4 Productivity Tricks to Try Before Anything Else

Melissa Joy Kong
Melissa Joy Kong / Published February 20, 2014

There's a plethora of productivity advice floating around the internet. If you google the phrase, you receive over 90 million search results. Needless to say, the amount of information available is overwhelming.

Instead of applying this advice, we’re wasting our time. It’s a fact. The average worker admits to wasting three hours per workday, not including lunch and scheduled breaks. Web surfing and socializing with co-workers make up the majority of cited distractions at work.

The result: Smart people—like you, reader—feel like they are unproductive and are underperforming.

This problem isn't going away anytime soon. We are creating and consuming information at a rapid and unsustainable pace. All this creation and consumption, combined with daily distractions, such as co-worker interruptions and pointless meetings, make it almost impossible not to waste time during the day.

After trying what feels like every productivity hack on the web, here are the four methods that proved to be most effective for me over the long-term. Give them a try. I bet you'll win back hours every single day by putting at least one of these into practice.

1. Single Task

There is no denying it, our culture promotes multitasking. Multitasking is the art/fallacy (depending on how you see it) of engaging in more than one task simultaneously. Here's the dilemma: it only works if at least one of the tasks is automatic and requires no thought (like walking or eating), or if the tasks require different types of brain processing (e.g. it's harder to listen to music with lyrics than music without lyrics while checking your email because both require language processing).

When most of us think of multitasking, we think of something like managing our inboxes while preparing a PowerPoint presentation, writing an article, and keeping an eye on social media. This is a horrible idea. Multitasking causes you to waste up to 40 percent more of your time than doing the tasks one at a time.


Instead, single task. Some simple tips:

  • Limit how often you check your email. This has become a common piece of productivity advice, but virtually no one listens to it. Most of us are addicted to clicking on the mail icon on our phones or checking our inboxes while we're online. Sign out of your email completely while performing other tasks. Set up a timer to check mail only during designated times. Do your best to limit checking your email to 2-3 times per day—less often, if possible. Let your bosses, colleagues, and friends know you're doing this; it'll put you at ease. Very few of us have insanely urgent jobs that require constant monitoring of our inboxes. Trust me—you won't miss it.
  • Block distracting websites. Use the SelfControl app to temporarily block time-sucking websites, like Facebook, Twitter, and reddit, while you're engaging in other important work.
  • Keep a notepad at hand. Inevitably, when you're focusing on a single task, other ideas or reminders will pop up for you. Instead of taking care of them right then and there, list them all on a plain sheet of paper or text document (I use Notational Velocity), and file them later.

2. Batch Task

This is one of my favorite productivity hacks of all time. Batch tasking (i.e. batch processing) is all about taking similar tasks and "batching" them together to get them done faster.

For example, if you're an editor for a living, you will save an extraordinary amount of time by editing seven posts in one batched time chunk than editing one a day for seven days. As an editor, I tested this out and cut my editing time down by over 45 percent. Results will vary depending on the person and task, but it is bound to save you a ton of time, no matter what. This is definitely a hack worth testing.

Here are some more common activities you can batch task:

  • Email
  • RSS feeds/reading news
  • Social media
  • Phone calls
  • Voicemail
  • Paper mail
  • Bill payment
  • Internet browsing

Put time on your calendar specifically for batch tasking activities. Your ability to batch task will depend on your work environment and industry. However, you can batch task more items, more frequently, than you probably think. Give it a try—come up with a list of items to batch task, and track how much time you save over a couple of weeks. That will motivate you to keep going in the future.

For more inspiration, check out this detailed post by Problogger creator Darren Rowse on how he used batch tasking to become 10 times more productive.

3. The Pareto Principle

What 20 percent is driving 80 percent of your results?

This question is based on the Pareto Principle, which states that, for many events, roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes.

Determine what 20 percent of your work is driving 80 percent of your results, and what 80 percent of your work is driving 20 percent of the results. Create a two-column chart for the highest and lowest results-driven behaviors. You can tweak this number for whatever works best—it could break down to a ratio of 10/90 or 30/70 for you).

Figure out how to fit your high-productivity tasks into your schedule first so that you have more time to do those things instead of the time-wasters that suck up 70-90 percent of your time. Typically, the time-wasters include, but are not limited to: checking email, browsing the internet, online shopping, social media, instant messaging, and socializing with co-workers.

As an aside, I know we all spend a lot of time browsing the web and consuming news, which I am going to guess is a bit of a time suck for everyone reading this. Here’s a great mini e-book from Tim Ferriss about putting yourself on a low-information diet.

4. Choose Your 1-3 MITs

Here's the final hack—and one of the one's I've personally found to be most effective: every single day, choose the 1-3 most important tasks (MITs) you want to accomplish. One of the best productivity bloggers on the web, Leo Babauta, coined the term "MIT"—read his original article about it on Zen Habits.

Leo Babauta

The question to ask yourself first thing every morning: What 1-3 tasks would make me feel like I had an incredible day?

These are the 1-3 tasks you need to focus on—ideally, as early in the day as possible. Here are some guidelines:

  • Each task should take you no longer than one hour to complete
  • If you can, block out your mornings to complete all of your MITs before you do anything else
  • Do not move on to any other task until all 1-3 of your MITs are complete
  • Make sure at least one of your MITs is related to your most important current goal
  • If you have more than one MIT in a day, try to do all of them back to back
  • Don't plan more than 3 MITs—the more you add, the less you'll actually get done

This is an incredibly powerful hack. I suspect most people spend their mornings checking email, browsing social media, and consuming content. All of these are relatively passive activities. If you feet your most important tasks out of the way early, you'll feel so much better about the rest of your day.

Give it a Try

Give these four hacks a try—I am confident that each of them will save you a significant amount of time—regardless of where you work or what you do for a living.

If you want your time back, these are the four productivity tricks I'd try before anything else.

Credits: Pareto Principle graphic courtesy Scott Thomson. Leo Babauta photo via leobabauta.com.

You might also like Melissa Joy Kong's post: "Tired of Your Bad Habits? Here’s the One Thing You Need to Know About Effective Habit Change"

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