Going back to basics to get more done

We’re all guilty of it.

We’re in one of those moments when we get all inspired (often at 2am on a Sunday) and make proclamations, make plans to change our lives.

“This time I’m gonna do it all. Health and productivity and social life and everything else.”

So we set about biting off more than we can chew.

This means accruing a lot of tasks, of new healthy habits we’ve heard about on TikTok, of shiny new mobile apps to keep them all straight—a lot of things get spun up. For many of us, that’s the fun part.

But all that window dressing is also a sneaky, insidious version of procrastination: the procrastination of gumming up the works to the point where getting into a rhythm of work is a chore in itself.

Where we’re legitimately “doing things” for ten minutes to an hour before actually sitting down to work.

We need to remember that the real “work” is just that—work, and nothing more. Sitting in a chair, typing, burning through tasks. You know what it feels like to get work done. And you’ve never seen someone need three to-do list apps to check their progress.

So here are a few things to keep in mind about the basics, and the ways we can get more done, truly, by doing less.

Productivity isn’t that complex


At its most simple definition, in more classical work environments like farming, “productivity” just means having a strong output without needing more time or resources. But in office environments like the ones we work in every day, productivity means something subtly different: consistently accomplishing tasks, and staying on top of things that keep bubbling up, like email.

There’s a reason you hear corporate warriors describe their work as “drinking from the firehose”—the workload will probably never stop coming. So it’s not about increasing the quantity of output anymore; rather, it’s about utilizing your time efficiently to stay on top of tasks and keep your inbox from flooding.

But here’s the crazy part—one could argue that, just by consistently devoting just two hours each day to genuinely productive work, you’ll achieve more in a week than many do in a month.

That might be a simple statement that sounds too good to be true, but it’s really kind of profoundly true. Many individuals who strive for more find themselves perpetually playing catch-up because they fail to utilize their hours effectively. They bounce between various tasks, calls, emails, and meetings without truly focusing on what truly matters.

Essentially, they’ve overlooked (or never grasped) the four core principles of productivity:

  1. Understanding where your time is spent (and where it’s wasted)
  2. Structuring your daily schedule to prioritize your most productive work (and identifying which work is the most productive)
  3. Establishing habits and routines to streamline your day
  4. Eliminating distractions and optimizing your work environment

Mastering all four of these aspects can revolutionize your work style. However, while they may appear straightforward initially, each requires a nuanced understanding to fully leverage their potential.

Where does the time go?

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If you’re aiming to lose weight, you track your calories. If you’re looking to save money, you monitor your spending. But ironically, many of us don’t seem to think that same principle applies to our productivity—we opt to just flail around at our work, inventing new workflows and over-complicating things. But it’s a lot more simple than that: to enhance your productivity, you just need to keep an eye on how you use your time.

Being productive hinges on understanding where your time is currently invested. Once you start tracking your time, you quickly realize that it often doesn’t align with your assumptions.

This phenomenon is known as the intention/action gap. Essentially, it’s the divide between how we believe we spend our time and how we actually spend our time.

This misalignment can lead to various complications, one of the most significant being an overestimation of how much time we have available. This can lead to overextending ourselves, committing to way more than we can handle.

However, without a clear grasp of how we allocate our days, time lacks scarcity and consequently, its true value diminishes.

Yet, time stands as our most precious resource.

Conducting a time audit offers a straightforward method to comprehend your current time allocation, enabling you to establish appropriate goals, design a more effective daily schedule, and concentrate on modifying habits and routines.

At its core, a time audit involves three steps:

  1. Document your intentions (how you intend to spend your time).
  2. Analyze your personal data (how you truly spend your time).
  3. Develop an Action Plan to realign the two.

The crucial aspect here is utilizing accurate personal data. Productivity isn’t about guesswork; the more precise your data, the greater the likelihood of achieving your goals.

This is where RescueTime proves itself to be pretty invaluable.

RescueTime meticulously tracks and categorizes your time usage, providing detailed insights into your activities and their durations.

For instance, while my goal is to dedicate 50% of my day to writing tasks, my RescueTime analysis reveals that, on average, I only allocate 43% of my time to writing.

Now armed with this data, I can set realistic goals and devise a concrete plan to increase my writing time. Without it, I’d still be operating under the illusion that I can handle everything each day.

Get your schedule under control


You’ve probably heard this one before: Many people tend to overestimate their daily capacity productivity while also underestimating what they can accomplish over longer periods like a week, month, or year. (As if being that productive consistently, every day, wouldn’t result in massive growth when compounded.)

Being productive hinges on grasping the broader perspective and recognizing that progress accumulates over time. Consistently stringing together good days yields greater returns.

Once you’ve identified how you currently allocate your time and how you aspire to utilize it, the next essential step is crafting a daily schedule aligned with those goals.

A well-designed schedule serves as a blueprint for what constitutes a successful day, guiding your activities toward desired outcomes.

One common pitfall is hastily drafting a schedule without thoughtful consideration. Since nobody knows your priorities better than you do, the process requires a personalized approach grounded in data.

To embark on this journey, start with two key exercises:

  1. Determine your personal productivity curve by analyzing when you’re most effective and when you typically experience productivity dips. Armed with this insight, you can schedule high-priority tasks during peak hours and reserve lower-energy periods for less demanding activities like responding to emails or attending meetings.
  2. Implement time-blocking, where you segment your day into distinct blocks of time ranging from 30 to 90 minutes for various tasks such as deep work, routine tasks, shallow work, and breaks. Though it demands effort, this method optimizes productivity by aligning your schedule with your energy levels and task requirements.

Both exercises aim to tailor your schedule to suit your optimal working rhythm. While adherence may fluctuate, simply having this framework enhances your ability to accomplish more.

Not just any habits – the right ones


According to findings by researchers at Duke University, around 40% of our daily behaviors are driven by habits and routines. Essentially, this implies that regardless of our best intentions and meticulously planned schedules, a significant portion of our day operates beyond our conscious control.

The right habits seamlessly steer our day toward productivity, often without us even realizing it. Conversely, the wrong habits can swiftly disrupt our well-laid plans and intentions.

So, how do we cultivate beneficial habits and ditch detrimental ones?

In his seminal book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg outlines three key stages of any habit:

First, there’s what Duhigg calls “The Cue” – the trigger that sets off the habit. Then is “The Routine” – the actual behavior or habit. Finally, “The Reward” – the gratification our mind derives from performing the habit, which solidifies its repetition.

To change a habit successfully, it’s imperative to address both the cue and the reward, either by removing them or substituting them with alternatives.

Consider this scenario: You decide to eliminate your habit of incessantly checking Twitter throughout the day by deleting the app from your phone. But, of course, a few hours later you find yourself sneaking in around a back door—using your desktop browser or simply reinstalling the app. The issue lies in attempting to eradicate the cue without comprehending the entirety of the habit loop.

The human brain is wired to seek pleasure. Any action that brings gratification or fulfills a craving is inclined to be repeated. However, these pleasurable sensations can stem from a myriad of sources—completing a task, indulging in extra sleep, or scrolling through social media.

To cultivate positive workplace habits, it’s crucial to address both the initial trigger and the rewarding aspect that reinforces the behavior’s recurrence. Merely eliminating Twitter from your life isn’t sufficient. Understanding why you turn to Twitter (the trigger) and what satisfaction it provides (the reward) is fundamental.

So, let’s revisit the example. Each time you catch yourself reaching for Twitter, pause and reflect on what you were doing before and why you resorted to this action. Through personal reflection, you can realize that you, for example, habitually check Twitter whenever you encounter stress at work. That’s a normal enough reaction. But gradually, the dopamine rush from checking notifications will ingrain a habit of evading challenging work or avoiding even the feeling of being challenged, by resorting to social media.

To enhance productivity, it’s imperative to overhaul the entire habit loop. Here’s a potential approach:

Cue: Feeling stressed while tackling difficult projects.

Routine: Instead of resorting to Twitter, opt for a brief walk to decompress and reset.

Reward: Still experience a dopamine boost from engaging in physical activity.

This approach can be applied to any habit—whether beneficial or detrimental. The key lies in comprehending the underlying mechanisms, deciphering motivations, and implementing strategic changes aligned with your objectives.

Distractions can be a thing of the past – sort of


The ultimate key to productivity lies in crafting the ideal environment, both in the physical and digital realms. Think of your environment as the silent force shaping your daily routines and decisions.

Consider the habits we just discussed. Often, what triggers these habits is something in our surroundings—like the phone sitting on the desk or the constant lure of an overflowing inbox.

To maximize productivity, it’s crucial to create a distraction-free environment where focusing on your work is the most natural choice. This process begins with gathering data and reflecting on your own behaviors.

What elements are stealing your attention and need to be eliminated?

When we think of distractions, we typically envision emails, calls, meetings, or colleagues dropping by unexpectedly. These are what we call external distractions—external factors that disrupt our concentration. However, addressing these alone won’t solve the productivity puzzle.

Research conducted by UC Irvine Professor Gloria Mark reveals that internal distractions are equally—if not more—problematic than external ones. These internal distractions stem from our innate desire to stay connected and our fear of missing out.

To boost productivity, it’s essential to combat both types of distractions. Stanford professor BJ Fogg refers to this as “designing for laziness”—making positive actions the easiest option.

For external distractions, consider stashing your phone away, setting specific times to check your inbox, using headphones to drown out noise, and establishing uninterrupted work periods.

To tackle internal distractions, communicate your availability to colleagues, limit access to distracting websites, and maintain a clutter-free workspace with ample natural light and greenery.

By intentionally shaping your environment, you pave the way for enhanced productivity and focus.

The apps are a lie


It’s understandable to sometimes fall prey to the idea that there’s a secret easy answer out there. Again: it’s happened to all of us. Multiple times.

Or to believe all the glossy ads in your Instagram feed, touting massive increases in mental clarity and efficiency, or evangelizing “Elon Musk uses this app to do 10x more every day!!” and “I was depressed and destitute before I found this app!”

But when you finally settle down and get some work done, hopefully you’ll realize that the times when you are really locked in and achieving aren’t because of your $4.99 calendar app, or your five-step system of to-do lists and timers.

It’s because you cleared out everything else, focused your mind, and sat in the chair, and got to work.

Let’s do more of that.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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