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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

45 Productivity Tips for Extremely Busy People

You run from meeting to meeting. Your inbox is filled to the rafters (and you’re about up to here with it). You spend hours and hours working every day and still don't feel like you've made a dent in your to-do list.

We understand. We’ve been there. And we know that there will simply never be enough hours in the day. So, we've compiled a list of the ultimate productivity tips that help make the most of the time we have.

From planning your attack on the day to keeping email from getting you down to dealing with those distractions that always seem to pop up, we'll help you get everything done as efficiently as possible so that you finally have time for other things (like, you know, sleep).

Planning Your To-Dos

  1. Don’t overestimate the number of things you can get done in a day. Instead of creating a massive list of to-dos (and feeling frustrated when you don’t finish it), try our 1-3-5 to-do list: Plan to get one large task, three medium-sized tasks, and five small tasks done every day.
  2. “If I’ve already finished something, I write it down and check it off the list. It always feels good to see something get done.” Michael Peggs, @michaelpeggs
  3. Try attaching emotions to your tasks: Reminding yourself that finishing a big client pitch will make you feel “triumphant” or wrapping up your tax return will give you “massive relief” might be just the boost you need to power through it.
  4. Never put a huge project as just one to-do on your list. Instead, break it up into the smaller tasks to help you stay on track with reaching your final goal.
  5. “Thanks to Evernote, my organizational system has transformed from a clunky mash-up of notebook pages, sticky notes, and Text Edit files into a tightly woven, integrated Evernote system that’s synced across my laptop, cell phone, and tablet. From client notes to blog drafts to speech scripts, it’s all there.” Michael Terrell, @michaelterrell
  6. As you’re thinking about all the things you need to get done—both in work and in life—consider which tasks you can remove from your plate by outsourcing them.
  7. Get the thing you like to do least done first. This will encourage you to get it done faster so that you can get to the tasks you enjoy more, making the rest of your day a little bit better.
  8. Complete one significant task before lunch. By getting one big thing out of the way early, you can take a reviving lunch break and start the afternoon fresh, without feeling panicked about that huge to-do on your list.
  9. “Every Sunday, I make a list of what I need to get done that week. I block out a day to get the items done. I save the last 30 minutes of each workday to create a plan for the next day with three priority tasks. I also use that last 30 minutes to close up tasks and check email. This makes early mornings so much easier!” Anna Runyan, @classycareer
  10. There are loads of task management systems out there, so ultimately, it’s about finding what works for you and sticking to it. Constantly trying out new systems will be a waste of your time in the long run, so spend a month experimenting, and then commit. Hint: Your ultimate system may be a combination of several!

Dealing With Email

  1. Only check email at specific times during the day, and try to limit it to only 4-5 times a day. If you don’t have nearly this much self control, use a tool like Inbox Pause to keep emails from showing up in your inbox until you’re ready for them.
  2. If email’s really getting you down, try Time Management Ninja’s system for only checking it twice a day.
  3. Need to answer emails in a hurry? Add the perfunctory “Sent from my iPhone” signature at the bottom of the page—even if you’re emailing from your computer. While you shouldn’t do this all the time, it’s a quick way to bang out some one-sentence replies without people thinking you’re being rude.
  4. Approach your emails in terms of how long it will take you to reply to them. If it will take less than three minutes to answer, just get it done now. If it will take more than that, set it aside. And then, when you have a large chunk of time, tackle those first.
  5. The faster you respond, the shorter your response is allowed to be—and the less time you have to waste with “Sorry for the delayed response” explanations. So, if you can’t respond to an email within 48 hours, at least respond with a quick “I’ll get to this soon!”
  6. Once a quarter, do a massive inbox clean and archive all messages older than two to three months. (Seriously, answering them at this point would just be embarrassing.) As emails you’re subscribed to roll into your inbox, make a snap decision about whether you actually read them or if you should unsubscribe.
  7. “Avoid checking email first thing in the morning. It is too easy to get sidetracked by responding to messages. I find when I wait until after I’ve completed some of the priority items on my to-do list, I can provide more attention to the emails, and I also feel like I’ve accomplished my work as well.” Hannah Morgan, @careersherpa 
  8. Use canned responses to avoid typing the same things over and over again. For any email that you send regularly—or even just part of an email, like the wrap-up paragraph—create a canned response that you can pop in whenever you need it. Never heard of canned responses? Learn more here
  9. Set up automatic filters to immediately pull emails out of your inbox and into the right folder. (This is a great option for things like newsletters that you want to come back to on your own time.)
  10. Use Boomerang to pull emails out of your inbox until you’re ready to deal with them. This is useful for two reasons: First, it gets the message out of sight and out of mind, giving you space to think about other things. Second, it automatically reminds you about the email later on, giving you one less task to worry about tracking on your own.
  11. Want to get less email in your inbox? Try creating an auto-responder with answers to frequently asked questions you get. When possible, always answer emails with statements rather than questions to avoid too much back and forth.

Managing Meetings

  1. Do not schedule more time than you need. Most meetings are scheduled for a full hour, when they should be 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or 45 minutes max.

  2. Don’t schedule “update meetings”—giving an update can almost always happen by email. If the purpose of the meeting isn’t either to make a decision or complete an action together, cancel it (or nicely suggest to your boss that it might not be necessary).

  3. Group your meetings back-to-back to avoid having to switch from meeting mode to work mode too often or deal with awkward time between meetings where you feel like you can’t get anything done. Better yet, schedule a meeting-free day so you have at least one day when you can really dive into focused work.

  4. If you’re meeting with someone outside of the office, think about whether you really need to meet in person. Could your goal could be accomplished with a phone call or video conference instead?

  5. Be incredibly proactive about keeping meetings on track. Send everyone an agenda for each meeting, and, if the conversation goes off topic, don’t be afraid to rein it in. A simple, “Let’s schedule time to discuss that later if it’s helpful, since we only have 10 minutes left,” works perfectly.

  6. Have a one-on-one phone meeting? Secretly aim to keep it under 19 minutes. This will help you keep friendly chit-chat to a minimum and get directly to the point. And if the conversation is going on and on, give a nice excuse for why you have to hang up (like a hard stop or a dying phone).

Mastering Time Management

  1. Build your schedule based on your best times for getting things done. Know that you’re on-point in the mornings? Set this time aside for focused work, and try and keep it free of meetings or distractions. Always hit a lull around 3 PM? Plan an hour here every day for mindless tasks.
  2. “Don’t underestimate the power of small chunks of time to get things done. Instead of wasting the 15 minutes between meetings, come up with a list of little tasks that you can knock out in 15, 10, or even five minutes: Answer emails, reach out to a contact, get some industry reading done.” Fast Company
  3. Not sure where all your valuable time is going? Use a tracker like Rescue Time or Toggl to keep tabs on what you’re doing throughout the day. Over the course of a week or two, you’ll start to get a sense of what the time-sucking culprits are—and be able to plan your attack for how you’ll get rid of them.
  4. You shouldn’t work all weekend, but try finding a couple of hours to clean out your inbox, knock out smaller, mindless tasks, and get a head start on any looming projects. Doing this while watching a movie on Sunday evenings can be a great way to get it done without it feeling like you’re doing too much work.
  5. Use deadlines and time limits to your advantage. Even if you don’t technically have a deadline on a task, set one for yourself. Knowing that you only have two hours to get something done will help ensure you don’t waste an hour of it on the internet.
  6. It sounds counterintuitive, but make sure to schedule plenty of breaks throughout your day. We are most productive when we have chunks of focused work followed by short breaks. Try using an online timer to remind yourself to get up from your desk, grab a snack or some water, or chat with a co-worker for a few minutes before getting back to the grindstone.
  7. Budget limited time for your favorite distractions. Knowing that you’ll get to spend 10 minutes on Instagram after you work for a couple hours can help you avoid wasting time on it now. Plus, using that as a reward for getting through hard work can help you stay motivated.
  8. “If you’re having trouble getting going on a project, make yourself start by running a dash. In other words, set a certain amount of time or a certain amount of work on the project that you must get done before moving on to anything else.” 43 Folders
  9. “Always have backup tasks. There are times when life will try to derail your productivity: A person you need to talk to is unavailable, the internet is down, or you just can’t focus on the task at hand. Always have other options so that you’re able to get something done even when you can’t finish your primary task.” Time Management Ninja

    Dealing With Distractions

  10. “I turn off my computer and leave my phone in odd places that prevent me from immediately finding it. That ensures I’m disconnected and fully present. And the truth is that I know that my brain needs a break, otherwise my business will suffer.” Christie Mims, @revolutionsclub
  11. Need a quick fix to keep your co-workers from distracting you? Pop in your headphones. It’s not fool-proof, but people are much less likely to approach you with a non-urgent question or gossip if you look plugged in and on-task.
  12. When you stumble upon interesting articles, don’t let reading them now get in the way of your productivity. Instead, use a service like Pocket or Instapaper to save them to read later when you have more time (like maybe on your commute).
  13. Designate internet-free times every week. While a lot of our work does rely on the internet, there are still things we need to get done without it—and these are often the focused tasks that we avoid the most. Turn off your Wi-Fi for a couple of hours every week to dive into those tasks.
  14. Get aggressive about how you use social media at work. Ideally, you shouldn’t be using it at all. If you must, limit it to your designated “distraction time” and disable auto-login so you have a barrier every time you pop over to Facebook. Need to be aggressive? Try an app like SelfControl to block your access during the workday.
  15. Stop trying to multitask! We’re really not built for it, and while it may feel like you’re getting more done, everything will ultimately take you longer. If this is a hard one for you, spend a week or two aggressively mono-tasking.
  16. “Just like multitasking, clutter overloads your senses and makes it harder for you to get stuff done. So if you find yourself having trouble focusing, look around at your desk (and your computer desktop) to see if any of them need a little tidying.” ooomf
  17. Feel free to shut yourself off from colleagues when you need focused time. If you use an internal chat system, put on your “Do Not Disturb” message, letting people know that you’re working on something and when you’ll be available again. And if you have an actual office with a door? Close it, with a nice note on the front explaining the same thing.
  18. For ultimate focus, make sure none of your devices are set to ping you when new messages come in. Even something as small as a buzz from your phone can be enough to wreck a productive flow.