9 Productivity Tips for When You Just Can't Make Yourself Work

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
May 25, 2024 at 3:6PM UTC
Do you ever feel like you're wasting too much time at work? Is it especially true when deadlines are looming or you're feeling particularly overwhelmed?
Try these nine productivity hacks. They may change your life—or at least your ability to finish projects!
1. Write down your to-do list.
You'll feel more organized if you know everything you need to do and have a list in one place. You'll also feel a sense of accomplishment when you can check things off, putting them out of sight, out of mind.
Neatly check off tasks on your to-do list, or draw a big X through them—whatever makes you feel better. (Personally, I fall into the latter category.) And I do mean you should actually write out the items rather than throwing them in an app or Google calendar; for me, drawing that X through the tasks has a lot more meaning than simply deleting them would.
2. Break up larger tasks into small components.
If your task list is several huge projects, rethink it. It's going to feel much more overwhelming to have long-term projects that you won't be able to finish anytime soon on your schedule than if you break up the overarching item into smaller pieces. That way, you'll accomplish something every time you complete one step toward the end result.
Say you're writing a book. Putting "write book" on your schedule is a little intimidating, isn't it? Instead, set goals for each day. For instance, one day you might have a goal of writing a set number of pages. At the end of the week, you might want to be finished with a certain chapter. This helps you focus and will make the project seem much less intimidating.
3. Tackle the least desirable tasks first.
Chances are, you find some items on your task list far more annoying than others. Rather than putting them off until later, try to get them done first thing. That way, you'll have your less desirable tasks out of the way early on and will be able to focus on the things you'd rather be doing with your time.
If the item requires a lot of time and attention, to the point where you won't be able to get anything else done if you try to accomplish it first, try to make some headway on it before turning your attention to something else. You don't want to completely throw away your morning on something frustrating that you just can't finish and not be able to accomplish anything else, of course. The point is, you don't want to have something you're dreading doing hanging over your head, so if you can do it early in the morning, make it happen.
4. Schedule time for checking email and social media.
How many times a day do you take a "quick" break to check Facebook? Do you have Gmail running in the background at all times?
If you're like me, the answers are often and yes. But as much as it may seem like these aren't big distractions, every time you check social media and get caught up in someone's wedding or new baby post, you're not doing work and wasting time.
Instead of allowing yourself to check Facebook and Instagram as often as you'd like, schedule times to allow yourself to look at them. Be strict with yourself; don't give yourself half an hour to go down the rabbit hole of your high school nemesis's wedding pictures. Once you've checked your notifications, return to your work.
If you frequently get urgent business emails, you may need to keep your Outlook in the background at all times; you're the best judge of that. But you certainly don't need to have your personal email open. Along with social media breaks, schedule times for checking email, so you're not overwhelmed by your inbox.
Also, avoid check business email first thing in the morning. It's bound to make you feel cranky and start your day off on the wrong foot. Wait until you get to the office to sift through your inbox.
5. Tune out music with lyrics.
Some people like to listen to music while their working. It might help with concentration. However, if you do enjoy background noise, avoid music with lyrics; it can be distracting while you're trying to think and work.
By the same token, if you do find noise distracting, you might invest in noise-canceling headphones or a white noise machine (the latter only if you have a private office, of course). It can drown out chatter from other people and in turn help you be more productive.
6. Listen to your body.
People get tired and overwhelmed at different points and thresholds. For instance, you may find that you always hit a rut and run out of ideas at 4pm. Rather than wasting time, schedule more mundane tasks that don't require a lot of energy around this point. For instance, you might choose a certain point in your week to record data, if that's part of your job.
You may not have control over when meetings are scheduled, but if you do, try to prevent them from happening around the point in your day or week when you know you'll be tired and have low productivity and efficiency.
7. Schedule breaks.
One of the best productivity tools is giving yourself breaks. That may sound counterintuitive, but taking breaks is a great way of keeping your energy up.
Go for a short walk. Get coffee. Definitely take advantage of your lunch break. If you're overwhelmed with looming deadlines, even just stepping outside can help you recharge and boost your energy levels.
Chances are, your manager won't mind if you take a quick breather; just don't take advantage of a lenient boss—taking breaks every half hour isn't going to make you any more productive, either.
8. Stop trying to multitask.
If you have a lot on your plate, it's natural to want to try to finish everything at once. Unfortunately, trying to do too many things at once will often result in everything taking much longer, since you're not giving individual tasks enough of your energy and attention; you're dividing up your attention on multiple projects at once.
Furthermore, trying to multitask often results in decreased quality of work. If you're trying to finish a report while taking phone calls, no one is getting your full attention, and chances are, the person on the other line and the recipient of the report are going to notice the lag in your response time and glaring errors in your work (respectively). If you devote your full mind to each task, you'll not only improve the quality of your work, but you'll likely find that your to-do list will take you less time to complete overall.
9. Delegate.
Some managers believe they can complete the work better than anyone else can—and refuse to delegate for fear that a subordinate will mess up, or worse, the manager won't be necessary anymore. But refusing to delegate when you're overwhelmed is not only the marker of poor leadership, but also makes you less productive. After all, you're spending time on tasks that other people were probably hired to perform, while you should be devoting your time to other issues, such as overarching strategy.
Delegating frees up your schedule to do the things you need to do. Plus, your employees will probably appreciate having the opportunity to have more responsibility.
By the same token, if a machine can do a certain task in your stead, by all means let it. There are, of course, many tasks you may be reluctant to leave to a machine's capabilities, but for tasks like adding figures for an expense report, there's no reason why Excel can't be doing it for you.

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