We all have the same twenty-four hours in a day. Yet some of us are so much more productive than others. And some days are more productive than others.
It’s a question I often ask myself. The most logical response is: time management. Looking objectively at my own productivity (or lack thereof), I see days when I manage time well and days when distractions abound, and I fall into rabbit holes. The good news is, distractions are easy to identify—and, for the most part, avoid.
Good time management, combined with treating yourself kindly—the most important thing you can do for yourself!—can make an enormous difference in how you spend your day, perceive your work, and affect your attitude and mood.
Common-Sense Ways to Increase Productivity
Turn off and unplug. On your time off, when you’re not facing down a deadline, answer your phone, obsess over Facebook, post away on Twitter, Google your driving questions—which, for me, might include: the start date for Kurt Sutter’s forthcoming series, Mayans MC; Lady Gaga’s work history and bio; the cost of a facelift (not that I’ve got the guts to have one); how the Zodiac killer managed to elude the police—all the truly pressing questions. Inquiring minds want to know.
When it’s time to work, if you want to get anything done, turn off the electronics.
I don’t know about you—email is my deepest rabbit hole and toughest to avoid. First, it’s easy. Or easier—than staring at a blank page, for sure. Or finding the motivation to edit a scene or chapter, yet again. Especially when I have no real direction, other than the nagging sense that, whatever it is just isn’t quite right.
Plus, let’s face it, writing is a lonely profession. Email offers a connection to the world. Even when a message isn’t exciting or particularly noteworthy even, talking to people is fun. It’s less fun, however, to watch the hands tick round the clock and realize hours have passed, while you mindlessly answered your email.
Answering mail at a set time can help. Try limiting yourself to, say, an hour a day or, if you can’t possibly miss a message, an hour twice a day, morning and night.
Easier said than done. Granted. People who set a timer and work in chunks swear it helps sustain focus. I’ve gone as far as putting a timer on my desk. Where it sits, unattended, while I do my best to ignore it and try not to feel like too big a loser.
For me, a reward for completing a task—the carrot thing—actually helps. My rewards are pretty simple: when I finish editing this page, I can read for an hour. Or, finishing this project will give me a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes I trick myself with the potential for a reward: write 1000 words, you can quit for the day. Once I have 1000 words down, or some amount of work done, the fear—the biggest reason most of us procrastinate—eases and I’m invested enough in the work that I want to keep going.
Do one chore or activity at a time.
You’re a great multi-tasker. I know. Only, sorry to say, the truth is, you’re probably not. Studies show that multitasking is inefficient and costly. According to research, reported by the American Psychological Association, our brains are not designed for multitasking. Experiments published in 2001, by Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, show that “shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” In situations where safety is at issue—texting and driving, for instance—multitasking can even be deadly.
Break overwhelming projects into manageable chunks.
Have you ever sat down at your computer, staring at a blank screen, wondering what the heck you were going to write, feeling completely overwhelmed, and maybe even a little scared? I certainly have. A big project, like writing a new novel, as exciting as it is, can feel crushingly frightening. What if you can’t do it? Your plot stinks and your characters refuse to come to life? What if, after spending days, weeks, months—years!—writing, the novel doesn’t pan out? What if you publish—traditionally or on your own—and readers hate your book? Critics pan it? Your own mother thinks it’s trashy or stupid?
Maybe you’ve never experienced crushing self-doubt. If not, bully for you. I mean, um, good job! You’re a better, smarter, more confident person than I am. At the start of a new project, it’s normal to be anxious and scared. In fact, some degree of anxiety is good. Our fight-or-flight mechanisms kicking into gear means the project matters to us.
To ward off the anxiety, try breaking the project into chunks. A novel consists of about 300 pages, give or take. A chapter, on the other hand, can be ten, or five, even one. A scene can be shorter. Or start with character descriptions. Learn their quirks, habits, and motivations. Reward yourself for finishing this part of the project, and move on.
Find your quiet spot.
Anxiety is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reasons for loss of productivity. When we’re anxious, our brain shuts down. No matter how hard we try, focus eludes us.
Rather than racing headlong into your day, find your quiet place. Put on your headphones and listen to music, practice and focus on breathing, meditate—whatever it takes to help you ease comfortably into your day. I often read, particularly when I’m writing fiction. Reading reminds me how much I love books and motivates me to write.
Stay hydrated and nourished.
It’s easy, especially when you’re on deadline, to forget how important it is to eat well and stay properly hydrated. If you’re like me, you don’t realize you’re hungry until you’re famished, your body drooping, your brain in a dizzy, hypoglycemic swirl. In such moments, do I reach for an apple? A banana? A hunk of cheese or slice of roast chicken? Of course not. I go for the quick fix and grab something, anything, chocolate.
The sugar in the chocolate converts rapidly to energy, and briefly I experience a high. Then boom. Post-sugar dump. A glass of wine or bag of gummy bears does the same. To avoid the hypoglycemic afternoon slump, take time for lunch. If you truly don’t have time for a break, bring healthy snacks to your desk—fruit, cut veggies, a handful of nuts.
If you want to be productive, drink your water: your brain cells need water to operate properly. Dehydration causes mental fatigue, memory loss, and mental confusion.
The biggest mistake people make with time management is forgetting to schedule in downtime. It feels good to look at your calendar with every block filled in. It’s the ultimate in productivity, isn’t it? Your week organized, every moment planned and accounted for.
Problem is, energy is not an infinite resource. Renewable, yes. Rest, relaxation, a good night’s sleep—having fun—can work like magic to restore energy and optimism. But, as Jack Torrance knew, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Change the word Jack to your brain, delete the words a and boy, and you have a truth worth recognizing.
When we don’t take time for ourselves, to rest, relax, smell the roses, exhaustion sets in and we quickly burn out.
Of all the strategies we can use to conquer fears, be more productive, staying positive is probably the hardest. When we’re scared, tired, depressed, conjuring positivity can feel almost impossible. And telling yourself to buck up—or worse, someone else telling you to smile—never mind that it doesn’t help, at all, is counterproductive, if not downright mean. But there is a way out of the doldrums. As Aristotle said: “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” In other words, fake it till you make it.
True, you can’t fake confidence. Confidence comes from hard work and achievement. You can, however, fake a smile. Your brain interprets and reacts to signals from your body. Pay attention to the way you’re sitting: sit straight; pull your shoulders back, opening your chest; relax the muscles in your face. Spread your elbows; take up space. Positive body language tells your brain you’re confident and energetic. As hokey as it may seem, projecting confidence—even to yourself—really does affect your mood.
What strategies do you use to motivate yourself and increase your productivity?
I'd love to hear your thoughts!