Weekly roundup: 4 ways to protect your time and get more done

clock

We’ve come to revere busyness, and to see it as being an indicator of high status. But busyness is harmful to our productivity and our health. It’s not something to aim for or be proud of.

If you’re struggling with busyness and need to carve out more opportunities to do meaningful work, here are some tips for protecting your time from distractions and busywork.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Schedule focused work sessions in advance

calendar

Cal Newport knows the importance of setting aside time for his most important, and demanding, work. In fact, he’s written a whole book about it.

Newport is known for being prolific, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that he deliberately prioritizes his most important work over email, spontaneous opportunities, or meetings with colleagues.

To do so, Newport relies heavily on his calendar. He schedules blocks of time for his most demanding projects in advance, and protects those time blocks as he would any other calendar appointment. When the most important work is scheduled well in advance, Newport’s colleagues and fans fit their demands on his time around those appointments and Newport never has to de-prioritize his most important projects in order to find time for busyness.

The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.

This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.

Automate your focus time

It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?

One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started. Here are a few options to get you thinking:

Think about what interrupts you during focused work periods and stops you getting your most important work done. Find ways to automate starting your session, staying away from distractions, and keeping others informed of your status to ease the transition away from busywork and into a deep, focused work period.

Turn meetings into gatherings

If your time is often taken up by 1:1 meetings, or you’re constantly turning these down due to time constraints, try this trick. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests turning 1:1 requests into 1:many situations, so you can get more out of the time you spend helping others:

I’ll ask the student to email me his question, I’ll respond back electronically, and will later turn it into a blog post. Similarly, instead of one-on-one coffees, I’ll often organize dinners to bring together interesting groups of people who could also benefit from knowing one another.

If you spend a lot of time answering questions via email or contact forms, try writing a blog post you can point people to in future. This way, you only spend the time needed to answer the question once, but many people can benefit. Tech writer Robert Scoble answers questions on Quora, rather than via email, so many people can benefit from the time he spends answering a question.

If it’s face-to-face meetings you’re struggling with, try setting up a group coffee meeting or dinner party for people with lots in common. Rather than only one person benefitting from your experience and ideas, you can facilitate a group of people to share with each other, so you spend the same amount of time but help many people at once.

Choose something to be bad at

No matter how much we try, we’re never going to have time for every single thing.

The trick, according to Dorie Clark, is to decide consciously what you’re going to be bad at. If you decide to be good at email, replying quickly and thoroughly to every message that hits your inbox, you’re subconsciously deciding to be bad at something else. And that could be your most important work.

I’ve chosen to be bad at email response time because it’s less important to me than serving clients or creating new content like this article. But I’ll never let it get to the point where there’s no response.

Decide upfront which activities you can afford to put less time and effort into. Maybe that’s email, maybe it’s networking, maybe it’s filing your paperwork on time. The point is, something has to suffer if you’re going to prioritize your most important work, so you should decide ahead of time what you’re going to be bad at.


If you’re not getting enough meaningful work done, take a look at how you spend your time. You probably need to work harder to protect your time from the busyness and distractions that are so common for us all.

What are your best tips for protecting your time? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: Quick tips for improving your work environment

handwrite

From the lighting in your office to the style of desk you work at, your environment can help or hinder your productivity. Let’s take a look at some ways you can adjust your workspace to suit your needs and improve your efficiency at work.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

1. Add natural light

Studies have found a strong link between the amount of natural daylight employees are exposed to throughout the day and the quality of their sleep. Lack of natural light in the office can increase sleep disturbances, reduce sleep quality and duration, and even affect our overall quality of life.

Other research has found increasing the amount of natural light employees are exposed to can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and decrease headaches and eyestrain—two of the most common health-related office worker complaints.

If you already work in an office with windows, try rearranging so all employees can see out a window from their desks.

2. Bring nature into the office

Various studies have proven the benefits of natural surroundings on mood, memory, and focus. One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.

Spending time in nature has also been linked to improved mental health.

Another study showed accuracy and focus can be improved simply by looking at photos of greenery.

You don’t need to build entire treehouses for your meeting rooms, but adding potted plants and photos of nature throughout the office could boost your team’s happiness and productivity.

3. Switch to a standing desk—sometimes

Though we love to rely on the extreme idea that “sitting is the new smoking,” using a standing desk for hours on end isn’t necessarily the answer, either, as we’ve said before:

Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.

Though standing desks have been shown to improve focus and engagement, there are also situations when standing desks make tasks more difficult, resulting in frustration. Some fine motor skill tasks, for instance, can be more difficult to complete while standing.

The best solution, then, may be a combination of sitting and standing, with plenty of breaks to move around in-between work periods.

4. Improve your desk ergonomics

Whether you use a standing or sitting desk, getting the ergonomics right can improve your comfort and productivity.

For instance, keeping your screen clean and free of glare can make it easier to read so your eyes don’t have to work too hard. Your computer screen should be about an arm’s length away from you when working, and the center of your screen should be a few inches below your eye level so you’re looking down slightly.

When you’re using a mobile device, remember your ergonomics as well. Most of us hold our mobile devices too close, making our eyes work harder to focus.


What are your best tips for improving your work environment? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: Tips for writing a better to-do list

paper

The to-do list is one of the most classic productivity tools we have. And a lot of us rely on one. But that doesn’t mean we know how to use them well.

If you tend to lose your to-do list, avoid it when it becomes overwhelmingly long, or you simply forget to use one, these tips are for you.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

1. Share your to-do list

To-do lists are traditionally private, or at least personal. We make individual lists to suit our individual needs and responsibilities.

But what if our to-do lists were public?

It turns out, sharing with others the goals and tasks you want to accomplish can boost your productivity.

According to software developer Joe Reddington, making his to-do list public helped him see it with fresh eyes. He suddenly noticed all the duplicate tasks he’d listed, all the badly-worded or misspelled tasks, and all the confusing or badly planned tasks.

… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.

Making his to-do list public made Reddington notice what was wrong with it—and fix it. After a big clean-up of his list, Reddington found he was much more productive. And when he added new tasks to the list, the knowledge that the list was public and might be viewed by others made sure he was more thoughtful in how he wrote out tasks for his future self.

I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.

You don’t have to make your to-do list completely public, but try sharing it with a colleague or your boss to add a little accountability and help you see your list with fresh eyes.

2. Draw your to-do list

pencil

If you struggle to remember what’s on your to-do list, this tip is for you. Studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing.

A series of studies gave participants words that are easy to draw, such as “apple”, and pitted drawing the words against a variety of other approaches such as writing the word, describing its characteristics, or looking at a picture of the item.

In every case, those who drew the items remembered more of them.

Researchers suggest this may be because more skills are involved in drawing. We have to use our physical motor skills to make the drawing, as well as visualizing the item itself and thinking about its characteristics to help us draw it accurately. The combination of skills used may help to make more connections than simply writing down a word, which in turn helps us remember the item more easily later.

So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost.

3. Write a list of what you think you will do

Mark Forster has a blog chock-full of to-do list systems, methods, and ideas. One idea he used with great success himself was to swap his to-do list for a list of things he thought he would do.

Forster initially tried writing a standard to-do list and putting it away in a drawer, curious about whether he could complete the list without checking it all day. This experiment failed miserably, with not a single thing from the list completed at the end of the day:

On Friday I managed to spend the whole day without doing a single item on the list. I did plenty of other things but the “hidden list” seemed to repel me rather than attract me to its contents.

But when Forster wrote a list of things he thought he would do that day and left it in a drawer, he found the entire list got done:

I found myself doing the things that I had predicted. At the end of the day I had done every single item on the list without referring to it once.

Again, this may be memory-related, as imagining yourself doing various things throughout the day may make them stick better in your memory than simply writing a list of tasks you’d like to do.

Or perhaps it’s something more complicated. Perhaps by telling yourself you think you will do something, you’re actually increasing the chances that you will.

4. Keep a done list

notebook

If you never seem to get through your to-do list but you know you’re still being productive, the done list might be for you.

This idea flips the to-do list on its head. Instead of writing down things to do before you start work, you write down what you got done after you’ve done it.

So you spend your day working as you normally would, and as you finish each task or project, take a phone call or come out of a meeting, you note down on your done list what you spent your time doing.

Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, uses this approach, though he calls it an “anti-to-do list”. Gascoigne found the done list helped him overcome the tug-of-war between his planned to-do list and the inevitable tasks that popped up throughout his work day:

I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”

Gascoigne also says the done list helped him see more clearly how he was spending his time:

It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done.

(If you get this feeling a lot, you can use RescueTime’s daily highlights to keep an anti-to-do list alongside your productivity data.)

At the end of a day using a done list, you’ll have a long list of completed tasks, showing everything you spent time on throughout the day. Despite working in the same way you normally would, you’ll go home satisfied with your efforts rather than disappointed that your to-do list remains incomplete.


What improvements have you made to your to-do list? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: tips to help you write more

pen

Weekly roundup: tips to help you write more

Whether it’s writer’s block, a simple lack of motivation, or finding the time to write, these tips can help you get more words on the page.

1. Look for inspiration in others

Motivation can be contagious. Writer Jeff Goins explains with an analogy about finding the motivation to workout and eat well:

I wasn’t feeling motivated to eat right until I was at the gym and saw an overweight man giving it his all, staying late after the class was over, and then telling the instructor, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

That motivated me to take my health a little more seriously — not because he was obese, but because he was motivated. As Donald Miller wrote, “Sometimes, you have to watch someone else love something before you can love it yourself.”

Look for writers who love what they do. Listen to them. Read their writing. Watch them give interviews. Soak up their motivation and use it to fuel your own writing.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

2. Set a writing schedule

calendar

Psychologists are still debating whether writer’s block exists, but either way, telling yourself you’re creatively blocked could harm your efforts to get going again.

Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, says you might be better off never telling yourself you have writer’s block:

Naming something gives it object power. People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example of that.

But what if you are struggling to get any words on the page? Silvia says setting a regular writing schedule and sticking to it is the best way forward.

Research has found that writers who commit words to paper regularly, rather than spontaneously or at the last minute whenever a deadline looms, tend to produce more work overall. It’s also possible that writing regularly reduces the demand writing makes on your working memory, allowing you to write better.

If you need help getting started, try a tool like 750 Words, which rewards you with badges for sticking to a regular streak of writing 750 words (roughly three pages) every day. Or try Daily Page, which will email you every day with a writing prompt to get you thinking and keep stats on how often you get your daily writing done.

3. Take out your first and last paragraphs

Writer and entrepreneur James Altucher suggests getting past the hurdle of writing by writing anything you want—then taking out the first and last paragraphs. By giving yourself permission to write anything, even if it’s terrible, you take off the pressure that comes with a blank page.

And later, you get something much better out of what you first came up with simply by taking out the first and last paragraphs.

Even better, Altucher says this works even if you’re thinking about this rule as you write:

Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

Whether you’re writing a personal story, a research-based article, or even a friendly letter, you’ll probably find you say a whole lot of nothing in your first and last paragraphs. Cut those paragraphs and get to your point faster to pull your readers in.

4. Keep emergency scenes handy

Writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a handy trick for getting over writer’s block. For those times when he sits down to write and the words just won’t come, Rubin always has an emergency scene at the ready:

You know how you take a couple of $20 bills, fold them up, and slip them into that secret compartment in your wallet so that you have some emergency cash if you need it? Well, I do that with story scenes. While I am not a plotter, I know how I think my stories will end when I start them. Usually, I also have one scene in mind—often the climax—which I am particularly eager to write.

While Rubin generally writes his stories linearly, he saves these scenes he’s especially looking forward to. In a writing emergency, he can pull out one of these scenes and get past his writer’s block:

This has saved me on several occasions when, whether out of weariness or writer’s block, I just don’t feel like writing. When nothing else will come, I whip out the emergency scene and write it, even if it means writing the scene out of order. This does three things for me:

  1. It ensures I get my writing done for the day.
  2. It gets me excited about the story again.
  3. It buys me a little time to work out why I was having a problem in the first place. Was I just tired, or was the story not working in some way?

This can work well even if you’re not a fiction writer. I write almost exclusively non-fiction, but I do tend to have a couple of blog post ideas in my to-do list at all times that I’m looking forward to writing. It’s helpful to always have an idea handy that I’m so interested in, I can rush out a draft in half an hour. That speed and vigor is helpful to get the creative juices flowing and makes it easier to return to any other writing work I’m stuck on.

5. Write what you want to read

book

Writer and artist Austin Kleon says the old adage “write what you know” is terrible advice.

Rather than writing what you know, he says writers should write what they want to read:

Not write what you know. Write what you like.

You may or may not be excited to write about things you’ve learned and experienced. But making the kind of work you wish existed in the world can be the motivation you need to keep going.

The manifesto is this: draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.

I’ve often found myself stuck, staring at a blank page, struggling to get started on an article. But there are also times when I can dash off three articles in a couple of hours if I let myself go.

The difference? Writing what’s interesting to me.

When I write something I think I should or that I’ve been told to write, it’s always much harder than when I write something I’d like to read. I also feel more purpose in my work when I’m writing something I’d read myself, because I feel a duty to get those words out into the world for other people like me.

Remember this when you’re stuck on a topic: ask yourself if you’re writing what you think you should, or what you’d like to read.

6. Stop when you know what comes next

If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about writing, it’s got to be Ernest Hemingway. One of his famous tricks was to stop in the middle of his writing, leaving himself an easy place to pick up from the next day.

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Leaving off mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence may feel strange, but it help enormously with the friction of getting started again the next day. As Hemingway mentions, it’s getting through until you pick up the writing again that’s most difficult:

Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

When asked if there are times when he lacks inspiration, Hemingway says this trick of stopping when you know what comes next is the key to overcoming those moments:

Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right.


What are your best tips for writing more? Let us know in the comments.

Related posts you might like:

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: Tips to stop checking your phone so often

kids

This week we’re exploring how to stop picking up your phone so often. It’s a modern-day problem, but many of us can’t leave the room—let alone the house—without our phones in our pockets. We even have new gadgets to wear on our wrists to help us keep our phones in our pockets more—but without missing out on anything.

Having a computer in your pocket is amazing. There’s no denying that we’re incredibly lucky to be able to afford these powerful machines and to take advantage of how fast technology is advancing.

But I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to spend a little less time with my phone and a little more time with people, nature, food, and anything else not involving screens.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Keep your phone out of reach

If your phone is always nearby, it’s easy to pick it up more often than you’d like to. Making it harder to give in to that temptation will help you break the habit of picking up your phone anytime you can.

Adam Alter, professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked , says to think about designing your environment to help you avoid your phone:

So if there’s something that you keep doing obsessively, make sure that it’s not in your environment and you’re less likely to do it. That’s a much more effective way of preventing yourself from using it than say keeping it nearby but trying to just suppress the desire to use it.

Turn off notifications

We’ve all heard this one before, but turning off your notifications is a classic way to ease your reliance on that little box in your pocket that’s always vying for your attention.

Alter says turning off notifications is a way to take back control :

Turn off the “ding” sound when you get a text message so that instead of your phone saying, “Hey, check me now,” you decide when it’s time to check. You’re removing the control from the phone and you’re bringing it back to yourself. You can also take the apps that are most addictive for you, and bury them in a folder on the fourth page.

Replace your phone with something else

read

It sounds easy to keep your phone further away so it’s hard to get to, but in practice that’s quite difficult. The trick, according to Alter , is to replace your phone with something else:

What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing. You replace the bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should be doing.

So you start leaving your phone in your home office or in your entrance hall. When you’re in bed or chilling on the couch, what do you do? Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Leave a book on your bedside table
  • Leave another book or a stack of magazines next to your couch
  • Keep a bag of knitting or crochet, a coloring book, or a sketchbook and pencil next to the couch
  • Leave a deck of cards or a puzzle toy on the table by your couch
  • Get out that musical instrument you keep meaning to play and store it next to your couch
  • Keep a journal and pen by your bed
  • Keep a set of small weights by the couch
  • Keep a yo-yo or a set of juggling balls by the couch and learn a few party tricks
  • Put reading apps on the main screen of your phone or tablet and move all other apps into hard-to-reach places
  • Keep a letter-writing pad and a pen by your bed and catch up on some old-fashioned correspondence

What techniques have you tried to cut down how much time you spend looking at your phone? Let us know what worked and what didn’t in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Weekly roundup: tips for reading more

reading

We’ve been publishing research-based articles every week about meaningful work, being productive, and finding work/life balance for the past few months.

Today we’re started an experiment. Every week, alongside our longer, research-based articles, we’ll also publish a short roundup of tips relating to one theme.

For our first roundup we’re looking at tips to help you read more.

1. Stop trying to speed-read

It turns out, speed reading doesn’t actually work. It might seem like you’re reading faster, but the only way to do so is to not absorb the information as well. So you can “read” more quickly, but you won’t remember much of what you’ve read, so there’s not much point in doing so.

The truth is, speed reading isn’t much better than skimming:

You can flash as many words as you like in front of your eyes, and though you may be able to understand each word on its own, they won’t mean much as a collective whole. Language processing just doesn’t work that way.

books

2. Improve your vocabulary

Though speed reading doesn’t work, some people can read faster than others. But researchers say the reason isn’t that they can take in more at once or silence the voice in their heads (which doesn’t actually slow you down, anyway).

No, faster readers simply have a bigger vocabulary:

As Treiman and her co-authors write in their Psychological Science paper, “the factor that most strongly determined reading speed was word-identification ability,” which means that an individual’s reading speed is more about their language skills than where or how quickly they move their eyes.

Knowing more words means you can more quickly understand what you’re reading. And of course, the way to increase your vocabulary is simply to read more.

3. Make it easy to read a lot

When reading is difficult or uncomfortable, you’re more likely to avoid it, as writer Patrick Allan recently found:

I realized I wasn’t buying into reading because I had made it difficult to access it. My reading light was in a bad position where I couldn’t comfortably reach the switch from my bed. I would have to get up out of bed to turn it on or off. Also, my bed was too tall and against a window sill so I couldn’t prop myself up when I didn’t feel like holding a book above my head. And worst of all, I had a giant TV in my room. Why read when I can fall asleep to Bob’s Burgers every night instead?

quote-reading
Allan’s solution was to adjust his bedroom to be a perfect reading environment. When reading was one of few things he could do in bed, and it was easy to get started and stay focused on his book, he started reading more:

I moved my reading light to a better spot and got a Kindle Paperwhite with a decent backlight. I fixed my bed so it was more comfortable for laying upright and holding a book without worrying about dropping it on my face. And I moved my TV out of my room. The TV removal alone was a huge game-changer for me. I also moved my handheld gaming systems and stopped keeping my phone near my bed so there weren’t any other temptations around when it was reading time. Now there are only a few things I can do in my room: I can read, listen to music, or sleep—that’s it. The perfect reading environment makes picking up a book your easiest choice.

bookshelf

4. Race two books against each other

Productivity expert Mark Forster recently shared a tip for getting through your existing stack of books. The trick is to read two (and only two) books at once.

Choose two books that are close to the same ease of reading and length, and make sure they’re either both digital or both paper books.

Then, you race them:

If you are reading with a Kindle or similar device, it will tell you what percentage of the book you have read. On each reading session, read the book which has the least amount read. So if one book is 35% read and the other 38% read, you read the one which is 35% read.

It doesn’t matter whether the book you are reading catches up with the other one or not. Just read for as long as you want and then apply the rule again the next time you read.

If you’re using paper books, each time you read, choose the book with fewest number of pages read, rather than working out a percentage. “This is why the books need to be reasonably compatible in length,” says Forster. “When the shorter book gets finished, you’ll still be in sight of the end with the longer book.”

If you find sticking with one book at a time too boring, or you’re constantly worrying about the huge pile of books on your nightstand waiting to be read, try racing two books at once to give yourself variety and get through that stack.


What’s your best tip for reading more? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.