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25 tweaks to increase your productivity

Personal development is very rarely made up of major changes, but is often about many small adjustments made over time. These small changes eventually add up to a long-lasting improvement, and are much easier to accomplish than a huge shift. Whilst some of these changes might not seem significant at the time, they can be important building blocks that form of the foundation of future habits.

Here are 25 small tweaks you can use to increase your overall productivity.

1. Start as you mean to go on

The first hour of the day is sometimes called the "Golden Hour", as it sets the tone for how the rest of the day will unfold. Set yourself up for a highly productive day by making the most of the Golden Hour. Gather your thoughts, read through your goals (both long and short-term), read your affirmations and prepare yourself for the day ahead.

2. Use positive affirmations

Positive affirmations are a tool for replacing negative self-talk with something more productive. It's quite common for people to use negative affirmations without realising it, so why not give your performance a boost and replace these negative vibes. Your affirmations should be present tense, personal and as specific as possible. Read them every morning and night, and keep them on an index card so you can whip them out and read through them when you have a few moments spare.

3. Set goals

It's all too easy to take life as it comes, and not to look further ahead than the job that's in front of you, but by taking this approach you miss out on so much more. Goals give you a clearer picture of where your actions should be leading you, which makes prioritisation much easier. Well written goals are also great motivators, and they can help you through tough times as you know that completing difficult tasks will lead to something much better. If you're new to goals, see the article "goal setting for beginners" for some helpful tips.

4. Brainstorm

Brainstorming (or mind-mapping) is a great technique for getting your creative side going and putting lots of ideas onto paper. Simply start with a blank sheet of paper, and write your central topic or idea in the center. As related ideas come into your head, add them to the sheet and connect them to the related idea with a line. Once you've got a few ideas down, you'll find the rest flow very quickly. The important part is to go for quantity not quality. It's important not to judge ideas until you're done, as it can stifle the creative process.

5. Eliminate distractions

If you're going to start doing some work, make sure you eliminate all possible distractions. Turn off your phone, put up "do not disturb" signs and let people know that you're working. Turn off the TV too, and if you're connected to the internet you might want to unplug your connection too. Even the smallest distraction can break your concentration and reduce your productivity, so do your best to make sure your environment is as free of distractions as possible.

6. Keep a journal or progress log

Keeping track of your progress might seem like overkill, but it can be a valuable insight into how effective you are, as well as how close you are to achieving your goals. Journals are also good for capturing your moods and current ideas, and for working through difficult problems.

7. Use contextual to-do lists

One of the most useful, and perhaps obvious, tips from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology is organising to-do lists into contexts instead of projects. Most systems will have contexts such as "@Desk", "@Computer" and "@Phone". This way of organising things makes it much easier to tick off lots of little tasks at the same time. Once you've used it for a few days, you'll wonder why you didn't think of it before.

8. Use a someday / maybe list

This is another excellent tip from Getting Things Done. Good ideas can spring up at any time, and more often than not it's at a time when we're working on something totally different. The someday/maybe list is a way of noting down a good idea or a cool project for review at a later date. Ideally this list should be reviewed every few weeks to see if there is now time to work on any of the items, and also to clean out any ideas that aren't so great now the initial excitement has worn off.

9. Take a mind dump

It's hard to work on a task when a trillion other things are swimming through your head, so grab a piece of paper and perform a mind dump. The basic idea is to get absolutely everything out of your head and onto paper so it can be processed later. Once everything else is stored on paper you'll be able to concentrate on a single task without being distracted by other random thoughts.

10. Monitor your time

Keeping a time log doesn't have to be anything complex, and just writing down the start time and the activity will give you enough data to see where your time is going. This is especially useful if you ever get the feeling that you're wasting your days. Even a few days of using a time log can give you a deep insight into where you need to focus your improvements. It's not uncommon to gain one or two productive hours a day from using this technique, as knowing you're monitoring your time can prevent you from going back to unproductive habits such as surfing the web or watching TV.

11. Use a focussing partner

Sometimes the going gets tough, and you need a little bit of extra support to get you through. This is where a focussing partner comes in. You give a close friend or colleague a copy of your goals and targets, and they can help make sure you're moving in the right direction. It's not always easy to open up your deepest values and goals to another person, but you can gain a lot of insight and motivation from the experience.

12. Prepare your workspace before you start

Before you start working, make sure you have everything you need to hand. Pens, paper and plenty of water are the three essentials I keep at all of my workspaces. Also make sure you have any information or books that you'll need handy. Getting up to fetch something might not seem like a big time eater, but it interrupts the flow of work, which can be hard to get back into.

13. Take a nap

Getting 40 winks might seem like the last thing to do to increase your work rate, but studies have shown that taking a nap during the day can considerably improve concentration and performance. Fifteen to twenty minutes is usually enough time to recharge your batteries, and coupled with a splash of cold water after waking up you'll be ready and raring to go.

14. Take a break

Sitting in the same place for any length of time is never a good idea, so take short breaks during the work day. Even if it's only a few minutes, a short break and a little light exercise can work wonders for your productivity.

15. Get yourself organised

There's some stigma attached to being organised. It can often be regarded as being cold and calculated to be organised, but in reality it's one of the most important things you can do. Setting up a system that works for you is the most important thing, and it's quite likely that you'll need to try a few systems before you find something that fits. At the very least you'll want an inbox for processing incoming jobs, a collection of to-do lists and a collection of alphabetised folders for a reference system.

16. Eat properly & keep your fluids up

Today's work environments can be very fast paced, and there's never enough time to get everything done, let alone take time to eat and drink. Don't give in to the temptation of skipping meals, especially breakfast. Your body needs energy to keep you going, so make sure it has enough for the job. Also make sure you keep your fluid levels up by drinking plenty of water, as this increases your energy and improves your concentration.

17. Get some exercise

You should aim to do at least thirty minutes of exercise, three times a week. Swimming, cycling and skipping are all good activities. If you're jogging, try to job on softer ground to protect your joints from wear and tear that can be caused from running on a hard surface.

18. Use the four D's

When processing your inbox, use the "four D's" approach to sorting the contents:

  • Do it – If the task will take less than two minutes to complete, do it right away. Any task that takes less than two minutes will take longer to add to your system than if it's done right away. The time savings from this technique alone can be quite substantial.
  • Delegate it – If someone else is better suited to completing the task, delegate it. Delegation can be one of the hardest skills to master, but it's another great time saver.
  • Defer it – Defer tasks that need to be done later. They can either be noted on your someday/maybe list, or entered into your calendar if they must be completed on a certain day.
  • Drop it – Think about the task. Does it really need to be done? If you're sure the outcome of completing it won't be worth the effort involved, drop it.

19. Learn to say "No" again

An important part of being productive is realising that you can't do everything. Saying "no" is something we learn to say at an early age, and it's a sign of our growing independence. However, as we get older we become less proficient at saying no, through a mixture of guilt and fear. If you don't have the time or the energy to take on a new job, don't be afraid to say no.

20. Work at a higher tempo

Author Brian Tracy advocates working at a higher tempo in order to get things done faster and more efficiently. Instead of slowly trudging through a task, aim to get it finished in half the time. This doesn't mean you have to cut corners or produce something of a lower quality, but eliminate all of the small distractions such as staring out of the window or thinking about what's for dinner.

21. Limit your time

Any task you have to do will usually expand into its allotted time. Combat this effect by limiting the time you give each job, and make sure you stick to it. Knowing you only have a limited amount of time to complete something can help push you forward, and you'll find yourself completing tasks in a shorter space time.

22. Start small

Whenever you're trying to make a change in your life, start with a small change and work upwards. You wouldn't go into a gym and try to start lifting the heaviest weight you could find, but this is exactly the approach many people take when trying to change their lives. Start by making small changes, and build upon these successes as you go.

23. Revisit previous victories

Don't get caught up in negative thought patterns. Keep a record of your previous victories, and read through it when you're feeling low on energy or self-esteem. Constantly remind yourself about where you've succeeded, and look at previous failures to see what good came out of them. Reminding yourself of where you've done well can help push you through tough obstacles that appear, and motivate you to reach the finishing line.

24. Break down your big tasks

Breaking down your tasks help you to focus on one piece at a time, and can help prevent feelings of being overwhelmed. Completing any task, no matter how small, gives us a boost of energy and confidence which makes us more productive. Aim to maximise the number of victories you have during the day, and you'll feel better about yourself and your work.

25. Experiment with different productivity techniques

Don't be afraid to experiment with different techniques. Use 30-day trials, either alone or with a friend. You could even write about the experience online if you feel it will help your progress. Remember: not every technique you try will work, but the more you try the more likely you'll find something that makes a real difference. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone too, and grow into a better person.

Why we procrastinate (and what to do about it)

We all procrastinate at some point in our lives, whether it's procrastinating over completing a project or putting off painting the living room .A small amount of procrastination is not always a bad thing, as it can give us time to think things through, but regular procrastination can destroy your life as chances pass you by. We're often aware that we're procrastinating, but we still do it anyway. Why is this, and more importantly, what can be done about it?

Why we procrastinate

Procrastination is mostly used as a defence mechanism to protect us from our fears, such as the fear of failure. This behaviour is reinforced by the fact that procrastination is often rewarded. For example, even high school assignments that were completed the day before were often rewarded with a relatively high grade. There was very little incentive to go the extra mile and complete something early and to a higher standard. If anything, this kind of behaviour would often result in alienation from your peers and even physical bullying.

Despite saying to ourselves "that's the last time I'll leave it so late", we still end up leaving important jobs to the last minute. Why?

Fear of Failure

Failure has different meanings for different people. For a perfectionist, anything less than the absolute best result is a failure. For other people, it may be a lack of praise from someone they respect that causes them to believe their project is a failure. This fear is particularly potent as many people (mistakenly) equate their own self-worth to the worth of whatever they create. If the project is a failure, then in their eyes they are also a failure. This way of looking at self-worth can be extremely damaging, as it prevents us from taking chances in case we fall short of some impossible mark.

Fear of Success

As if the fear of failure wasn't enough, now it's the fear of success! This takes several different forms, but a lot of it is down to your own perceptions of the outside world. You might have negative images of successful people, and worry that you might become like them if you succeed. Again, this fear can come from school where most success is frowned upon by peers. It's often easier to lower your performance to an average level just to get by.

The other worry that goes with success is the fear that you will have more and more work piled upon you when you succeed and that you'll eventually become overwhelmed…

Fear of Being Overwhelmed

As well worrying that success will lead to more work being piled on, there is also the initial fear of seeing how much work the project needs in order to be completed. This leads to stress as all those minor tasks rush through your head. In a sense this is similar to starting with a blank canvas and wondering about how you will transform it into a work of art. Feeling overwhelmed can have a large impact on overall productivity, as you run around putting out fires without ever feeling like you're moving forward.

Fear of Finishing

The fear of finishing is quite interesting, as most of us procrastinate about getting started. Fear of finishing is closely tied to the fears of success and failure, in that the project will be "judged" upon completion, which will lead to either success or failure. There is also a fear of the emptiness upon completing the project, which can be especially prevalent if it's been worked on for a long period of time.

Lack of Direction

It's difficult to get started on a task if you're not sure of where it's going, even though it can feel like planning will only slow you down. It's vitally important to have a good idea of the final outcome for a project, even if the finished article will differ. Without an end result in mind, it's hard to go anywhere.

Lack of Discipline / Laziness

I wasn't sure whether to include this on the list, as it's much easier to beat yourself up and say it's down to laziness than to accept you may be afraid of something. If you find you're always putting the rewards first, you might need to take a look at yourself to see if it's really a lack of discipline, or if you have a deeper fear of something. Don't be too quick to write yourself off as lazy.

How do we overcome procrastination?

Detach your self-worth from your work

This is easier said than done, but it's really important to keep your self-worth separate from your results. It's a fact of life that some things don't always turn out how we expected. At the time failure can seem like the worst thing in the World, but given time it's easier to see the good things that came from it. Lessons can be learnt from every failure, and improvements can be made that will make you a better person. If you fail, take some time to look at it before picking yourself up and moving on.

Break your tasks into smaller parts

Large projects should be broken down into many smaller chunks, which can then be completed in short bursts. This can help to prevent the overwhelming feeling when looking at the bigger picture, and can also be useful to get you get started.

Make continuous improvements

In "Agile Achievement", I mentioned making iterative improvements to projects. Many small improvements over time can help break the mental picture that the first release must be perfect. To follow up with the blank canvas analogy, think of using an iterative approach as using light pencil lines to sketch your picture, before adding more detail and finally beginning the actual painting.

Not only do small iterations help break the image of the huge barrier to completion, but they also allow you to make adjustments much easier.

Understand that you can't do everything

There is never enough time to do everything that you want. If you're feeling overwhelmed with work, it might well be time to learn to prioritize your tasks. My favourite method is one used by Brian Tracy, in which you read through your task list and prioritise based on which task would make the most difference in your life if completed. This helps to clarify which tasks are really the most important, and can help prevent you from wasting your time on irrelevant jobs.

Really Simple Success

I was recently "tagged" by the folks at Breathing Prosperity, who passed on the "Success Tag" message to myself. It's slightly different from usual "blog about yourself" tags as it's aimed at getting people to share their success tips. Here's my take on it…

1. Define Your Success

Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a success. For some it might be a fancy car and lots of neato toys, for others it might be serving others or putting a smile on the face of someone they care about. Defining your success if vitally important, because if you don't decide what it is, someone will do it for you.

You only need to look at modern advertising to see this in action. You'll be never be happy without Product X, Product Y will make you better and so on.

By deciding on what will make you successful, you immediately create a way of finding out what won't make you a success.

2. Set Your Priorities

Make it a priority to achieve your goals. Success is very rarely achieved overnight, and it takes time and energy.

Some tasks are really boring and unpleasant, and sometimes you will just want to sit down and do nothing, and you really want to do something, but always be looking for the things that will bring you closer to achieving your goal and that will bring the most benefits.

3. Commit to Paper

Once you've decided on your goals and prioritised them down, write them down on paper. I recommend paper over electronic storage simply because its more portable and flexible. You can easily pull out an index card to read on a train or bus, or when you have five minutes of spare time.

4. Review Your Plans

This is a vital part of achieving any goal, but it is very easy to overlook. The more often you review your goals, the more they become embedded in your daily thoughts. You should aim to read your goals at least once a day, and review and rewrite them as often as necessary.

Making constant, small adjustments is much easier than making a few very large changes.

5. Take Action

Take action, any action, that will bring you closer to achieve your goal.

Notice I say "any action", and not "the one single perfect action that will solve everything". It's extremely easy to get into the trap of putting off action because you want to make sure you do everything right. There is seldom one perfect action that will complete a goal, so take it one step at a time.

Whilst it's important not to rush blindly into everything, it's equally important not to procrastinate too much on tasks. If you break your goals into small chunks, you can do a little bit of action every day.

10 Ways to Energise Your Day

Waking up in the morning can be difficult. Even if you go to bed full of energy and enthusiasm, it doesn't always carry across to the morning. If you find yourself with a groggy head after waking up, try some of these tips to give yourself some energy.

1. Exercise – 20 to 30 minutes of exercise can do wonders for your energy levels. If the weather is nice, it's even better as you can go outside and breath in some fresh air. If you're particularly enthusiastic, you can go outside in the cold and rain too. If nothing else it will wake you up!

2. Relax – It might seem counter-productive to relax as soon as you get up, but it aids concentration and gives you some time to clarify your thoughts. Even though "just getting on with it" seems like the smart thing to do, it can end up doing more harm than good. Take a few minutes every morning to do some deep breathing or light meditation and clear your head.

3. A Quick Shower – Some people recommend a lukewarm shower in the morning to wake them up, but personally I prefer it to be a little warmer. This is a good idea if you've done some exercise!

4. Ditch The Computer – There have been far too many days when I've sat down to "check my email" only to glance at the clock later and find half my day has gone. Even if your work requires a computer, try and blast through some manual tasks first.

5. Listen to Something Inspiring – This also goes great with exercise. Make a collection of inspiring tunes or podcasts, and listen to them whilst you work-out.

6. Read Something Inspiring – A few inspiring stories first thing in the morning can be a great boost. There are plenty of books full of these stories, but autobiographies are also a good place to go.

7. Revisit a Previous Victory – This is one of my favourites, because it's so simple but is easy to overlook. When things get difficult, our first reaction is often to affirm that we're incapable of completing the task, when the truth is that we're much better than we give ourselves credit for. Take a few moments to remember all the times you've been faced with a difficult moment and have succeeded.

8. Read Your Goals – Your goals should inspire you, so read through them every morning to get yourself in the mood. This also helps to keep you focused on what you want, which is always a good thing.

9. Choose a Reward – Not everything on your to-do list will be fun and exciting, and you may need a little encouragement to get things done. Pick out something that you want, and then treat yourself to it when you're done. Make sure you spend some time thinking about the reward to build your desire and motivation. Simple, but effective if done properly.

10. Ditch the TV and Newspaper – It's nice to feel informed, but being bombarded with all of the unpleasantness the World has to offer every morning can be a real motivation killer. Use the time saved to read something more inspiring, such as your goals or an uplifting story.

Becoming Proactive

In "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", Steven Covey wrote about seven habits that could change a person's life on an immeasurable scale. These habits are split into three distinct areas: Private Victory, Public Victory and Renewal, which cover both internal and external change.

The first habit, and possibly the most fundamental, is "Be Proactive".

What does it mean to "Be Proactive"?

The term "Proactive" has lost a lot of its meaning in recent years, as it has been picked up and bandied around as a buzz-word (much like the term "synergy"). Once you cut through the management speak, you'll see that this habit is one of the most vital that any person can develop.

Being proactive is about choosing how you react in any given situation. The more commonly held reactive model of living suggests that how we act in certain circumstances is out of our control. If someone shouts at us, we become upset. It's not our fault, it's theirs. They made us feel this way.

The proactive model says that you can decide on how you react. By living a proactive life, you take full responsibility for how you act and feel.

Steven Covey illustrates this habit with the story of Victor Frankl, a Jewish prisoner during World War 2. With the exception of his sister, Frankl's entire family perished during the war, and Victor himself was subjected to savage and harrowing torture. During his time as a prisoner, he came to realise that although his captors could take away the freedoms of his physical body, they could not take away the most basic freedom of all - the freedom to choose his response.

How do you become proactive?

Like building any habit, becoming proactive takes time and consistent effort, but it can be learnt in a similar way to most other habits.

I would certainly recommend taking a thirty day trial to see if it makes a difference. Start small and build your way up. Going in at the deep end can destroy your confidence, so start with small things. This helps to give a solid foundation as you gain experience and confidence.

A few examples of where you can try out being proactive:

  • Work on a small task you've been putting off, and pay close attention to how you feel whilst doing it. Experiment with changing how you feel during the task.
  • Replace reactive language such as "I can't" with proactive language like "I choose"
  • Show unconditional love to another person. Don't wait for them to show it to you.

There are plenty of other ways to be proactive, so have fun and experiment. One of the great things about doing a thirty-day trial is that you can try lots of different approaches in a short space of time, but without the pressure of making a permanent commitment.

Why does it make a difference?

Everything can build upon this habit. Becoming a better person requires that you go about it in a proactive way. Getting fitter, learning a new language, starting a business, forming a new relationship or maintaining an existing one. All of these activities benefit when you act in a proactive manner instead of a reactive one.