About a year ago I quit my job and started working from home to create my own online businesses. I thought that with all of the extra time, I’d be able to put in long days 100% focused on the tasks I needed to get done each day to succeed. It turns out that being productive is difficult when you don’t have a boss hovering over your shoulder telling you to get things done.
In the beginning, there were some good days and many bad days for my productivity. Bad habits sunk in fast, and the bad days started to seriously outweigh the good ones.
One day I looked at my iPhone screen time monitor and realized I was wasting a lot of time doing a lot of nothing. Then I looked at my bank account and realized I was about to be in big trouble if I didn’t turn things around fast.
Common Causes of Low Productivity
I realized my productivity was a problem, but I had to give it a real analysis of what was causing the distractions. I know I’m not a lazy person, but something was keeping me from doing the things I need to do.
I determined the two things contributing most to my lack of focus. Low energy and shiny object syndrome.
Some days there is only so much coffee that can get you fired up to get yourself into that dreamy flow state.
Being tired makes taking on big tasks seem dreadful and easy to push off to “when you wake up.” You get stuck with brain fog that will either damper your work abilities or at least scare you into thinking that, which leads to procrastination.
Shiny Object Syndrome
Whether you are working for yourself or someone else, shiny object syndrome can attack at any moment. The internet is a wonderful tool that gives you access to infinite information at any moment. The internet is also a horrible tool that gives you access to infinite information at any moment.
You can be in the middle of working on something important when a new idea or question pops up in your head that only Google can answer. So, you might jump to another tab in Chrome and look it up real quick. Too often, that “real quick” search ends up in a useless rabbit hole and 47 new open tabs.
I took those pain points above and brainstormed. I also read a lot of “how to be more productive” articles and books, you know, because of the shiny object syndrome. Below are the top 5 changes I made to give me the biggest boost in productivity to address the above-mentioned problems.
Most of us feel that afternoon energy suck. It could be the long workday getting to you, a post-lunch comatose feeling, or an afternoon caffeine crash. What you need to do is reboot your system.
Shut down your brain for 20 minutes and you’ll be surprised how much energy you get from it and how much mental fog is lifted.
I work from home, so I’ll take a 20-minute nap. If you work in an office, try to cut your lunch break short and hide in your car to either nap or at least use quiet wakefulness if you can’t fall asleep. If you don’t have a car, find a hidden place to meditate.
All you need is 15–20 minutes of napping, quiet wakefulness, or meditation. And you might be thinking those precious minutes can be used for work, but think about how much more useful you’ll be for the next hour or two with a clear and refreshed mind.
(Maybe) Do This Later List
How many calories are in a chicken breast? Open a tab. Oh, 17 best meal prep ideas for chicken breasts. New tab. I wonder if any of these ingredients are on sale at Whole Foods. New tab. And so on.
That is admittedly a pretty bad example, but I’m sure you can relate to the random thoughts that spur some nonsense internet searches. Think of all the wasteful moments you have that turn into 15 minutes or an hour on Google looking up something that has no effect on what you need to do now.
That’s why I started my “(Maybe) Do this Later” list. When something pops up that I want to know or think I need to do, unless it is actually time-sensitive, I add it to a running list. This gets it out of my mind and I can hop back into my work.
Go through the list at the end of the day and see if there is anything that needs to be handled or added to tomorrow’s to-do list. Any Google-like questions you had, go ahead and look them up in your free time.
Why is it a “Maybe” list? Looking at my stupid chicken breast example above, I could really care less about the calories in a chicken breast. It just popped into my mind and curiosity took over. When you go through the list you’ll see things that were just distracting thoughts you now don’t want to waste your time on and can now skip.
This one goes along with my (Maybe) Do this Later list.
I find that dedicating a specific time to cleaning up my life and catching up on miscellaneous projects keeps me focused during the week and helps provide a clean slate for the following week.
Instead of trying to live the dream inbox zero life, I’ll leave all emails I can read later to Sunday and just download them all into my little brain when there is nothing pressing going on.
Sunday catchup is also for attacking anything I still care about on my (Maybe) Do this Later list, paying bills/balancing my budget, and miscellaneous chores I’ve given myself.
Be Like Marie Kondo
Everything on your desk or in your line of sight has the potential to be a distraction. A pile of papers could keep grabbing your attention since it might be something you need to followup on later. A random item could just grab your attention and start a daydreaming cycle.
Try to keep your desk and work area as minimalistic as possible. Your line of sight should just be your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and anything else you are working on at this moment.
And while you’re at it, hide your browser’s bookmark bar. It can be way too tempting to click on one of your favorite webpages just to “take a quick peek” at what is new there.
I have been sitting in a quiet room in an effort to avoid distractions. It turns out that that has been counterintuitive.
Studies consistently show that background music can significantly increase productivity. Generally, music without lyrics is better, but I’ve found some tasks work better with lyrical music I know. When I write, I find that certain songs keep me going and I just tune out the lyrics. Many successful writers recommend this as well, like Chuck Palahniuk who listens to Radiohead and NIN when he writes.
If I’m doing something that requires any reading, song lyrics do get a little distracting. That’s were I find binaural beats to be a game-changer.
Spotify has an awesome Binaural Beats: Focus playlist that I’ll listen to on repeat when I need to jump in the flow state. You can also find a lof of free ones on Youtube. It keeps me in a positive mood, increases my creativity, and keeps me on task. You can read about the cognitive benefits of binaural beats here.
Just don’t be “that guy” in the office playing your music on your speakers. Get some headphones. An added bonus is headphones tell coworkers you’re working and not to bother you.
Bonus Ideas for Productivity Enhancement
The five productivity hacks above are the things I make sure to implement into my workdays every day. I find them to have consistent results and are easy to apply.
Below are a few other things I’ve noticed to help productivity that are either more difficult to keep up with or might just work for me.
There have been numerous studies touting the cognitive benefits of the keto diet. With more focus, I was able to stop taking Adderall after years of use after starting the keto diet. Keto dieters also tend to get hungry less often, which means you won’t divert your attention to dreaming about a snack or planning lunch at 10 in the morning.
This is part science and part playing tricks on my own brain. I believe many nootropics can significantly help get into a flow state at work. There are just so many snake oil products out there and some of the good ones are very expensive.
When I REALLY need to get some work done, I take an expensive nootropic. Why expensive? For one, I’m looking for a quality product with an actual effect. I also get the pricey ones so that I can tell myself that I better not waste the next 3 hours on Facebook after using up that high priced brain booster.
Schedule a Bed Time
Sleep could be the most important thing to having a more productive workday. Being well-rested will make you more alert, boost creativity, lower your stress levels, increase your memory recall, and so on and so on.
Set a specific time that gives you an adequate amount of sleep every night. Start your whole wind-down process 45 minutes to an hour before that. This means no phone, no TV, no laptop before bed. Stick to this bedtime every single night.
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