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Staying On Top Of The Ol' To-Do List: Five Simple Ways To Boost Productivity

Saying no here and there, for one.

In an era when “working” means juggling emails, phone calls, websites, meetings, and personal interactions, staying on top of everything—while still being organized—can be somewhat stressful. Knowing we could all probably use a little help staying on top of that to-do list, we experimented with a few different ways to stay productive and on-task—without burning out. Here’s what we found to be the most effective ways to boost productivity.

1. Block your time. One way to make the most out of your time is by using the time-blocking method. This popular approach is effective in helping you focus on specific tasks at hand, making it easier to complete them in a timely manner.

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The way it works is fairly easy, too: First, pick a set amount of time. I personally work best with half-hour or whole-hour chunks; they feel manageable, but still long enough to get plenty done. Next, pick one specific activity, goal, or task you’d like to work on. Finally, set a timer and start working! The goal is to work non-stop, as much as you can, for the set increment of time. You’ll be surprised by how much you get done in only 30 minutes when you challenge yourself to not pause, get distracted, or work on other things at the same time.

I especially love this method for the smaller, less important tasks we tend to put at the bottom of our priority lists, e.g. returning emails, planning meals, or budgeting your financials. It’s easy to bang these annoying tasks out when you tackle them head on, without distractions. I like to use my phone’s timer, but if you want something just a bit more special for your task-managing, here is a great timer made just for time-blocking. I mean, it’s a literal block timer — how great is that?

cool, right?
Miracle Cube Timer
Keep your day on track. (Or cook an egg. Either or.)

2. Put EVERYTHING on your calendar. This may seem like an obvious tip, but when I say (or type) everything, I mean everything. All of it. Look past just jotting down your work meetings and phone calls, and include everything from exercising to your meditation break. Yes, your calendar may look like a colorful, crazy mess, but knowing exactly what you’re doing that day — with zero surprises — can be oddly anxiety-reducing. You’ll lessen the chances of forgetting to do smaller things (like pick up the dry cleaning or bathing Fido), and likely reduce the odds of letting your tasks bleed into time allotted for other things.

I live and die by my Google calendar, and their app is one of my favorites because of its simplicity. If you’re more of a pen and paper type of person, here are some fun agendas to get you started!

3. Make to-do lists. Most of my daily activity is housed in the calendar app on my phone, but sometimes I need some tangible reminders as I go through my busy day. This is why I love to-do lists: They’re simple, straightforward, and easy to make. I like to buy a pack of colorful sticky notes and carry them with me in my bag, jotting things down as I remember them, and sticking them on my laptop or on the outside of my agenda. Usually, I only put “day-of” items on my to-do lists so I don’t overwhelm myself. They’re especially helpful if something pops into my brain and I don’t want to forget it one minute later (hello, short-term memory loss). Also, the actual feeling of crossing off an item just feels so darn good!

4. Learn to say no. This is one of the hard ones. Learning to say no was always very difficult for me, especially at the beginning of my career. Whether you’re self-employed or work in an office, it can be really difficult to turn down any opportunity because of the fear that every chance could mean a foot in the door or more money. But we can’t expect ourselves to put out good work if we’re rundown, burnt out, or just plain frazzled by our overflowing agenda. Set boundaries around how much you take on in a day or week, and begin to notice at what point you begin to feel worn down. Is it the days you take no breaks? Or when you schedule three meetings in a row? Be mindful when scheduling your week, and try to create a schedule that is full, yet not anxiety-producing. Give yourself plenty of space for breaks, eating, rest, and self-care. As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and trying to put out good work when you’ve reached your mental limit is nearly impossible. So, remember: A full calendar doesn’t equal a more successful person. You are much more likely to put out quality work when you’re calm, rested, and feel in-control.

5. Once you’re done, you’re done. This means that at the end of the day, turn it all off. Again, another hard lesson for me to learn (and one I still fail at once in a while!). These days, pulling away from work can be much more difficult due to the accessibility we have to our phones or laptops. So, make an extra effort to set these items aside when you have some downtime, or if it’s time to turn in.

There are lots of other great ways to wind down your day, like setting your phone on Do Not Disturb, or turning off your electronics one hour before bed, or reading for pleasure, or journaling, or meditating. Pick what feels relaxing and restoring for you, and commit to doing one or two of these things before calling it a night. It’ll help your brain unplug from the craziness of the day, and set you up for a much more restful sleep. An added bonus? A good night’s sleep means you’ll be that much more productive the next morning.

Also important: Commit to making your weekends or days off a true time of rest and play! Go outside, limit “screen-time”, and go enjoy all of the pleasurable activities that you put off all week. Schedule in a massage, your favorite workout, or a coffee date with that friend you haven’t caught up with in a while. Make play time just as important as work time. Chances are you’ll be that much happier (and less stress-ridden) as you tackle your busy your days ahead.

Other how-to hacks:

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