Time management has never been one of my strongest suits. I’m the sort of person who can and will finish something in an hour if I only have an hour to spare. On the flip side, I’m also the sort of person who will take eight hours to finish something that should only take two or three, just because I happen to have eight hours to spare that day.
Perfectionism is a big part of the reason I tend to take longer than necessary to accomplish things. Procrastination is another big part. But not having a solid routine in place, or understanding what sort of conditions I need to replicate in order to be productive and stay productive has also hampered my creative output a ton. At least until recently.
I might not be the most qualified person in the world to offer tips on productivity, but I thought I’d share a few anyway that have worked really well for me. Some are technology-based, some are more old school, and a few have just involved good, old-fashioned changes in routine. In no particular order, here are the strategies I’ve found most effective for improving my own productivity.
1) Downloading a web blocker
I finally broke down and purchased Freedom for Windows a little over a year ago, and oh my God, was that the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s cheap, easy to use, and will lock you out of your internet for a pre-determined length of time that you select before activating it. If you really need to get back online, you have to re-start your computer to do it.
I love Freedom because I can set it to run for an hour, if I want to buckle down and write, or for several hours if I have a bunch of important things to do and I know I’ll be distracted by all the bright, shiny stuff online. There are also a bunch of different web blockers besides Freedom that will just block social media, or that will prevent you from going online on your phone. As far as eliminating distractions goes, this is the single, most useful thing I can recommend.
2) Setting the scene
I’m all for training yourself to write anytime, anyplace, just like I’m all for training your brain to buckle down and focus no matter where you happen to be or what’s happening around you. That said, each person has their own specific conditions that lead to their highest creative output. Determining what those conditions are for me personally, as well as learning how to replicate them, has increased my productivity a ton.
In college, I could write with the TV on, in the middle of conversations my friends were having, in ten minute bursts and two hour stretches. I was used to being surrounded by constant distractions, so I got good at working around them. Now, I work best in a space that’s quiet, or that has low levels of ambient noise. Coffee shops that play music are usually fine. Coffee shops that tend to serve as communal work spaces for other people aren’t always.
I also prefer to have at least an hour or two ahead of me when I’m writing. Any less, and I find myself anticipating whatever I have to do next, instead of really settling in to focus. I do my best work in the mid-mornings and late afternoons, so I also try to sit down and write at those times.
Where, and when, and how long you like to write will obviously be different from person to person. But if you can figure out what your ideal writing conditions are and learn how to re-create those conditions every time, you’re going to see an increase in your productivity.
3) Re-evaluating my priorities
I used to think that if I knocked off all the smaller, less important tasks on my to-do list, I’d have more time for the big, important stuff at the end of the day. Instead, what almost always ended up happening was that I’d get to the end of my day without the time or energy I needed to devote to my project du jour.
It’s okay to jump start your productivity with simpler, easier tasks. I do this a ton, especially when I’m having trouble focusing. But as soon as my brain makes the switch to ‘work’ mode, I make the switch to writing, or blogging, or other similarly thought-intensive stuff. Prioritizing my writing doesn’t just give me more time to write. It also reduces or eliminates a lot of the stress that results when you try and cram several hours worth of work into the half hour of your day.
Try carving out your ideal block of writing time earlier in the day, and save the stuff that matters less for later. Who knows? Knocking out one or two big tasks ahead of schedule might even motivate you to finish some of those smaller tasks ahead of schedule too.
4) Making a plan
Day planners are my friend. To-do lists, also my friends. I don’t know about you guys, but I wouldn’t remember anything OR get anything done if I didn’t write it down.
At the start of every year, I make a list of goals that I’d like to accomplish–both writing-related and otherwise. I’m not super strict with myself on a month-to-month basis, but I definitely check each month’s progress against those goals to see if I’m doing okay, or if there are ways I can improve. I don’t set a lot of day-by-day goals for myself either, but if I do happen to set a goal for a particular day, you can bet I write it down.
Goals are my map, showing me how far I’ve come and how far I need to go. They keep me motivated and on task. That said, I think too many people–myself included–see their goals as being set in stone. If, during one of my self-evaluations, I realize that a goal I’ve set for myself is no longer realistic for whatever reason, I either alter that goal or eliminate it for the time being. It’s one thing to have a plan and set your own goals and do what you can to stick to them. Berating yourself over a goal that you know you’ve got no chance at achieving isn’t healthy or productive, and you’re better off just adjusting your expectations for yourself before carrying on.
5) Not working when I know I won’t be able to work
I’ve already mentioned that I was a lot more flexible about my working conditions when I was still in school. And for a long time–like, years–after graduation, I kept trying and trying to be that person who could buckle down and write anywhere, even though I knew I wasn’t anymore.
Now, if I know that I’m going to be spending time with family, or on vacation, or involved in any other activity where my attention will be diverted, I excuse myself from writing completely. I don’t bring my computer along. I don’t set any goals for myself. And without that constant subconscious pressure to get some work done, I’m both a lot more emotionally present and a lot more clear-headed when I do sit down to write again.
When you give yourself some breathing room, the permission to enjoy life away from your work, the work itself becomes a lot more enjoyable too. It’s a big mental shift to make–one I’m still making, honestly–but it makes a big difference.
Feel free to take what might work for you from this list, and ignore the things that don’t catch your eye. And if you find these, or other techniques, especially useful to your productivity, drop me a line and let me know.