The 10 Things I’ve Learned About How To Actually Be Productive

Getting things done is challenging, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible goal. Follow these 10 tips to unleash your inner productivity ninja.

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A few weeks ago, I took part in a panel at tech training firm General Assembly discussing the secrets of being productive. These are the 10 bossy tips I shared on that occasion, based on a couple of decades of work as journalist and editor, seven years at the helm of Lifehacker Australia, and a lifelong reputation for making too many lists.

1. This stuff isn’t rocket science

Professional productivity porn producers have made a fortune promoting their specific approach to becoming productive/organised/efficient. It’s like The Biggest Loser but for to-do lists. But just as losing weight ultimately means moving around a bit more and eating a bit less, getting organised ultimately means working out what you need to get done and assigning yourself time to do it.

Sorry, but there’s no hidden secret that will transform you from efficient to inefficient that doesn’t involve willpower and commitment. If a specific methodology like GTD helps you, then adopt it. But if you’re a serial tester of productivity approaches, who starts enthusiastically but then gives up, the problem isn’t the systems you’re trying. You’re the problem.

2. Productivity without goals is meaningless

Productivity isn’t an end in itself: it’s a way of achieving specific goals. There’s no point saying to yourself “I want to be more productive”. Say something specific, like “I want to make sure I never run out of clean underwear” or “I want to stop spending 12 hours a day answering email” or “I want to spend an hour a day working on my novel“. The more precise your goal, the better your chance of achieving it.

3. Stop demonising email: not having it is much worse

Complaining about email overload is a standard feature of office life. And yes, it’s annoying to be constantly copied on crap that you don’t actually need for your job, but remember: the alternatives can be worse. Having started work in an era where email wasn’t standard, I’d much prefer to have electronic mail than to go back to faxes, snail mail and trying to remember when the last time I contacted someone was.

4. Don’t prepare PowerPoint presentations

Sure, if you’re being paid $10,000 to speak to people at the Opera House, then a few slides with attractive pictures will help sell the story. But if you’re only speaking for five minutes, the time spent preparing slides is a total waste of time. Don’t give people an excuse to look at something else, and don’t waste your time fiddling with layouts. Work out what you need to say, say it, then get the hell out of there. You’ll save time for yourself and your audience.

5. Learn the keyboard/gesture shortcuts

As you may have heard around these parts before, Keyboard shortcuts are your friend. Actions you have to perform dozens of times a day are definitely worth learning the shortcuts for. The same goes for your phone. Learning the gestures and shortcuts will help you achieve more without requiring masses of effort.

6. Make a list

No matter which approach to being productive you adopt, you’ll end up with a list of tasks that need doing. Don’t rely on your memory. Write it down. It really doesn’t matter if you do this with a full-blown to-do app or as just a set of scrawled notes on the back of a piece of paper. It’s committing to keeping the list (and crossing things off it) that matters, not how you get there.

7. Deadlines matter

Setting a deadline to complete a task gives you a reason to finish it. Without deadlines, you’ll happily slide tasks from today to tomorrow, from tomorrow to next week, from next week to next year . . .

Some tasks (like your tax return) create their own deadlines, but every task can have one. If you say of a task “I’ll get around to this eventually”, chances are you’re kidding yourself. Every deadline you can skip, you will skip. If you’re constantly missing deadlines, then reassess your approach to setting them, but don’t stop using them.

8. Work/life balance is about saying ‘No’

I’m not going to pretend that work-life balance is easy; I’m lousy at it. What I know is this: the only way you’re going to come close to achieving it is by saying “No” to some tasks. Work inevitably expands to fill the space available, and then some. If you don’t feel able to say “no”, your future is sure to be unbalanced.

9. Shame yourself into accountability with Twitter

It’s easy to blame social media for its time-waste capacity, but it can also be a useful source of accountability. If you commit yourself in public to meeting a certain deadline, you’ll have a built-in set of friends and sarcastic strangers to take you to task if you fail. (Again, NaNoWriMo is a good example of this.)

10. Take what works, ignore what doesn’t

Of all the bossy rules I’ve just espoused, this is the most important. What works for you may be completely useless for others. So I wouldn’t actually expect someone to adopt all 10 of these rules. If just one of them turns out to be useful to you, adopt it and ignore the rest.

Angus Kidman is editor-in-chief for comparison site, a former editor of Lifehacker Australia, an aspiring novelist and someone who’s not afraid to call a bogan a bogan. Follow him on Twitter @gusworldau.

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