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Work & Purpose

8 Steps to a More Productive You in 2015

Get more done each day with these simple changes


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.)

When we list our New Year’s resolutions, “be more productive” usually ranks a few levels below lose weight, get a raise and travel more.

 
But if you switch it up and make it your No. 1 goal, you’re more likely to actually achieve your aspirations.
 
“You can start to get into new habits to reprogram yourself to be more productive,” says Lindsey Pollak, who wrote Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders and consults companies on training, managing and marketing to Millennials.

(MORE: How to Boost Productivity and Health)

 
Here are eight steps to take now:
 
1. Get Up Earlier
 
Benjamin Franklin — who despised slackers — was the “early-to-bed, early-to-rise” guy who also famously said, “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.”
 
Organizational development experts agree that getting up 30 to 60 minutes, or even 10 minutes, earlier in the morning can give you a jump start on planning your day or getting some task out of the way.
 
Pollak wants you to use the time to exercise, meditate, work on a secret novel or get ahead of your email. “Note to self — this tip works best when you go to bed an hour earlier,” she says.
 
If hitting that snooze alarm is too tempting, put the clock across the room to force you to physically get out of bed to turn it off.
 
2. Prioritize Prioritizing
 
Take the time to put together a to-do list, whether it’s on a piece of paper on which you can physically mark off completed tasks or a computer-operated list with a delete button. Either way, setting out a plan for your day should be your first mission.

(MORE: The Seinfeld Strategy to Stop Procrastinating)

 
And you don’t have to wait until the morning to do it. Like staging your clothes the night before, put your to-do list together before bed or even before you leave the office for the night.
 
3. Organize Your Day in Blocks of Time
 
Popular among time-management gurus, time-blocking is a decades-old, tried-and-proven concept that works as well for CEOs as it does for the rest of us.
 
It’s a surprisingly simple technique that can be nearly impossible to implement if you let email, Twitter, Facebook or any number of mind-numbing activities interrupt your day.
 
President Dwight Eisenhower, who once said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” is credited with creating a matrix to put his ducks in order. In it he ordered his priorities and actions as follows: 
Important And Urgent:
Must do immediately: Deadlines, emergencies, troubleshooting
Important But Not Urgent:
Make time for: Planning, professional development, relationship building, recreation 

Not Important But Urgent:

Do second: Interruptions, meetings, phone calls

Not Important And Not Urgent: 
Do in spare time: Trivia, office gossip, busy work, most social media

Use this system to help you line up your day’s goals, both by deadline and the mental prowess needed, and put them into workable blocks of time to accomplish them.

(MORE: Apps for Getting and Staying Organized)

 
Tony Schwartz, author of productivity books like The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working and chief executive of Project Energy, which helps companies focus workers on sustainable high performance, thinks we work best in 90-minute sprints with 10-minute breaks.

“If a person works continuously all through the day, she’ll produce less than a person of equal talent who works very intensely for short periods and then recovers before working intensely again,” he says.

 
4. Dump Multitasking
 
It doesn’t work anyway. Schwartz, who also blogs regularly on Harvard Business Review, is among those championing the single-task approach to life and work. “When you switch from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 percent,” he says.
 
That means you waste two of every eight hours at work, or 120 minutes. If you work in five 90-minute bursts, you will have accomplished 450 minutes of important output, or 7.5 hours of productivity.
 
Why doesn’t multitasking work? Because you’re burning out your reservoir of energy over the course of the day.
 
5. Limit Decisions
 
This is a favorite for the super-busy, like President Obama. He avoids decision fatigue by not making choices about what color suit he’s going to wear, when he’s going to work out or what he eats. Decisionmaking drains your energy, but established routines can eliminate that.
 
An October 2012 Vanity Fair article quotes Obama about cutting out the day-to-day decisions that take up too much brain space: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions.”
 
More from Vanity Fair: “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
 
6. Get Started
 
Procrastination can kill productivity. But just getting started can light a fire under you to get going because the tendency among humans is to complete projects.
 
As our grandparents used to say in the 1950s: “Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch.”
 
Looking for a more modern take on chipping away at the block? Follow Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” method of writing better jokes. He would use an oversized calendar, spend some time each day writing new jokes and then have the pleasure of marking off the day with a large, red “X.” You get the rest, once the chain was created he didn’t want any holes.
 
7. Set Systems, Not Goals
 
James Clear, author of Transform your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, proselytizes about procedure over instant gratification.
 
It’s one thing to get a crucial email answered but quite another to develop a routine to get all your important emails answered. This also pairs well with dumping multitasking and limiting decisions.
 
“Goals are about the short-term result,” Clear says. “Systems are about the long-term process. In the end, process always wins.”
 
Etsy Chief Executive Chad Dickerson said much the same when he told Fast Company in an interview, “It doesn’t matter what your system is, you have to have a system.”
 
8. Take Naps
 
Yes, snoozing — and, worse, snoring — under your credenza is still not acceptable at most workplaces, despite scientific evidence that restorative napping is as appropriate for adults as it is for babies.
 
Historians know that world leaders like Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton took regular naps as did Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. Churchill, who may have coined the term “power nap,” considered his naked naps nonnegotiable.
 
According to the Sleep Foundation, a 20- to 30-minute nap will make you more alert without leaving you groggy or hampering your nighttime sleep — and give you more energy to be more productive.
 
What’s the overriding message to productivity in 2015? Maintain energy and focus to get a lot more done.

Jennifer Waters is a MarketWatch columnist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @JenWatersMKW.

 

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