Working from home is a weird transition, and it can be tricky, to say the least. I put together a list of things I found helpful for increasing productivity in general.
This is supposed to be a “choose your own adventure” type list or a smorgasbord of advice, if you will. :)
Everything in this list is supposed to do two things: increase your focus and remove distractions. Those are 2 sides of the same coin.
1. Energy, focus & time
There are 3 metrics for productivity, in my opinion. How you manage these three things will dictate how productive you can be.
Your energy is an amalgamation of motivation, mental- and physical energy. Exercise and a proper diet will help with the latter two. Having meaningful work and doing things that are intrinsically motivating will help with the first.
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Focus is a doing word as much as anything. How distracted are you? How long can you focus on something, and why? Can you concentrate and get into a flow state?
Time is the only resource that truly matters, so you have to use it wisely.
Tasks & Time Management
2. Morning Routine
A morning routine helps daily consistency by removing unnecessary choices and decisions at the most critical time. It primes the brain for productivity. For instance, I always begin the day the same way:
- Bathroom, brush teeth, etc.
- Heat water kettle for coffee put in a thermos.
- Open drapes, turn on the computer, sit down — get to work.
(Having a set routine for the evening will also help you fall asleep).
3. Highlight or Daily 3
Focus each day on 1 Highlight. That will be your focus and priority for the day. Alternatively, have 3 tasks to get done for the day. The important thing is to create constraints because that enables you to prioritize. Focusing on everything is focusing on nothing — more on that later.
(The idea of the Highlight comes from the book “Make Time”)
4. Urgency, Leverage & Confidence
I usually look at a task from 3 perspectives, in order to prioritize:
Leverage — how big of an impact does this task have on what I want to achieve? How important is this feature for the user? How big of an impact does this have on the company as a whole?
Leverage is the mother of prioritization. Anything with high leverage is going to be high on any to-do list.
Urgency — how important is it to get this task done now? If I get it done now, will that remove or simplify future work?
A lower leverage task of high urgency might be subject to prioritization.
Confidence — how certain am I of this task? The way it’s defined, whether it will achieve the result, I expect, etc.
For instance, a high-leverage, high-urgency task with low confidence might make you reevaluate it completely. Maybe you have to research it further or ask relevant people.
5. Time Blocking & Calendar Blocking
An excellent way to stay productive is to time block entire days with your tasks. This will set intentions early and make it easier to stay on track. Some task-managers can be synced with google calendar & outlook: just set a time on the task, and it will appear as an event in your calendar.
6. To-do Lists (Click-Up, Trello)
Use a proper task management tool for tasks. I like to divide tasks into columns of the following:
To-Do/Might Do — This is the backlog for tasks. However, I call it “might do” because everything can be reevaluated; nothing is set in stone here.
Doing/Waiting for — This is for anything started but not finished. I call it “waiting for” because sometimes tasks are dependent on work from someone else, an email, or some external factor outside your control. I keep those things here. This column should be kept short because you don’t want a bunch of unfinished tasks.
Daily — This column is only for tasks to be completed today. I put my highlight here. 3 daily would be here as well.
Done — Finished tasks.
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I have researched the topic a few times, and there doesn’t seem to be a scientific consensus of what music is best for productivity. Still, I have some opinions from personal experience. The general theme seems to be instrumental music and calmer tempos for focused work.
For thinking, writing & deep concentration: Lo-Fi Hip Hop, Lo-Fi Beats, Jazz, Ambience, Binaural beats, white noise, & repeating one song, Calmer Classical pieces, and good ol’ silence.
For deep work that you already grasp: Liquid Drum & Bass, Electronic, Lo-Fi Hip Hop, Classical, Favorite songs (pop that you’ve listened to a lot).
Included list of links at the end of the document.
8. Task Switching/Multi-tasking
Tasks switching is the death of productivity: don’t do it. Getting back into a deep-work-task takes 20 minutes (on average). The overall work will be worse. Don’t “multi-task” because it sucks.
There is ONE exception: when doing something you already grasp, having a podcast or audiobook on works fine. The brain can easily handle those inputs at the same time.
Batch simple tasks together, so you don’t let them distract you periodically. My favorite things to batch together (sometimes even back-to-back)
- Answering email.
- Answering and looking at Slack & Discord
- Paying bills & collecting invoices
- Smaller “Simple” tasks that can be done in 5–10 minutes.
- Running errands.
10. Procrastination Triggers
Sometimes when ending up procrastinating, I like to look at a few “procrastination triggers” that might be the culprit. This helps me to get past it by finding solutions. Those triggers are:
If it’s boring, it probably isn’t too hard, so try and pair it with a podcast or some good music!
If it’s too hard, the task might be to do some learning first. Try watching a tutorial or read an article on the subject.
Same as the previous one. Perhaps ask for help or input?
Unstructured or Ambiguous
Here you probably need to shift focus to understanding the problem better; your task becomes understanding the task.
Lacking in personal meaning & Lacking in intrinsic rewards (such as being fun or rewarding)
Maybe it’s time to question the leverage and importance of this task?
(Borrowed from Chris Bailey’s Productivity Project)
If you can, set up a dedicated workspace. Much like only using your bed for sleep, helps you fall asleep in it, having a dedicated workspace primes your brain for productivity.
Also, anecdotally, I find keeping a clean and organized workspace improves focus. A cluttered workspace equals a cluttered mind.
The Pomodoro technique is a popular way to stay focused. It was named after a timer, and here’s how it works: Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time, typically 25 minutes, and work for that time. Then take a 5-minute break. Rinse and repeat.
I personally don’t love this technique because it sets a limit on my work time and can break up flow. It’s tough to get anything significant done in 25 minute. One benefit is that it can help with procrastination, because work becomes segmented and thereby less insurmountable.
(You can set the times longer — 50- and 10 minutes etc.)
13. Coffee Timing
There’s a scientific “best time” to drink your coffee. That time is around an hour after waking, and 1–2 hours after lunch. This has to do with our body’s circadian rhythm and the hormone cortisol. You want to maximize the alertness and avoid the dips.
2 cups a day seem to be the best amount, to get the benefits without the drawbacks (mainly worse sleep — the half-life of caffeine is a whopping 5–6 hours, and it can adversely affect sleep for 10 hours after consumption). I used to drink more coffee than what others deemed humanly possible, but I’ve faced up to reality… :(
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A principle coined by Greg McKeown. Essentially (pun intended), focus on the vital few, rather than the trivial many. Try and cultivate a habit out of focusing on what is wildy important (or high leverage), rather then the vast volume that is the rest.
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15. Optimal Time?
Realize the time of day where you’re the most productive and schedule your hardest tasks during that time.
16. Separate Browser
If you get distracted in your usual browser, try using a different one for your essentials! It’s easy to get lost when distracting websites are a click away, and everything is already logged in. I use the Microsoft Edge browser (yes, really) for my task management tool because I always want that to be open. No distractions, and if I want to search, I need to use Bing (yuck).
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You can also use a guest user, or simply logout.
17. Separate Workspaces in Windows
You can also separate windows into different desktops, and keep batching tasks and distracting programs in a dedicated desktop. Out of sight, out of mind!
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Windows key + tab to enter this feature.
18. Don’t Check Email in the Morning
The age-old advice holds true. Avoid “checking” anything in the morning.; it will get you side-tracked.
19. Freedom, StayFocused
Tools like VPNs (freedom) or chrome extensions (StayFocused) can help you block distractions (websites, programs & apps). We have a limited amount of willpower, so having some helping hands is a good strategy.
20. Do Not Disturb & Notifications
I try to set my phone on to do-not-disturb all working hours. Most notifications are simply blocked on my phone. You can set it up so important people and still reach you in emergencies.
21. Satans Invention (the phone)
The phone is the ultimate productivity and mind-killer. Here are some tools that can make it less evil:
Delete social apps — Just delete social media apps on your phone. This will create a barrier against letting them distract you.
Delete infinity pools — Same with “infinity pools” like Youtube and Netflix.
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Log out of websites, disable auto-login — Log out of all websites and set it up, so you don’t have a user with auto-login. Otherwise, your browser will serve as everything you’ve just removed… Alternatively, use a browser without those features, like the DuckDuckGo browser or Firefox Focus.
Clear home screen from apps — Remove everything nonessential from your home screen, so you don’t get tempted.
Wear a regular watch — Similarly, if you wear a watch for the time, you won’t get stuck on your phone when you check it.
Leave the device somewhere — Leave the device somewhere where it doesn’t bother you.
Use app blockers — Same as earlier, don’t trust your own willpower.
22. Productive distractions
If you have to procrastinate and distract yourself, do it productively. Watch a helpful tutorial or read a book one a relevant subject.
23. Social media: 350 vs. 17 minutes
When asked, people usually give a few reasons why they can’t be without social media — typically, a particular feature or keeping in touch with certain people. However, studies have shown that the time spent on those specific aspects account for only 5% of the average time spent on social media in general. People spend 350 minutes on average on FB each week, and only 17 of those minutes account for the things people say they care about and need on that service.
Consider batching your use of social media, or removing them entirely.
HEALTH & EXERCISE
There’s obviously tons of science on the positive effects of exercise on mental acuity and productivity. In my experience, steady-state cardio (think jogging) is the best for increasing focus & mood. Sprints and high-intensity intervals are a very close second. Strength training and lighter forms of exercise are third (but are, of course, important for other reasons).
The most underrated form of exercise is walking; it’s what humans are made to do. A lot of famous geniuses like Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Jobs swore by walking. Best way to think and reflect, in my opinion.
Famous “Walkers”: Nietzsche (thought of the idea for Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Tesla (got the idea for some of his most important inventions), Hemingway (to end writer’s block), Ulysses Grant, Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Mahler, Beethoven, Freud, Martin Luther King JR, Kant, Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Kahneman & Tversky.
“Only ideas won by walking have any value.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
One of the most significant benefits of meditation is increased focus by training your mind not to wander off during any given task. If you’re new to this, the best way to start is through a meditation platform that offers guided meditation (links at the end of doc). (There are obviously myriad other benefits of meditation, that I won’t get into.)
There’s a ton to get into when it comes to diet, but I will keep it short.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned here is that carbs (especially fast-acting ones: bread, pasta, rice, grains, sugar, high-carb fruits) create huge energy dips. This happens through the release of insulin in what we usually call a food coma. So I avoid consuming too many fast carbs early in the day.
Also, consider skipping breakfast, as that can have a hugely beneficial effect on your focus (through the production of BDNF — google it, it’s a thing!).
27. Stay Social
To quote Aristotle, humans are social beings; it’s important to stay that way despite the current situation. Use hangouts or zoom for video conferencing, to get closer to that human connection.
In this modern age, it’s easier than ever, so call your mom, play a game of Dota with an old friend.
- Deep Work — Cal Newport
- Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport
- Make Time — Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky
- Essentialism — Greg McKeown
- Productivity Project — Chris Bailey
- Atomic Habits — James Clear
Focus & Creativity
- Lo-Fi Beats — Spotify
- Brain Food — Spotify
- White Noise — Spotify
- Lofi hip hop beats
- Game Ambient OST
- Calm Classical
- Focus Jazz
- Ambient & Piano
- Binaural Focus
- Designing (Electronic)
Distraction Platforms & VPNs — for blocking
Microsoft Edge — for distraction-free browsing (yeah, I know, but it’s actually good!).