How to close the gap between wasting time and productivity

It is really challenging to be productive these days. We all have exhaustive to do lists and try to squeeze in even more tasks into our daily lives. However, instead of just trying harder, there are more researched approaches these days that help people be more productive.

For some, productivity is just ticking off as many tasks on the to do list as possible. However, I will be focusing on the type of productivity that is about getting the right things done – those that have heart and meaning for you (see related article on how to find those things in the first place: Beginners guide to happiness)

Productivity requires willpower, of which we have a certain amount to spend each day and therefore need to use it wisely. When we use our willpower (and we use it more often than you might think) it becomes tired and needs time to recharge. Typical signals are when we feel tired, in a bad mood and our attention is just not sharp. However, the good news is that we can train it and increase our daily allowance as well as follow a few top tips to invest it more consciously in the tasks that matter.


Fast burners of willpower

A fast burner of our willpower is the enormous amount of decisions we make every day. What clothes will I wear? What shall I have for breakfast? Which parking spot do I take? Which washing up liquid makes it to the shopping basket? When I researched for this blog, I was astonished that we make hundreds of small decisions just in the early morning hours of each single day! Decisions are definitely one of the biggest elements that drain our willpower – but they are not the only ones.

Stress also drains our willpower massively. Anger and anxiety are the logical consequence of stress and they are screaming signals that ask for our attention. Particularly when stress starts to conquer our sleep and eating habits, we are mentally and physically unable to perform at our best. Stress also occupies our minds and makes it hard for us to focus. This leads to interruptions through distraction, which consumes even more of our energy. (See related article on how to get on top of a stressful situation: Breaking the frustration cycle).

Knowing what eats into our daily allowance of willpower helps us to understand where we may need to adjust, create habits or manage our time better. Below are my top tips for becoming a productivity-ace.

Top tips to be more productive

Plan ahead! Lots of people lack sleep because their mind doesn’t stop thinking about the urgent to do’s for the next day. By planning ahead and clarifying what we want to accomplish the next day, we can release ourselves from this restlessness and can just hit the ground running when we get up. What are the things that are most valuable to you right now? Those are the things to focus on. If your brain only works for a short time, at least you have accomplished something important.

Stick to your morning routine! We all have an idea of what puts us in a good place and it is a good idea to just make a habit of it. For most of us, a ‘good place’ comes from hitting the gym, going for a run or a mindful morning walk through the park followed by a healthy breakfast. Movement gets our blood flowing and we release endorphins, which are natural “feel-good” chemicals that help us feel focused, less impacted by pain and they put us in a better mood. By regularly sticking to our personal routine of whatever gets us into a good place, we don’t waste any of our limited decision-making ability on how to spend the morning and instead, save our energy to kick-start a productive day.

Schedule your time! Being productive is not about doing as much as possible, but doing the things that are valuable deliberately and efficiently. In order to do that, it is important to give our minds a rest every now and then, to declutter and recharge. A suggested work regime could be to focus on a task for 90 minutes and have a 15-20 minutes’ break. There are other methods, such as the Pomodoro technique where we work for 25 minutes and take a 5 minute break. Whatever works best for you, do take breaks! Instead of eating lunch at the desk, use the time to go for a stroll or simply change the location. Downtime is essential for our emotional and cognitive health.

Get rid of distractions! How often do you check your phone to see if you have new emails, a new like on your Facebook post or on your breakfast photo on Instagram? According to socialmediatoday, we spend an average of 35 minutes per day on Facebook and 25 minutes on Snapchat and Instagram. Those easy distractions interrupt our flow and it takes a lot of energy and time getting back into it. When we are interrupted, it typically takes a good 23 minutes to return our focus, according to Gloaria Mark, Professor at University of California. So setting clear boundaries when we are available for calls, when to check emails and when to check the news can really support our productivity.

Forget multitasking – focus on one task! When we attempt to do several things at the same time, we actually still only do one activity at a time, and instead, we switch to the next thing very quickly. This switch between tasks drains our energy massively and we feel exhausted and tired much quicker than when focusing on one task only. If there are a lot of things to get done, set aside chunks of time that you dedicate to each one of them individually, to invest your energy wisely.

Get started! When we have a big task ahead of us, our mind sees this as such a big task that, instead of starting it, we simulate real work by mindless things like checking emails or Facebook. But did you know that our mind wants to finish a task once it started, as we otherwise experience discomfort? This is called the ‘Zeigarnik effect’. It suggests that incomplete tasks remain in our head and keep reminding us that they are incomplete until they have been completed.


As Francis of Assisi quite rightly noted:

Start by doing what is necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.

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