My tips for productivity

One of the most significant non-academic things I learned during my first year as a PhD student was how to be productive even in moments when I really didn’t feel like it. In fact, I had a pretty good handle on this throughout college as well. I think as a society we tend to over-glorify productivity, and I have definitely done this myself in the past. While it feels great to accomplish many things, it is also important to take time to rest. However, for the times when you have no choice but to be very productive, here are some of my best tips.

  • Have a pre-work ritual. For me, this usually involves cleaning off my desk and lighting a candle; there is just something about candles that puts me in the zone to do work. But your ritual could be using some essential oils, washing your face, making a cup of coffee, changing into a certain type of clothing, etc.; just something to remind your brain that it is work time.
  • Be clear on what you need to accomplish. Seems obvious, but many people plunge right into the work they know they need to do immediately without considering what their next steps will be. This often leads to mis-allocating time and completing things at the last minute. Take 10-15 minutes even to review your to-do list, and decide what needs to be done this month, this week, today, and even this hour. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to do it. That way, you won’t make excuses like “well I’m not going to get this done by 5 pm anyway so I might as well just wait to start it.”
  • Similarly: calendar blocking. This may seem unnatural, but so are our expectations of productivity at times. I learned this tip from Amy Landino. It’s nothing extremely novel, but I do think this is a superior approach to time management than a simple to-do list. When I make such a list, I still end up with various incomplete tasks at the end of the day. When I use calendar blocking, I literally force myself to get things done within a certain amount  of time. Then, if I don’t finish a task, I am forced to move to the next task and/or re-allocate the rest of the time for the day. I actually wouldn’t recommend living every day like this, but on busy days I definitely do this.
  • On that note, I recommend using Google calendar in general. I will talk more about this in my post on useful apps for students, but my life changed when I began to use Google calendar creatively in addition to (and eventually instead of) a paper planner.
  • Wake up early. Or stay up late! Or go to a coffee shop without your phone for a few hours in the middle of the day. Whatever works for you, but the point here is to find a solid chunk of uninterrupted time in an environment where nobody will be bothering you. Usually early in the morning works because it is before most people are awake so you are less tempted to check email, respond to text messages, etc., and the same is true late at night. Some friends recommended going to a coffee shop without a phone — I  haven’t tried it yet, but I think it sounds like a great idea!
  • Use one of those social media blocking extensions on your internet application. I never believed this would work until I tried it. I actually didn’t think I checked social media that much until I added an extension that gave me a 20 minute limit per day (on my computer), which was helpful because instead of being derailed for half an hour to check twitter, I kept getting the “shouldn’t you be working?” page.
  • Say no! I never feel guilty saying no to something that will hinder me from achieving what I need to for myself. Whether it is a social activity, a work opportunity, a request for help (obviously exercise discretion on what is actually more important), little interruptions can really hinder your productivity. Again, not a general rule but something to be strict with yourself when you really need to be productive.
  • Coffee, because obviously.
  • Exercise! When you are tired from a great workout, it suddenly becomes 10x easier to sit still for hours doing your work at the computer (if that’s the kind of work you do). It’s good for the brain, it will help you think more clearly, and just generally improves your productivity.
  • Last and most important tip, which I’ve alluded to already: minimize interruptions. A two second interruption from a quick text or someone knocking on your door can actually turn into a 20+ minute interruption because of the way it disrupts your focus. We as humans actually can’t multitask, no matter how tempting it can be to believe that we can. Focus on one task exclusively before moving on to the next, and you will develop a momentum that allows you to actually finish projects and move on. Resist the temptation to do everything at once.

Do you have additional tips for productivity? Or even tips you have tried and that didn’t work for you?

-AK