10 Tips for Greater Productivity

March 26, 2007

I've been thinking a lot lately about how I can be more productive. These days my activities are limited almost exclusively to family and work. Yet still there never seems to be enough time. If I could just tack on four or five more hours to every day... Since that's not likely to happen, I decided I'd better try to do a better job with the hours I do have. So far, these techniques have been working for me. I'm wasting less time and am more able to concentrate. Of course, I backslide now and then, but overall I've become much more productive.

  1. Take control of your email. In Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day, Gina Trapani suggests checking your email at predesignated times. I check email three times: when I first get to work, around lunchtime and about an hour before I leave work. Yes, it was hard at first. What if someone needed me urgently? I had to remind myself that if it was an emergency, they could always call me. Turning off notifications helped a lot.
  2. Clean out your inbox. This is harder than it sounds, but it makes a huge difference. When I check email, I actively do something with each message. Some emails I can answer immediately and delete. But others are requests for some action on my part. If I can't accomplish the task right away, I write back with a proposed deadline and add the task to a Stickie note (see trick #6).
  3. Use a "pre-trash" trash can. Another tip from Trapani that I love is her "Death Row" folder for documents. I don't have a problem throwing out documents, but I do hate deleting RSS feeds from my reader—what if that blogger who hasn't written a post in 9 months suddenly starts blogging again? I'll miss it! The result has been a mammoth and unmanageable feed list. To ease myself into weeding out my feeds, I set up a "Death Row" folder and move questionable feeds into the folder. In a few months, I'll go back in and check those feeds. If any contain great content, I'll pardoned them and put them back in the main feed list. Otherwise, they're taking the long walk.
  4. Scan RSS feeds. Feed readers are intended to make it easier for users to gather and sift through large amounts of information. I know this. Yet I often find myself reading every word of every post in the hope of stumbling across that one elusive, life-changing tidbit of information. Using a feed reader, I was spending more time keeping up-to-date, not less. Rather than give up on RSS altogether, I decided I had to start skimming feeds. I use Google Reader, and once or twice a day I scan new article titles, which Google Reader removes from the list as I scroll past them. If I see a likely looking title, I scan the post itself. Only the ones that really interest me get a close read. Am I missing out on some great content? Probably. But I'm also catching a lot...and not spending hours doing it.
  5. Set your IM to "Here, but..." Some of us are required by our jobs to keep IM open all day. I love IM. It can help me get a question answered quickly or reach someone with urgent news. But it can also be a tremendous time-waster. I'm learning that it is not rude to ask a question, then log off—that I don't have to make polite conversation as a lead-up and trail-off. But IM can still be intrusive when you're trying to get some work done. I wanted people to know they could reach me by IM if necessary, but that I was too busy to use it for socializing. So I changed my "Available" status in Adium to "Here, but working in the Zone." Any similar phrase will do. The point is to make it clear you're open, but only for business.
  6. Keep to-do lists handy with Stickies. One of the (many) things that made me fall in love with the Mac was Stickies. I use them all the time. Each project I'm on gets a different colored stickie, set smack in the middle of my desktop, which is otherwise bare. I add and delete tasks to a stickie as the project progresses. It's been a great way to keep track of many tasks, especially when I'm on a lot of different projects. All my current to-dos are right in front of me, in neat and scannable lists.
  7. Record your ideas. The very smart (and productive) Jason Santa Maria made this suggestion in his SXSW talk, After the Brief: A Field Guide to Design Inspiration. He advised people to keep a sketchbook with them at all times to record ideas. He also said he took photos of interesting things and dumped them in iPhotos as a sort of "inspiration repository." I've long been in the habit of carrying a small notebook with me, but the idea of taking and saving photos is a new and appealing one to me. All day, every day, thoughts and ideas occur to us; yet without writing them down, they're soon lost to us. Each day we see things that inspire us or stir some emotion or thought in us, yet without capturing that image, we soon forget it. I'm trying hard to use my phone camera and my notebook more. Next time I'm stuck, I'll be able to wander through my personal treasure trove of images and words until one of them sparks an idea or solution in me.
  8. Block off work time on your calendar. When I first starting working at ASU, a veteran 9-to-5-er took pity on me and told me the secret of blocking off chunks of time on my calendar with fake meetings that I could then use to do some actual, real, honest-to-goodness work. I don't make up goofy meeting names anymore, but I still schedule blocks of time on my calendar for work. I do my best work when I'm in flow (or in the Zone). With two uninterrupted hours, I can get into flow and pound out an awful lot of code.
  9. Backup your hard drive. Okay, so maybe this doesn't sound like a productivity trick. At first. Until your hard drive crashes and you lose everything you've worked on for the last month and a half because you never got around to doing daily or even weekly backups. Then let's see how productive you are. Enough said.
  10. Set yourself up to dive right in the next morning. I learned this trick a long time ago in my former life as a writer. I'd read somewhere that the best way to get writing in the morning was to stop in the middle of a sentence the night before. And by golly, it works. However, some of us are a little OCD about finishing things and don't like stopping in the middle—lying awake half the night thinking about that unfinished sentence dangling there isn't going to do you much good, either. A good compromise, I found, was to set up my computer so I can start working right off the bat. I open the software I'll need, and even the files, making sure I have everything at hand just as if I were getting ready to do the work. But instead, I put my Mac to sleep for the night. The next morning, all I have to do is open the lid and, wa-la!, I'm in business. When everything I need to begin work is right there in front of me, ready to go, I give myself no chance to fiddle around or get distracted by something else.

For more tips on productivity, visit Lifehacker.com or LifeHack.org.


I read your blog and i see that i fulfill fifty percent of these rules. But what is their basis? Psychological or other? They look great but if we don't have a psychological backup we might fail.