4 ways I upped my productivity and stopped sucking

Guest post by Dootsie Bug

I suck at a lot of stuff, guys. Among the many things I am The Absolute Worst at, being a productive worker is often one. I’m terrible at organization, I just can’t with deadlines, and staying focused is like… psssht.

A few months ago, I was approaching another big deadline when I reached my breaking point. There were emails, phone calls, and in-office visits to hound me for work that I hadn’t even started yet because I was totally overwhelmed. As I rained curse words down upon them, I realized there had to be another way.

Out of that, a new game plan was born. Here’s how I upped my productivity and stopped sucking…

Pen and paper “to do” lists

I keep having these wild fantasies wherein digital task managers work for me. Experience has taught me that it just ain’t happenin’. They’re a focus shift to me. Going to an app or website to log my work is a mental full stop. Plus, it’s super easy to ignore the crap out of something that can be clicked away.

All of my to-dos are written down on a huge, honking spiral bound notebook, kept open on my desk at all times. When the page gets too messy, I just rewrite everything that’s pending.

Breakfast, lunch (and/or dinner)

So, cool fact: food is a good thing that uses science to make your body do shit. Surprise! For me, the basics of life on Earth were apparently just too pedestrian.

After I had an organ removed last summer, my digestive needs have changed. Now, I eat regular meals like one of the plebes. And wouldn’t ya know, I’m suddenly feeling about 500% better! I keep a box of crackers, some juice, a source of caffeine and some sort of fruit at my desk for snacking, and I bring my lunch when I can (read also: when my boyfriend packs it for me, because I’m a toddler). If you don’t have a snack stash spot, try to keep some power bars in your bag. You’ll thank me.

Say it: “I’ve got nothing to do”

Training myself to tell my coworkers that I made it to To Do List Zero has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had been harboring this awful notion that if I admitted that I wasn’t busy would mean I’d be found out as a fraud and fired on the spot.

What actually happened was I started getting some of the work I’d eventually end up doing earlier, or got more creative, exciting projects to toy with in my “down” time.

Of course, continually chirping that you’ve got nothing to do in an office isn’t a good thing, either. If you’re operating with nothing on your plate most of the time, ask for some added responsibilities or insert yourself into ongoing projects. Your help is almost certainly needed somewhere.

Vote for productivity

Your mindset is absolutely essential. If you’ve decided that your work doesn’t matter, that you can just do it tomorrow, that social media is just way more fun, that you’re just spinning wheels… then you’re not going to be productive or feel good about what you produce.

Productivity is a thing you have to work for (duh), but it’s also a thing you have to welcome. Which sounds like motivational speaker hooey, but I swear it’s real!

For me, it helps to do a mental inventory of what being unproductive is going to cost me and what being productive will gain. “Is hanging out with Kim Kardashian really going to get this project done and out the door? If I buckle down and get some stuff done, who will I be helping? If I work really hard right now, what will that do for my workday tomorrow?” Simply making the mental decision that doing work is a good choice helps me do the work!

How do YOU up your productivity?

Comments on 4 ways I upped my productivity and stopped sucking

  1. Great topic and tips! I especially love the last point. It’s similar to trying to decide whether to exercise or not–it’s easier not to, but I usually feel much better after I’ve exercised, or had a very productive day at work where I was able to cross a lot of things out or push through a bug. If I slack off for too long instead, I often feel guilty and my mind gets sluggish.

    I’ve tried things like setting timers (such as doing 50 minutes on, 10 minutes of break), but it was easy for me to forget and start clicking away at random internet stuff out of habit. On the other hand, I noticed I was very productive on a day we had an internet outage for a few hours. I haven’t brought myself to do it yet, but I think turning off the internet on my computer when I really want to buckle down would help a lot. Yes, I often solve little bugs by googling the error messages, but the good is outweighed by the lots and lots of ways I find to distract myself (*ahem* like this website).

    • I’ve long avoided installing a site blocker on my browsers, though I’m sure I would benefit. (Not that I wrote this post while I was supposed to be doing something else or anything…)

      But… surely the Empire would fall without us continually refreshing from 9-5!????

    • I do use a timer to keep me on track with my housework! I set it for 15 minutes, and then go to a different room and do different tasks when that 15 minutes is up. If I didn’t, I would spend 4 hours straight on the computer.

      • Actually, I do like the timer method for cleaning. I got the idea to try it at work from doing 20/10’s to organize my room (and got that idea from Unfuck Your Habitat). But because pretty much everything is on the computer at work, it was too easy to get distracted before time was up. Now I’m looking forward to doing some more when I get home, though, because my room has gotten a little disheveled again.

  2. Saying “I’ve got nothing to do” has been the hardest part for me. To me, it made it sound like I was not a self-starter or independent – a tough thing when I my co-workers seemed like they were up to their eyeballs in projects. The key to making this work for me was rephrasing it: “Hi Co-Worker, you look busy. I’ve completed all the time-sensitive things on my to-do list, can I give you a hand?” That way I don’t feel like I’m announcing “I HAVE NOTHING TO DOOO!” but can still take on extra tasks and not feel like a waste of space.

  3. The lists! ALL THE LISTS! I have paper, digital and a mutherfrackin’ whiteboard … it’s the only way. Because, really, with that many, it’s hard to ignore what needs to get done when there’s a list staring you down every corner you turn.

  4. My biggest productivity problem is that I’ve come to see my job as a pointless chore that I hate. (A month ago, they had me copying FLOPPY DISKS to a hard drive. WHY? WHY is this a thing?)

    I spend so much time coping with the emotional fallout from that, so I don’t have much energy left over to be productive on my own personal projects. It’s left me feeling like I’m all out of the grit necessary to get things done and feel proud of myself.

    I am looking for a new job, but it’s a matter of finding something that won’t inevitably be worse than what I have now. (I’m looking at you, Customer Service.)

    • At my last job when I would finish my work quickly and would ask around if I could help anyone, I was constantly made to make sure all of the back files were properly alphabetized. I knew there was some importance to it, something to do with auditing. But my lord! I don’t know what was worse, the millions of paper cuts I had around my nail beds or my brain slowly dying. I eventually got hip to the fact that it made more sense for me to do my work slower so I wouldn’t be stuck doing boring never ending tasks. And then eventually I quit altogether because the small paycheck wasn’t worth sending my daughter to preschool all day long. Now I just have to find value in stupid house tasks as a stay at home mom. *yawn*

    • Through the worst parts of previous jobs (and even my current job), I’ve looked at it like this:
      Every business card I scan is another penny towards my rent.
      Every asinine meeting is a meal on the table.
      Every annoying customer is a buck towards my car running.
      Every email, every phone ring, every “lemmie stop by your office for a minute”… internet, eyeglasses, shoes, Netflix, warm showers, paczkis,

      It may be a chore, but the rewards are real. It’s surviving–not thriving–but any bit of meaning I can inject into the misery has been helpful for me.

  5. I use a browser extension called StayFocusd for days when I know I need to knuckle down and focus, no distractions from the internet, no “oh I’ll just pop onto Facebook for a peek while I’m in between files”. I usually set the “Nuclear” option for 30 – 60 mins, which blocks every website except a select few that I may need for work. If you try to access anything else, you get the StayFocusd page which asks you “Shouldn’t you be working?”

    If I end up playing with my iPhone instead, I turn it off and/or lock it in a drawer and tuck the key away. Now getting my phone out requires some effort, rather than mindlessly playing with it.

    I’m also finding that writing in a paper agenda every day is helping a lot as well. I was having a lot of trouble keeping on top of all the things I had going on, so a written list works really well. Plus it’s satisfying to cross things off it 🙂

    Now, if anyone has any advice for learning to manage your emails a little better…

    • ALSO: keeping my desk (or work space of whatever sort) tidy and organized can really help, too. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed, I end up with files spread everywhere, Post-Its and notebooks all over the place, loose papers, pens, scissors, tape, anything I may have used in the last little while…it’s all ON MY DESK. Taking an extra 20 minutes at the end of my day to tidy up will ensure I start off the next day in a much better place, mentally – which means I can get more done, more efficiently.

  6. Yes to pen and paper!!! Not only is it easier to add stuff because it’s RIGHT THERE instead of going to a site or grabbing my phone / tablet (also easy to modify / add notes), it’s also SUPER satisfying to physically scribble through things with my pen when they’re done. Also super satisfying to flip through a notebook once it’s full and look at all of the stuff I’ve done in the past year. I actually keep old notebooks just for this reason. 🙂

    Sometimes I look at all the schtuff on my to-do list, in my inbox, on my desk and get overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and then I just run and hide on the internet. At those times I need to go through EVERYTHING in ALL of my piles and organize it. Stuff to file, stuff to do, stuff to forward, stuff I’m waiting to hear back on, stuff that needs heads-down-focused-work-time. Makes it much less overwhelming.

    Also, I usually discover that lots of the stuff in my to-do piles that I like to put off actually takes almost no time to DO. That thing I’ve been avoiding for two days? Turns out that after ten minutes it’s done. I can do ten minutes. And then I get to scratch it off my list!

    Internet-wise, I easily get sucked into a spiral of “I just checked Facebook, so now I should check Instagram, and now Twitter, and read this article that was tweeted…” Most days I try to set a goal for myself to not open the internet until my lunch break. Otherwise too easy to get bogged down and then an hour has flown by. Same with putting my phone in a drawer so I’m not constantly responding to texts and personal emails.

  7. All the lists. I have 3 running lists that help me the most: 1) to do today, 2) to do this week, and 3) major priorities/deadlines/projects. Plus monthly and yearly at-a-glance calendars.

    Annnnnnd… I recently started using HabitRPG and I LOVE it. When I do something I get gold coins and XP! If I do something hard (phone calls, ugh) I get more gold coins! I’ve only used it in my personal life, not work life yet, so I’m not sure how that’d work… maybe only log in at the end of the day and check everything off all at once rather than going in and out? But it’s really incredibly motivating for me, fantasy geek that I am.

  8. I am the same way- it’s too easy to get distracted when you have to open another app or really anything else to check something, so I still have a paper calendar and a paper to-do list by my desk.
    I got a larger monitor to connect to my laptop for science-y purposes, and it’s actually been really helpful for productivity as well. I can have more things open at once so I don’t have to go searching for what I need and flip back and forth!

  9. I use Cold Turkey to block my worst time sucking websites. Lately this has been from starting my revision for the day until the other half gets home. Yay, exams.

    I also have a kitchen timer on my desk for 99 minutes. I find I either end up working the entire 99 and resetting it, or I’ll look up at 13 minutes to go and use that time to have a pee, grab a snack etc. I find it helps to have snacks etc in another room so going to get them seems like a proper break. I come back more refreshed than if I’d blindly been shovelling in food at my desk.

    Best thing I did for my productivity was sort out my office. Technically its a walk in wardrobe with the boiler in the corner and it has no windows or sockets, but I’ve taken it over as my office. I have the desk arranged so that I’m facing the door and not constantly twitching round thinking there’s someone behind me or in my peripheral vision. I have books and files I need to hand on the top of a unit behind me. I also have all my art work and dance trophies displayed sort of behind me and at the sides to provide some cheer. The biggest improvement I found was GETTING A BIN. So simple but it really helps me to be able to chuck unwanted bits away immediately rather than it piling up on my desk or on the floor.

    Prior to starting any work I allow myself to do the other things that will otherwise distract me. This morning I washed the pots and vacuumed, then hung up a picture before I started working. That way, I’ve done the distracting things that I’m going to want to skive off to do and can just focus on working. Then when I cant work any more, I’ve not got to find extra motivation to do the other things.

  10. One thing that I’ve found helpful is taking real breaks- no multitasking allowed. At work this means no catching up on emails or grading papers at lunch. At home, I’ve even banned my phone from unwind in front of Netflix after work time. This makes those restful times go by slower, meaning by the end I actually feel refreshed (often a little antsy) and ready to get things done.

  11. “All of my to-dos are written down”

    I work in software development and we have bug tracking software, test tracking software, project tra cking software, software tracking software and probably a bunch of other software I don’t even know about. Spreadsheets flap about like laundry on a line — we have internal spreadsheets, we have spreadsheets we share with our customers, our customers have internal spreadsheets and spreadsheets they share with us. I caught my cat updating a “food schedule” spreadsheet just last week.

    All of that is just farting in the wind to me. If it doesn’t make it to my hand-written “todo list” it doesn’t exist.

    • My work was basically run off of Google Docs for 5 years. If I never see another slow-loading, formula-laden, candy-coloured eyesore of a spreadsheet again, it’ll be too soon.

  12. Yes, To do lists!
    Mine aren’t written down, they’re on Word at work, but same difference. It is SUCH a good feeling to highlight something bright pink because it’s done! (I do admit to highlighting half a task because it’s half done..)
    It really helps keep me organised, and I’m the kind of person who can’t focus on one thing for too long. So now instead of refreshing Facebook for the hundredth time, I can do something else from my list for a while.
    Also, yes snacks! The chocolate biscuits are downstairs but the apples and oranges are at my desk. Laziness FTW.

  13. Hahaha, we think very differently! Which is awesome, because diversity is fucking awesome.

    Pen and paper to me means “don’t bother reading this” from my days of being forced to take notes in middle school. My handwriting being huge means I waste a lot of paper that way, too. And I love my digital task manager! I use google calendar like nobody’s business, because it allows me to color-code without carrying my set of 80 sharpies with me everywhere I go. If I color-code, I can usually remember what the task is, without having to read it every time I need to work on it, which gets me from “thinking about working” to “working” faster. I use the calendars to keep track of everything from student loans (3 total, requiring different monthly payments, and when they’ll be paid off if I continue like this), to when my cat’s shots are due every three years (because who the hell can remember that?), to whatever I’m doing at work. The biggest benefit for me is that I necessarily must link things to time, so I get an estimate of when I might finish the task, but can easily move them if things change (which they do often). I also make judicial use of google docs and spreadsheets, so I can share them with others, and we can both update them in real time. This is important for me because there are few projects on which I work alone from the beginning to the end, even in my personal life.

    So I guess the moral of the story is to learn yourself and try out different mechanisms until you find one that works for you!

  14. This is sneaky, because as an internet marketing person, I need the internets! But, the internet can also be my biggest time suck. My managers are very hands-off, which is awesome but not awesome at the same time. I work at a car dealership and my main job is to take photos of the cars and upload them and then write descriptions, but when you get walloped with snow like we have been and I’m the last person that gets the car before it goes on the front line, well… here I am.

    • I’m our “web ad trafficker” and one of our social media mavens.
      I have to be on Facebook during the day, sometimes Twitter. Twitter and Tumblr are my happy places. Oh, and the Offbeat Empire. And…
      It’s a tough cycle.

  15. I also love lists, but they tend to pile up on my desk, in my purse and get lost (mostly when they are very needed :/ ). I tried bullet journaling and it worked for me so far. It also creates some kind of a diary, so you can flip through your past and actually remember some nice things.

    I’m also very easily distracted when my laptop is on and I’m trying not to check internet every other second. Installing neutral screen saver (flip clock) helped a little bit, and now I have a pretty clock on my desk :).

  16. Thanks for this! I also have to have pen and paper lists. If I can’t see my list unless I open the app or my computer, then I will miss something. I also have to have a paper calendar sitting right in front of me that I use color coded pens on (color coding with pens and post-its got me through college). My lists are a little special though. I have this cork board that I’ve divided up into 4 rectangles and titled them in sharpie. The titles are: Long Term, This Month, This Week, and Today. Once a year I sit down and draft up the big overarching goals for the year, like that I want to be in a gallery by the end of the year, and I pin it to that section. Then each month I sit down and write all the deadlines and events that month, and try to include one thing from the yearly list I could chip away at. Then on Monday morning the first thing I do is write out my week and give myself an outline of when I’ll get things done. On the weekly list I write the three most important things to get done that day, but on the daily list it’s much more broken down and usually includes things like cleaning, working out, emailing a friend, making the bed, etc. I like checking things off and if it’s important enough to make my day feel more complete I’ll put it on the list. Since I work for myself as an artist these lists make me feel like there is a plan to follow and goals to achieve. That helps when sometimes I wake up and feel like my job is imaginary.

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