Here’s the thing about productivity hacks. All too often, they’re presented as though there is one singular answer to the problem of our untapped potential. Certain efficiency evangelists would have you believe that, once you’ve converted to their method, it’s all you’ll ever need.

In reality, there is no one solution that will keep you going from now until oblivion. Familiar ways of working inevitably get tired and become less effective over time.

Every now and then, we all need to take a step back and evaluate whether our methods are indeed still serving us, or if they’re dragging us down and holding us back.

The real purpose of a productivity “hack”? It’s about mixing things up just enough to shift your perspective, re-energize your mind, and ultimately find that bit of motivation where previously there was none. It might just be a small tweak – like choosing a productive soundtrack or adding a distraction-blocker to your internet browser. Or maybe it’s a complete overhaul of how you understand and allocate the time in your day.

Here are some of the best productivity hacks for when you need a small boost, or maybe a whole new outlook.

1. Do the Worst Thing First

The following quote is often attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing every morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Whether he actually said this is up for debate, but fabrication or not, it’s sage advice – because once you get the thing you dread doing over with, you’ll waste less time thinking about how much you don’t want to do it. So start with the worst thing first. Plug your nose if you must, but just eat that frog and get it over with.

2. Optimize Your Working Hours

If you have the privilege of exercising some agency over the specifics of your hours of work, take the time to figure out your personal rhythms when it comes to focus and efficiency. Organizing your workload around the completely natural ebb and flow of energy that we all experience throughout the day is one of the most straightforward ways to maximize your productivity potential.

Do you struggle to maintain the energy required for big tasks and deep thinking by the time mid-afternoon rolls around? Stop fighting it – that time may be better used if reserved for lighter administrative tasks, or maybe squeezing in a quick run (or a nap?) to re-energize.

Where possible, give yourself permission to think beyond the norms and routine of office culture.

3. Work in Short Bursts

If you find that long, unstructured blocks of productive time tend to escape you, consider breaking work down into shorter bursts or sprints. A series of shortened work sessions (separated by small, sanctioned breaks) can be more manageable and more fruitful than attempting a sustained period of focus. The Pomodoro Technique specifically refers to organizing your time into 25-minute work blocks (“Pomodoros”), each dedicated to a single task and separated by three-to-five-minute breaks. After four 25-minute Pomodoro “bursts” of productivity, a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes is taken, and then the cycle repeats.

Why does it work? Procrastination is at its core an emotional regulation issue. The feeling of “immediate urgency” we experience when it comes to managing negative feelings is what drives us to seek out short-term satisfaction at the expense of our long-term objectives. Pomodoro’s straightforward offering promises a shortcut to subdue that primal urgency: if you can focus for just 25 minutes – a realistic goal by most people’s standards – you will have accomplished something. Pause, and repeat.

Want to try it out? There’s a Chrome extension to get you started.

productivity hacks for better work

4. Use The To-Do List Strategically

As far as the best productivity hacks go, mastery of the to-do list is a surefire winner. The most prolific “doers” approach their to-do lists systematically, classifying and grouping genres of tasks, breaking down intimidating obligations into manageable parts, scheduling non-negotiable work sessions and effectively eliminating decision paralysis. In order to facilitate productivity, the to-do list has to be more than a reminder of everything that needs getting-to: it should be a methodical plan of action.

From Timeboxing to 1-3-5, Critical/Hot/Sooner/Later to the The A/B Schedule, there are proven strategies for effectively organizing your to-do list in a way that eases stress and maximizes productivity. Choose one, then get to planning out your day, week, and month with actionable tasks and concrete goals you can realistically accomplish. From there, just trust in the process.

5. Say No to Multitasking

A perhaps more accurate term for multitasking is “context switching,” which accounts for the cognitive demand inherent in shifting from one distinct task to the next and back again, in rapid succession. We accomplish 40% less when we try to work this way, thanks to the time it takes to successfully recalibrate our attention with each switch. Annual “productivity loss” attributed to multitasking is estimated to be equal to a global cost of $450 million USD each year.

So why are we so intent on trying to juggle ten different things simultaneously? Attention span atrophy is one unfortunate consequence of widespread smartphone use. While it’s little more than an annoyance in our personal lives, our inability to maintain our focus can be a real problem in the workplace. Do not delude yourself into thinking you’re a natural multitasker – unless you fall into the 2% of the general population with this gift!

6. Eliminate the Possibility of Distraction

When it happens, often you don’t even realize you’ve done it until it’s too late. Your mind drifts, muscle memory takes over and suddenly you’re opening a new tab and bringing up Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn, or you’re unlocking a silenced phone, or succumbing to any number of other distractions best reserved for another time and place.

Many of these platforms are intentionally designed to train you out of being able to exercise self-control when it comes to using them. Because this is the case, you may need to take an active approach to train yourself back out of destructive habits. Identify your triggers and build a habit of noticing them, eventually learning to control them.

There are a number of plugins, apps, and other tools that allow you to block access to time-sucks. While it may initially be unpleasant, with practice you should regain your ability to “zone in” and get stuff done without the help of blinders.

7. Select a Soundscape for Productivity

Music/audio and productivity are intrinsically linked. Thanks to behavioral science, we’ve known about the positive effect that music can have on increased productivity for nearly 50 years. We’ve also learned that different genres, tempos, keys, and sounds are each suited to a different kind of work. From noise-canceling headphones to whale songs, rhythmic beats or the “most relaxing song in the world,” there’s a soundtrack for every occasion, each with the potential to boost your output. Not sure which music or sounds are best suited to enable or enhance productivity? Lucky for you, we’ve already looked into it. Check out our guide to selecting the right tracks and playlists for powering through a particular genre of work.

productivity hacks headphones for productive work

8. Take a Break

Many of the world’s most prolific creators exalt the benefits of quiet time – sometimes known as “no time” or “structured silence” – as an important factor fuelling their productivity.

If there’s one truth worth confronting, it’s this: we just aren’t Energizer bunnies, and our productive capacities are ultimately finite. No amount of schedule-hacking or to-do-list optimization can save us once we’ve reached our limit and hit burnout.

Think of productivity optimization in terms of sustainability. Rather than completely exhausting our most precious resources – our creative and productive output – we need to focus on maintaining them for the long-term (and, in doing so, leave something for our children). The healthiest habit to this end is time away from not just the demands of the workload, but how it interferes with work-life balance. Carve out empty, unstructured blocks of time for retreat. See where they take you, and what you’re able to accomplish when you come back.

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