place in the late afternoon(common afternoon crash) and at night when the body releases melatonin and starts to unwind before sleep.

Here’s an example of how to structure the workday using circadian rhythm:

  • Morning: As you transition from sleep to activity, do simple tasks that boost alertness but don’t require maximum energy output such as planning your schedule or checking and answering your emails.
  • Late morning: When you reach your first state of peak energy, do the work that requires optimal levels of focus such as meetings, presentations, teamwork and collaborative projects.
  • Afternoon: As you start to decline into a trough state, shift to administrative busywork that doesn’t require extensive cognitive load.
  • Evening: When you hit your second peak in energy levels, do any unfinished work on the projects you started earlier that are time sensitive, high-priority, or shouldn’t be left until the following day.
  • Late evening: As you start feeling tired, unplug from devices that emit blue light, which the brain confuses for daylight. Take this time to slow down with relaxation techniques like taking a hot shower or reading a book. Calm or instrumental music🎶 or even sleeping music can be helpful. Listening, not watching!.

Your circadian rhythm can fluctuate slightly from this pattern, based on the biological, environmental or behavioral factors mentioned earlier. Still, once you have a basic idea of how this cycle functions, you can use it to maximize your work performance and productivity by honing in on in your peak energy hours.

Tapping into your circadian rhythm is the productivity boost you need

That internal alarm of yours does more than tell you when it’s time to stumble out of bed each morning. And then get back on when you’re tired. It’s an entire cycle that repeats day in, day out.

The more attuned you’re to your 24-hour cycle, the more equipped you’ll be to harness peak energy and alertness. Finding your energy windows and using them wisely is essential to your work performance. Not only will you accomplish more, but you’ll also work smarter and more efficiently.

And don’t forget, your body’s natural ebb and flow is the best guide. Discover it, fine tune it, and maximize your productivity in yet another unexpected way.

Also, If you want to improve productivity? Start measuring things.

As such, three words matter more: Measure. Review.

To find out, what’s working and what’s not and making sure everyone is motivated, best advice is to find those truths with measurement and review. Without data, you can’t do anything. One of the first things is just measure things. Once you measure and generate that data, you’ll be able to look at it and identify those bottlenecks to shave off five or six hours a week. If you’ve data on the activities that you were doing, it gets easier to look at the data, and point out, ‘I spent 7 hours doing things, that I could have used somewhere else. Because without data, it’s hard to identify and fix these broken processes.

Take control of your time

Ultimately, time management is more of a state of mind than anything else. To effectively manage your time, prioritize your work so you know to work on each day. Instead of letting your to-do list dictate your priorities, focus your attention on your intention to really drive impact.

Things you can do from here:

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