How to focus and get shit done
Here are four productivity tips that work for me.
I am a person who gets a lot done. This is something I know about myself and that other people tend to comment on. If I agree to do something, it’s going to happen.
For the most part, I consider this ability to focus and deliver on tasks to be a strength. But it can also be a weakness. People who consistently get things done tend to raise their hands more often and are generally given more things to do. It’s maybe no surprise, then, that my workload usually hovers somewhere between teeming to overflowing at all times.
This is one of those overflowing-workload weeks. I have a lot of deadlines to meet, a lot of projects to juggle, and a lot of stress to manage. I also have a limited amount of time to do those things: My current working and parenting set-up only gives me 2.5 work days a week (plus a few early mornings and late nights) to get everything done. Whew!
So, instead of writing a newsletter essay this week, I thought I’d share some of the productivity tips that help me tremendously in times like these. These four approaches consistently help keep me on task. Maybe they’ll benefit you too.
Turn your to-do list into a schedule.
I can’t operate without a to-do list. And, over time, I’ve honed the art of creating lists that actually get completed. For starters, a good to-do list is specific. Instead of writing down “newsletter,” for example, I’ll write the different components that go into creating each newsletter:
Write newsletter draft
Submit draft to my editor, Becca
Make second round of edits, if needed
Stage newsletter in Substack
Send test version, do final revisions
Schedule for publication
There are multiple benefits to writing down individual steps. First, having a specific task makes it easier to take action. Instead of staring at a blank screen, I know exactly what to do next. Secondly, accomplishing tasks gives your brain a sweet dopamine hit, and this approach creates lots more opportunities to cross items off your list. Finally, laying out each step of a project makes for better time management. With the above list as an example, some steps (like writing the draft) will take a couple of hours, while other steps (staging the newsletter) will take 15 minutes, tops.
And that’s the other crucial component of an effective daily to-do list: Make it a schedule! Instead of giving myself one long list of tasks to complete, I map out each of my working days, hour by hour, with specific tasks assigned to each block of time. This way, I ensure that things actually get done, instead of staring at a still-full to-do list at the end of the day, wondering where the time went.
Use the Pomodoro Technique.
Of course, creating a to-do list and schedule doesn’t magically make me focus. For the times when I really need to get work done, or find myself procrastinating on a task that I’d rather not do, I employ the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro method is simple: It’s a time-management approach of alternating focused work sessions with short breaks in order to boost concentration. Each interval of time is called a pomodoro, the Italian word for “tomato,” and usually lasts around 25 minutes, followed by a 5-10 minute break. (The technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo, who used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to help him get projects done.) During a pomodoro, you set a timer and focus only on the task at hand—no distractions, no email, nothing else.
It’s a basic concept, and I find it hugely effective. I often use the bare-bones website tomato-timer.com to keep me on track, but there are also cute tangible timers (which could make a good gift for the person in your life who’s looking to get more organized!).
Know your type—and use it to your advantage.
This tip veers a bit more towards woo-territory, but bear with me. I find it super helpful to learn about my personality type (through things like Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, etc.) and to use that knowledge to spot potential pitfalls and set myself up for success.
Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework looks at the ways we respond to inner and outer expectations (i.e. the promises we make ourselves and the promises we make others) and whether we tend to meet expectations. According to the Four Tendencies Quiz, I’m an Obliger, which means that I always meet deadlines and expectations if I’m accountable to someone else, but rarely meet them if I’m only accountable to myself.
I’ve written about this concept before and find it fascinating. Deep down, I’m sure I knew this tendency of mine, but I never considered that it was a penchant that other people shared—and that it was something that I could employ to better understand how I approach getting things done.
For me, meeting deadlines is no problem. But I need an extra nudge to do things I want to do, like write or take breaks. One of the ways I work around that is by building outside accountability. Becca and I have a weekly document that lists our intentions for the week, and I regularly use this space to write down “tasks” that might not happen otherwise.
This week’s task? To take a bath. Seriously! It’s something that would help tremendously to reduce stress in a jam-packed week and something that I could easily ignore. But now that I’ve made that promise to Becca (and shared it with all of you!), I’m more likely to get into that damn tub and relax a bit.
Make time for not working. Take that time seriously, too.
Speaking of taking baths, my final productivity approach is to treat non-work time just as seriously as I treat work time. As a self-professed workaholic, this is one of the hardest tips for me to stick with. It’s also arguably the most important idea on this list.
I always work better when I take breaks. And I try to build those breaks into my schedule. Whether it’s writing down things like “Take a walk” or “Stretch” in my daily to-do list and blocking off time for those tasks, or making the most of those 5-minute Pomodoro breathers, I do what I can to stop myself from staying hunched over my laptop for hours (which I undoubtedly would do otherwise!).
I try to give my non-work related tasks the same weight as everything else on my plate, and I find the same joy in crossing those items off my to-do list once they’re done. I also try to remind myself that doing these things is productive. Research has proven that taking regular breaks makes us better workers, clearer thinkers, and happier people.
In fact, my best “productivity” tip is to push aside your notions of what it means to be productive and set reasonable expectations for yourself. We work better when we aren’t working all the time.
And with that, I’m off to set my tomato timer and tackle the next task on my to-do list. Here’s to getting more done while working fewer hours.
p.s. What’s your favorite way to focus and get stuff done? I’d love to know. Please share your best tips in the comments!
p.p.s. Another tip? Look for opportunities to lessen your workload. I won’t be writing a Friday newsletter this week, but paying subscribers received a version of this newsletter with my usual life updates, related resources, and weekly exercise below. Is this the nudge you need to sign up and show your support?