Your 2021 Guide to Productivity

We all have those days where getting any work done just seems impossible. Whether it’s scrolling through social media or playing online games with friends or even doing household chores, we always find ways to occupy and distract ourselves from doing actual work. This procrastination caused by our digital conveniences hinders us from being productive. At the end of the day, we have a ton of unfinished work craving our attention. Though, the good news is that productivity can be learned through practice, trial and error. In this article, I share with you 8 ways to level up your productivity.

1. Stop multitasking


Yes, the idea of multitasking might sound ‘productive’, but let me assure you it’s anything but. In fact, experts say that about 98% of us CAN'T effectively multi-task. Trying to complete several tasks at once makes you complete each task more slowly and usually costs you more time than if you focus on each task individually. For important activities that require deep thinking, we need to have the mental discipline to focus on that task alone. Changing tasks more than 10 times a day is shown to drop your IQ by an average of 10 points. Studies further refer to multitasking as a ‘bad habit’ because it takes a negative toll on productivity and the constant task switching can consume up to 40% of someone’s time. 

However, there are some situations where multitasking is not entirely a bad idea. For instance, if you’re exercising while listening to an audiobook you're likely to achieve the benefits of both since these two tasks don’t use the same mental resources. On the other hand, if you’re doing your assignment while trying to follow the words in a podcast, the quality of your work will suffer because both tasks are competing for your language resources. So, be mindful of what activities you multitask. 

Pro Tip: Plan related tasks one after the other since it doesn't require extra mental effort to form new connections, therefore, allowing much quicker progress, as learning and inputs in the previous activity are directly incorporated into the new activities.

2. Take breaks and use the Pomodoro technique


When you have a pile of work to do, taking breaks might seem like a waste of time. However, research suggests that taking small breaks increases the effectiveness and efficiency of each work session. Don’t wait until there’s an ache in your brain after  working long hours to take a  break. Your brain is like a muscle — the longer it works without a break, the easier it gets tired and fatigued. Therefore, breaks are essential for your mental and emotional wellbeing. No matter how many efficient habits you build, you can’t maintain distraction-free focus for too long. That’s why taking breaks is essential to productivity. Even breaks that are just a few minutes long can help you recharge and come up with new ideas. A break as little as 30 seconds, can increase your productivity levels up to 30%. 

Though we should keep in mind that these breaks shouldn’t involve activities which require a lot of brain activity, instead it can be things such as going to the washroom, refilling your water bottle, grabbing a snack etc. A strategic method of managing the breaks is the Pomodoro technique, whereby you split your work/study sessions into 25-minute cycles, with short breaks of 5 minutes then followed by long breaks later. This helps eliminate distractions and retains attention while enhancing each working session’s efficiency.

Pro Tip: You can use your phone timer or Pomodoro timers to set and track your breaks. Below is a list of my favourite ones:

3. Form new habits


At this point, you may be convinced about the benefits of being productive and might even aim to be more productive from tomorrow onwards. However, being productive isn’t something that happens overnight — it’s the small habits cultivated gradually, over time which results in productivity. Hence, forming new habits that will contribute to your overall productivity is crucial. For example, if you form a habit of typing a certain amount of words every day, eventually you’re going to increase the speed of your typing which will help you do your assignments faster while following tight deadlines. 

Not to mention habits such as healthy eating, sleeping well, and constant learning are some of the most basic habits you need to develop to be more productive. Good habits are the key to unlocking your maximum potential. Examine the habits that energize you and identify the ones that contribute to your inefficiency. These habits will not only help you to merely get the work done, but also will help you to explore new horizons of your capabilities and potential. 

Pro Tip: Use habit-building apps to cultivate and grow new habits which will contribute to your productivity. I recommend Habitify, Habit (iOS only), Tik Tik, Grow (Android only), Habitica.

4. Keep a distraction journal


It happens all the time. You’re in the middle of working on your assignment and you suddenly remember something that you forgot to do. Maybe you forgot to take out the clothes from the washing machine or to reply to your friend’s text. And a billion dollar idea pops up inside your head. We’ve all been in situations where distractions are simply the bane of productivity. 

So, experts suggest having a distraction journal to write whatever comes to your mind while you’re trying to focus on your work. It doesn’t have to be a physical book, it can also be a small piece of paper, a post-it note or even the notepad on your laptop. Writing down these distractions will help your mind to acknowledge the thing that’s bothering you and move on with your work. Once you’re done doing your work you can start attending the things in your distraction journal.

Pro Tip: Don’t use your phone as your distraction journal because it might subject you to even more distractions.

5. Use the 80/20 rule


Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of the population in 1906. He further observed that this 80/20 distribution occurred frequently in many scenarios. For example,  20% of the world's population controls about 80% of global income. You wear only 20% of the clothes in your closet about 80% of the time. This is known as the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. Although this isn’t some kind of universal law that is applicable in all cases, it’s an incredibly useful way to evaluate and be more efficient in your own life. 

Imagine making a regular to-do list of 10 items. Using the 80/20 rule, you’ll identify the two most important tasks on your to-do list that will produce the most of the desired outcomes. After identifying this, you'll focus 80% of your effort on completing these two things and the remaining on the rest. This way you’re at least getting the important stuff out of the way, even if you couldn't finish most of  what you wanted to do. The bottom line here is that 80% of your outcomes are obtained by just 20% of what you do each day. Therefore, you should choose and organise your to-do list wisely and eliminate things that don’t matter and focus on what truly matters.

Pro Tip: Organise your to-do list from most important to least important for the following day.

6. Recharge your brain


As students, we can get overwhelmed and anxious when we're stuck at an impasse and can no longer continue with studying or doing our assignments. What do you do when you reach this state? When we're working on tight deadlines, most of us continue working while feeling frustrated, annoyed and even angry with ourselves for not finding the right answers. However, according to productivity gurus, continuing to work when dealing with a mental block is not only less productive, it may also lead to bad decisions. 

Fresh ideas emerge when we’re not consciously thinking about them. Giving space to our brain to form new connections is essential to discover new solutions and get over an impasse. Stand up, go grab a snack, get some fresh air, simply walk around without actively thinking about the problem. Great ideas will flow without making an effort.

Pro Tip: How I recharge my brain: taking cold showers, power naps and lots and lots of water. 

7. Hold yourself accountable


Remember when your parents asked you to do a chore and how you’d rush to do the chore before your parents catch you slacking on it? This is because you knew you’d be held responsible for the chore. Similarly, as adults, we need some sort of accountability system to keep us on track. Whether it is an assignment or a small task, we’d perform much better if we had an accountability system, according to research

To do this, you can build a reward/punishment system whereby whenever you complete a task you’d reward yourself, and whenever you fail to do so, you’d punish yourself. No, the rewards and punishments don't have to be a big deal. It can be as small as giving yourself a bar of chocolate for a successfully completed assignment. And the punishment can be no social media for a day, or no video games for a couple of days. This way you’re training your brain to think about the consequences of completing or not completing a given task which can motivate you. You can also recruit someone you trust that will support you and be each other's accountability buddies. 

Pro Tip: My favourite college geek YouTuber Tomas Frank swears by these two apps for holding you accountable and making you more productive:

  • SticKK (you can set someone as your coach)

  • Beeminder (If you want to level up)

8. Master the Art of Planning


In his well-known book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey dedicated a whole chapter to a subject he calls putting “first things first”. This productivity technique is also referred to as the “Eat the frog” technique. According to Covey, we should do the most important tasks of the day during our peak productivity. For some people, it could be morning, afternoon, evening, or night — whatever works for you, since different people work best at different times of the day. 

Breaking down big tasks into smaller and more manageable tasks not only motivates us to do them but also helps us to be more organised. Moreover, creating a schedule the night before, or early in the day, could also help you to plan better for the following day. If you have a ton of items in your to-do list, you might want to assign time spans for each activity to ensure the success of most. Even though you might not follow through with the schedule precisely, you’d still gain some sort of success from the schedule. And as you make more and more schedules, you might notice that you’ve become better at following through. The simple act of writing things makes us feel more in control of our day thereby boosting our confidence and frees our mind of planning during the day while working.

Pro Tip: Plan the activities that require higher brain power for early in the day such as doing your assignments, studying, etc. and tasks that require lower brain power for later in the day such as folding clothes or replying to emails.

Congratulations if you’ve come this far! By now you might be convinced that this whole ‘being productive’ thing is totally doable and might even make it one of your New Year resolutions to do so. Tell us if you’ve tried any of these productivity tips and if you’ve a productivity tip that has worked wonders for you, we’d love to hear about it.

Ali Najah is a final year student at Taylor's University, currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and Marketing (Honours). He is a Board member of the Media & Design department at Taylor's Muslim Student Association (MSA). He is also a writer and photographer at Taylor's Etc Magazine.

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