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Strategy How to be more productive if traditional productivity tips don't work for you

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Productivity advice typically relies on a static vision of our working selves — it doesn’t account for the human element. Increasing your productivity requires working with your natural tendencies and allowing time for you to do things that make you happy.

Productivity isn't universal — do what helps you works best. play

Productivity isn't universal — do what helps you works best.

(Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock)

  • Productivity advice relies on a static vision of our working selves—it doesn’t account for the human element.
  • Increasing your productivity requires working with your natural tendencies, rather than fighting against them.
  • Giving yourself time to do the things that make you happy is a valuable, and scientifically supported, productivity method.

I’ve always loved to try and combat the messiness of human existence with neatly organized spreadsheets, and I always hoped that work-life balance could be found in a carefully crafted Google calendar.

When I worked at a startup, productivity took a more prominent role in my life. Increasing my work efficiency became the ultimate goal lurking behind each new assignment.

To keep up with the rising expectations, I tried to implement every productivity tip I came across, from the Pomodoro technique of time management to getting up early to exercise before work. But when I put those into practice, they never seemed to work for me as well as I’d hoped. I couldn’t always stick to them, and that felt like a personal shortcoming.

That’s because a lot of productivity advice treats us like we’re static beings. It doesn’t account for the stresses of daily life. But we are human. We’re flawed, messy, and chaotic, and sometimes we just don’t feel like working. That’s normal — even if productivity gurus tell us it’s a failing. The key is working with those tendencies, instead of against them.

So if you hate most productivity tips as much as I do, here’s five that are actually worth trying:

1. Do one thing at a time

Multitasking. play

Multitasking.

(Estrada Anton/Shutterstock)

One Stanford study found that people who multitask, "do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,” and that this practice could make you more prone to distraction.

At a previous job, I found that blocking off chunks of time with a recurring calendar event (like, “No Meetings” or “Do not schedule”) helped me do more focused work.



2. Break down those awful tasks you never want to do into bite-sized tasks

Break down your tasks. play

Break down your tasks.

(chainarong06/Shutterstock)

If you’ve read as much about productivity as I have, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “eating your frog,” which refers to a Mark Twain quote. Twain said that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, the rest of the day will be feel like a breeze because the worst is over.

The idea of “eating your frog” is that by completing the ugliest task on your to-do first, you can take comfort in the knowledge that the rest of your day will be better.

This is a classic productivity tip that frequently backfired on me because the "frog" was just too ugly — which led to procrastination.

If your toughest task for the day is particularly painful, try breaking up it into slightly-less-terrible chunks.



3. Go with the flow

Schedule your day around your natural tendencies. play

Schedule your day around your natural tendencies.

(Jason Reed/Reuters)

Schedule your day, as best you can, around your natural tendencies. For example, I’m usually more creative in the late evenings. And since I control my schedule, I allow myself to ease into the day by taking care of mindless or low-effort tasks in the morning. That way I can get into a creative headspace while I work through the rest of the day.

Remember: Things like dedication and creativity are not constants. They can change by the week, day, and hour. So it’s a good idea to leverage those times when you’re in you’re element.



4. Take back the time you saved

You don't have to surrender the entirety of your saved work hours to your job. play

You don't have to surrender the entirety of your saved work hours to your job.

(Dragon Images/Shutterstock)

The point of productivity is to get more done, and done well, in less time. In theory, the result is having more time to live your life. But in practice, it often means more work.

You don’t have to surrender the entirety of your saved work hours to your job — at least some of that should be reserved for you. If doing so makes you happier, it’s a scientifically sound action: A study from the University of Warwick in the UK found that happy workers were 12% more productive.



5. Ignore productivity advice that doesn’t cater to your personality

How do you work best? The answer is different for all. play

How do you work best? The answer is different for all.

(ZephyrMedia/Shutterstock)

Ask yourself what you can do to make your life easier. “Like parking your car on a slope facing downhill, what can you do to set conditions such that you need only lift your foot from the brake to get moving?” University of Minnesota professor Theresa Glomb told Harvard Business Review.

If a tip is designed to reach type-A personalities — as a lot of productivity advice seems to be — but you’re a laid-back worker who values sleep and socialization, ignore that advice. It’s not for you, and that’s perfectly acceptable. You’re probably not going to get much out of getting up at 5 a.m. to do yoga and meditate, anyway. You’ll likely just fall back asleep and wake up feeling guilty. (At least that was my experience.)

If you’re serious about being more productive in your work-life, it’s a good idea to try new things and see what sticks. Just be sure to consider the source, and how well it aligns with your own tendencies.