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6 min read

The upside-down world of bizarro productivity tips

By Elisa Silverman · July 9, 2023
A hero image for productivity showing a gear and several nodes

Productivity has to be a billion-dollar business. Don't quote me on that number. Whether it's trying to get more done or work more efficiently to have more free time, we all spend a lot of time trying to find new ways to be productive with our time.

Many well-known productivity tips are well-known because they work. Time batching to compartmentalize and focus, using time tools like Pomodoro to balance effort and break time, and one of my favorites—"eating the frog."

But going against the productivity grain can be a welcome change. I asked around for productivity tips that laugh in the face of nearly every productivity "hack" you've tried. If you're slowing down or in a rut, maybe one of these will be the spark you need.

An infographic outlining the bizarro productivity tips

1. Instead of increasing connectivity…

This first one is what inspired this article—a bizarro productivity trick that I use.

One of today's best means of turbo-boosting productivity is improved connectivity. We can use our apps from anywhere, whether to collaborate, communicate, or create. As a freelancer who works remotely with clients around the world, I certainly appreciate it. But I also create a strict boundary on my connectivity.

I don't have any business apps on my phone.

For me, not being connected at every moment (because let's face it, the phone goes everywhere) is an essential means to keep me focused on my current task when I am working. No less important—it protects my work-life balance, which helps me stay productive during the work phase.

2. Instead of creating a task list…

A to-do list can certainly be helpful, but it also has a dark side. As an alternative, consider creating a "done list" or a "reverse to-do list."

James Miller, photographer and editor of Photographer Touch, uses done lists to stay motivated and identify his work patterns. Miller says: "To-do lists can be overwhelming and make you feel like you're never done." He finds that writing a done list is a simple, valuable practice: "I take a few minutes at the end of each day to reflect on what I accomplished throughout the day and write it down on my 'done' list."

For Miller, it's a way to celebrate his progress. It helps him "identify patterns in my productivity and better understand how I work, which helps me better plan my day and set realistic goals."

Dustin Lemick, CEO of BriteCo, goes with a reverse to-do list, which is a list of tasks not to do today. Lemic says:

"I make a list of things I absolutely do not want to do. This includes tasks that tend to distract me and drain my energy. I build my to-do list based on the opposite of those tasks. This helps me to prioritize tasks that are most important and impactful to me while also helping me stay away from tasks that drain my productivity."

3. Instead of powering through…

Try pacing yourself. Rafeal Oezdemir, CEO of Zendog, says:

"If you're running uphill, you'll gas out real quick if you try to sprint. But you'll get to the top if you slow down. Sprinting 25% of the way up and then walking the rest always loses out to running comfortably but doing it 100% of the way."

I think there's a turtle somewhere who can testify to that.

Oezdemir clarifies that this doesn't mean taking things easy. "It means you run at just the level of speed that you can sustain without gassing out. Run it as fast as you can, and slow down when you have to so you can keep going."

There's also structured procrastination, the idea of using the bad habit of procrastination to work for you. Sean McPheat, CEO at MTD Sales Training, likes this method, which he says "uses your natural tendency to procrastinate as a tool to accomplish tasks. If you find yourself avoiding the more daunting tasks on your to-do list, gravitate towards completing the lower-priority items on your list."

How is that good? Well, the principle of structured procrastination is to always do something that needs doing, even if it's a smaller task.

McPheat explains:

"The idea is that by putting off tasks that are high-priority or seem overwhelming, you end up completing other tasks that are still important but may be less urgent. This way, you're still making progress while managing your desire to avoid certain tasks."

4. Instead of multi-tasking…

Try mono-tasking. A lot of people responding to my call for their best productivity tips swear by it. Multi-tasking went through an "it girl" phase some years ago. Then people started getting a bit skeptical as research seemed to say that the high friction of switching between tasks was actually making people less productive.

For now, the research on the value of multi-tasking doesn't have a uniform conclusion whether it's good or bad. It seems more nuanced. 

For example, multi-tasking may not impact your productivity, but it might negatively affect your mental health. Whether multi-tasking makes you more productive may depend on what types of tasks you're bunching together.

If multi-tasking isn't working for you, mono-tasking might be the answer.

5. Instead of taking a break…

Take breaks. Please take some breaks during the day. But there are ways to make breaks work for your productivity, even as you take some time off. 

I prefer to spend my break time doing anything but work-related stuff. And Faris Khatib, CEO of Ideal Tax, takes a somewhat similar approach with a list of allowed distractions. Khatib says:

"Distractions are inevitable. When I feel myself getting distracted, I stop and ask if I can refocus myself. Sometimes I can, but when I can't, I accept it and choose one of my distractions off the list."

His allowed distractions don't include activities that he says make him feel stressed or less focused, like going through social media. Instead, he opts for activities that make him feel refreshed. Activities on Khatib's list include going for a walk, writing in his journal, grabbing a coffee, or having a call with a friend.

Others use their break time to set themselves up for enhanced productivity when they do get back to work.

Will Yang, head of Growth & Customer Success at Instrumentl, incorporates "intentional transitions'' into his work routine. He describes an intentional transition as "a brief pause between tasks, meetings, or any two activities to mentally reset and refocus on the next task."

During the intentional transition, Yang says he spends "five minutes after every task, assignment, or meeting to close any irrelevant browser tabs or documents, collect my thoughts, and mentally prepare for the next item on my agenda. This technique fosters increased productivity and focus by reducing the mental clutter and noise between tasks."

6. Instead of "chunking" or using time blocks…

Embrace the power of unstructured time. 

Allison Holzer, a master certified executive coach, uses unstructured time in her personal practice and recommends it as a tool during her coaching. In a LinkedIn article she wrote, in which she shares some tips on using the practice, Holzer says, "Think of unstructured time as a sabbatical for your brain. […] Unstructured time can lead to increased well-being, productivity and new inspired ideas."

You may have to schedule your unstructured time, but it could boost your creativity as well as your productivity. 

Olly Gaspar, owner and editor-in-chief of We Seek Travel, suggests embracing the chaos. He says:

"The concept behind 'embracing the chaos' is accepting that the business world is unpredictable and we can't control everything. Instead of fighting against the chaos, I learned to adapt and find creative solutions to the problems that arose. This shift in perspective helped me reduce stress and become more resilient in the face of adversity. It's been instrumental in helping me navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship."

Katie Wilkinson, head of marketing at Givers, uses "time budgeting" to stay productive and balance life with work. She says, "Time budgeting means treating time like money—setting budgets, tracking how you spend it, and calculating your actual spend. I set a time limit for my entire working day and then estimate how much time each task will take."

Like Miller's "done list," Wilkinson finds time budgeting is also an effective way to identify exactly how much attention she's giving different tasks, enabling her to find specific ways to improve her time management and productivity. She says, "With time budgeting, I feel like I can build momentum, be more productive, and achieve a better work-life balance."

Another counterintuitive time management tip is to "unschedule" your time, which is an approach to schedule your fun or personal time first, and then fit your work schedule around that.

So many productivity tips, so little time

Productivity is quite a personal endeavor. There's no one right way for everyone. Even on a personal level, what works for you now may not work for you later. 

And you don't have to be contrarian about it. If some of the popular productivity tips work for you, stick with them until they don't. Sometimes, though, you might want to switch things up, especially if you're not as productive as you'd like or want to re-balance your time across work and personal life.

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