If you are anything like me, managing a productive day is easier said than done. One minute I’m writing and the next I’m down a rabbit hole, watching a video on the 27 ways the new iPhone is going to change my life. Distractions are all around us, and with addictive technology at our fingertips, it's easier than ever to find ways to waste our most scarce resource….time.
In this post, I'm going to discuss seven habits that I’ve found boost my creativity, problem-solving and overall productivity at work. Whether you’re a designer, researcher or programmer, there is something in here that is relevant. When forming any new habit, things aren't going to change overnight, but with commitment and perseverance, you’ll be on the road to becoming your own productivity guru.
Start each day by choosing a focal point
In the past, I’d open my to-do list app and instantly feel overwhelmed with the number of tasks looking back at me. Even after what felt like some of the world’s most productive days, I’d review the list and ask myself ‘did I make any progress today?’. It felt like I was drowning in a sea of work with no end in sight. This changed after reading Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky. Knapp and Zeratsky discuss how doing more isn't the same as doing what matters and choosing a single task to prioritize and complete each day can satisfy you at the end of the day (even if your to-do list remains endless).
Each day before work begins, choose a task to prioritize for that day. The task could be big, like working on a bug fix. Or it could be a bunch of smaller tasks, like giving feedback on another team member’s designs, responding to emails / slack messages or tidying up design files. This process has helped me better manage my time, meet deadlines, and avoid decision paralysis. But, most importantly, it helps me feel less stressed, making it easier for me to get my creativity flowing and bang out my next design.
Set clear agendas for meetings
I’d bet that we’ve all sat in a meeting wondering why we were invited, not sure of its purpose, or had the thought ‘this could have been an email'. Meetings with no clear agendas are productivity killers. In 2020, unnecessary meetings accounted for over 150 hours…that's almost 30 work days worth of time per year (Asana, 2022). Mind-blowing!
Next time you organise a meeting or team session remember to:
- Clearly define the purpose of the meeting to the attendees and set expectations, e.g. share the user testing results of the new onboarding experience.
- Make sure you are getting the right people in the room, e.g. product manager/s, designers, programmers, etc.
- Provide the attendees with any pre-reading to encourage more insightful discussion, e.g. export of the results from Maze
- Outline the required actions you are seeking from the meeting/session
Block out time in your calendar
Opening my work calendar and finding it empty is a luxury I don’t often experience. If you are new to the corporate environment, you might be surprised at how quickly your calendar fills up, especially if others in the company can view it. Before you know it, your day has been scheduled for you and there is no time left to work on the things that matter.
Next time you need to work on designing a component or writing code for a new feature, block out time in your calendar. This will allow you to protect your time and ensure you have the opportunity to complete the items on your to-do list. Dictate your day before someone else does!
Peak productivity = peak performance
“You’ll have to excuse me, I haven't had my coffee yet” is a sentence that I’ve said far too many times in my professional life.
After nearing a decade of trial and error, I’ve found that my creative juices are flowing and I’m most productive from 30 minutes after my first coffee (around 10 am) till I start salivating over the crisp, cheese-filled toasted sandwich that I’m going to have for lunch (at 1 pm). Now, I schedule my day around this. In tasks that require me to think creatively or require serious brain power, like reviewing a page’s information architecture, I prioritise completing it in this window of time. Problems that at first seemed like the final boss fight in a video game now feel like the bad guys you encounter in the tutorial.
Find your peak productivity window and organise your day around it. You’ll be surprised at how noticeable the results are. Once you find the time that works best for you, you must do your best to protect it!
Activate ‘do not disturb’ mode
I’m a tragic New York Knicks fan. With the time difference from Australia to the US, games are played during my working hours. To keep up with the Knicks, I used to receive live score updates straight to my Apple Watch. While these alerts kept me from missing any of the action, they were stopping me from slam-dunking the items on my to-do list. Every notification pulled my focus away from the task at hand and even if I didn't check the notification, my flow state was interrupted and my focus was lost.
Research by the University of California Irvine indicates that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus and get back on task once disrupted. If you’re someone that checks Twitter every 10 minutes, imagine how much longer it is taking you to write those user testing scenarios or update the latest version release documents. You could be losing hours of your day!
To help keep you in the zone and boost your productivity, turn off all non-essential notifications. You don’t need to respond instantly to the meme your friend just sent you or be the first to like someone’s new post. This small change has the potential to yield big results in boosting your productivity and mental health (check out Tristan Harris to understand more about this).
H2O will make you go
Staying hydrated throughout the day by drinking plenty of water is vital for kicking goals at work. Simply, drinking coffee and tea doesn’t give our bodies everything they need to perform at their optimum levels. Studies have shown dehydration is detrimental to our ability to concentrate, recall, and mood. As famously demonstrated by Bugs Bunny and the Tune Squad in Space Jam, water contains the ‘Secret Stuff’.
Generally, Harvard Medical School recommends four to six cups of water per day. So grab a reusable water bottle, slap some stickers on it, and start sipping away.
Go for a walk
Whether designing a new component, writing website copy or crafting a questionnaire for user research, some days the creative juices are just flowing and ideas come to you in an instant. But, I’m sure we’ve all had days where this is not the case and it feels like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall. Ouch! On days like this, jump up, go for a walk and get your body moving. Not only is exercise great for you physically but it also has a massive impact on your creativity. Research shows that the average number of creative ideas that you have significantly increases when you go from being inactive to being active.
Now, every time I have a ‘creative block’ or before going into a brainstorming or ideation session, I put my headphones in, play some LoFi music and hit the pavement. Something good always comes from it.
Let’s wrap it up!
In this post, I’ve shared with you several tactics that I use to boost my productivity at work. It comes down to finding what works best for you and that’s OK. There is no one size fits all approach to improving your productivity, just lots of trial and error. You got this!