16 Ultimate Skills You Need to Boost Your Productivity
Wish you had more hours in the day?
Time is a limited resource. So is your energy. In order to get the most out of each day, you have to maximize your productivity.
Want to know how to be more productive at work or home?
I recommend focusing on two objectives:
Understand when, and how, you are most productive. Make it a goal this week to understand what time of day, in which environment, you get the most done.
Build ONE new productivity habit this week from the list below. Time management and productivity skills can be honed with consistent practice.
When I was in grad school, I worked three part-time jobs simultaneously in addition to having a full course load. This meant that I had to be extremely efficient with my time in order to adhere to these commitments and still have time to exercise, do laundry, get groceries, socialize, sleep, etc.
How'd I do it? By practicing these 16 essential time management and productivity skills.
When your attention is spread across multiple things, you generally don’t do any of them well. You’re a little distracted, which will take more time in the long run because it requires your brain to continually refocus on the task at hand.
Research suggests that it can take your brain 25 minutes to refocus on the original task after getting distracted.
Are you guilty of keeping a ton of tabs open on your web browser? How about email or chat notifications on your computer or cell phone? Minimize these distractions while you’re actually working by closing them and turning off notifications.
I know, it's uncomfortable. What if they need you?
I challenge you to try avoiding all distractions for one hour. In that hour, just focus on the one task at hand and see how productive you are. Then set aside dedicated time later to check your emails and notifications.
I'll share one of my favorite quotes:
“Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” - Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
To be really efficient and to get a lot done in a short amount of time, focus on one thing at time. Yes, just one. This means you need to ruthlessly prioritize.
If you want to really, REALLY focus, check out Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, which takes this focusing concept to another level.
#2: Say no (sometimes)
I received some great advice in my first job out of college. A very high-level manager asked me to work late into my Friday night on a rush project. Her advice to me was this:
“You can say no sometimes, but you can’t say no every time.”
Ironically, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice given that I was new to the company and was trying to make a good first impression, but her advice is something I’ve taken with me. I use it when trying to set boundaries both professionally and personally.
For those who are like me who instantly feel FOMO and a tremendous sense of obligation when asked to do something, it feels completely unnatural to say no. But sometimes that’s what’s required in order to create boundaries and protect that all-important limited resource of time.
On the other hand, if you say no too much, people may think you’re not a team player. They may stop inviting you to things. Hence the “sometimes” qualifier above.
If people in your life are used to you always being on board with a lending hand, they might be a bit surprised when you start saying no (which makes it even harder for you!).
Do it gradually and gently. Some things to practice saying:
“I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. Is there anyone else who might be able to give you the attention this deserves?” (or point them in the right direction)
“I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“Not this time, but I’d love to join/help out next time!”
Saying “no” to things will help you with the first skill, focusing.
#3: Do challenging work at your peak productivity time
Your energy is limited. There are times of the day or week when your mind is sharpest. There are also certain environments that let you focus the most, like a quiet library, an organized desk, or a coffee shop.
Everyone has a different “peak productivity time.” Do you know yours? If not, your job this week is to discover your most productive time.
For me, my peak time is Monday morning, sitting at my desk. I’m reenergized from the weekend, I’m focused, and my desk has the advantage of being slightly uncomfortable (no chance I will doze off) and it offers minimal distractions.
What’s your optimal productivity setup?
Perfectly quiet, or some background noise?
Alone or with people around?
Sitting or standing?
Desk or couch?
At home, or out of the house?
With coffee? Snacks? Just water?
Once you know when you’re most productive, then I encourage you to do your most challenging work at this time. When you work on challenging tasks during your best hours, you spend less time doing it overall, giving you more free time later to work on another project or something fun.
What happens during your sub-peak time? That’s when I suggest saving your “fun work” (more on this below). For me, doing creative design work is fun and doesn’t require my 100% focused energy.
RELATED: How to Be Productive While Working from Home
#4: Plan your time, but don’t spend all of your time planning
We can’t talk about time management without mentioning how to plan your time.
To what degree should you plan your time? Down to the hour? Minute? Well, it depends.
If you don’t plan your time at all, you set yourself up for failure.
Here's a possible scenario: You start the day by checking email, and this turns into putting one fire out after another. You start and stop a few different projects, but keep going down rabbit holes. Before you know it, an entire day has gone by and you haven’t crossed a single item off your to-do list. Sound familiar?
On the other extreme, if you enjoy organizing things, you may have a tendency to spend all your time planning instead of actually executing.
I call this phenomenon “procrasti-planning,” because in trying to craft the perfect time distribution, you end up actually wasting a lot of valuable time.
There’s a happy medium. How do you plan enough without going overboard?
List out the five or six things you’re going to accomplish that day. Be flexible. Realize that it’s subject to change.
Accept that some things will take longer than planned, and that’s okay. Be sure to build in buffer time. If you think a project will take two hours, allow three or even four for unanticipated things that come up.
So how long should you spend planning your time?
This entirely depends on the project, but I spend about 15 minutes each day planning the day ahead, and about an hour each month planning my monthly objectives.
#5: Embrace uncertainty and imperfection
If you’re wondering where all your time goes, take a careful look at how much you spend on researching and perfecting.
Don’t get me wrong. Research, planning, and quality are necessary and valuable...to a point.
But you need to ask yourself an honest question. Will spending another hour (or many hours) on this make a difference?
Usually, the return on the time invested levels off. If you’re spending time getting a project from 90% to 95%, it’s probably time to cut yourself off.
To be efficient, you have to be able to master the art of letting go of perfection.
The truth is, you’ll never been 100% certain or perfect. So do your due diligence, make the best decision with the information you have at the time, but accept the fact that uncertainty and imperfection is a part of life. At some point, you need to take a leap of faith; otherwise, you’ll lose a tremendous amount of time.
If you’re someone who struggles with this, embracing uncertainty and imperfection will be difficult. But you stand to gain a TON of time.
To help you start to break free from perfection, ask yourself some questions:
Are the stakes of this project the level of Sistine Chapel, or is it okay if it’s not perfect?
What’s a reasonable amount of time spent on research and planning for this?
What would 90% complete look like for this project?
Who can give me a sanity check at different milestones to help cut me off from spending too much time on one part?
Bringing awareness to your perfectionist tendencies is the first step to overcoming them.
#6: Make decisions and commit
Has the following scenario ever happened to you?
You start a task and then partway through, you suddenly get an idea for another direction to take the project.
Do you change course and start all over again?
Or another scenario: you have decision paralysis. You’re stuck because you can’t make a decision. So you spend hours agonizing over the decision.
When you feel the weight of a big decision, you justify the time you spend thinking about it.
On the one hand, you don’t want to stick with a bad decision because of sunk costs. If the new idea is significantly better, it may be worth starting all over again.
On the other hand, the new idea may seem better just because it’s new and you’re bored with the original approach. It may be better to stick with what you’ve already started, and at this point, the only way out is through.
The problem may not be that your original idea was bad; but rather, you never actually decided on it.
On the Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam and Daniel Gilbert discuss the psychology of decision-making. They share that the most painful part of decision-making is when people haven’t yet made a decision and are agonizing over it. But once they do, people are happier when they’ve decided and moved on.
Finally, think about the permanence of your decision.
Jeff Bezos says successful people view decisions being either a one-way door (irreversible) versus two-way doors (reversible). The theory is that it’s not worth spending a ton of time analyzing two-way door decisions because if necessary, you can reroute if you make a mistake. Don't agonize over the two-way door decisions.
Make your decision, commit to it, and you’ll be happier and more productive.
#7: Set limits and deadlines
For some people, having a deadline can be an extremely effective way to limit the time spent on a given project. How can you set deadlines and hold yourself accountable to them?
Depending on the task, the level of accountability you set can vary.
Let’s say you use social media. Instead of checking your social news feeds for a few minutes every hour (which can add up to hours every day!), give yourself 20 minutes once a day to indulge. Set a timer that will remind you when your 20 minutes is up.
If you have a big project, estimate how long the project will take you by:
Breaking the project down into chunks.
Estimate the time for each chunk, plus a buffer. These are the project milestones.
Add up the total time and determine a deadline for the entire project.
Schedule your milestones and deadline into your calendar. Then, find someone who can hold you accountable to these milestones and schedule check-ins with them.
Having an accountability partner can motivate you to meet the milestones because you know they’re expecting you to complete them.
#8: Schedule breaks
Having a break to look forward to is important for productivity. If you keep going nonstop, you eventually run out of steam and risk burnout.
How long or frequently should you take breaks?
It really depends on you and the task you’re working on. It may change on a given day or project. Some people like one long lunch or afternoon break during work. Others work best taking shorter, more frequent breaks every hour or half hour.
Test out various break strategies. See which ones work best for you. It may vary based on very cognitive-heavy tasks versus “fun work.”
I recommend making the most of your break by distancing yourself from what you were working on. If you’re writing on the computer, consider changing up the environment: go get some fresh air or even take a quick nap.
#9: Experiment with Order
One school of thought says that you should do the work you’re least excited about first.
It's best summarized with this famous quote:
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” - Mark Twain
Well, what if first thing in the morning isn’t your peak productivity time? Or what if doing the undesirable project first makes you fear and procrastinate getting started in the first place?
Try ordering your to-do list in different ways to see what motivates you the most.
You know the low-hanging fruit tasks? The “fun work?” Try listing one of those first on your to-do list, so that you’re excited to start acting sooner.
Another strategy is to put fun work at the very end, so you’re more motivated to get finished with the tough stuff.
You can even try book-ending your day by putting the more enjoyable projects first and last on your list.
Experiment with different ordering and see which works best for your productivity.
#10: Beware of fun work
I’ve already mentioned “fun work” a few times.
It’s a dangerous threat to your time and productivity because it often disguises itself as being busy.
But remember: being busy is not the same as being productive.
How do you know if you’ve fallen into the trap of fun work?
Think about your priorities. What’s going to have the biggest impact on your long-term goals? If the thing you’re working on is delightful, time-consuming, but deep down you know it’s not going to have a tremendous impact on your outcomes, I’ve got news for you.
You’re ambling in fun work territory.