I'm not a multitasker. At least, I shouldn't be. And when I am, I'm not at my best. I won't go into a whole thing about the distractions of the internet and multiple browser tabs and social media and our whole plugged-in life; you've read those articles, and you believe them, or you don't.
These aren't ideas to get more stuff done. They're ideas to get good stuff done, and get it done more quickly and with less stress. If that frees up time for you to try more things, that's great. If it only helps you meet your goals without feeling insane, that's good enough.
1. Stop Treating Your Inbox Like Your To-Do List: Your email inbox should not be a list of the things that you're currently dealing with. It should be one of the things that you deal with at some point in the day.
See, when the server pushes through and we get a new set of emails and immediately respond, our brain gets tricked into thinking we're being productive. Dealing with those unread mails might feel like you're actually removing things from your to-do list, Pavlov's dogs-style, but the truth is, once it's dealt with, you're still in the exact same position that you were before the emails arrived in the first place.
So, instead: keep a separate to-do list with whatever system you like, and have “deal with inbox” be an item on that list. Try checking your email twice a day, or only after you've done one other creative problem-solving bit of work.
Note how it changes your anxiety levels. We're betting it's for the better.
2. Drown out the noise with more noise: This is for those who work in a crowded office, or regularly from the coffee shop, co-working habitat, or other public space. Most people can't write while listening to music with words or talk radio/podcasts – the narratives combat themselves and just leave us confused. Instrumental music works, but can also confuse things.
So, fill your ears with something else. This is especially helpful if your favorite coffee shop plays that Latin jazz internet radio station just a little too loud. (I love you, Ugly Mug, but turn that cumbia down). Just grab some ear buds or whole-ear headphones, and listen to some, well, noise. (By the way, these are the earphones you want)
I have two favorite long-format YouTube videos that work wonders. One is just ten hours of white noise, and the other is a pulsing set of oscillator waves that suppose to increase productivity. Whether the latter actually does or not is up for discussion, but what they both definitely achieve is a heavy bed of ear-filling background noise that prevents other stuff from entering. It's a little jarring at first, but within three or four minutes, you'll have completely forgotten it's there cause you'll be too busy getting s**t done.
Here are the two I use regularly:
3. Don't start your day with the thing you want to do least. This could just as easily say “Don't check your email first thing in the morning” but, the effect is bigger than that. When we get up early just to get ready for work to then make the commute for work to then just start working, you've reduced your self, your brain, and your soul/heart/whatever it is that makes you you into a robot, something that gets booted only to do work and then feel better after it's done.
So, maybe you'll have to get up a little earlier, but start your day with something you care about that's not just getting the not-fun stuff out of the way. Don't begin by getting yourself organized; begin by getting yourself inspired. Read something in a paper book or newspaper, make a killer breakfast or cup of coffee, doodle a bit, call someone you love.
Just think of it this way: if you made a list of everything you did every day, what would be the first thing you'd want to see? Starting your day with something that helps you behave like the best version of yourself allows you to enter into that one thing you don't want to do as that best version. It's true. It works. Make time for it.
4. Interact with people you like. I'm sorry if you have one of those jobs where you can't deal with personal stuff on company time. You'll have to be secretive about this, or commit to simply interacting with the people you like within the office. But — you're a human being, whose life is full of relationships and feelings and memories and commitments to maintain. So, talk to someone. Not all day, or else it becomes a distraction. But tell someone hello; text your mom and ask how her weekend was; tell your partner you love them; praise someone because they did a good job on that last project; interact with your kids. Use an exclamation point in that email! Who cares if its non-professional?! The workday could use some goodness and energy! I have zero problem with receiving the very same “Psst… I love you.” message from my wife every day. That bothers no one, and if it's someone you'll be seeing later, it'll probably improve your evening.
Be in the habit of recognizing everyone wants to hear something positive. You will know when and that they received your message, and you'll feel better, because you'll be reminded why you're working so hard in the first place.
It only has to take 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. But it'll improve your Wednesday.
5. Move. Work is all about the interaction of your brain and your body. Whatever it is that you do, whichever of those two that it prioritizes. When you work with your body (mowing the lawn, sanding your latest woodworking project, waiting tables, doing hard labor) we use our brain to balance it, either by getting some good thinking done, or by zoning out and giving our minds a chance to process all the little bits in recovery mode.
The flipside is true as well. So, when you're engaged in creative problem solving with your mind, move around. Talk a walk. Go to the bathroom. Pace. Do some pushups or situps. Nothing kills productivity like sitting still. Look at this graphic. You're not just concentrating; you're dulling your mental processes. This is why lightbulb moments happen in the shower. This is especially important when you're feeling dull and grumpy.
Set yourself up to let those moments happen. Get up. Stand up. Walk around. Move.
Oh, and while you're at it – drink less coffee and more water. You don't need to be any more stimulated.
Edited from a ManMade post originally published in October 2015