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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

This Simple Productivity Strategy Almost Feels Too Good to Be True

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I read about the latest apps to improve time management, but I never actually download them. I’m interested in learning how others use timers, tools, and techniques to improve their work flow—but I don’t apply their lessons to my task list.

That’s because, as soon as I try to impose productivity, I rebel against myself and end up procrastinating instead.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about maximizing my time. I have a three-month-old baby I stay at home with; I work close to 30 hours a week (remotely); and my husband’s a college football coach, so he’ll be spending seven days a week at the office until the holidays (a.k.a., I’m responsible for the home front, too).

There are emails to answers, articles to write and edit, viral news pieces to stay on top of, meals to prep, a husband to FaceTime, and of course, a sweet, adorable baby to love, and play with, and spend a huge amount of time coaxing to take naps. Did I mention I’m training for a charity 5K as well?

If you’re ready to unleash an eye roll, don’t worry: This is not an article about how I “do it all.” Because I don’t. Even with a babysitter who comes every week, I’m one of those people who has notifications for 80 unread emails on my phone, who takes at least a week to return a personal call, and who has enough unread magazine piles that my end table looks like it belongs in a doctor’s office.

But, I do manage to keep these various plates in the air and kick ass at my job. Here’s my secret: I don’t have any one routine that I stick to day in and day out. Instead, I empower myself to do what I want.

Before you start calling me a spoiled child, allow me to explain my approach—I always give myself a choice.

Think about it: Anytime you’re faced with indecisiveness, if you narrow it down to options you have to choose between, the path forward becomes clearer. Instead of weighing out the pros and cons of a dozen lunch spots, you ask yourself if you’d like a salad, pizza, or a sandwich, and suddenly you know where you want to go.

Similarly, when I had chores to accomplish, I found executing them how I chose (in this case, which item I wanted to start with), helped me tackle my list faster, and more happily. For example, if I needed to work out, clean my apartment, and go to the store; I was much less resistant if I took a minute to let myself decide which task I was going to do first. From there, I wasn’t dragging myself to the gym; I was going for a run because I wanted to do that more than I desired to clean the kitchen. And by the time I’d reached the bottom of the list, I was already feeling so productive that I wanted to accomplish that last, least favorite item, too.

I started applying the same strategy to my workload and found it works really well. Who says I have to answer emails first and write second? Who says I have to draft an article before I edit a different one?

Are there times when the answer to those questions would be “my boss” or a “client deadline” because something is urgent? Sure. But when it won’t get in the way of anyone else’s schedule—and note, this is crucial to this approach—I let myself choose what I’ll do first. Because when I let myself pick, I’m a lot more likely to focus on the task at hand (as opposed to finding some reason to check Instagram—again).

The key to making this work for you is to present yourself with two choices that’ll actually advance your workload. Don’t choose between answering emails or meeting a friend for lunch. Pick two work tasks that need to be accomplished, and then select the one you’d most like to tackle first.

Once it’s done, you’ll (hopefully) be on a roll, and it’ll be easier to keep going. Yes, you’ll still have to do the lower-list projects, but you’ll finally have the antidote to those mornings where you do nothing because you can’t find a place to begin.

Even if, like me, you’ve never been big on trendy productivity hacks, you just may find that this approach works for you. Sure, reminding yourself that you get to choose what you do first is only a mindset shift. But sometimes that’s all you need to get more done—and enjoy yourself along the way.