My Personal Productivity Rules...What Are Yours?

There's a problem with a lot of productivity advice out there, and it's this — your "rules" for personal productivity are often going to be different than mine. Sure, sometimes there's overlap. Sure, you can always learn from others.

But if you want to see a dramatic increase in your productivity, spend less time reading and memorizing other people's rules, and more time figuring out what your own rules are. You'll be more productive, and in a way that works with who you are. (See also: 5 Efficient Ways to Boost Productivity)

So I'm sharing a few of my personal productivity rules. Maybe some of them will work for you, or inspire you to think of your own.

1. Small Daily Movements Become Big Accomplishments

I tend to think that I must have big blocks of time in order to get any forward movement. So I hesitate and procrastinate, waiting for that "open time" when I can really push and get a lot done on whatever the current project is.

Turns out, that's a waste of time.

Small daily movements add up. It's just that the movements or steps themselves are so small, I think they don't count. They do.

I have to constantly remind myself that I don't need a whole day or a whole week to devote to some project. I just need to take the ten or twenty minutes I have here and there and use them. I need to achieve a little bit of forward movement every day. That adds up, and it builds momentum, and pretty soon there's been quite a lot accomplished.

2. It Helps to Be Ahead of the Game

I learned this one in college, and it's true for my freelance writing as well. In short, I find that writing is a LOT more fun when I'm not pushing the deadline. I do a better job. I take my time. I review. I give it a little more polish. I produce better work.

I'm a pretty quick writer, and I can churn out the words when I'm up against a deadline. I operated that way for my first three years of college — procrastinating on each paper until the night before, then working until it was done, giving it a quick once-over, and turning it in.

I've done that with freelance projects as well. It's not all bad, but it turns what could be interesting and fun into something pressure-filled and stressful.

When I give myself a cushion, even if it's only of a day or two, I enjoy the process of writing much, much more. Maybe this is just me, but I bet that some of you folks who think you can only work to deadline would find you enjoy your work more if you didn't wait until the last minute.

You should try it, maybe.

There's a productivity aspect to this, of course. When you finish ahead of time, you have the extra time to handle any unexpected thing that may occur. You can find another expert to interview, do more research, find the source for that quote in your notes, reword that awkward paragraph, or rethink the conclusion. You can do better work, and you can surprise you client or editor by handing in your piece ahead of schedule.

Trust me, that stands out.

Staying ahead of the game gives me an advantage of being calmer, which makes me capable of seeing my options more clearly, making better choices, and being more creative and more efficient in what I do.

3. Planning Is a (Fun) Time Suck

Most planning is pointless, but I like to plan. I plan in order to procrastinate on doing, because I'm intimidated by some aspect of the project or just because it's tough getting started.

But beyond a very brief plan that gives me some limits on what to do (thus helping me to focus and produce), I really don't need much detail. An editorial calendar, for example, is a huge help in staying on track with my writing.

But a color-coded, alphabetized, uber-detailed, cross-referenced editorial calendar is overkill.

Simple plans work because simple plans are flexible. They give me limits and a clear direction without locking me down into details that will inevitably change.

So I remind myself — plan, but just enough. Then do. Earn more planning time by accomplishing some part of the first plan. Planning and Doing should be a pendulum. Plan, then Do, then Plan some more, then Do even more, and so on.

4. Do Anything, Just Do Something

This is what I remind myself of when I'm stuck.

Just do something.

I get in a rut of trying to figure out what's the most effective use of my time, energy, or day. There are always so many options. So many ideas, so many words, so many projects, so many books, so many lovely ways to procrastinate.

When nothing seems to say "ME! ME!" then I just need to pick something and do it. It might not be the best thing, but it will be something done. Something (anything) done is better than nothing, which is what I'll get if I waste all my time trying to prioritize my task list.

It's better to just tackle something on the list.

5. Work Is Satisfying; It's Just Tough to Get Started

I love writing, I do. But I have total amnesia about how much I love writing every time I sit down to write.

Suddenly, anything is better than writing.

  • Outlines are better.
  • Twitter is better.
  • Facebook is better.
  • Picking that hangnail is better.
  • Making more coffee is infinitely better.
  • Reading blogs — better. By a mile.
  • Cleaning out my Google Reader — better.
  • Trying to see how long I can cross my eyes — better.
  • Scraping up that Dora the Explorer sticker that's been on the corner of my desk for months — that's better, a worthy endeavor, compared to this <spits, hisses> writing business.

This is what I have to remember that the work I do is so satisfying, and when I'm in the middle of working I don't want to be anywhere else.

But getting started is always, always a tough thing. So I need to just start.

6. Give It Five Minutes

Getting started is tough, right? At least it is for me, even on projects I love and am excited about. It's just tough to get rolling sometimes. Okay, all the time.

Five minutes.

That's all it takes to get going on something, really. So that's what I tell myself when I'm stuck, avoiding work, and thinking anything is better than this thing in front of me — give it five minutes. It's a little bribe, really. My brain goes something like this — look, you don't have to do it all. Just give it five minutes, then you can stop. Promise. You don't have to do anymore, and I'll quit bugging you about it, just give it five minutes.

Every single time, I'm so into it in five minutes that I don't want to stop.

7. Divide the To-Do List

I should know this by now, but you may recall I have recurring amnesia. In this area, too — I keep forgetting I'm not actually Superwoman.

So I sit down in my weekly planning session (usually on a Sunday night), and I write out my to-do list for the next day. (I love Mondays, by the way; I'm usually super-productive, high-energy, ready to kick butt, write stuff, and take names. Or something like that.). What I want to do next is write out a to-do list for the day after, and the day after, and the day after.

Here's what I've learned — I take that "Monday To-Do List" and I divide it. By six days. So it becomes my week's to-do list, and I string the tasks out over the Monday through Saturday (I try to leave Sunday free and clear except for my planning session). And when I do that, I end up with a reasonable, realistic, and achievable set of daily lists.

8. Take Notes, Make Notes, Save Notes

For the GTD'ers out there, you'll appreciate the concept of getting all your mental stuff on paper. It's a quick and guaranteed way to help clear up your brain-space so you can focus on doing actual work, instead of just remembering all those details like buy milk and call that one guy back about that one thing.

This concept of making, saving, and reviewing notes is priceless in other ways too: in interviews, conversations, when reading blogs, reading books, listening to a speaker or webinar, at a conference, eavesdropping on that conversation next to you in the coffee shop, so on.

You may remember a lot of what you hear (or think), but writing it down ensures that not only will it be there for you to remember, but your brain can actually be working on taking those thoughts a step further (creating, producing) instead of just focusing on holding those thoughts in safe-keeping.

9. Playing With Productivity Apps Is Not the Same as Being Productive

As much as I'd like it to be…

And we don't really need additional explanation on this one, do we?

10. Get Up Early; You'll Be Glad You Did

I get up early (by which I mean 4 or 5 a.m.) on a fairly regular basis, but I don't hold myself to a daily regimen.


Well, a few reasons.

First, I have four kids. The oldest is 5 1/2, the youngest is 8 months as of this writing. So it's more likely than not that my sleep will be interrupted by at least one kid, at least one time, during those precious hours of sleep.

Second, I have a night-owl husband. Most of the time, I crash when I'm tired and don't worry about keeping him company. But every now and then, we have a date night, or watch a couple of movies after the kids are in bed, or end up doing our grocery shopping (with all the kids) at 11 p.m.

Okay, it's more than every now and then. Late nights like that are frequent in our family. Whatever. Maybe it's terrible, but it is what it is. You can't control everything.

So there are times when getting up early isn't something that's going to happen for me.

This rule is just to remind me that I like getting up early more than I like sleeping in. Because that's true. I never regret getting up early, even at 4 or 5 a.m. Even when I didn't go to bed until midnight. Even when I have a full day ahead.

I often regret sleeping in, because I don't always see the benefit (I still need gallons of coffee), and the early morning time is often the only quiet time in my day.

So, if I can, when I can, which is pretty often, I get up early. And I'm glad I did.

11. Call It Done

I don't remember exactly where I ran across this concept, but it's a good one — the idea is to define what done looks like, so you know when you get there.

Which is, I think, a really important thing to do. 

I simplify the concept just a bit, because in most cases, at least for me, it's not a problem of defining done. It's just a problem of not wanting to move on. I know it's done, or adequate enough to be done. I just don't want to move on. 

So that's when I need to remember this rule — call it done, and move on.

Your turn — what are some of your personal productivity rules? 

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Guest's picture

You point out an interesting issue when you talk about getting things done and moving on. Sometimes I just want to make sure my jobs is ready, and lose time I could use on other projects. Another thing to consider is feeling energetic throughout the day to complete all the tasks you planned initially. We recently wrote a guide that helps you maintain a high energy level to be productive all day. - Erich

Annie Mueller's picture

Erich, yes - energy is definitely important. That's part of why I do try to get up early, because I know my energy level is highest before noon. Whenever I plan on catching up on work after I get the kids in bed, I end up just falling asleep on my laptop... no matter what time I got up that morning.

Guest's picture

Lots of good tips! I personally find your number 4 to be anti productive. If I randomly pick things to do, then I usually pick the thing that is least productive!

Annie Mueller's picture

Marie -- there's an interesting concept that Gretchen Rubin (author of "The Happiness Project" book) talks about: Maximizers vs. Satisficers. Maximizers want to get the most/best out of every decision, so they tend to agonize over trivial decisions and waste time instead of just picking something. Satisficers, on the other hand, tend to be quicker about simply picking the option that first meets their criteria. (You can read her much better explanation here:
Anyway, I'm finding that I tend to be a Maximizer - so rule #4 is essential to keep me out of over-thinking every decision about "what to do next?" and just keep me moving forward.
I can see how it could be counter-productive, especially if you're less of a Maximizer than I am.

Guest's picture

Excellent, I am adopting some of these fo sho

Annie Mueller's picture

Thanks, Crystal.

Guest's picture

Hi Annie,

Loved this post....

I totally agree with point #11 but I disagree with point #9 (in most cases).

There actually are SOME productivity apps that really do work. It's just a matter of finding the right apps that work for YOU.


Annie Mueller's picture

Oh I do love me some productivity apps! I just have to remember that tweaking/trying out yet another productivity app (when I should be writing or marketing or the like) is the same as doing the work. Now, actually using the apps for their purpose to smooth the work - that's another thing. I'm a big fan of Evernote, Google Reader, my little Voice Recorder app, HootSuite, Dropbox, Notecard...
I'm still looking for a great podcast organizer/player for my Android phone, though...

Guest's picture

You are beautiful ... for having 4 kids and still finding time to share your productivity rules...for sharing something which makes a lot of practical sense to me...and also for your looks :)
Regarding my productivity Rule, these days I am experimenting on I have a list of things I feel if I do would help live a life I would like to. I give points to each thing depending on how important they are to me. Then I have a small printout for a month that i keep in my wallet, I use it to record on which days I did which habit(s)...I have a big gift planned for me when I reach certain points.
This is my second month of trying it out...

Annie Mueller's picture

Aw, thanks!
Rewards are Huge, and a great motivator for staying on track with whatever habit you're learning.
If you're an iPhone user, you might like this app which allows you to do on your phone exactly what you're doing on paper (set up points, track, and earn your rewards):

Guest's picture

I love this article! Especially your first point, which was the one I related the most to - I've always felt I needed to dedicate huge chunks of time or nothing at all to a project to be productive, but doing what I can in small bits works tremendously! Right now I work at a job where my schedule is different every day, so it's difficult to really get into a routine with projects outside of that - some days I have 2 hours and others 10! Now I'm really trying to embrace this idea of doing what I can, when I can - and I can already see a huge difference. Thanks!

Annie Mueller's picture

Thanks, Bryna, glad you liked the article. And really glad that tip is helping you out - it's been a huge productivity boost for me. In fact, it's how I actually managed to finish the novel I'd been writing for 5 years. Last year I finally decided to quit trying to arrange an hour or two of writing time, and just take whatever I could get: 20 minutes, 20 words, whatever. I finished it by the end of 2011 in those little scraps of time. The small daily movements really do add up, and faster than we think they will.

Guest's picture

Don't start Activity B until you have cleaned up from Activity A. Otherwise, you have a whole bunch of semi completed/in progress tasks and none of them are even close to being completed or at least put away.

I wish I could take credit for the briliance of this rule but I observed it when I lived across the street from a daycare. When outside playtime was done, all the kids were instructed to put everything away in it's place. Everything was colour coded so the kids new exactly where to put things.

Maybe we need to send some business folks to daycare for a refresher!

Annie Mueller's picture

Yes - this is a great point! And I think it's especially important for online/computer work as it's so easy to keep following links, opening tabs and files, etc., and then you end up with a desktop full of half-completed projects and nothing you can call finished.

Guest's picture

One productivity tip from me is I've found cloud storage to be helpful in my daily business life. I used dropbox for a while, but now am using, because their iPad app is so good. 10GB free, which is an awesome amount of storage, but right now they have a promo going on for 25GB for .99/month. A steal if you need that much storage. (Their promo is here:

I work as a freelance writer, addicted to my iPad. I like being able to access my information, files, pictures, contacts, etc from my iPhone or iPad - and I like this product for that.

Hope that helps someone. ~Shel

Annie Mueller's picture

Good tip, Shel, thanks! I use DropBox (for files) and Evernote (for notes, drafts, etc.) and it's really nice to have my stuff accessible from anywhere. I actually end up using Evernote on my phone frequently when I'm on the go and have a few moments - I can pull up my latest outline or draft and scribble notes in my notebook, do some editing, whatnot. It helps me stick to my rule #1 of using the few minutes I find here and there.

Guest's picture

what a great post, I feel like a just talked to a good friend in confidence.

Rhonda Franz's picture

Love #2, and I'm guilty of #3 and #9 (after I got a smartphone). Glad to see I'm not the only one addicted to planning and getting help with organizing, without actually getting something done. Still working on making GTD principles an ongoing habit.