Habits to improve productivity

productivity habits

Recently we've talked about tools to improve your focus and some productivity apps we love, but now it's time to dig into habits. Apps and tools are helpful, but if you really want to improve your productivity you need to look at your habits.

Mise en place

Mise en place (French pronunciation: [mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means "putting in place" or "everything in its place." It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared during a shift.[1]

You are likely not working in the culinary world, but mise en place is a good habit anyone can use. It means to gather your tools and materials together before you start. The idea is to not give your brain an excuse to break your focus. Gather your pens, papers, books, research, computer, including the charger, and whatever else you'll need to get your work done before you start. According to some research from the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after a distraction. Jumping up from your work to track down a computer charging cable, pen or other items you need for your task even once can set you back nearly half an hour.

Set the scene

Similar to mise en place, you will also want to make sure your work environment is set up and ready for you to work. Have a warm drink (I wish there was a magical mug that would refill itself with freshly brewed coffee), a glass of water, tissues, snacks to nibble on, set up and ready. Adjust the temperature and the lighting if you need to. Ideally, you'll have a workspace at your company office or your home that is dedicated to work only.

This can be a tricky task for those of us who work remotely. If we're working from home, we tend to work in the same places we relax. Sitting on the sofa or at the kitchen table can work, but it might be affecting your overall productivity.

Triggers and cues

If you commute to work, you already have some triggers built into your routine. The daily commute to work, the stop at the coffee station to pour your jolt of caffeine, getting settled at your workstation, these are all triggers for your brain that work is about to begin.

For those who work from home, you may need to get a little more creative with your triggers, especially if you're working in a space you otherwise would relax in.

A writer friend of mine who works from home, mainly sitting on his sofa with his laptop, has developed some cues for his brain to help trigger "it's time to work" mode.

First, he gets dressed, including shoes. Sure, the thought of working from home in your pyjamas seems ideal but if you're trying to improve productivity in your daily work, try getting dressed as if you were going to work at an office to help your brain move into "work mode".

His other cue is silly but he swears it works every time. As he is setting up for his day's work, making sure he has everything he needs, he plays the Imperial March from Star Wars. By the time the Imperial March is over, his brain has triggered into work mode. He assures me his productivity and focus has improved noticeably since he started using this technique. Any other sound or music can work as a cue to trigger your mind into work mode. Perhaps the theme song from The Office or maybe My Shot from the musical Hamilton.

Other cues you can to trigger your brain to know it's work time?

  • Sitting at a desk or in a chair that you reserve for "work time" only.
  • putting on a piece of clothing you only wear for "work time", such as a hat, sweater, watch.
  • after any activity such as walking the dog, going for a run or making a cup of tea

The goal is to create a cue that tells your brain, after I do this thing, in this way, it's time to work. With an activity, you also do after work time, like walking the dog, make it slightly different between work time and non-work time. Walk the dog in a different direction or for a different length of time, run a different route, make green tea if your "work mode" tea is chamomile. It doesn't matter what the activity triggers are, just that you are consistent

Brain dump

Having ten different ideas, projects, things to remember is a productivity killer. Instead of trying to remember other things while you're in work mode, write it down. Trying not to forget you have to pick your child up from school today because your partner has a meeting? Set an alarm on your phone or a reminder in your calendar and let it go. Thinking about what to say at your review next week? Make a note, let it go, and refocus.

Brain dumps, writing down everything that's going through your mind, work best if you use the technique regularly. Every morning before you start your work with a brain dump with a pen and scrap paper, in your journal or in an empty text file. Brain dumps can be point form, in a rambling stream of consciousness pile of word vomit, or fully formed paragraphs. The important thing is to clear your mind of anything that's not related to the work you're about to do right now.

You can repeat brain dumps after breaks and at the end of your work time as well.

Task chunking

Personally, the best habit I've ever developed is task chunking. I group similar tasks such as making phone calls, writing emails, writing content, and other daily or weekly tasks together and focus on those task for a period of time each day or each week, depending on the type of task. If my mind is already focused on making phone calls (my least favourite thing to do), it's easier to get them all done at once before moving to a different type of task.

Eat that frog

“Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” Excerpt From: Brian Tracy. “Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.”

We often have tasks we don't enjoy doing (have I mentioned I hate making phone calls?) which we often put off as long as we can. In Brian Tracy's Eat That Frog! he recommends the opposite - do the task you hate doing or the task that's most important first. Once you've eaten the frog of that task, the rest of the day is easy.

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