You've tried everything: asked around, played with a few theories about "how you work best", and downloaded app after app promising to make you more efficient. If you feel like nothing's working, this crash course examines some of the most lauded productivity systems, then walks you through how to can cherry pick the methods that work for you to create your own productivity style.
Photo by David Chico Pham.
If you're spending more time researching and implementing a productivity technique than you are being productive, it's not actually helping you. Since you're spending time reading Lifehacker, you already have an interest in productivity and getting things done faster, but that doesn't mean you have to shoehorn someone else's process into the way you work.
There are lots of different techniques, but no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some well-known productivity techniques that can help you get yourself together. Take all of them, parts of them, or none of them: remix the components that mesh with your workflow into a technique that's all your own.
For The Task-Master: GTD (Getting Things Done)
What Is It? The GTD philosophy, pioneered by David Allen and enshrined in the book Getting Things Done, proposes that the best way to organise yourself and keep moving through your personal projects and your everyday work is to get it all out of your head and onto paper or into some other format as quickly as possible so it's manageable and prioritised. Additionally, GTD proposes that you organise your tasks in order of priority and the amount of time required to accomplish them: things that can be done quickly should be done sooner, and large projects should be broken out into things that can be done quickly and arranged with others. Photo by alt1040.
What's Noteworthy About It? GTD can be a little arcane at times, and many GTD faithful will tell you not to try and borrow bits and pieces from the philosophy. They'll also tell you to read the whole book before trying to implement any of it. There's something to be said for understanding the whole thing, but that's no reason you can't pick and choose some of its techniques.
For example, GTD's approach to cutting down monolithic projects and ongoing tasks into simple, bite-sized chunks can be applied to any style of work, and you don't need to have read the book to appreciate that. Don't let your big projects overwhelm you, and don't let vague, fuzzy to-dos stop you from doing the work that you can do. Break it all out into bite-sized pieces and start attacking the things you can handle while pressing for clarity on the others. Make sure those bite-sized pieces are organised by difficulty and effort required, and you can attack all of your work in order of most important and fastest to do, combined.
Also, GTD puts heavy emphasis on documenting your work. Regardless of the tool you use to stay organised, whether it's a complex project management suite or a notebook and a pen, get the things you have to do down in some format where you can be reminded of them. Ideally, you'll use some service or tool that will remind you and bring that work to you when it needs to be done, like we discussed in last week's highlight of ReQall. However you go about it, these are the big takeaways from GTD.
What Tools Should I Use? GTD tries desperately to be "tool agnostic". In fact, many of the philosophy's most faithful will tell you that you shouldn't rely on a specific tool. They may be right in this case. Since GTD is focused on getting work out of your head and into some format that works for you, it's less important to use a special app than to actually start doing it.
Pen and paper works just fine for a philosophy like GTD, but there's a cottage industry of applications and services that cater to it as well. Some popular web apps with GTD in mind are Remember The Milk, Toodledo, Nozbe, Producteev, and previously mentioned LazyMeter. If you'd rather install an app to organise using the GTD philosophy, try our own Gina Trapani's Todo.txt for the command line and Android, OmniFocus or Things on the Mac, and Koi for Windows.
For the Clock-Watcher: The Pomodoro Technique
What Is It? If you work best in bite-sized, laser-focused chunks of time and you don't mind the ticking of a clock, the Pomodoro Technique is for you. It's less of a productivity technique as it is a time-management technique, but the idea is that you should work intensely on a specific task for a set period of time, and then take a short break. Do this several times an hour, and then take a longer break and reset yourself. Strictly, those set working times are 25 minutes each with five-minute breaks in between, so you fit two sessions nicely into one hour, and then take a longer break before starting the next set of work sessions. Photo by mlpeixoto.
What's Noteworthy About It? The Pomodoro Technique is built on the philosophy that the human brain functions better in sprints, not marathons; meaning you'll get more high-quality work done if you press yourself into working for a short period knowing there's an end in sight after which you'll stop working.
One of the most important takeaways from the Promodoro Technique is that it requires you to estimate the amount of time required to complete given tasks. You don't want to set yourself up for failure, so you have to dissect your work into chunks that can presumably be completed in one pomodoro, or 20-minute session. This is an incredibly important skill â€“ being able to accurately estimate how long it takes you to do your work is important in any field, regardless of the productivity technique you use. It's essential to being able to understand when your plate is empty or overflowing, and essential to being able to speak confidently about whether you're overworked or ready to take on a new project.
Another important takeaway from the Pomodoro Technique is its emphasis on distraction-free work. It's easier said than done, but the fact that you should be working intensely for 25 minutes before a five-minute break means that you have to minimise or remove any distractions that would keep you from being productive during that 25-minute period. If you don't, you'll wind up getting frustrated that you're not getting as much done as you liked. Making sure your work environment is as distraction-free as possible is important in any philosophy and applicable anywhere, but it's critical to this one in particular. Photo by Kevin Collins.
Finally, the Pomodoro Technique puts emphasis on recording your completed tasks for motivational purposes and for tracking. There's not as much emphasis on getting your to-dos on paper or out of your head as there is in GTD, but there's much more placed on making sure you record the work you've done when you finish a work session. Doing this will help facilitate weekly reviews and help you document for your boss or your own sake what you've been working on and how far you've come on a project or task. Plus, it doesn't hurt to be able to look at a document or piece of paper at the end of the day and say, "yeah, I got a lot done today."
What Tools Should I use? The core tool of the Pomodoro Technique is a timer. In fact, the name "Pomodoro", which is rooted in the Italian word for "tomato", was applied to the technique because Francesco Cirillo, the man who invented it, used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to clock his 25-minute work sessions and five-minute breaks.
Ultimately, the only tools you need to implement the Pomodoro Technique in your workflow is a timer that fits into it, whether it's an egg timer you keep on your desk or a desktop app that sits in the corner of your screen and counts down the minutes until your next break. However, the technique's emphasis on minimising distractions has given birth to a wealth of distraction-free writing and coding tools like PenZen and Q10, and others that you may already use.
A La Carte Tips for Anyone on Any Plan
When building your own personal productivity plan, don't start and stop with the established philosophies and techniques. There's a world of great tips beyond those plans. Here are some of our favourite quick and easy to apply productivity tips and techniques you can apply to your daily routine with little effort that yield big results.
Don't Fear Alarms: The Pomodoro Technique relies on alarms and timers to help you stay on task and remember to take breaks. Don't be afraid of alarms and timers, even if you're not following the Pomodoro Technique: remembering to take frequent breaks can not only help improve your overall mental agility, but it's also essential for your health. You can get started by setting alarms that won't be intrusive to you, like when to start your workday and when to stop it, when to take a lunch break and when to return. Photo by Nicolas Will.
Over time, you can use regular alarms to help you single-task on specific items before moving on to new ones. If you get started with tasks you already know well, they won't be so troubling later when you use them to stay on task. In the long run, you may find they help you be productive and stay sane.
Consistently Sleep and Wake: It may seem counterproductive to make sure you get to bed and get up at the same time every day, especially when many of us instinctively sacrifice sleep to keep working. Quite the contrary: you'll do more high-quality work if the one thing your body-and your mind-doesn't have to worry about is being well rested. You won't suffer through periods of drowsiness if you're well rested, and you'll know exactly how much time you have to dedicate to your work when you are awake. Sleep isn't strictly part of any productivity technique, but it should be. Plus, if you sleep well, it's easier to wake the hell up. Photo by xlibber.
Schedule Everything: In the same vein as using timers to stay on task and stay focused, you can minimise distractions by scheduling your work. Blocking off time on your calendar for regular tasks like email or to work on a project you know is important and coming due is a great way to make sure you never have to scrape for time to work on something — it's already locked in on your calendar.
This works in two ways: first, it gives you the freedom of knowing you've blocked out some time to work on that important project, catch up on your email, or just focus on your daily activities. Second, if you have a shared calendar that people refer to when looking to book you for meetings, your busy times are blocked off so you're not distracted when you're trying to work. It won't work for managers or colleagues that book over your appointments, but it might help.
Minimise Distractions: In addition to scheduling your work to minimise distractions, it's important to try and screen out distractions from your work environment as well. We've mentioned distraction-free tools already, but consider a pair of noise-cancelling headphones if you work in a noisy office. You might also consider working remotely or telecommuting to minimise distractions if your home or home office presents a more focused work environment. We've discussed how you can convince your boss to let you work from home, and minimising distractions was one good selling point. Photo by William Brawley.
Distracting colleagues aren't the only things that can detract from good, focused work. Ringing phones, email alerts, direct messages from Twitter or Facebook, all of them can be a productivity killer. You don't have to do it all day every day, but when it's time to hunker down and focus, shut off your ringer, close your IM client and Twitter client, and close your email app. You don't have to go all out and only check email in the morning and evening-although that's one way to go-but removing those distractions when it's time to get some work done will do a world of good. One last tip: if you work in a noisy office, consider noise-cancelling headphones. They may be the best investment in your productivity that you ever make.
Learn to Single-Task: We've said it before, multitasking is your enemy, even if it's still a value that's held in high regard at offices around the world. Ultimately, the key to being productive on any task or project is leaning to single-task when it's time to get real work done while appearing to multitask. That means learning when to be available while you're working and when to go dark to work, versus trying to be available while working at all times. It also means learning to be efficient and picky about what you do at what times, accommodating people who expect always-on availability, and still maintaining the discipline to hunker down and focus when you need to â€“ and of course, learning to say no when you need to.
My Productivity Franken-System
Now that you have some productivity tools, philosophies and tips under your belt, mix and match them to create a productivity technique all your own. Whether you choose to adopt all of GTD or dive right into the Pomodoro Technique is up to you, but you don't have to in order to be more productive. Take the ones that work best for you and apply them where you can â€“ start small and work your way up.
In both writing and project management, I found the frequent breaks and opportunities to refresh and recuperate from the Pomodoro Technique extremely helpful, although I didn't care much for the timer aspect. I borrowed the idea of taking regular breaks to do something else and the intense documentation of accomplishments from Pomodoro and combined them with the emphasis on getting tasks and projects out of my head and into a tool that would remind me from GTD to form a methodology all my own.
I also made a point to find a tool that would facilitate my memory (ReQall) by alerting me to when my work was due and when I had new items to work on, but one that was easy enough to fire up and dump new work into when it came to me or I had a new idea. I also made a point to block off areas of my calendar for things like weekly reviews every Monday morning and every Friday afternoon (partially to keep my colleagues from scheduling Monday AM or late Friday meetings) just so I had that time to reflect on the week past and build my task list for the week ahead. I also invested in a pair of great noise-cancelling headphones.
I took bits and pieces from multiple philosophies to build a workflow that worked for me, and you can do the same. It won't happen overnight, just remember to start with small changes or additions to your routine that can turn into tangible changes. Pick and choose the ones you like and implement them slowly so you have an opportunity to see how they influence your routine without turning your life upside down. If it's difficult, slow down. If it doesn't work, ditch it and try something else. It doesn't mean you failed, it means that aspect doesn't work for you. Eventually, you'll build a personalised technique that will have your colleagues wondering what your secret is.
Apply It Outside Of The Office
Productivity is so often tied up in terms of work and office culture that it's easy to forget that we need to be productive in all of our endeavours, even if being productive means not doing anything at all (as in, hurry up and relax.) Making productivity your lifestyle doesn't mean you have to apply a rigour to everything you do, it just means you can: your pet projects and creative ideas don't have to sit in the background until you "have time to work on them". With the right mindset and a few tools, you can be more effective at work, at home, and at play. Photo by Photon_de.
Remember, the goal of being productive is to leave time for yourself and the things you want to do, not just giving you ways to free up time to take on more work. That may be the side-effect, especially at the office, but being able to draw a strong line between projects, between tasks, and between your work and your life will give you the freedom to enjoy more of your personal time when you don't have to do anything at all.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything from every philosophy to benefit from them. Don't think you have to go out and buy a bunch of books or planners or equipment to get things done. You can pick and choose from multiple philosophies, put your own spin on them, and before you know it, you're actually working smarter. We promise, it doesn't have to be difficult.