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.
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.