These days, we’re flooded with ideas for working better, faster, and longer. Want to take control of your inbox? Try checking your email periodically instead of leaving Gmail open—or alternatively, answering every message as soon as you read it—or taking a 10-day email hiatus. With so many conflicting suggestions, it can be difficult to figure out the best strategy for, well, anything.
We’ve got a secret for you. The best strategy totally varies from person to person. It’s all about figuring out which productivity tricks fit with your working style.
Here are a few steps for determining whether any given tactic is right for you, so you don’t waste time trying not to waste time.
1. Compare it to Your Current Method
How similar is the so-called “better method” to your current one? The key here is to find a change that’s different enough that you’ll see a change in your efficiency, but not so different that you won’t be able to stick with your new system.
For example, say you want to get better at working through distractions, so you decide to try the Pomodoro Technique. You set a timer for 25 minutes, work until it buzzes, and then take a five-minute break. But right now, you typically work for two or three hours at once and then spend an half an hour or so scrolling through Facebook or grabbing a coffee. The Pomodoro Technique probably won’t work (at least right away) because it’s too different from your current habits. Instead, adjust the idea so it’s more moderate—maybe you work for an hour and then take a break for 15.
2. Use Common Sense
Productivity articles love to herald their advice as “bizarre yet effective!” or “the innovative trick that will transform your workday!” However, just because a suggestion is new doesn’t mean it’s improved.
I recently read a piece about fitting self-improvement into a busy schedule. The author advised I download educational podcasts and listen to them on my commute. That sounds nice, but I know the reality of me absorbing anything about becoming an entrepreneur or diversifying my investments at 7 AM on the bus while I’m just waking up are almost nil.
Instead of spending valuable energy on a strategy I know won’t work, I choose to only take productivity advice I know I can realistically implement. For example, I’ve become a big fan of scheduling my hardest tasks for the morning, when I feel most energized and focused.
3. Try One Thing at Once
It’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of a productivity article—next thing you know you’re planning on revolutionizing absolutely every aspect of how you work. But before you renovate your office to include more “efficiency-boosting” colors and inform your colleagues that from now, there will only be one office meeting a month, pause.
Even if all the productivity tricks you want to try are individually valid, taking them on simultaneously will lead to productivity burnout. It’s already difficult to switch up a pattern, so changing multiple methods at once is near impossible. Instead, pick just one idea to try out. Once it’s successfully integrated into your workflow, then you can add another.
4. Give it Time
Once you’ve actually chosen a productivity hack that A) won’t require you to completely turn your back on the way you currently do things, B) could reasonably work, and C) is the only change you’re making for the moment, then put it into action. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t get results right away.
Suppose you want to start a habit of writing for a half hour just after waking up each morning. On Monday, you sit down with a blank page and a pen, ready for the genius to start flowing—yet in an hour later, you’ve only scribbled a few lines. That doesn’t mean that, Tuesday morning, you should trash the whole project. Keep trying it out. Research shows it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to be fully integrated, so don’t expect it to feel perfect for a while. That being said, if a week or two later you’re still crumpling up your paper in frustration, then it’s probably worth testing something else. However, it’s more likely that after a couple of days you’ll get used to the new way and start seeing results.
Productivity tips may be presented as one-size-fits-all, but that doesn’t mean they fit every lifestyle or personality. Next time you’re considering taking one on, make sure it’s right for you. After all, there’s nothing worse than being inefficient in your quest for efficiency.