It’s Monday morning. You’re rested from the weekend, but as soon as you walk through the door, you notice something on your desk: a big, important task you don’t want to deal with. Already, you feel your motivation slipping away.
When you were a kid, the monsters hid under your bed or in your closet. Now they lurk in your inbox, your calendar, and your tangled spreadsheet formulas. How do you resist the knee-jerk reaction to shove difficult tasks aside?
Unfortunately, productivity tips are not one-size-fits-all. You’ll need to do a little trial and error to find what works for you. These five simple questions can help you stop procrastinating and get started.
Reaching Productivity Nirvana
People who struggle with productivity are no strangers to unsolicited advice.
Your boss sees you daydreaming and suggests you start blocking your calendar to keep track of your progress on important tasks. Your coworker raves about how the Pomodoro Technique raised their level of productivity through the roof.
You take their advice, but nothing works.
Productivity tips are a dime a dozen, but our brains are all wired a little differently. Some people need to focus on one thing at a time; others thrive as multitaskers. And if you’re dealing with a neurodiverse condition like ADHD at work, you’ll need a tailored approach to taking on even daily tasks.
So before diving into the first Google result that promises the time management habits of successful people or a 120% boost in productivity in ten minutes or less, take a breath. Ask yourself these questions to narrow down the underlying cause of your productivity slump.
Who are you most (and least) productive around?
Are there any particular people in the office who might be distracting you?
Do you sit near a personal assistant who’s always answering phone calls? Or someone who can’t stop gushing over baby photos of their newborn niece? Or maybe you find you work especially well if you’re sitting near your boss or work wife?
Recommended Techniques: The Quiet Zone and Time Blocking
For some people, ambient noise is no big deal. For others, it’s the ultimate productivity blocker.
If you’re the latter, start by politely explaining to the people around you that you’d like to establish quiet time, or see if they’re open to establishing a quiet zone around your desk. You can even put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the back of your chair to communicate your needs.
Just keep it light—your coworkers will respect humor, but prickle if you make it sound like they’re your problem.
You can pair this with another technique called “time blocking.” Break down your schedule into blocks and group similar tasks from your to-do list. You may need more quiet time cooperation for big tasks like calculating the team budget for next quarter, but less for little things like tweeting from the company’s social media account.
Pairing quiet time with time blocking can help find a balanced medium with your coworkers without sacrificing relationships.
What are you really struggling to get done?
Is there a particular type of task you’re struggling to stay on top of?
Is there a big presentation coming up? Or does repetitive data entry bring your productivity center to a grinding halt?
Recommended Techniques: Analyze and Eat the Frog
If you struggle with the what of productivity, start with an analysis. Look at your calendar and ask yourself two questions: “What’s coming up that gives me the most anxiety? What am I looking forward to spending time on?”
Determine if anything on your plate can or should be delegated to others or removed altogether to improve productivity for you and the team.
From there, look at what’s left that you don’t want to do. Then resolve yourself to eat the frog.
The phrase “eat the frog” originally comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
In other words, get it over with.
Twain’s sentiment was later popularized for businesspeople in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog! The technique is simple: get the biggest tasks out of the way first thing, especially if they’re unpleasant. After that, everything else will seem easy.
And just to be clear, at no point should you eat a live frog.
When are you most distracted?
Do you struggle with productivity all the time, or just at certain intervals of the day—after lunch, maybe, or as the day starts to wind down? Is it a recent change because the seasons turned, or because a new daily midday meeting got added to your schedule?
Recommended Technique: The Pomodoro Technique
Many people experience higher or lower productivity depending on the time of day. This is especially true for those working with ADHD. Unfortunately, we can’t just head home after short-term bursts of productivity. Instead, we need to train ourselves for balanced productivity throughout the day.
That’s where the Pomodoro Technique comes in—a technique named after a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato.
This time-management method will train you to work in twenty-five-minute intervals with five-minute breaks in between. After you’ve successfully completed the cycle a few times, you’re awarded a longer break. It’s designed to hack a wandering attention span, raise self-awareness, and, according to creator Francesco Cirillo, “change the relationship with time and reach [your] goals with less effort and anxiety.”
Where are you when you fail to focus?
Has your productivity gone up or down since the world went remote? Do you struggle with endless home distractions—kids, pets, plants, and neighbors? Or did you find the office a hellishly distracting place to work—phones ringing, people chatting, notifications pinging left and right?
Recommended Techniques: Declutter and Meditate
First thing’s first: If you know your phone, your knickknacks, your Slack notifications, etc. are a sure source of distraction, do the logical thing and remove them from the equation. Clear your desk and set your devices to silent as necessary, either for the day or for designated blocks of time.
You may not be able to shut out the world entirely, but take control where you can.
Next, schedule a few minutes of meditation.
Believe it or not, research shows that meditation can work wonders for workplace productivity. And really, that makes sense. Most people struggle with productivity because they get stressed out before their tasks are complete. But meditation is all about reducing stress—with the added benefit of raising self-awareness.
If you’re not sure how to start meditating, you can find countless guided meditation sessions with a quick “meditation for productivity” search on YouTube. Most are only five-to-ten minutes long—a simple sacrifice that’s well worth the benefits.
Why not bring in a second opinion?
If you can’t pin down a solid who, what, when, or where of your productivity problems, it might be time to talk to your manager. Perhaps they’ve noticed the change, too, and possibly some correlating factors you’ve overlooked: the why.
They’ll also likely appreciate that you’re on the hunt for a solution.
Work with your supervisor and team to get to the root cause and set up a solution. You never know, maybe they will have some productivity tips that will work for you.