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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

3 Productivity Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Almost a year ago to the day, I was putting my hair back in a ponytail when I reached up and pulled out a handful of strands. I couldn’t believe it: I had gotten so stressed out that my hair was literally falling out.

Up until then, I knew that I was constantly exhausted and behind on everything, but suddenly there was a physical reminder I couldn’t ignore. And then it hit me how deeply I was sabotaging myself: I had over 40 “important” emails that were still unanswered at any given time, I was barely turning in writing assignments by the final buzzer, and I generally felt like I was constantly apologizing for turning in stuff late or not giving my all to a project.

Going into the new year, I made a promise to myself: I would manage my time and balance my workload in a way that didn’t always leave me stressed. How did I do it? Here are a couple of changes I had to make—and that you can, too.

1. Know How to Use a To-Do List

I used to be one of those people who pretended she could remember laundry lists of tasks in her head. But for obvious reasons, I was constantly forgetting to do really important stuff, thus creating a great deal of stress and a “barely finished in time” mentality.

Around the time of the hair incident, I made a small change: I turned my MacBook “Reminders” app into my to-do list. At first I was terrible about using the app; I’d put way too many things on my plate every day and never reached the end of the list. But what I learned from this initial problem is that it’s not enough to just have a to-do list (as many people advise); you need to figure out your own system.

Eventually I got into a rhythm: I’d assign one or two important big tasks every day and maybe two or three smaller ones. I made a point of never having more than six things on a daily to-do list more than a couple times per month. I was soon able to start scheduling tasks weeks in advance and moving them around accordingly, giving me the freedom to finish up important assignments way in advance and to know what I had coming up in the future.

The bottom line? It’s not enough just to have a checklist; invest time in finding a system you really like and figuring out balance of tasks that you can actually finish and that doesn’t leave you stressed. What works for one person doesn’t work for someone else. Personally, I really like my simple Reminders app, but I have friends who use really intense apps that have all the bells and whistles.

Would those apps work for me? Heck no, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all about what you need.

2. Know Your Lazy Hours

There’s a lot of great advice out there about working during your most productive hours of the day, but I personally didn’t know what my “productive” hours were until I discovered when my absolute rock bottom lazy hours occurred. And not having this knowledge prevented me from keeping my stress levels low and my output high.

For example, in my case, I’ve noticed that if I don’t start doing work by 11 AM, I won’t be getting much done at all. There’s just something about early hours that makes me chipper and ready to get stuff done; if I put off things until the afternoon, I know my productivity is heading south and that there’s maybe a 15% chance of completing my to-do list.

One gigantic mistake I was making last year was saying, “I’ll just do my work later today; I’ve got plenty of time!” Sure, there were 12-13 hours left in the actual day, but on Lily time, my daily productivity clock was hitting closer to zero. As a result, I was working up until deadlines all the time and my stress level was at a record high.

Want to know your lazy hours? Over the next five or six weeks, take actual notes of when you feel like doing the least amount of work. Do you find yourself surfing Netflix around 5 PM every day or snoozing your alarm seven times in the morning? More often than not, these are the hours when you should stop trying to make yourself do work and that you should subtract from the number of hours you have in the day.

3. Get Your Sleep Schedule in Check

Once I started getting the hang of my to-do list and my productive hours, I made another crucial mistake: I wasn’t changing my sleep schedule to accommodate my new working schedule. At the time, I was going to bed at 1 or 2 AM and waking up at 7 AM to start doing work. It goes without saying that I started getting groggy and cranky all the time.

Soon I began going to bed much earlier (I’m talking granny hours, like 9 or 10 PM) so that I could wake up and actually start working. Even now I’m typically asleep by 11:30 PM at the latest on most nights.

In terms of your own sleep schedule, don’t be afraid to go the unconventional route. For example, I have one friend who’s most productive in the wee hours of the morning; to compensate, he takes several long naps throughout the day and functions extremely well.

But whatever you do, don’t underestimate how important sleep is to being productive. It sounds counterintuitive (“More time sleeping means less time to finish everything!”), but it makes a gigantic difference in your productivity level.

Overall, keep in mind that you usually have to change several key things and stick to them over a long period of time. Having a great to-do list does nothing if you’re exhausted all the time (therefore making you lazier than you’d normally be), and a good night’s sleep won’t help an ability to nail down all your tasks for the day if you don’t have a to-do list.

But by putting all of these principles together, you won’t be watching the clock count down anymore. Promise.

Photo of pencil, clock, and phone courtesy of Shutterstock.