It’s uncomfortable to know what actually works…
Especially when it comes to productivity.
Because it’s a mirror. A mirror that shows me that all those other times I wasn’t being productive, the problem was me.
It’s a reminder that I CAN be really productive, in all those times I wasn’t.
… A reminder that when I’m not doing the hard work, it’s because I’m not doing the hard work.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
But it cuts both ways.
Because when it comes down to it, knowing how to get things done is powerful.
And when you really need to get things done, it’s nice to have a go-to strategy or “hack” that will let you do it.
That’s the topic of today’s article. Not one, but TWO of the most effective productivity hacks I’ve ever found.
PRODUCTIVITY HACK #1: Put it on your calendar…
Let’s imagine you have a really important phone call.
How are you going to make sure it happens?
How are you going to make sure you’re “productive” on that when the time comes?
I’ll bet you’ll put it on your calendar. I’ll bet you’ll carve out the time for it, set a reminder if you need to, and show up when it’s time, ready to go.
Not only that, if you need to have any prep work done or anything else in place ahead of time, you’ll probably do that, too.
It’s important, after all.
So you carve out time for it.
And you make it happen.
Why then do you not do that with that next piece of copy you need to write? Or whatever other task you need to get done today?
Set an appointment. With yourself. Put it on the calendar. And SHOW UP.
Then, during the appointment, focus on that one thing. See it to completion. Get it done.
This forces honesty in two critical ways…
— First, you have to be honest about what you can fit in the day. There’s only a limited number of hours you can block off in your calendar. If you were a doctor seeing patients, you would know you couldn’t put two appointments on top of each other. But why with creative work or other solo to-do activities do we treat it like we can do everything at once? You only have so much time. Block off the hours for your most important and urgent activities first (not always the same thing), and then see what room you have for the rest.
— Second, you have to be honest about how long something takes. You’ll get better at this with experience. And you’ll never be perfect. But if you imagined you could get that thing done in 30 minutes but really it’s going to take 2 hours, that’ll screw up your day. You will fail at this and have to figure it out. But eventually, you’ll get better at estimating how much time tasks will take, and working to finish things based on the time-blocked deadline. It even provides an extra incentive to work quickly!
Here’s an important note about time-blocking.
I’ve found that some tasks are clearly a one-hour activity and can be completed in that time. For example, I blocked off 9 AM to 10 AM today to complete this essay, and right now it’s 9:15 so I’m doing well. I can complete and publish one of these essays in an hour, and so that’s the time I give it.
Other tasks may be part of a bigger project and might consume big blocks of your day. So, you might find you actually want to block off an entire morning to work on a project. And this might be exactly what you need to do. Because sustained attention on a project can lead to a lot of progress.
But if you do that, there’s a danger. A four-hour time block starts to feel like unstructured time. And thus can quickly devolve into something much less productive.
Which is when this next hack gets really valuable…
PRODUCTIVITY HACK #2: Start your stopwatch…
Right now, in addition to writing this article in a time block, I started a small kitchen timer and have it running next to me.
I’m a student of Eugene Schwartz, and so I set it for 33 minutes.
You can set it for less or more. Some people follow the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes with a 5-minute break. If you want to go longer, I’ve found you can go up to 50 minutes with a 10-minute break on the end.
Don’t set it for longer than an hour, and be sure to at least take a minute or two to stretch your legs and get your eyes off your screen after the timer goes off.
If you do this and have a ticking clock sitting next to you as you work, it increases the urgency.
I also find that it’s a pretty powerful reminder that I need to stay focused on the task at hand, and not get distracted.
In my case and for this article, you may wonder why I set the timer for 33 minutes when I have an hour blocked in my calendar.
Easy: I’m actually trying to take less than the entire hour to complete this task.
My goal is to write the article in the 33 minutes on the timer. Then, I can take a very brief break, move my body a little, and I’ll have about 25 minutes left in the hour to do the actual publishing of the article.
The tasks associated with that usually take less than 10 minutes. Which gives me 15 minutes at the end of the hour.
Sometimes, I’ll spend that time taking a little bit more of a break, to let my mind have space to move into the next task.
Today though, I have a pretty full day, so I’m likely to split that 15-minute block between taking a break and getting a jump start on my next activity.
Now here’s how to use these hacks to ramp up your productivity…
I’m making good time. I’ve got about 5 minutes left on my timer as I write this sentence.
So I’ll give you a takeaway thought and wrap up.
When you use these hacks, be careful. They lead to some rather intense work sessions.
There’s a reason for the structure of work days. Two hours, break, two hours. Lunch. Two hours, break, two hours.
We cannot sustain a high level of focus and attention all day long. In fact, we can usually only be really productive for four to six of the hours in our day. If you maintain anything at four hours or more on a daily basis, you’ll be a productivity machine. At least compared to nearly everyone else.
Be sure you’re giving your brain breaks and rests.
We need to recharge. It’s how we sustain intensity over days.
If you lift heavy weights, you know that rest days can be as important as lifting days.
The same goes for your brain. Downtime is as important as intense focus times.
Ignore this advice in either case, and you burn out. And then you have extended periods where you’re less effective.
So: you want to be more productive?
Use Hack #1 and schedule your most important tasks into your day, with up to six hours of highly-focused and productive time per day.
Then use Hack #2 to make sure you buckle down inside those time blocks (especially the longer ones) and stay focused and crank out the work.
A warning though.
You may come to hate these productivity hacks like I do. Because when you see how effective they are, it’s a not-so-subtle reminder of how ineffective you’ve been during other work times.
But if you feel that way, recognize that going toward the discomfort — and through it — is your path toward growth. The Obstacle is The Way. And there’s my timer, so I’ll sign off.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,