how to be productive

How to Be Productive and Break The Habits That Hold You Back

Lola BarbierLast updated on February 22, 2023
8 min

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Many of us spend a great deal of our day simultaneously looking at how to be productive while falling prey to unproductive habits. No one has more power to sabotage us than ourselves. That last sentence seems pretty discouraging, but the upside is that we can flip it on its head with enough dedication.

Shedding bad habits in favor of new, better ones, it easier said than done. Nevertheless, if you’re asking yourself how to be productive in the first place, chances are that motivation is on your side. Being motivated to learn how to be productive is already a big step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. We’ve looked at how to remedy bad customer service habits; read on to find ways to replace your bad productivity habits with practices that will put you on track for how to be more productive.

How to be productive: Budget your time

Your time at work is finite. Unfortunately, this may not be the case for your list of tasks. This is why it’s important to allot your time judiciously, and make the most of it.

There’s a time of day when you will naturally be more alert, sharper, and more likely to be productive. Often, this hallowed time slot will happen in the late morning, right before lunch. Take full advantage of this moment, and use it to tackle the more daunting tasks on your agenda. In fact, it’s a solid bet to plan to handle the more difficult things on your to-do list first thing in the morning. Not only is your brain more likely to be on top form, but the resulting sense of accomplishment will carry you through a good part of your day.

Solid planning saves you from future slip-ups

This doesn’t mean that your planning should be immutable and rigid. Unpredictability is part of life, so when something important comes up, your schedule needs to be able to accommodate it. A good rule of thumb is this: if something abruptly lands on your lap, evaluate how long taking care of it will take. If it’s less than two minutes: go ahead and take care of it. Your attention won’t be diverted for too long, and it’ll be one less thing to worry about.

This flexibility is only a safe plan if your resolve is otherwise armor clad. It’s hard to implement changes to your schedule and stick to them. When you’re in your graced alertness period, that’s when you need to plan your schedule. Be decisive. Make it fool-proof. Try to account for the inevitable lapses in motivation and judgement which will happen when you’re tired and more likely to give out further down the line.

Manage stress

A Harris survey revealed that 80% of respondents experience work-related stress every single day. It’s no surprise that heightened stress levels negatively affect productivity.

how to be productive

Too much stress can make one tired, distracted, inefficient, and short-tempered. Moreover, being stressed makes one develop potentially damaging coping mechanisms. The more stressed you are, the more you turn to these bad habits. Managing stress requires conscious, daily effort, but the results are well worth it.

Make your environment an asset

Many of us spend more hours at the office than we do anywhere else. So it stands to reason that optimizing your work environment will affect how to be productive.

Not every aspect of your work environment will be under your control, but there are positive changes you can make locally. Studies show that a little greenery improves both focus and productivity. The same is true for enjoying a clean and clutter-free work area. Get into the habit of keeping it that way.

Surround yourself with tools that enable good habits

There are many tools out there to help with productivity, efficiency, and concentration. We’ve looked at many of them in more depth, focusing on their benefits for specific groups such as customer support representatives and people who work from home.

Stop being a perfectionist

There’s a strong and established link between perfectionism and procrastination. Indeed, being a perfectionist implies having extremely (even unrealistically) high standards, as well as a propensity to become frustrated or give up when things don’t go exactly as planned. Therefore, perfectionists are both more susceptible to performance anxiety and more likely to be paralyzed by setbacks. Not exactly a recipe for how to be productive.

It’s easier to improve upon a bad result than upon a nonexistent one

The cure for perfectionism is to redefine success while becoming more comfortable with failure. Displace your focus on completing a task, rather than perfecting it. Waiting for the optimal time to start working (“I’ll start when I’m less busy/less tired/less hungry/etc.”) is a sure-fire way to procrastinate yourself into trouble. There will always be an opportunity to improve your first shot, but you need to get that shot out in the first place.

Forget about multitasking

Speaking of shifting your focus toward the completion of tasks, let’s talk smack about multitasking. Multitasking is often considered as the pinnacle of productivity, and we all like to think we’re great at it. But a Stanford study LINK shows otherwise: a crushing 98% of us are completely awful at multitasking.

Your goal is “how to be productive”, not “how to work on as many things as possible at once”. In fact, multitasking results in a drop in efficiency of 40%. The reason for this isn’t exactly that our focus is scattered across different tasks; rather it’s because our energy is expended switching between tasks rather than completing them.

Learn to prioritize

Again, the trick here is to concentrate on finishing a task, giving it your full cognitive focus, then moving on to the next. Multitasking is counter-productive, but it can be a challenge to commit to one task at the detriment of the others crying out for your attention.

how to be productive

The chart above can help in that regard. Better prioritizing tasks will make you feel more in control, thus lowering stress and bolstering self-esteem. These two consequences factor heavily in how to be productive. Knowing to delegate is a great skill. But so is recognizing when you’re stretched too thin. If you cannot honor an engagement, say so, and invite the person asking for your help to try you when you’re less busy. Being comfortable with saying “no” is key to prioritizing your tasks, since if you don’t respect your own time, no one else will.

Limit interruptions

The average employee working in front of their laptop is distracted every ten and a half minutes. Interruptions are the enemy of sustained activity; you must limit them if you’re seeking how to be productive.

A study found that 47% of people considered meetings to be their number one distraction at the office. Meetings are sometimes unavoidable, and skipping out on them might not be your prerogative. One possibility is to practice the “first in, first out” technique: explain that you’re very pressed for time, but would like to participate by speaking first and being able to duck out early.

Practice impulse control

As for the interruptions over which you do have control, you can learn to develop better impulse control. For instance, the average person checks their email 36 times an hour, roughly as the emails come in. We all have impulsive habits which undermine sustained productivity: checking emails, mindless web browsing, vacantly looking at our phone, etc.

Developing discipline takes time, and you will need to regularly hone that skill. While you’re still struggling to change your bad habits, you’ll need to be a little drastic: turn off notifications, isolate yourself someplace quiet, even ask to be left alone. You can also use site-blockers to rope off sites which are likely to distract you from your tasks. As your resolve hardens and you become more confident, you can safely relax your rules a little. Discipline can go a long way to help you figure out how to be productive.

Take breaks

Your mental acuity and overall productivity both benefit from periods of rest. If you find your motivation and sharpness flagging, trying to power through will only make you feel frustrated and inadequate. For all the good that focusing on completion and following-through will do for your discipline, disregarding the signals of your own exhaustion is counterproductive. Give yourself a break, instead.

A change isn’t quite as good as a rest

Taking scheduled breaks improves your overall productivity, as is evident in popular lifehacks such as the 52/17 rule or the Pomodoro Technique.

how to be productive

Both these hacks show that no matter which rhythm works for you, your brain is sure to thank you for giving it a chance to replenish its energy. The change of pace and stimulation can take any form you like: a brisk walk, a short nap, a quick bout of meditation or exercise… Being sedentary is as damaging to your physical well-being as it is to your mental agility. Anything so long as it marks a clean break with your work and makes you take a step back.

Hold yourself accountable for change

Replacing bad habits with better ones isn’t easy, and the road of how to be productive is a long one. When one is trying to change up their routine, it’s easy to try too much too quickly, and get discouraged by the lack of immediate results. It’s also easy to practice moral licensing, and reward yourself by retrograding after every demonstration of discipline.

Think of self-improvement and accrued productivity as a muscle you’re trying to buff up. You need to exercise it a little at first, then more each day, lest it atrophy. When the going gets tough, stick to your guns. There will be moments when your resolve will falter, there will be setbacks. Focus on your end goal of how to be more productive. Making yourself accountable for your own improvement will give you both responsibility and empowerment; you’ll be free to make the most of it!

What are your top tips for how to be productive? We’d love to know. In the meantime, have you tried Aircall yet?

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Published on February 14, 2017.

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