Being busy is not the same as being productive. Everyone is busy these days. But not many people are actually productive.

Being busy is about working harder, working long hours, filling up every minute of your calendar and focusing on urgent tasks. Being productive is about working smarter, being efficient, creating space and focusing on important tasks. Tasks that help you achieve the things that matter to you and your business.

Here are 7 of my favourite habits that I have put in place in recent years to help me boost my productivity. I’m in no way perfect and I certainly still have “unproductive” days, but making these simple tweaks to my daily routine has certainly had a positive impact on my overall productivity levels.

Plan your day the night before

Planning your day the night before can drastically improve your productivity:

  • First, you will wake up with a sense of focus and determination because you will be clear on your goals for the day ahead.
  • You will be more likely to focus your attention on important work rather then getting sucked into “urgent”, but less important, tasks.
  • You will be able to get straight to doing real work rather than spending the first hour of your day figuring out what needs to be done.

One practice that I have found really helpful when planning my day is to take the “ONE Thing” approach. Basically, I choose one single thing – one priority – that I absolutely want to get done. I then schedule time into my calendar to work on that one priority goal. Ideally, I try to schedule it in between 9am and 12pm when my productivity levels are at their peak.

This practice has helped me prioritise meaningful tasks and progress projects that are important to me. It also makes me feel less frustrated. I used to make never-ending to-do lists. No matter how much I achieved by the end of the day I would usually feel disappointed because I never managed to tick off all the items on my list. Now, I focus on getting the “ONE Thing” done really well. If I achieve that, the day feels like a win. Everything I do on top of that is a bonus.

If you want to learn more about this approach, I really recommend reading “The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller. It is full of great advice and methods on how to be more productive and achieve greater results at work and in life.

Create a morning routine that works for you

The first hour of your day sets the tone for the entire day. If you start off in a mad rush, frantically running around your flat, trying to find your laptop charger (that you really need for the sales presentation you are giving in an hour’s time) while at the same time getting dressed and preparing breakfast – it’s not going to put you into a very positive frame of mind.

On the other hand, establishing a morning routine can help you feeling relaxed and focused and ready to tackle the challenges of the day ahead.

There are endless ways to design your morning routine. The key is to find out what works for you, what makes you feel most energised and focused. Don’t get caught into the trap of trying to implement every single morning practice routine you read about. You will end up with an unachievable routine. Not getting through it will only leave you feeling frustrated (which would be counter-productive). Instead, pick a few elements and turn them into a daily habit. Consistency is key when it comes to implementing an effective morning routine.

To give you an example, here is what my morning routine currently looks like:

  1. Drink a large glass of cold lemon water to re-hydrate
  2. Spend 5-10min in meditation
  3. Morning pages ritual
  4. A short training session to get my body moving

Declutter your workspace

As Gretchen Rubin explains in her most recent book Outer Order, Inner Calm, “getting more control of our stuff makes us feel more in control of our lives”. That principle also applies to your workspace. If you keep you desk clean, tidy and clutter free you are more likely to feel calm and in control when it comes to your work. Feeling settled will help you focus and be more productive.

Here are a few simple tips to help you keep your workspace tidy and organised:

  • Get rid of unnecessary clutter
  • Scan documents to get rid of those piles of paper
  • Centralise all your notes into one notebook rather then having post-it notes and sheets of paper everywhere
  • Get a paper bin
  • Set aside 5min at the end of each day to clear your desk

Schedule time in your calendar for replying to emails

Emails can be a real productivity killer. Especially if you keep your inbox open and respond to emails throughout the day as they come in. You will get distracted from what you are doing every time an email comes in and you will end up spending your day reacting to other people’s requests rather than focusing on your priorities.

Here are two things I do to avoid e-mails from taking over my day:

  • I only check emails twice a day. Once in the morning over breakfast and once at the end of the day. I have these two 30-minute e-mail slots scheduled in my calendar and in-between these times I don’t go into my inbox. Depending on your work situation you may need to reply to e-mails more often, or you even be able to check them less often, but the key here is to schedule dedicated e-mail time into your calendar and keep the rest of the day e-mail free.
  • I turn off the e-mail notification on my desktop and phone to avoid getting distracted and tempted to check my inbox every time a new e-mail comes in.

Divide your day into 90-minute blocks

Organising my day into 90-minute “focus blocks” is another practice that has really helped me be more productive. A ninety minute interval is sufficiently long to make real, tangible progress on one task but it is also short enough to maintain a certain sense of urgency. Plus, research has shown that the human brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break.

Before I start a 90-minute block, I determine the objective of that time period. If unrelated ideas or thoughts pop into my head, I just write them down onto a notebook and deal with them later (I find it easier to not let these thoughts distract me if I get them out of my head and onto paper). After 90 minutes of focused work, I take a 5-15min break before moving on to the next block.

The first 90-minute block of my day is always dedicated to my day’s priority task (the “ONE thing” I want to achieve that day). Depending on how big that task is, it may require more than one 90-minute block.

Learn to say No

“You’ve gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life”, said Warren Buffet. Sounds simple, but saying No can be very difficult, especially if you are a people pleaser.

But one thing to remember is that declining invitations or requests doesn’t make you a bad person. People will actually respect you for it (as long as you do it in a graceful manner). And they will know that when you do say Yes they can trust that you will be fully committed and deliver great results.

Here are a few tips to help you saying No:

  • Be polite (e.g. “Thanks for asking) but assertive, don’t apologise for your choice.
  • Don’t delay it. If you know you don’t want to do something, don’t say “I’ll have a think and get back to you”. That will just prolong the situation and make you stress out about it.
  • Propose an alternative. For example “I can’t help you out with that project because I don’t have time at the moment but I can put you in touch with XYZ who would be a great person to have on board”.

Restrict phone and social media usage

Smartphones are both a blessing and a curse. They give us instantaneous access to limitless information and they enable us to contact anyone from anywhere. But on the other hand, the constant beeps and notifications can have a real negative effect on our ability to focus.

If you feel like your phone is impacting your productivity here are a few simple things you can put in place to limit your screen time:

  • Put your phone on flight mode and out of sight while you are working.
  • Turn off all the notifications on your phone.
  • Delete social media apps from your phone.
  • Turn your phone to grayscale.
  • Implement phone-free periods or even days.

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