12 surprising productivity hacks you can do right away

As the year draws to a close, many people start to think about what they’ll do better when January rolls around. Top of most peoples’ lists (aside from ‘go to the gym’) is ‘be more productive’. But if you’ve had your fill of entrepreneurs telling you to burn the midnight oil, relax: 2019 was the year we all decided to start being a little kinder to ourselves. So let’s make 2020 about working smarter, not harder.

Being productive doesn’t mean working 80-hour weeks or abandoning your hobbies in favor of staying late at the office. It’s about getting more done in less time. And using those extra hours to enjoy life a little more.

If that sounds like something you can get behind, here are our top productivity hacks for 2020 and beyond. And there’s not a spirulina smoothie or 4 am alarm insight.

1. Cancel pointless meetings

Most meetings are unnecessary, too long, and unproductive. Learn to plan your meetings so they’re efficient, focused, and actually have a point; you’ll save yourself (and everyone else) time and money. Remember: you should only have a meeting if it’s the quickest and cheapest way to accomplish something. The rest of the time, an email, virtual collaboration, or a phone call will do.

2. Stop refreshing your inbox

We’re addicted to our email. In the 1930s, a professor of psychology at Harvard University discovered that rats are more motivated by random rewards than fixed ones. Similarly, we never know when we’ll get a message that’s interesting (our reward)—but the faintest possibility of it keeps us clicking the refresh button. It’s an addiction, and it wastes time. It takes around 23 minutes to recover from a distraction. So if you’re working, close your email tab, turn off notifications, and designate specific intervals throughout the day where you’re allowed to look at it. If you’re using a chat app, put your status to ‘do not disturb’, and switch off notifications. Now you can work distraction-free.

3. Don’t worry about Inbox Zero

Another inbox time-waster is ‘Inbox Zero’ — a popular time management strategy that advocates keeping your inbox empty at all times. But it’s pointless because firstly, it’s unrealistic, and secondly, getting hung up on it causes distraction — the very thing it aims to minimize.

4. Quit multitasking

Ever try to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time? Stick with me. Aside from looking silly, this little trick neatly demonstrates how difficult it is for our brain to deal with two separate commands at once. Multitasking is bad for your brain because it’s only designed to do one thing at once. When you make it do more, the quality of each task suffers. In fact, studies have shown frequent multitasking lowers your job satisfaction and creativity. It’s terrible for productivity and needs to be stopped.

5. Use templates

Have a regular email you need to send? Create a template and save it in drafts. Creating a diagram or draft? Invest in a diagramming tool and make use of its templates. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time.

6. Move on when you’re stuck

Whether you’re writing an article or planning a schedule, when we hit a wall we often head back to the beginning and start again. The issue here is that instead of uncovering something new, you’re much more likely to end up back at the same dead end. Instead, break the task into chunks and try a different section. You’ll get more done and the answer you’ve been looking for may suddenly arrive while you’re focusing on something else.

7. Embrace delegation

Completing every task yourself may feel like the easiest thing to do, but it could leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Where possible, delegate tasks to others on your team. Make sure you properly train your subordinates so they can complete the work efficiently — and invest in project management software to help you keep track of everyone’s progress automatically.

8. Put your phone down

Social media and other apps are time vacuums, and they’re designed to keep you hooked. Every time your brain’s exposed to some novel information, it releases a little hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good. So you keep scrolling on the hunt for more. But of course social media feeds are endless, and it’s very easy to end up falling down an information black hole. The wasted time wouldn’t be so bad if we felt better after it, but sadly, that’s not true. Social media is trivial and, some studies suggest, bad for your mental health in large quantities. Leave your phone downstairs when you go to bed. Turn off intrusive notifications. And lock it in a drawer when you’re at work. You’ll feel better for it.

9. Unsubscribe, unfollow, and declutter

The reality is, you’re still going to scroll through your phone from time to time. So at least make it as clutter-free as possible. If your inbox is filling up with promotions and newsletters you don’t read, unsubscribe. If a social media account isn’t providing value or is making you feel anxious or inadequate, unfollow, mute, or block. It’ll feel a little like ripping off a bandaid, but once you’ve done it, you’ll feel calmer and it’ll clear your feed of useless or toxic information. Repeat the process weekly or monthly.

10. Swallow a frog

Mark Twain famously said that if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. So with that in mind, work out what your biggest and least appealing job is — and get it done first. The rest of your to-do list will fly by.

11. Embrace automation

Putting some time aside to research, install. and roll out a new app or process at work may seem counterintuitive, but the time you save faffing around with awkward MS Word formatting, updating Excel spreadsheets (or learning to use them in the first place), sending and receiving countless email updates, hunting around for different versions on the server, and… you get the point. Now, imagine if you could automate all those things. Project management software is great for tracking multiple projects automatically. Every tool is different, but ideally, you’ll want to pick a version that’s cloud-based, and one that sends out notifications in real-time to make it easier for everyone to stay on track. That means no more email updates, and no more dealing with people messing up your spreadsheet color scheme.

12. Take care of yourself

Looking after yourself is important if you want to function at full capacity. Once a day (or once a week — minimum) assess how you’re feeling physically and mentally. Write it down if you need to. Work towards eliminating sources of negative emotions — whether that’s deleting demanding apps, taking a break from social media, leaving work on time so you can go to the gym, hanging out with friends, or speaking to a therapist. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and honor it. The better you feel, the more productive you’ll be.