Allow me to set the scene. You’re sitting at your desk, staring at an ever-growing number of items on your list of assignments, knowing you should be working diligently to check them off, but you just can’t seem to get in the right headspace to carry out your tasks. We’ve all been there. There are a slew of tips out there to help you get back on the right mental track to crush your workload, but I’ve put together seven of the best immediate solutions that will make for the most productive hour of work you’ve ever had.
1. Take regular breaks
If you’ve already been working for a couple hours, before you press one more computer key, get up and walk around. Taking your eyes off your computer screen and/or getting away from your desk for a bit will act as a much-needed refreshment for your brain. That is a great way to open up the floodgates of creativity and motivation once you get back to work.
If you’ve been faced with a perplexing problem, getting away from your work for a little bit could help you get the new perspective you need to make a breakthrough. Plus, as Psychology Today points out, breaks provide health benefits as well, such as a lower risk of obesity, depression, diabetes, and heart disease. If your eyes feel tired or if you’ve hit a mental roadblock, getting up and taking a couple laps around your office or doing some stretching could make a world of difference.
2. Set self-imposed (and specific) deadlines
“Okay, I’ve got to get six more paragraphs written by 2:30.” Sound familiar? If not, maybe you should become accustomed to the practice of making mini deadlines. Big-picture deadlines, like completing a project by Friday, can be intimidating or stressful to think about. However, if you break them down into smaller pieces, they instantly seem much more manageable. Once you’ve split your project into smaller segments, take Harvard Business Review’s advice and set mini deadlines for each of those segments.
Setting very specific deadlines (such as 2:30 on Thursday) will help to keep you on track, and afterward you’ll get that oh-so-satisfying feeling of crossing something off your to-do list. If you struggle with self-discipline and need a little extra motivation, think about rewarding yourself once you reach your mini deadlines. I’m not saying to go out on a $500 shopping spree or anything like that, but treat yourself with something small that you enjoy. That might be listening to a new episode of that podcast you like or getting a piece of candy from the break room; just find something that allows you to feel successful and be kind to yourself.
3. Follow the two-minute rule
Author, entrepreneur, and photographer James Clear came up with a simple but ingenious strategy called the “two-minute rule” to help him maximize his productivity. I’ve been following this method for a while now, and all I can say is don’t ever underestimate the power and effectiveness of tiny changes in your thinking.
The essence of the two-minute rule is that “if it takes less than two minutes, do it now.” Do you have any tasks on your list that could be done very quickly? How about sending that email or making that quick phone call? Do those first, and get them out of the way. This will make you feel that you’ve accomplished something, effectively getting the ball rolling on the rest of your productive day. This is because, as Clear writes, “Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it.” It’s the same line of thinking used by people who make their beds in the morning.
4. Minimize distractions
Listen, I’m a mom. I know all about distractions, and I know how difficult it can be to get away from them. But there are concrete steps you can take to create an environment that allows you to get down to business without being interrupted.
First and foremost, turn off the notifications on your phone and computer unless they’re absolutely necessary. Notifications are a great way to yank you out of your concentration and cause you to lose your steam. Two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that “people felt more productive and less distracted” and that “they found it easier to concentrate on desktop work” when they disabled the notifications on their phone for 24 hours. So before you sit down to crank out your next piece of business, take a few seconds to hit the “do not disturb” button so you can focus your full attention on the work ahead of you.
Beyond that, there’s the obvious: you should try to work in as quiet a space as you can find. If you have a particularly pressing project, you might consider explaining this to your coworkers before you begin so they’ll know not to bother you if they can help it.
5. Take a drink of water
Yes, I know, this one sounds a bit overly simplistic, but I promise there’s science to back it up! Two 2015 studies done by the University of East London found that drinking water can boost your productivity by as much as 14 percent.
The study states that “a thirsty person’s brain constantly sends the message of thirst to the body. Satisfying that thirst frees the brain’s attentional resources and improves a person’s ability to function, think and perform better. It also relieves dehydration that saps energy and creates tiredness.”
So how much water should you be drinking daily in order to reap the maximum benefits? The Mayo Clinic advises that men should be drinking around 104 ounces a day while a woman’s target should be closer to 72. A tool that I’ve found has helped me tremendously in keeping track of my water intake is a Camelbak water bottle (but you could make any other reusable water bottle work as well).
My Camelbak holds one liter of water, but there are also markings on the side indicating 250, 500, and 750 milliliters. I aim to be down to 750 milliliters by the time I finish breakfast, 500 milliliters by 10:00, and so on until I’ve reached my goal for the day. Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, it becomes as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth!
6. Listen to classical music
I’m sure you’ve heard 100 times that “Mozart makes babies smarter,” and while that may not be true, it can have an effect on your efficiency. This theory has been tested and proven to be true by The Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research, The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, and Science Daily (the last of which discovered that it may also have a positive effect on your mood).
I love listening to music while I work, but I find that music with lyrics tends to distract me (trying to type words while listening to different words is easier said than done). Instead, I prefer to turn on one of my Spotify classical music playlists, and I’m instantly able to tune out the world around me and tune in to my work. Try to pick classical music with a moderate tempo, and don’t turn up the volume all the way, or you could negate the positive effects of the music.
7. Don’t multitask
I am totally guilty of trying to begin all my tasks at once rather than knocking them out one at a time, and guess what? It never works.
In a very effective argument against multitasking, the American Psychological Association reports that “psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, nothing that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.”
You might think that starting all your assignments at the same time would make you feel more accomplished by the end of the day, but I can assure you from personal experience that this is not the case. Taking on one at a time may feel like slow going at first, but once you finish the day and realize all that you accomplished, you’ll feel much better than having a long list of half-completed tasks.
What other tips have you found that help you maximize your efficiency? Tell us in the comments below!
Sara Carter is the Co-founder of Enlightened Digital, entrepreneur, and Bostonian. She spends her days writing code, chasing her children and/or dog, and perfecting her brownie recipe.