If you find yourself stressed about deadlines, spending too little time on important tasks, or procrastinating, you’re hardly alone. And it’s hardly hopeless. Here are seven productivity tips that will help you get more done in less time.
Have you ever found yourself procrasticleaning? Or perhaps doing some kind of low-effort, low-impact work to avoid the big, hairy project you’re not sure how to get started on?
You’ll be most productive if you work on the most important work first, rather than wasting time on low-impact work and then rushing to meet your deadlines in the amount of time you have left.
Mark Twain reportedly advised: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, you’ll get more done after you finish your most panic-inducing task than if you put it off. Not only that, but you’ll:
Feel less anxious
Have more energy for your most taxing work
Enjoy a feeling of accomplishment instead of dread for the rest of the work day
But how do you decide what your “frog” is? And should you necessarily do the task that freaks you out most? What if they all freak you out about the same? That’s where the Eisenhower matrix comes into play. Productive people use it to help them achieve their long-term goals. In short, it’s a method for categorizing and prioritizing items on your to-do list according to their urgency and importance.
The Eisenhower matrix is a box with four quadrants:
Start by writing down every item you need to get done over the next month or so (or as far out as you can go). Next, begin ranking each task based on its urgency and importance.
Urgent and important tasks include things like filing taxes if it’s near tax day. Important, but not urgent tasks could include writing your will or the next great American novel. Tasks that are not important, but urgent are tasks you can outsource. Examples could include analytics reporting or graphic design for an upcoming presentation. Finally, tasks that are neither urgent nor important are tasks you should simply delete from your list.
Once you’re done categorizing, you should have a list of important and urgent tasks to tackle first. If you’re tempted to procrastinate on any of the tasks at hand, either do the task now or move it to the category where it really belongs.
Once you know what you need to be working on then you need to ensure you have time to tackle your most important tasks. You might look at your calendar and think you have plenty of time in between meetings to get things done. But all time is not created equal.
Productivity experts like Cal Newport and Nir Eyal believe deep, profitable work requires chunks of uninterrupted time that are at least two hours, preferably longer. Chunks shorter than two hours impose unnecessary switching costs.
That’s because interruptions kill productivity. Context switching can cost as much as 40% of your productive time. This is due to a phenomenon called “attention residue.” Research shows that when you switch tasks it takes a long time to get back to the level of efficiency you were at before you were interrupted. It takes 25 minutes and 26 seconds on average to get back on track. Other studies put it at 23 minutes.
When author Cal Newport examined the work habits of 25 famously prolific, creative people he found they spent an average of 5.25 hours per day in deep work. Most of us, Newport argues in his book Deep Work, can spend about four hours in deep work per day. Newport himself works in two 2-3 hour chunks per day. (Check out our Deep Work summary and concept guide.)
It’s in those periods that most workers get the majority of their real work done. For example, Carl Jung wrote his books in a tower with no electricity to minimize distraction. Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed in New York so far from his family they blew a horn at mealtimes. Theoretical Physicist Peter Higgs, the namesake of the Higgs boson particle, has never sent an email, surfed the internet, or used a cellphone. He was so out of touch that journalists couldn’t contact him to tell him he’d won a Nobel Prize.
At Clockwise, we call two or more hours of uninterrupted work time Focus Time.
To get more uninterrupted Focus Time for their workers, companies including Shopify and Facebook have implemented a “No Meeting Day.” Every week, they have one day for heads-down work that isn’t interrupted by meetings for peak productivity.
To make your No Meeting Day as successful as possible, try not to implement it top-down. Instead, talk to stakeholders first. Explain what you hope to get out of a No Meeting Day, and give them a chance to raise any objections they might have.
Another tip: Be flexible. For example, Atlassian won’t schedule team meetings, one-on-ones, or all-hands on their No Meeting Day. But they will schedule whiteboard sessions, external candidate interviews, and meetings where functional specialists collaborate on complex problems.
Another way to get more Focus Time is to implement "blackout periods" a la the R Street Institute, a Washington think tank. At the beginning of the pandemic each team would pick a half day each week where workers aren’t expected to respond to any internal communications and may not have internal meetings. “External meetings and doing work aren't forbidden during this time but people are encouraged to use the time for family and personal business,” R Street President Eli Lehrer told me.
Now you know what you need to do and you have some uninterrupted time set aside in which to do it. But you still might find yourself mindlessly moving from task to task, spending more time than you should on a particular task, or wondering which task on your list to work on next.
The technique tech leaders and productivity gurus like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Cal Newport use to avoid these productivity pitfalls is called time blocking. This is where you estimate how much time each important task will take and schedule a time on your calendar for it.
You can also take this a step further with time batching, where you group similar tasks together so that you’re only having to do one kind of work during long stretches. Time batching reduces context switching for greater focus and efficiency.
In his book Atomic Habits James Clear uses stories about British cycling, cats in puzzle boxes, and a hospital cafeteria to impart lessons from psychology, philosophy, and social science on how to get more done in less time. Clear makes a compelling case that developing and maintaining “small” habits is key to prioritizing and completing your most important tasks. The trick to effective time management is harnessing this process to create habits that move you toward your goals.
Clear builds upon Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to offer the four-step model of habits: Cue, craving, response, and reward. Habits that make you more productive and fulfilled are formed the same way as habits that hold you back. First there’s a stimulus. It’s followed by a behavior. Last comes a reward.
Newport also touts the importance of habits and routines for making productivity as automatic and effortless as possible. We asked workers about the routines that helped them stay on-task while working from home and we found three main themes:
1. Establish habits that help you transition to and from “work” mode.
This can be anything from changing clothes as part of your morning routine and at the end of the day to changing locations. The idea is to give your brain cues that it’s time to start and stop working.
2. Take a break at lunchtime.
Counterintuitively, taking breaks doesn’t decrease productivity. It actually leads most people to work more efficiently.
3. Set and communicate your work hours to your boss and colleagues.
Healthy, clear boundaries between work and home life can increase productivity and help stave off burnout. Rituals like putting your laptop away and/or signing out of Slack signals to your brain (and colleagues) that you’re done for the day.
It’s certainly true that some people are naturally better at time management than others. However, in their paper on time management, Brad Aeon and Herman Aguinis found that time management skills can be learned. Workers who received time management training felt less stressed and more in control of their time than their peers who didn’t get the training.
Productivity thought leader Maura Thomas recommends time management trainings incorporate the following three components:
Train people to better understand their role rather than just understanding their specific tasks
Focus on attention management skills rather than just “time management” skills
Curricula should incorporate a comprehensive workflow management system (such as when and how to use project management software)
If your continuing education training budget can’t cover a high-quality time management course, even just reading time management advice can help. One study showed workers who read a time management manual managed their time better than their peers who didn’t read the manual.
Going back to the Eisenhower matrix, there are likely way more tasks you can easily automate than you realize. Many of the tips in this article, in fact, can be implemented with the aid of inexpensive or free software.
To help you prioritize your tasks, we recommend the task management apps on this list. Task managers keep all your tasks in one place where you can easily add them, delete them, and access them from any device.
Tracking your time with time tracking apps like Focus Keeper, Clockify, Toggl, and RescueTime will help you see how long certain tasks have taken you in the past so you can better estimate in the future. Check out our comparison of three free time blocking apps based on features, ease of use, and price to upgrade.
We recommend scheduling your lunches like any other appointment to ensure you get that midday break. But you can also automate it by setting up lunch events in Clockwise. We’ll make sure you have 30 minutes in the middle of your day for a break with no effort on your part.
Here are some benefits of using Clockwise to automate your No Meeting Day:
When someone at your organization tries to schedule a meeting on that day, Clockwise will automatically suggest a different day
Our team insights offer details about your team's bandwidth
Clockwise automatically syncs your team’s availability and OOO schedules to a shared calendar
There’s no easier way to protect your Focus Time than using Clockwise. Our Autopilot feature automatically opens up blocks of Focus Time by moving your meetings to more optimal times for you and all attendees. Having Focus Time scheduled on your calendar helps protect it from being scheduled over. We also streamline scheduling by suggesting ideal times to meet. And we automatically resolve conflicts and manage time zones so you spend less time manually scheduling and rescheduling.
The color coding feature automatically assigns a color to calendar events based on their category, so you can batch your tasks without having to create and maintain separate calendars.
Our Slack sync enables you to schedule meetings right inside Slack, display real-time availability based on your calendar, receive a daily meeting forecast, and turn on automatic Do Not Disturb. Zoom sync makes it easy to add a Zoom call to any meeting in one click. You can sync your work and personal calendars so you never accidentally double-book or miss an important personal event.
Just about every impediment to productivity is multiplied for Software Engineers. Besides the tips already outlined in this post, we recommend Software Engineers also learn some basic software project management skills to increase their productivity.
Even if you work with a project manager, understanding project management basics will make you better at managing your time. Many aspects of project management can help projects go more smoothly and help reduce total project time. Learning how to get better at scoping projects, breaking projects into milestones, and communicating progress and blockers can save you time and energy.
We’re all looking for ways to get more done in shorter periods of time. These seven tips should help you increase your productivity and work more efficiently.