I was a really disorganized kid. My room looked like a war zone, my internal clock was always about 30 minutes late, and my life was a series of minor emergencies strung together by random chance. I spent so much time trying to keep up with my day-to-day responsibilities that my bigger life goals seemed completely out of reach.
By the time I hit my twenties, the frustration of always feeling behind and overworked reached a breaking point, so I started searching for a solution. What I found were countless productivity philosophies and tools that promised to organize my life.
After years of trial and error I ended up distilling them all down to six helpful habits that keep me productive and on track.
1. Make productivity personal
Calendars and to-do lists are must-have tools to organize your life, but if they don’t feel comfortable to you, you just won’t use them. It’s easy to become distracted by all the shiny apps, calendars, and task management systems out there, but the only one you need is the one that works best for you.
If you’re techie who wants to use mobile or desktop apps to save ideas and sync your task lists and calendar items, Wunderlist is a fantastic cross-platform task management system. All modern smartphones have a calendar and an easy-to-use reminder or task list app onboard.
If you’re more of a pen-and-paper person, there’s nothing wrong with a dedicated planning folio or simple steno pad.
2. Plan your work, work your plan
I love this phrase. It stresses the importance both of setting those big, lofty goals, and of then breaking them down into small, bite-sized, attainable steps. Once you’ve figured out how to manage your life, you need to be ruthless and unyielding in doing it: Make productivity a daily habit.
Before you start dumping random to-do items and events on your lists and calendars, take time and write down your biggest goals or aspirations. I’m not talking about getting milk at the store or picking up the mail, but your really big goals, like getting a new job, writing your first novel, or perhaps buying a house. Putting your ‘big picture’ goals down clearly is a great way to make sure that as you hustle and bustle in your daily life you’ll always be able to look up from around yourself and keep an eye on the things you really want to accomplish.
Next, break your big goals into smaller steps. If you want to buy a house, lining up your finances or getting a loan pre-approval is a reasonable first step. Perhaps you could also start checking nearby real estate listings each day to get a better idea of price ranges and availability. Each small step gets you closer to your bigger goal, and builds confidence in the momentum you’re generating.
We’re not talking hours of investment here. Just 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of each day reviewing your to-do list and calendar is all it takes to order your tasks and set up the upcoming day to accommodate them.
By clarifying your long-term, big-picture goals and then regularly breaking them down into short-term steps, you’ll find yourself more focused, less overwhelmed, and better poised for success.
3. Capture everything, always
The human brain is an amazing computing machine, but it’s also prone to overload. Inspiration can fade just as quickly as it arrives, so don’t trust your memory; capture ideas in your to-do list as soon as they strike.
If your bigger goals are clearly in perspective and you’ve started working towards them, expand your scope to capture smaller thoughts and ideas, too, like changing the water filter or finding a spare charging cable for your phone. Once you get in the habit of saving your thoughts—as formless or vague as they may be—you’ll relieve yourself of the responsibility of having to remember them.
The key, however, is doing something with those thoughts. During your daily reviews, add important dates to your calendar, key goals to your to-do list, and contacts to your address book. Prune your to-do list of frivolous ideas and prioritize the good stuff often with a keen eye towards your big goals—but don’t limit what you jot down. It’s far easier to delete a bad idea than to remember a good idea you’ve forgotten.
4. Time-boxing for the win
Now you’ve got a big list of important things to do. It can be overwhelming to consider doingeverything on it—particularly if your daily calendar is usually packed. Time-boxing, or scheduling time for common or regular tasks, is an easy and effective way to plan your progress, even with a busy schedule.
First, group together common or related tasks like phone calls, errands, meetings, emails you need to send, shopping items, et cetera. Then find available spots on your calendar you can block out in order to work on them. It may feel odd to schedule yourself, but if you don’t make time for your own progress, no one else will do it for you.
As the weeks go by, you’ll know if you’re making progress on your goals or not, and can adjust in the coming weeks to accommodate for a bit more or less ‘personal’ time. The more you treat your schedule as a guided roadmap for making progress on your goals, the less stressed you’ll feel; you’ll always know what’s ahead, and be better able to focus on what’s important.
5. Hold yourself accountable
No matter how good your productivity plan is, you’re bound to miss things here and there, or let things slip a bit from week to week. Everyone’s human, after all.
But don’t use that as an excuse. If you find yourself procrastinating, ignoring items on your lists, or your projects start slipping behind, use reminders to keep yourself honest.
If you’re a paper-planner person, this could be as simple as scheduling your to-dos right onto your calendar to remind you when they need to be finished (or started). If you use mobile or desktop apps to manage your goals and calendar, it’s usually dead simple to set an alarm or reminder to trigger you. But be sure to have the right frame of mind with this: Your goal is to remind yourself of things you’ve already found important, not to boss yourself endlessly or add stress to your week.
6. Finish everything you start
The most successful people I’ve known are “closers” who finish whatever they start. How many times have you thrown dishes in the sink, planning to get back to them later? Or let that email you didn’t send bother you later in the evening when you want to relax and unwind? Unfinished tasks can weigh heavily on you.
Be a closer. Don’t start anything you don’t have the time, tenacity, or focus to finish, and you’ll find yourself far less cluttered and distracted. Just move that task out a day, or a week, or to whenever when you’ll have more time. You’ll probably do a much better job at it, too.
By adopting these six productive habits, I’ve found that my busiest days feel more productive and my largest goals feel within reach. I hope they help you do the same.