One of the more common questions I get asked when I talk to people about what I do is “how do you get so much done?” It’s not an unreasonable question, even if sometimes I feel like the honest answer is, “I don’t.”
That’s just the reality when you have four kids and work from home. Things are a bit hectic. Sometimes I don’t get anything done. That’s kind of to be expected when what you do is research, write, and publishing 40 articles a month, write a daily newsletter, and juggle everything else that comes with, well, life.
It isn’t that the work I do is especially difficult–I freely admit that it isn’t. Still, publishing 40 article a month takes a fair amount of organization.
The truth is, I don’t have a super-secret magic system of productivity. I also don’t have time to be constantly trying new systems of staying productive. The goal is to actually get through the list of things I need to do every day, not sit around thinking about shiny new apps or ways to get through the list of things I need to do.
It turns out there’s a little more to it than “get up early and drink lots of coffee,” though, to be fair, both have a lot to do with it:
Make a List Before Bed
This might be the most important piece of my productivity system–if you want to call it that. Before the day is done, I write down the things I need to accomplish the next day. This has two benefits. First, it means I’m not lying in bed thinking about all the things I need to do. I can let them out of my brain and get to sleep. That’s important because I start my day around 5:00 a.m. so I need to get to sleep at a reasonable time.
Second, when I do wake up, I already know what to start working on. I don’t have to sit down and figure out what to write about–I can just start work. That matters because I generally don’t have a lot of extra time to waste. I need to be organized and have a plan.
I make my list on paper in a notebook. Throughout the day, I collect things that I need to do using the Things app on my iPhone or Mac, and then I go through and physically write out the things that I need to do.
Have a Routine
Humans are creatures of habit. Our brains are easily trained to do things in a certain order. I suggest you use that to your advantage by creating a routine that works for you. The key is to understand when you work best and build your routine around that.
For me, that means getting up at the same time every morning to write before our four kids wake up and start their own routines. I can get almost two hours of work done before it’s time to start waking kids up, making breakfast, feeding the dog, and making sure the little humans are all dressed and ready to get on the bus.
By doing things in a routine my body and brain are already conditioned to be in the right mode. That makes it a lot easier to focus on what I need to get done.
‘Chunk’ Your Time
I can’t take credit for this idea, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard it by different names. Basically, I break my day into blocks of time, during which I handle specific types of tasks. Whenever possible, that means handling one type of task for each block.
Early morning is when I’m most productive, so it’s when I write. I don’t use that time for research, or responding to emails–that will come later. Likewise, later in the day when I’m researching, I don’t try to handle administrative tasks. Those, I tackle later in the afternoon when my brain isn’t going to string together words in any meaningful order anyway.
That goes back to the routine. Know when you’re at your best, and use that block of time for whatever the most important thing is that you do. For me, if I have to think, early morning is best. If it’s just a rote task, it can wait until I’m mostly out of brainpower.
Just Say ‘No’
I was wrong earlier. I suggested that making a list before bed was the most important part of my productivity system. That’s not true. Saying no is the most important part. Here’s what I mean:
Every time you say yes to something, you say no to anything else you could be doing with your time. Likewise, in order to be productive, there’s a lot of things you can’t, and shouldn’t be doing.
For me, the biggest thing to say no to is distractions. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them, and most of us aren’t very good at saying no. I’ve had to create boundaries for myself here, or I’ll never get anything done.
For me, the two biggest ways I combat distractions are by shutting the door and turning off notifications. When I have to get anything done that involves focusing, I go into my office and shut the door. Everyone else in the house knows that means dad is working. It’s a physical barrier that creates a productivity boundary.
Then, I also set “do not disturb” on my iPhone so that I’m not constantly distracted by email, text, and Slack messages. On my Mac, I actually close my email app so that I don’t see incoming messages. They’ll still be there when I’m done with what I’m working on, but for now, they’re just a distraction.
By the way, this also means being willing to say no to things that don’t fit into your priorities. Part of productivity is deciding in advance what goals are important to you, and what you need to accomplish them.
Being productive doesn’t mean doing more, it means accomplishing what you set out to do. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that it’s okay to say no when people ask you to do things that don’t fit. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself very busy, but that’s not the same as productive.