It’s a pretty terrible feeling looking back on a day of work and realizing how little of your time was actually spent productively.
Switching between open tabs ( a little credit card payment here, an email check there ), and phone notifications (just a quick peak at my Instagram likes ), forces any other priorities to end up strung together over the course of several inefficient hours.
The Motivation Struggle
For those who need to be self-motivated to get work done — students, freelancers, budding entrepreneurs, digital nomads — adequately managing your time to get the most out of your work period is a known challenge. But even those in a structured working environment have trouble staying on task: around a quarter of employees are distracted either by their phone, social media, personal email, or office chatter during a regular workday.
While distractions may be productivity's enemy, it doesn’t mean distractions are inevitable. What’s notable about the workplace statistic above is that there are a whole 75% of you who don’t get easily distracted — a segment of the population to whom I applaud.
If you do, however, happen to fall into the less-than-focused percentile, perhaps consider these tips to begin managing your time more effectively.
1. Get organized on paper
At the beginning of each week, and then again at the beginning of each day, the most important thing you should be doing is writing a to-do list. I say writing because it is indeed something you should be writing down — on paper.
Your phone or computer screen are two places where distractions do inevitably exist and multiply, so your to-do list should be in a place where you can see it — directly in your line of vision — and be reminded of nothing else.
To really improve your productivity, write your to-do list in order of priority and difficulty, saving the easiest tasks for last. Though you'll want to do them first (because they're easier, and you like to procrastinate of course), the tasks that need more of your attention should be tackled ahead of the game.
Getting the boring or difficult stuff out of the way early makes the work seem less daunting as time progresses, and you'll also have the opportunity to review your work later.
2. Work on the clock — literally
Undistracted work in timed intervals is an effective way to improve productivity while enjoying brief breaks. A good method for this is the Pomodoro Technique.
How it works: spend 25 minutes focused on one task (presumably one of the tasks you’ve prioritized in your to-do list) followed by a 5 minute break. Continue to work in 30 minute intervals, increasing your break time to 15 minutes once you’ve hit four intervals in a row. It will eventually become 100 minutes of relentless focus and 20 minutes worth of breaks over a two hour window.
The Pomodoro Technique is highly valuable for anyone working solo — but it can also be put to good use in an office environment. I’d recommend its original format ( a kitchen timer with a pen and paper to tally your intervals ) but free Pomodoro apps work almost as effectively.
3. Take better breaks
One often overlooked part of focused work is how to effectively spend the breaks you take. If you’re working alone, it’s not unlikely you’ll use your coveted break time to check your social messages or notifications, or get in a good scroll through Facebook or your favourite website; while in an office setting, you might be more inclined to go chat in the break room.
A much better way to spend your breaks is to replenish — stand up, stretch your arms, legs, and back, and drink a lot of water. Use a longer break to eat something small, and walk outside to soak in the sunlight and fresh air.
If you do these during your breaks, rather than stay put or inside, you’ll find yourself less likely to crash mid-day. Besides, knocking back water over coffee and absorbing vitamin D are pretty essential (and healthy) habits to get into.
4. Make it a point to block distractions
What I’ve said so far suggests that you’re already capable of blocking distractions and that you’re a highly focused, disciplined, and motivated person. And I realize that may not be the case.
So if your challenge is keeping distractions outside of your line of focus in the first place, then your computer and smartphone need some tweaking.
If you need some access to your phone (like the calendar or phone calls) but want to hide distracting and tempting apps, then try Flipd. You can use it to make your downloaded apps disappear for an amount of time that you choose — meaning it literally hides distracting apps from you. It’s the equivalent of uninstalling every app on your phone for a few hours while you get important stuff done.
If you find your distractions are isolated to your laptop, try browser extensions like Cold Turkey or Self Control, which both block websites that you’d like to limit access to during a custom schedule. Another great tool to block mindless Facebook scrolling is the Kill News Feed extension for Chrome.