The Ultimate Guide to Personal Productivity

Some people are naturals at personal productivity, others have to learn it. I’m definitely the latter. My first year teaching, I was so awful at managing my time that I would go days in a row without sleeping more than five hours a night. One day, it got so bad that I fell asleep at the wheel driving back from work and crashed into the car in front of me. I’m thankful that both the driver of that car and I walked away with no injuries but clearly, I needed to solve the problem of doing too many things too inefficiently. In short, I needed to learn how to become more productive.

The following post contains the knowledge and skills I’ve amassed over three years of constantly working on becoming more productive and therefore becoming happier and healthier as well. This is meant to be an ultimate guide to personal productivity, in that it captures not just my top productivity tips, but also a favorite resource that you can read to learn more about how to implement that tip in your own life, a favorite tool I personally use every day related to that tip, and a concrete example of how using that tip in my daily life makes me better. I encourage you to try just one tip at a time, working hard to implement it effectively, before choosing another.

Manage Your Energy to Manage Your Time

Tip #1: Figure out when you have the most energy and block that off for solving Big problems with a capital “B”.

  • Favorite resource: Read Adam Swartz — HOWTO: Be More Productive. If there’s just one resource you read in this whole post, read this one.
  • Favorite tool: Google Calendar, where I block off work time so that no one can schedule meetings during that time
  • How this works for me: I rarely schedule a meeting before 11 AM. That’s my writing, creating, brainstorming, building time.

Tip #2: Figure out what energizes you and schedule it into your calendar as a recurring event.

  • Favorite resource: Take The Energy Audit and figure out where you can increase your energy.
  • Favorite tool: Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook where I schedule recurring events.
  • How this works for me: I schedule rock climbing every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, sleep every work night from midnight to 7:30 AM, a date with my boyfriend every Friday evening, and reading time twice a week. I schedule in things that make me happy.

Tip #3: Take regular breaks.

  • Favorite resource: Read To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break.
  • Favorite tool: My computer, which tells you the time every hour on the hour.
  • How this works for me: Every time my computer tells me the time, I stand up and stretch. This helps me stay alert and energized throughout the day.

Plan Your Time Purposefully

Tip #4: Keep a master calendar where you keep track of every appointment, meeting, and social event that you commit to along with who’s attending and where it is.

  • Favorite resource: Follow the How to Keep a Calendar how-to guide in order to set up your personal master calendar.
  • Favorite tool: Google Calendar, it’s easy to use, syncs everywhere, and can be shared with friends and colleagues to minimize back and forth.
  • How this works for me: I sync Google Calendar to my Mac through BusyCal and iPhone through Sunrise so that I always have my calendar ready to go. I never have that, “Shoot, am I supposed to be somewhere?” feeling.

Tip #5: Limit the number of projects you are working on at any one time, and pull in new projects to work on only when you’ve moved another project off your plate.

  • Favorite resource: Read Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry.
  • Favorite tool: Trello, an online Kanban management tool that syncs everywhere.
  • How this works for me: I have a Trello board for every one of my roles, such as Blogger, Climber, Reader, and Socratic Labs Chief of Staff and a rule for how many projects I can work on at a time for each. For example, I am only allowed to be reading one personal and one professional book at a time. This keeps me focused, removes the pressure and coordinating costs of artificial deadlines, and allows me to identify and say no to lower priority projects.

Tip #6: Capture all your tasks in one comprehensive task manager that’s with you at all times. Never write your todos on sticky notes, napkins, in your email, or on your hand again.

  • Favorite resource: Read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen.
  • Favorite tool: Wunderlist, a beautiful online task management tool that is both simple to use and powerful under the hood.
  • How this works for me: As soon as I have a task, I write it in Wunderlist on my iPhone, on my computer, or online. As a result, I very rarely drop balls and have a reputation for being reliable and keeping my promises.

Tip #7: At the end of each week, reflect on your past events and tasks, then look forward to make sure you’ve captured everything you need for the upcoming week.

Single Task Your Way to Success

Tip #8: Turn off all but the most important notifications.

  • Favorite Resource: Read Single-Tasking and Productivity, a manifesto.
  • Favorite Tool: My computer and smartphone’s notification centers where I make sure only the most important notifications come through. No badges, alerts, or pop-ups for me!
  • How this works for me: The only way to get in contact with me quickly is by texting or calling me. Everything else, Twitter, email, and Facebook Messages included stay hidden until I feel like checking them.

Tip #9: Just start.

  • Favorite resource: Read up on the best article I’ve read on Overcoming Procrastination.
  • Favorite tool: Vitamin-R for Mac to set sprints of time where you focus on only one thing at a time.
  • How this works for me: When I don’t want to do something, I set Vitamin-R for just five minutes at a time. Usually, at the end of each time slice, I’m so caught up in what I’m doing that I say to myself, just five more minutes. Before I know it, I’m done.

Give Everything Its Proper Place and Keep It There

Tip #10: Capture all notes/reference material in one place.

  • Favorite resource: None.
  • Favorite tool: Evernote, which captures texts, audio, pictures, and web pages
  • How this works for me: If I write notes on paper, I snap a picture and add it to Evernote. If I’m doing research online, I clip relevant articles into Evernote. If I see an email with important information that I’ll refer to later, I email it into Evernote… You get the picture. I never have to wonder where my notes are, because they’re always in Evernote, regardless of where they come from.

Tip #11: Keep everything you might want to read in one place.

  • Favorite resource: Previously recommended book, Getting Things Done, explains why having a Read/Review system makes you more productive.
  • Favorite tool: Pocket syncs to your computer, online, and to your smartphone, making it easy to read anything anywhere.
  • How this works for me: When I see an article I want to read in my email, online, on Facebook or on Twitter, I send it to Pocket and then forget about it. Later, when I’m on the subway, or waiting in line, or waiting for a friend, I can whip out Pocket and use those five, ten minutes, to read productively.

Tip #12: Practice Inbox Zero, meaning no emails in your inbox at the end of the day, every day

  • Favorite resource: Read the material on Inbox Zero
  • Favorite tool: Gmail, the best web-based email client around
  • How this works for me: I always read an email only once before deciding to
  • 1) Reply and archive
  • 2) Do nothing and archive
  • 3) Save in a different service (e.g. All EdSurge emails are mined for articles to forwarded into my Pocket account) and archive
  • or
  • 4) Star to reply later that day (and nothing stays starred longer than a day) and archive
  • As a result, my inbox is a happy, relaxing place. How many people can say that?

Be the CEO of Your Own Life

Tip #13: Write a personal mission statement to guide the decisions you make about your life, priorities, time and energy.

  • Favorite resource: Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey.
  • Favorite tool: Add “Review last month’s progress towards fulfilling my roles as outlined in my personal mission statement and reflect on what priorities I need to focus on moving forward to better fulfill those roles” to your comprehensive task list as a recurring monthly task
  • How this works for me: I constantly reflect on my personal mission statement to check that how I live my life is aligned with how I want to live my life and adjust when there’s something I could improve. I also update my personal mission statement once a month by adding what I’ve learned about myself and taking away things that I’ve realized aren’t actually core to who I am.

Tip #14: Say “No” to anything that doesn’t contribute directly to your top priorities.

  • Favorite resource: Read “Yes to the Person, No to the Task”.
  • Favorite tool: Constantly ask the question, “Does this task fit my priorities?” If not, chuck it.
  • How this works for me: When I am asked to do something that doesn’t fit into my priorities, I come back with options that include how I could do it later, how I could put off something else they asked for in order to complete their request now, or how they could accomplish that request without me. This way I strengthen relationships by being that trustworthy person who always promises only what she delivers.

Tip #15: Discover and implement your own productivity enhancements, one new habit at a time.

  • Favorite resource: Subscribe to Zenhabits and get a consistent dose of life hacks that will change your life for the better
  • Favorite tool: Feedly, so I can subscribe to great blogs like Zenhabits and Lifehacker.
  • How this works for me: I have a Trello board called “Personal Developer” where I capture any new ideas and where I commit to the one habit I am trying to change at a time. Currently, I’m trying to design something everyday.

And there you have it. The Ultimate Guide to Personal Productivity that will make you happier, healthier, and more productive.