• Eve Arnold

6 Tips to Improve Productivity

How to do more with 24 hours

Photo: Djim Loic/Unsplash


It’s the one thing we wish we all had more of yet we waste it so readily. ‘The phrase ‘I’m too busy’ has become one of the most over used this century. How do we get less busy and more productive?

Could our tiny habits be the answer to more time and feeling more productive?

“I’m sorry, I’m just too busy”
“I’ve got so much on, I am so busy”
“Sorry, busy weekend…”

It’s common practice to rush round everyday and then fall asleep on the sofa from pure exhaustion. In fact, it’s become a bit of a trend. If you’ve not rushed through your day and barely come up for air… have you really had a ‘hard day’?

But then we feel like we aren’t productive. Such a paradoxical idea given the previous statement.

How can this be? We spend our whole lives busy but yet we feel like we could be more productive?

How can we be so busy but not feel productive, we should feel the complete opposite. The hum of busyness should be the theme-tune to our productivity. How on earth could we be more productive if we are busy all the time. There is no time to feel unproductive.

A study of 2,000 people found that:

“48 per cent of people think they would be able to clear their head and organise their lives more efficiently if they only had a little more time to think things through.”

How are we getting this so wrong? We decide what we do with our time, we are in complete control of the list of ‘to-dos’ and ‘not to-dos’…

Ihave a nagging feeling it’s because we’re spending time on things that make us feel unproductive and then we rush around doing the other stuff. Or it could be that we are overwhelming ourselves with an unrealistic view of what we can achieve in a day?… if either are remotely true then we have some figuring out to do.

How can we become more productive and have more time? Surely it’s impossible. Well I don’t think it is. Through tiny habits that barely seem to touch your day-to-day life, you’ll find yourself being more productive. Or at least… it’s working for me.

1. Adapt your schedule to your goals

The holy grail. This one is a good one. Tim Ferris talks about this in The 4-Hour Work Week. After getting bored of the treadmill that was his working life he found himself slogging away at work to no avail. He wasn’t getting the leads, he wasn’t selling more, he wasn’t being successful. He needed to figure out how to get more out of the day because it was making him miserable. So he decided to switch up his working day, instead of working 9–5, he moved to working earlier and calling people later, and not working in between. What happened? Well his sales sky-rocketed… why? Because like I just said, everyone’s busy. Your most free time is in the morning or after work. Tim found that people generally didn’t answer the phone to sales calls in the day… who would blame them? But they did answer early morning or late evening. So he hacked the schedule to suit him. If your goal is to sell more, figure out when people are buying most. When’s pay day? When do people have the most free time?

Use that the create a schedule that will optimise your chances of getting where you want to go and won’t mean dead hours.

The idea of working 9–5 in the office because that’s when our bums are expected to be in seats is fast becoming a thing of the past. We are waking up to suiting our schedule to fit when we feel like we are going to get most benefit.

One company that does this famously well is Patagonia. A while back I listened to the brilliant How I Built this Podcast whose guest was Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia. He talks about their unconventional yet totally human way they work with their people. The employee handbook is entitled ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ is about as un-corporate as it gets. And considering they have a ridiculously low 4% staff turnover per year, I think it’s safe to say it’s working.

Look, we obviously can’t all do this. All of us are not in a position to rock up when we want and leave when we want. However, if you are in a position to understand when you are getting most results and to capitalise on that, do. You’ll find, like Tim, you’ll be working less and getting more.

A tiny habit like changing the time at which you answer emails or ring someone might not feel like a big deal but it could end up being a game-changer.

2. Adopt your schedule to your energy levels

Energy is something to be hacked. Understanding when you are most energetic is the first step in figuring out when you should schedule your tasks. The best way I’ve found to do this is to take a diary of the day and just make a note of your energy levels. Mark out of ten, for each hour of the day and note down how energetic you feel.

My daily inevitably ends up looking something like this:

  1. 5am: 5/10

  2. 6am: 6/10

  3. 7am: 9/10

  4. 8–11am: 9/10

  5. 12–4pm: 7/10

and then it goes a little downhill…

Try doing the diary a few times to make sure it’s accurate. Make sure you include a range of different days. Do it seven times over the month on differing days to understand your true energy levels if you want to get a more accurate idea. But doing it over the next few days should be a good starting point. Once you have that you can work your routine around it. So for example, if you wake up and feel like you could take on the world, schedule your hardest tasks for the day then.

Things like writing, planning, strategising are all good things to have early doors if you find you’re really energised in the morning. Planning mundane boring tasks when you don’t have much energy works in the same way. If you’re feeling tired a little bit of admin is totally fine to handle.

For me, writing happens early doors. It’s when I feel my mind is the clearest. And that is reflected in my energy levels. A clear mind and lots of energy hopefully leads to some good content. Tired and restless writing leads to me getting pissed off and producing a load of rubbish.

It’s worth playing around with this over time and figure out what the perfect schedule is for you. I’ve seen online productivity gurus harping on about getting up at 2am in order to take control of the day because that’s when they feel most alive. I mean, I certainly do not feel very alive at 2am so I won’t be attempting a HIIT session in the pitch-black but if you want to go ahead.

There is real value in understanding when you feel most able to do some of the big stuff for the day and creating a routine that attacks that. It takes time and I am by no means there yet but you’ll definitely find benefit in looking into this one.

It’s really quite a tiny habit to pair things that take the most energy with when you have the most energy but it could well be the thing that transforms your productivity.

3. The One minute Rule

This I learnt in a book somewhere along the way, or maybe it was a podcast. Who knows. But it’s essentially the thought that if something takes less than a minute to do, you may as well do it there and then. In reality you’d spend more time thinking whether to do it and then walking away from it, then you would just doing it. So if it takes less than a minute, in the famous words of Nike: just do it.

What would fall into that category you ask? Lots of things:

  1. Putting your plate in the kitchen

  2. Folding your jumper before changing into your pjamas

  3. Wiping the side before going to bed

  4. Folding the blanket

  5. Putting something in the bin

  6. Cleaning the table

  7. Changing the empty toilet roll (ohhh come on, it takes no time at all!)

  8. Hanging up the towel

There are loads of tiny tasks we avoid doing that then build up into a right mountain of things to tackle and normally at the weekend. If you do them as you go, you’ll have less to do at the end of the week.

Getting into the habit of putting plates away, putting books back, cleaning the table after you’ve eaten are really quite trivial. It’s not something you’ll even really notice in your day. Once you’ve cracked the habits of these little tiny things you’ll do them mindlessly. Which means when you arrive home from work or it’s a Friday night and you’re looking forward to the weekend, the one thing you won’t need to think about is how much a shit hole the house is. Up until recently, I’ve ended up spending the majority of my Saturday cleaning.

What a horrendous way to spend a Saturday.

I mean don’t get me wrong, cleaning is fine. But working Monday- Friday and then having to do house chores all of Saturday feels like another working day. If I’m really honest, I quite resent it. It’s obviously entirely my fault. But if you can crack some tiny habits Monday through Friday. A little hoover here, a little polish there. You’ll end up with having your Saturday to enjoy doing the things you love.

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. George Eliot

Don’t get me wrong. Cleaning the house in the week and not having an endless cleaning list for a Saturday doesn’t really feel like a ‘great thing’. But what is a great thing is having the time to do the stuff you love, spending more time with the people you love.

Now that is pretty great.

4. Clean the toilet before you shower

There are things that we can put together to make things less time consuming. Things done collectively take less time than doing things individually. In other words, batching. Things like cleaning the bathroom before getting in the shower. It sounds a bit mad but bare with me. There are tasks that are most suited to doing together.

A romance of chores if you like.

If you clean the floors and then wipe all the sides down you’re going to have to clean the floor again. You might as well wipe the sides down and then clean the floor after.

Cleaning the bathroom before getting in the shower. Cleaning the toilet, sink and shower are probably some of the dirtiest cleaning jobs to do in the house. So with that in mind, there’s probably no better time to them than before you’re about to shower.

It’s the tiniest of tweaks, but can really have quite a big impact on your productivity. Tiny habits are king in getting to be more productive.

5. Do one thing when you walk one place

A little bit like the one-minute rule.

When you walk to one place do one thing. It’s really simple but it really works. So if you’re walking upstairs and something needs taking upstairs, take it upstairs. If you’re walking to the garage and the floor needs sweeping, give it a quick sweep. If you’re going into the kitchen and the pots are on the side and you’re waiting for your coffee… put the pots away. If you’re walking into the living room and the pillows need fluffing up a bit, give them a bit of a fluff.

It’s time spent in between other things that can sometimes be a waste. Like waiting for your coffee. What else are you going to do whilst the kettle boils? Put the pots away and that’s one thing off the list.

6. Learn from yourself

And then the thing I love the most about this stuff is it’s a bit of a science. It’s about testing, experimenting, learning and then changing. It’s about figuring out what is working and what isn’t and changing accordingly.

Create. Measure. Learn.

Just like in any scientific experiment. Let’s say we want to test if batching our emails allows us to have a more productive week. Emails we typically have open all day and they can be quite a distraction. What if we tested only having our emails open at 12pm and 4pm?

Well we can create an experiment. Here’s how:

  1. We observe the baseline — how productive do you normally feel when emails are open all day every day? Spend Monday-Friday measuring how productive you feel out of 10 — this is your baseline.

  2. We create the hypothesis — by batching my emails at 12pm and 4pm I’ll have more time and get more done. Clear and to the point.

  3. We test in experiment conditions — test Monday-Friday. Only open your emails between 12pm and 4pm. Make sure you’re not changing a load of other stuff i.e. yes you’re batching your emails but you’ve also then proceeded to schedule 200% more meetings. Trust me you won’t feel very productive. By changing other things you’ll have more variables which will mean you won’t know whether it’s the batching your emails that is impacting your productivity or the meetings. Keep everything the same as before just change your email open times.

  4. We observe the data — track every day a) that you batched your emails b) how long the emails took to get through c) how productive you felt the day was. Always good here to collect any other thoughts and feelings along the way too… i.e. how did you feel, what do you think could make things better? Numbers will tell us A LOT but it’s always to have some words alongside that.

  5. We conclude the results — how did the numbers change compared to the baseline? Up or down?

After that we can get a gauge for whether batching is adding value or not. Without the investment of time and a bit science we’ll find ourselves getting frustrated at the same things over and over. Test and you will learn.

Tiny habits really can make all the difference in your productivity. I’ve found to be true in my own life. I’m more productive now that I ever have been and now is the time I am testing and learning. That is not a coincidence. It’s science.

It’s not sexy, it’s quite time consuming but it’s well worth the effort.

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