Solving The Productivity Puzzle: How To Get Shit Done


Contrary to the title of this post, I don’t have it all figured out. Sorry, folks. But I’m continually working at it, thanks in part to the help of others who have shared their own strategies for trying to solve the same puzzle.

My goal here is simply to pay it forward. Here are five of my top tips, in no particular order, for getting shit done.

1. Improve your e-mail efficiency.

In today’s increasingly electronically reliant world, e-mail can be a killer, regardless of your line of work. It’s easy to spend an entire day checking, reading and replying to messages, especially if you’re stuck behind a desk all day (more on that later) or glued to your smartphone. How does one escape this trap?

Allot yourself e-mail time throughout the day. Schedule 30-, 60- or 90-minute sessions throughout the day to check and respond to e-mail (just as you would schedule meetings, phone calls or other projects) rather than mindlessly refreshing your inbox every 23 seconds.

Shorten your responses. If you can’t answer most of your messages in five sentences or less, you’re probably writing too much anyway. Cut out the fluff and focus on the points that matter most.”But what if it’s really important and five sentences isn’t enough?” Easy. Pick up the phone and talk it out.

Delete, delete, delete (and file, file, file). Chances are a lot of junk finds its way into your inbox. If the message doesn’t require immediate action, or any action at all (e.g. you’re one of 47 people in the cc field of a department-wide email), get rid of it as quickly as possible. When an e-mail requires a response, reply when you have time and then file it away or delete it depending on whether or not you’ll ever need to reference it again. As Paul Jarvis wrote in this excellent blog post a few years back, “A ‘zero inbox’ is a truly wonderful thing.” Indeed it is—see for yourself!

Turn off your e-mail client. If it’s not your allotted time to check e-mail, shut down the e-mail client on your computer. There is no greater distraction in most work environments than an e-mail alert chirping in your ear all day, whether it’s coming from your desktop or a mobile device. In fact, I’ve shut off the push feature on my iPhone and fetch messages manually so I’m not reacting to every alert. Worried about missing something important? If an issue is so important that it can’t wait a couple hours, the sender probably shouldn’t have e-mailed you about it in the first place. E-mail should never equal urgency.

2. Shorten your to-do list.

I’ve always loved to-do lists. The longer, the better—or so I thought. After years of trying to conquer expansive, elaborate lists of action items, and failing miserably in most cases, I’ve learned that less is more. A long list would inevitably become overwhelming and my tasks were never completed very efficiently or effectively. Shortening my lists significantly was the solution. How long should your to-do lists be? There’s no magic number, but the shorter, the better. Personally, I cap my daily to-do lists at five action items, and I always rank them in order of importance. Just as inbox zero is a “truly wonderful thing,” so is a completed to-do list—no matter how small it may be.

3. Be unproductive.

All of this increased productivity is going to make you tired, so plan on taking a break. In fact, take several small breaks throughout the day (if possible). And this doesn’t only apply to workdays. Even on a busy weekend, when you’ve got all this “extra” time to get things done, find a few minutes to a few hours to relax, nap, watch TV, read a book or otherwise be unproductive. Don’t mistake this lack of productivity with boredom, however; the goal here is to take a planned break from doing “productive” things in order to let your mind wander, reset and recharge. These intermissions will allow your periods of productivity to be that much more productive. Or, as I wrote a month or so ago: work hard, rest harder.

4. Stop working through lunch.

Throughout the course of my professional life I’ve worked in a newsroom, a small retail running shop, a traditional office environment and, for the past four years, mostly out of my home office, coffee shops, libraries and other public or shared work spaces. For the longest time I would eat my lunch (or dinner when I was an overnight copy editor) at my desk and in front of my computer, oftentimes working through my meal. I eventually realized that not much work ever got done while I did this, my food got cold and I usually made a mess. Now I make an effort to not eat lunch at my desk or in front of my computer. I look forward to my lunch breaks, and so should you. Get away from your desk. Meal time is meant to be a social time. Engage in a conversation with your co-worker, significant other or a friend. Catch up on non-work related happenings. If you work from home and/or you’d rather be alone, take 10 to 30 work-free minutes to eat your lunch away from your desk and go for a walk. You’ll return refreshed and raring to go.

5. Get your ass to bed.

Full disclosure: I’ve struggled with this one for most of my adult life. In the past I’ve prided myself on having no off-switch, working at all hours of the day in an effort to get more done. I’d push myself to keep going until the battery went out, recharge a little bit and then pick up right where I left off until I needed to be plugged back in again. I got away with this for a while, but despite convincing myself otherwise, the battery never really got back to full strength and my productivity suffered. I would run out of energy sooner and sooner every day. A few months ago all of this came to a head and it landed me in the hospital. It was a big wake-up call and I needed to answer it. My off-switch still doesn’t always work properly, but I’ve gotten better at shutting myself down at night so I can wake up and be more productive the next morning. Similar to allotting yourself e-mail time during the day and planning periods of non-productivity, schedule yourself a bed time every night and stick to it. The result? More energy for more of the day, sharper thinking and reasoning skills, and thus longer lasting productivity (not to mention happiness and health).

A older version of this post first appeared on Medium

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