4 Practical Ways to Maximise Your Time & Improve Productivity
Let me start by saying I hate productivity porn, nearly as much as I hate ‘useful’ tips such as ‘make sure you have your own office space’.
Even worse than those who can seemingly enlarge their house on a whim (and simultaneously free it of toddlers, pets, and obligations) are those that insist our lives will be changed if we rise at 5 am.
5 am is, and always will be, part of the nighttime. The daytime starts at 6 am, and that’s only for birds and dog walkers.
My aim in life is to be free to do what I fancy. Write, crochet, cook, walk dogs, and maybe teach myself the piano. I have little desire for a fancy job title, a big house, and enough money that I’d need to employ someone to count it for me, and no desire whatsoever to be conscious prior to 7 am.
These tips are designed to help you to find your natural productivity level. We’re not about that hustle culture.
I’m in a place now where I can leave my desk at 2 pm if I choose, or work a big longer Monday-Thursday and then spend Friday tending to my plants, cleaning the house, and making delicious food, so that I can spend the weekend on the couch doing my favourite thing: dozing to an audiobook.
Could I work my arse off ad retire at 40? Probably, but since I actually like writing, I have no desire to do that.
So, here are the tips I promised:
1 — Don’t overextend yourself
If you hadn’t already gathered, I’m not a natural hustler.
There is NO WAY that after being on my feet for ten hours at my day job, I’m going to open my laptop and write.
Firstly, I’d produce crap, at best. Secondly, I don’t want to. And the whole point of doing this writing thing is to do things that I want to do.
I enjoy writing. I made enough time for it in the past that I can now do it full time. I don’t want to do it at midnight when I’ve been serving strangers all day.
I was lucky enough to be able to rearrange my shifts so I could do four long shifts and dedicate one day a week to writing and still have weekends off. The downside was that my job was minimum wage, but it was worth it in the end. Luckily I’m a pretty frugal person (napping to audiobooks only costs about £7.99 per month) and I had #goals, so I wasn’t too bothered.
If you can only write at the weekends, that’s fine. If you can only carve out a couple of hours every week, great. The time’s going to pass anyway. At least you’re doing something.
Remember that hours spent writing are more tiring than an hour spent doing more mundane tasks. I’m knackered after a solid six hours of writing, less if it’s fiction. My brain ends up getting fixated on words, and I spend half the time wondering whether the words I’m using are even words at all.
This is fine. Some things are more tiring than others, and that’s ok.
At my day job, I regularly worked 12-hour shifts, running around like fool and not feel tired until I sat down at the end of the day.
But I don’t want to work 12 hours a day. It’s just not for me. And whilst the nature of my job does mean the occasional late-night shouting at hardware (probably a printer), I can largely work as much as I like.
And, unlike my old day job, more hours doesn’t equal more money. The whole time-in-money-out equation doesn’t work that way with blogging, which is nice.
So how do you decide how much you want to work?
Do you want to be an 80-hour hustler, or have a crack at the four-hour work week?
To be honest, there’s a lot of trial and error involved, and everyone works in different ways. I, for example, don’t get on with the Pomodoro technique. I’d rather work my arse off for three hours and have an hour’s break than have a five-minute break every half hour.
Don’t feel guilty if it takes you a while to get into the groove of being productive. I’m a fantastically slow learner (and am very easily distracted) so it’s taken me a good few years to find out what works for me.
A great video resource for productivity is this one from Vanessa Lau. I mention some of the strategies she teaches here, and I found the video really motivating.
2 — Budget your time like you would your money
One of the key principles of a successful budget, be it tracking time or money, is how realistic it is.
We have a tendency to overestimate how frugal/productive we can be. Sure, I can save 50% of my paycheck and live on ramen for three years!
TECHNICALLY it’s possible, but are you actually going to do it? Should you do it?
Theoretically, you can write seven blog posts a day. If each post takes 2 hours, and we sleep for 8 hours, then we have a whole two hours left to play with! That’s plenty of time to have a shower, brush your teeth and eat that ramen.
But is that really how you want to live your life?
So, how do you plan your day?
Time blocking is a great way to organise your day.
Write a list of the tasks you want to accomplish, and guestimate how long you think they’ll take.
Err on the side of caution — if you think you can write a blog post in an hour and a half, I would round up to two. Be aware of Parkinson’s law though — if you let it, your blog post will take three hours to write.
‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ - Parkinson’s law
Factor in ALL of the things you want to get done: putting the laundry in, coffee with a friend, cooking a healthy lunch. You might not be able to fit in everything, but you’ll have a starting point.
Remember that you can work as much as you’d like. You don’t need to stick to conventions. There’s the traditional 9–5, but there’s also that myth that proper writers write every day.
I am a writer. Writing pays my bills. I write five days per week max, and when I was working my day job writing was something I did weekly if that.
Getting into a routine, even if that routine is writing two blog posts every third Sunday, is more important than winning NaNoWriMo once and then never picking up a pen again.
You may love writing every day, cooking everyday, and cleaning everyday. I don’t, so I set aside time to meal prep and clean the house. I include them as one of the 3 daily tasks I aim to complete.
3 — Aim to complete 3 tasks per day
This is a fairly common tip, though some people choose to do more than three tasks, depending on how long tasks in their field usually take.
Only doing a select number of tasks is useful for those of us that start out the week strong and are then burnt out by Tuesday night. It sets a nice pace and crucially, we know when we’ve finished.
It can also help when embarking on a big new project that has a seemingly endless number of tasks attached to it, because you can break it down before you start and work out pretty much how long it’s going to take.
The ‘three tasks’ rule is great for me because I initially found it difficult to break out of the 9–5 mould. I’d mentally be done at 3 — thousands of words written and edited, but I’d feel like I couldn’t move until 5, because that would be lazy.
Actually, it makes far more sense to stop working when you’ve completed the day’s tasks. Sit down and read a book, have a nap, watch Netflix. When you’re working from home, you don’t have the interruptions from colleagues to make the day past more quickly.
So much time is passed unproductively (in terms of output, anyway) in an office, and that’s just accepted. At home, we can cram more into the hours we work, so don’t feel you need to sit there doing nothing.
4— Set your goals and work backwards
One of the things I struggle with as a full-time blogger is working what I should be concentrating on.
The first couple of years are easier, because I focus fully on content creation. My three tasks a day were writing articles 1,2, and 3. There weren’t any other options other than tweaking web design and plugins.
Nowadays, I have so many plans (ebooks, youtube channels, physical products) and not enough hours in the week to complete them all. But I do have enough time in the next twelve months.
I mentioned that I don’t like the Pomodoro Technique, and it’s because I don’t like interruptions and switching between tasks.
That’s why the ‘do three tasks’ method works so well for me.
I write a blog post for two hours and then have a half-hour break. Get some food, maybe prep dinner. Then schedule my social media for a couple of hours, and then have my afternoon smoothie and watch a couple of YouTube videos. Another two hours on an article and I’m done.
Six hours of work is good going for me. It brings me up to 5 pm without being so tired that I can’t be bothered to cook.
Say, for example, I wanted to write an ebook in the next year. Rather than setting aside a few hours per week to do it, I’ll set aside a couple of months.
In the first two months of the year, I’ll write a year’s worth of blog posts, and schedule them out. The next two months I’ll concentrate on my ebook.
I’ll still only do three tasks per day, but it’ll be ‘write a chapter’ or ‘research x’ or something.
This is really useful if you’re doing something that's new to you (for example filming videos) because you can build up more momentum than if you have to constantly switch between making videos and writing blog posts.
It’s also good if you need to buy equipment and it’s not in your budget yet. You can plan, for example, to start a YouTube channel in August and start saving for things like microphones and lights now.
Don’t work too hard. Don’t feel guilty about not working every hour of the day. Plan tasks outside of work too — I always write down what days I’m going to change my bedding and wash my towels and I find it bizarrely comforting not having to remember crap like that throughout the week.