What Is Your Best Productivity Advice?

By Lynn Truong on 26 August 2007 (Updated 8 October 2007) 25 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

I was a very unproductive employee while working full time. Mostly it was because I hated the job. Partly it was because I got away with it--everyone did. But now that I'm working for myself, time is money. Instead of my breaks and web surfing being on someone else's bill, I'm paying for every moment I'm not being productive. After three years of trying all sorts of ways to keep myself away from the couch and TV, I've found that the most effective productivity trick is simply to get enough sleep. Many people take for granted what consistent good sleep can do for the body. I know it took me a long time to get out of that college mentality of sleeping late, taking naps throughout the day, and sleeping in on the weekends. Now my sleep schedule is consistent, no matter what day of the week, and any time I get less than my usual amount of sleep, I'll be groggy and unmotivated the rest of the day.

I asked fellow Wise Bread bloggers what their best productivity advice is. Share yours in the comments and be entered into a random drawing for a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate!



Justin Ryan
Justin RyanI don't work on Friday.

Yep, that's right, I just don't. Sure, if someone has a catastrophic failure, I'll go fix it, but as a general rule, I don't schedule anything for Friday, and I don't spend the day in the office working on things.

I like to spend the time doing things I need to do (whatever that may be) or doing something neat with friends, but inasmuch as possible, not doing work. I find that it helps make the rest of the week a lot more productive, because I know I need to get it done so it won't affect my Friday plans. I don't need to weasel away time to goof off on Tuesday morning, because I've built it in all day on Friday.

Since I've been taking Fridays off, I've found that I don't wander off to do other things when I'm supposed to be working, and I actually end getting so much done that I end up working less *every* day as a result. Also, it's really fun to dangle over my friends: "Oh, no, I don't work on Friday. No, really. I don't. Ever."

Nora Dunn
Nora DunnPersonally, I'm one of those sickly-productive people.....usually. When I was in school and we received assignments with deadlines weeks away, I'd go home and complete the assignment that night. (told you it was sickly)! Friends would wonder why I was doing it, and I said "so I can go out and play not having it hanging over my head"!

And when the deadline approached, I was out playing my little heart away while my friends were toiling on the assignment they procrasinated over.

When I worked for "the man", I found my tasks for the day complete by early afternoon, and then I was forced to "look busy" for the rest of the day - a soul-sucking task if you've ever had to do it and can't web surf or read a book.

I always said "If I am so productive, I should be rewarded for finishing my work early. I have other stuff to do!"

So, off I went into the wonderful world of entrepreneurialism, where I controlled my day from start to finish. If I had all my tasks done, I could take time to play!

I shortly discovered that the irony to being self-employed is.....your tasks are never done!!!

So with that in mind, lists are my saviour. Boring and predictable, they constantly remind you what you need to do. When you cross an item off the list, it feels good. I'll even write things on my list just so they can be crossed off!

You never forget to do anything, because in the very moment a new task crops up, it goes on the list. Even if I think I'll remember, I write it down. I have a memory like a seive, as do most people I know.

And when I decide it's time to go out and play, my list will be waiting for me when I'm ready to work again - and my list won't have missed a beat.

Andrea Dickson
Andrea Dickson I'm one of those people who does all of my personal projects at the last minute. I don't do this at my real place of employment, because companies expect all kinds of daily milestones, plus when I work collaboratively, it doesn't help team dynamics to leave other people dangling.

However, for my own work style, if I'm writing an article or a freelance submission or some marketing prose - I procrastinate until the last second and then do it all at once. Why? I just work best that way. The pressure helps me focus on the task at hand, and the procastination time allows me to ponder and mentally file away some good ideas for the project, when I finally get around to it.

For years, I felt really bad about this work style, but I finally realized that if that's the way I work best, so be it.

So, in terms of productivity, find your style and work it. Assuming your style doesn't cramp anyone else's, there's no need to apologize for it, whether you're super-slow and meticulous or ultra-speedy and mega-creative.

Philip Brewer
Philip BrewerI've always thought of myself as a fundamentally lazy person. I never wanted to do most school work, so my elementry school report cards always said "needs to improve study habits." I got through school anyway, and by the time I got to college I had gotten things together enough that I managed to finish most of my assignments, pass my classes, and get a degree. Through a twenty-five year career as a software engineer I got quite a bit of work done, but was often unmotivated and found it difficult to be productive.

I eventually realized, though, that I'd been selling myself short. I'm not fundamentally lazy, I just don't want to do stuff I'm not interested in. I find it easy to work hard and be productive when I'm interested in the work. I need to be internally motivated.

Internal motiviation: I saw a kid once who was working on a new skateboard trick. It was on the quad at the University of Illinois, just behind the student union, where there's a concrete patio separated from the grass by a low wall. The kid would skateboard in a wide arc that ended with him riding parallel to the wall just a few inches away. He'd then try to jump the skateboard up onto the top of the wall. In the time it took me to walk across the quad he tried and failed at this trick eight or ten times. After each failure he'd right the skateboard, kick off and repeat the wide arc to try again. He didn't need a parent or teacher or coach standing there, telling him to keep at it. He did it again and again because he wanted to. That's internal motiviation.

The productivity part is easy: Do what you're internally motivated to do. You'll never be more productive than when you're doing what you have a passion to do.

If you want to be productive doing the dull stuff, you'll need to talk to someone else. I've never figured that part out.

Ed O'Reilly
Ed O'Reilly Besides iCal, I use a program called (oddly enough) Notebook to organize my tasks. It lets you clip files, URLs, reorganize your lists, add check boxes, etc. Before Notebook I just used to write and rewrite a list of things to do on a pad.

Being self-employed and (for now) working from home, it's important not to get too distracted with a lot of domestic chores or errands that you think you should be doing; it's really a way of avoiding just jumping right in to working. For me, I try to set a start time for work, a lunch break (during which I'll run out to the post office, the bank, etc.) and, if possible, when to call it a day. For me, late nights can be counterproductive to my work in that my creativity wanes.

Basically, you set your own rules and stick to them. I suppose if you're someone's boss, enforcing those rules might seem easier than following them for yourself.

Julie Rains
Julie Rains Productivity is not my strong point as I tend to be a slow (deep?) thinker and methodical worker. I love to learn new things, relevant or not to what's right in front of me; this approach is great in the long run, but not so productive in the short term.

Still, I've managed to develop a few productivity techniques: focus on one thing (or a limited number of things) for brief periods of time; stop working on a project for a bit to gain a new, unexpected perspective that will ultimately speed things along; exercise to get the blood pumping to the brain and de-stress; keep at it until you're finished.

Tell us your best productivity advice and be entered in a random drawing for a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate. Deadline to enter drawing is 9/2. Don't forget to enter your email address in the field provided and only one entry per person!


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Guest's picture

I'm a freelance writer and parent of a toddler, with another baby on the way. What I've found is that it's crucial to get my work done at my mental peak (in my case from 5am to 10am). I usually write during this time and accomplish twice as much -- at least -- in these hours than I do at other times, even when I have a babysitter and no distractions. I save my "down" times in the afternoon for no-brainer errands and events, like coffee with a friend, going to the gym, or hitting the grocery store. Or a nap, which is another productivity booster....

Guest's picture

Email - I only check my email twice each day. Everyone on staff where I work is mobile, and email is our primary mode of communication, but I find that there rarely is something so urgent that I need to check it more than that.

Cell Phone - Am I in charge of my cell phone? Or, is my cell phone in charge of me? I rarely answer my cell phone. I set up a very brief but friendly voice mail message, and I allow 90% of my calls to go to voice mail. My wife is probably the only person who gets an answer every time she calls me.

Guest's picture

When I need to get things done, I set a timer for a short burst of time, work through it, take a break, and then do the same thing a little bit later. That's because my biggest obstacle to productivity is feeling overwhelmed. I usually set aside around 30 minutes to work on something if it's not a stressful task, and as little as 15 minutes if it's something I really dislike doing or something that seems impossible to me. Sometimes that means, yes, that I'll just open a file and stare at it for 15 minutes, but usually it means that I discover that a task that I saw as daunting really isn't that bad, and next time, I'll spend 30 minutes on it.

Second to this is recognizing when I'm losing focus. There comes a point in certain tasks (learning tasks, usually) where there is no use continuing to read or study, because I'm not absorbing what's in front of me anymore. At that point, I need a break, or I need to do something else for a while. Recognizing this has saved me a lot of wasted energy and work time, and I wish I'd known it while I was still in college.

Guest's picture

the short bursts idea is genius! i will do this from now on, thanks so much!

Guest's picture

I use a style of organization similar to Ed O'Reilly's. I use Outlook's calendar and task features combined with a PDA. I use the calendar for things that are either part of my daily routine (such as meetings, chores, and exercise) or work-related (such as meetings, etc). What makes the calendar work for me is that things are part of a daily or weekly routine. A nice feature with the Outlook calendar is being able to print off a calendar based on specific categories, which allows me to have a chores calendar and an exercise calendar on the frig.

I use the task list for things that I need to be able to check off of a list to keep myself motivated. What makes the task list work for me is the ability to see progress and actively check things off. Since my calendar and task list are synced with my PDA, I am able to add, remove, change, or complete things while on the go.

The key to making any type of organizational style work, whether it is a pen and paper, or a daytimer, or a time-management program, is choosing a style that works for you and then integrating it into your daily life.

Guest's picture

I'm just like Phillip. I procrastinate on assignments that I don't find interesting, but I always manage to find time for stuff that I love to do. For example, I'm in grad school, and I can tell you that last semester, I was always motivated to write and design marketing assignments, but much, much less motivated to read chapters in my User Interface Design book - even though reading takes far less effort than writing!

I've accepted this about myself. I'll need to look for a job that allows me to focus on the things that I truly love to do, so that I can be most productive with it.

Guest's picture
Lisa Neutel

I find that eating good food, frequently makes a huge difference in my productivity. Hunger and low blood sugar levels (even though I'm not diabetic) are sure-fire killers of my ability to concentrate. By planning ahead and having snacks like yogurt, crackers and cheese, or apple and peanut butter, at the ready allow me to have adequate energy throughout the whole day. I also make sure to balance carbs with protein and fat. There's nothing like a big plate of pasta for lunch to bring on a useless afternoon!

Guest's picture

I am a freelance massage therapist. I generally work two days a week at a spa/salon, and the rest of the days I work as on call. So I am fortunate to stay at home and wait for calls.

I spend most of my downtime, reading articles on massage, keeping updated with my massage association, doing my laundry, stretching and exercising to stay fresh physically, and I also have a colleague that does massage trades with me while we are waiting for clients. I also online "tutor" prospective students and graduates of massage therapy to help them get in a right path, and also work on my webpage, and create more ways for free advertising.

Guest's picture

I usually have 2-3 To Do lists at any given time, organized by deadlines. As a full time student, I usually have my daily to do, my weekly do to, and my weekend to do. Add in other lists for home and social activities, kept in place using iCal and post-it notes, and I'm one of the most efficient members of my circle of friends.

Guest's picture

I have been self-employed for the past 4 years, and one thing I have learned repeatedly is to straighten out small issues or potential problems up front. I've learned over the years that it actually takes less effort to tackle a small problem as soon as you become aware of it, instead of deciding to take care of it later.

When deadlines approach, those small problems are usually the furthest thing from your mind, and take much more effort to fix. I've had small things like this bite me in the ass at the last-minute plenty of times.

Just take the extra effort in the beginning, and things will be much smoother in the end.

Guest's picture

When I have a large design project to work on, or I'm on a tight deadline, I put on some really good tunes that will keep me energized and I find I can lose myself in my work for a lot longer than expected!

Guest's picture

Hello Lynn,

I read your profile..I feel for you and understand how you feel. I work full time and blog part time. Sometimes I'm not certain I'm in the right line of work...but I still plug through. Blogging gives me an outlet to express my thoughts.

The way I stay organized and productive is to complete an assignment or task the moment I think of it. The more you put it off the more it will accumulate until it becomes overwhelming. I used to carry around a detailed note pad with every single one of my daily tasks no matter how trivial but I found such extreme organization drove me crazy because I was never able to fully complete each task. Now I just jot down little reminder notes to myself, but the difference is I quickly complete the task the moment I remember it.


Guest's picture
Ro Rich

I agree with you Raymond. I used to constantly postpone my tasks with the feeling that I will always have time to complete them. I was so wrong. I started college at the age of 16 and decided to take a some time off. It took me another ten years before I actaully went back to school. Most of my old high schoolmates continued their studies since graduating high school and have become doctors and architects. It took me 15 years after high school to get my degree. In the end I graduated, but I could have been ten years into my career right now. It was actually the birth of my daughter that made me realize that I needed to finish what I start and set an example for her, if not for anyone else.

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Guest's picture

Recently I've come to realize that I am more productive than I give myself credit for. When I was "confessing" to my husband that I felt like such a slacker, he laughed at me and told me that I accomplished more than I thought. It took me awhile to believe him, but he was right.

My problem was that I over-loaded my to-do lists. Where most people might put five tasks on a list, I'd put fifteen. Plus, I'm always thinking of new things I want to get done and I'll add two tasks for every one I complete. Instead of "under-promise and over-perform" I was aiming for "over-promise and over-perform."

Also I realized that over-loading often made me feel overwhelmed, which sometimes causes me to want to hide and avoid, instead of tackling projects.

Keeping my goals and expectations reasonable are something I still struggle with, especially because I get bored if I'm not feeling challenged. Now if I could only wean myself off the rush I feel working close to deadlines...

Guest's picture

I'm a procrastinator. I also tend to over-analyze rather than execute.

For me, some days the key to getting things done is to start them. When I have a list of 6 high-priority issues to work on, all of which will take "a couple hours", rather than trying to further prioritize them with the issue owners, I figure out which issue is likely to be the cleanest to finish - fewest follow-up tasks and other entanglements. Then I do it and move on. There's nothing worse than staring at a pile of work and freezing up. So, on one hand, I could spend 6 hours following-up with the issue owners about the priority of their items... on the other hand, I could spend the day getting 2-3 of them off the list. It's a bit "cares to the wind", yes, but there comes a point when you just have to get something done! As soon as I start, it's like a weight is lifted and suddenly I'm so focused and productive I'm in danger of missing meals!

Guest's picture

I am most productive when I am both well organized and my work environment is organized. It bothers me to be in a dirty and scattered office or room in which to work. I find that if I'm messy and unorganized it takes extra time to find the specific items i need, if I find them at all. I always take maybe 5 minutes and straighten my desk and office before i start. It doesn't necessarily have to be spotless but just orderly. I find that I'm also much more relaxed and less stressed when everything has a crisp and clean look to it. This goes not only for my desk and office but also for my computer. Take some time and clean up those old email in your inbox, my documents, and off of your desktop. It just settles me knowing that everything is set and ready for work. Plus when i come in and and take 5 minutes to do this, it allows me to calm down and get ready to work.

Guest's picture

Inertia breeds inertia, while simply being productive at all will get the ball rolling towards more productivity. The key is to never sit down. After work, go directly to the gym, then do errands, then cook dinner, etc. Once you sit down, it's all over...

Guest's picture

When I was in college, I had a problem with procrastination (I know, amazing, right). If I sat down at my desk in my room to work on a paper, I always found it so easy to get distracted (this room needs cleaning, my fingernails need clipping, I think I'll crawl into this cozy bed & take a nap).

I often found myself to be much more productive when I was working in a public place, around others who were doing similar activities. When you are in a place like a quiet coffee shop or library, you are motivated by those working around you, and you can't get away with going to sleep. Worked for me.

Guest's picture

Before starting a job I estimate how long it will take -- I do a total hour estimate and I calculate how many days it will take me to complete the job. My completion date it is usually a few days before the actual due date -- this gives me a bit of cushion in case something else happens. I use a Project Planner notebook to log my time. I log off when I take breaks, go out for lunch, etc. I use the left column of the page to make notes pertaining to the job, for example, things that I must tell my client when I turn in the final work. Keeping track of my time allows me to complete a job by my estimated date/time. It also allows me to quote future jobs that are similar in nature.

Guest's picture

Before starting a job I estimate how long it will take -- I do a total hour estimate and I calculate how many days it will take me to complete the job. My completion date it is usually a few days before the actual due date -- this gives me a bit of cushion in case something else happens. I use a Project Planner notebook to log my time. I log off when I take breaks, go out for lunch, etc. I use the left column of the page to make notes pertaining to the job, for example, things that I must tell my client when I turn in the final work. Keeping track of my time allows me to complete a job by my estimated date/time. It also allows me to quote future jobs that are similar in nature.

Guest's picture

I'm a big list person as well, but I make them flexible. I often feel the more I have to do something the less I want to do it, so I'll make a daily and weekly list, sometimes being very general about the task and other times being very specific. This way, if it's a bigger project, I can complete part or all of it. And I allow for plently of time, because I also procrastinate. My best solution for getting things done is to look at an item on my list and go. I used to read and re-read the list, re-write it and number the items in an order I'd like to complete them and that was just my way of putting off actually doing any of them. (I know me so well.) So lately I've just been glancing as the list and whatever I read first is where I start. This way I can't think about it or over-think about it, and usually I'm done with it before I really take notice of the "work."

I think everyone should try different techniques for maximizing their time and doing the "little things" that make our days that much better in order to find what really works for them. Make a game of it, and maybe even utilize different methods for your home, school or work lives.

Guest's picture

I too am one of those people always getting stuff done. I have to learn to take the time to slow down. I write a blog on wellness if you would like take a look! http://sreupert.squarespace.com/

Guest's picture

I like to go for a jog in the mornings. Sometimes when I'm not up for a run, I still put on my shoes and go out for a walk. It doesn't have to last long - I sometimes only go out for 20-30 minutes. The important things are to 1. get yourself outside, and 2. do it in the morning.

I find that this is extremely helpful for productivity. It is the only time in the day when your mind is completely cleared and free. This is a good time to think and prioritize your errands, to-dos, and goals, for the day. Since light exercise will also put you in a great good, it will also set a positive tone for the rest of the day as you go about accomplishing your plans.

For those who aren't used to physical activity in the mornings, this may sound like a big, huge hassle. I challenge them to try it for three days straight. On fourth day, they'll be craving to continue it.

Guest's picture

The solitary thing I can offer to you, as a chronic procrastinator, is:
JUST DO IT. Yep, the old Nike slogan! You will be very tempted to see that the sink needs cleaning, the drawer should be re-organized, that online bunny trail needs to be followed. Sure, take breaks, but try to keep them to a set time (5-15 minutes) and don't let yourself get lost.

I agree with the sleep thing, though. *sez I, writing late at night...*

Guest's picture

For people who are working on a number of projects or tasks at once, organisation is key. I have a 'projects' binder with a separate section for each project, a corresponding computer file folder and internet favourites folder, and I organise short-term projects on separate clipboards. All hand-written notes and relevant paperwork is stored in each project section.

And when you know your own files like the back of your hand, it increases your productivity exponentially. Unless you have a full-time assistant who knows the files that well, having a part-time or temporary person come in to do your filing for you will end up backfiring, because a) you'll waste time looking for things or duplicating what you don't realise is already there, and b) you'll miss out on opportunities, because your files become a holistic part of your work that supports you, helps trigger your memory, and stimulates ideas.