Rethink productivity: How doing less can help you achieve more

Connor Swenson
/ July 2019 / Organizational Culture

A version of this tutorial originally appeared in the free Primer app.

If you’ve chosen to read this, I’m assuming you might have a pretty full schedule that you want to manage better. That’s why I’ve kept this article short — so you can quickly learn some valuable time management tips and still have time to tackle whatever you need to do today. Maybe you’re even working on another task while you read this. Or possibly several tasks.

But consider this: Multitasking doesn’t actually help you get more done during the day. According to one study, it can take an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted. That means interrupting one task to work on another can make both jobs take longer to complete.

Illustration of clock set to 5:00. Text reads: It can take an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.

To break the multitasking habit, rethink productivity. It’s not about getting more done. It’s actually about doing less. Or, to put it another way, it’s about getting more of the right stuff done.

Let’s take a look at four time management tips that can help you complete your most important tasks.

Productivity tip 1: Focus on your energy

You can’t do anything about the number of hours there are in a day, but you can control how much energy you have, which can help you do much more within those limited hours.

To do this, learn to notice your energy flow, and work with it. It’s easy to ignore the natural breaks your body needs, which usually happen every 90 to 120 minutes. When you start to feel your attention and energy waning, take an intentional break to recharge and renew. Rather than jumping from a focused state of work to a less focused state of work (like checking email), shut down your tech and take some time for yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes.

The secret to this is building consistent, sustainable habits that will renew the four sources of energy you can draw from: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

The four sources of energy that help build sustainable habits

Four illustrations accompany four energy sources. Running person: Physical. Lightbulb: Mental. Heart: Emotional. Candle: Spiritual.

For example, to replenish my physical energy, I shut my laptop and walk up and down three to four flights of stairs. For emotional energy, I play my favorite music and allow myself to really tune in and enjoy it instead of treating it as background noise. For mental energy, I completely close all my Chrome tabs to refocus myself. And for spiritual energy, I keep a “joy journal” and, each night, jot down at least one thing that made me joyful that day.

Once you’ve learned to monitor your energy flow and established intentional practices to renew it, you can take steps to manage your time each day.

Productivity tip 2: Start with just one thing

It’s said that humans spend about 47% of their waking hours lost in thought. So, it’s understandable that you’d want to spend the other 53% of the time multitasking to make up for those lost moments. But, it’s actually more useful to realize that people can only focus for so long and to then take steps to work around this.

Illustration of a woman with a thought bubble above her head. Text reads: Humans spend about 47% of their waking hours lost in thought.

A simple way to do this is to start each day by picking one important thing to focus on first. Try choosing the most difficult item on your to-do list. It’s easier to begin with the hardest tasks and then progress toward simpler work than going in the opposite direction.

By tackling that one important task at the beginning of the day, you’ve given your energy a boost and created momentum that can carry you through the rest of your day.

Productivity tip 3: Separate to-dos from might-dos

Not all tasks are created equal. There are your difficult, important tasks (which you’re getting done at the start of your day), but there are also the not-so-urgent tasks. Let’s call those the might-dos.

It’s tempting to put your might-dos on your to-do list. After all, it feels great to check off multiple items on a list, no matter how small they are. On the other hand, it can turn your to-do list into a stress-inducing, energy-sapping, neverending series of tasks that are difficult to prioritize.

Instead, put your might-dos on a separate list. That way, you can spend a majority of your energy on finishing your major projects. When they’re completely done, you can reference your might-do list and start chipping away at it.

Productivity tip 4: Make your calendar work harder

Use your calendar for more than just remembering appointments and meetings. Block out chunks of time on it each day when you can focus on to-dos. And don’t forget to schedule those intentional breaks that allow you to renew and replenish your energy.

This practice is especially important if you have a shared calendar with coworkers. Having work and break times reserved in your calendar can deter people from booking meetings or distracting you when you’re trying to be productive or when you’re engaging in practices that give you more energy.

Scheduling official times to focus and reenergize can also help you be more patient, self-aware, and consistent, which in turn can make you a better coworker, friend, and family member.

In summary, productivity doesn’t mean racing through as many tasks as possible in one day. Instead, rethink productivity. Concentrate on your important work and focus on renewing your energy throughout your day via intentional breaks. You can then manage your time by starting each day focused on one major task, distinguishing between to-dos and might dos, and scheduling times for work and for breaks in your calendar.

Reach more users: 4 tips for designing accessible apps and websites