STB's Monster Guide to a Productive Day
How I Cracked Productivity
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.
This is how to be productive. How do I know? Because it has taken me almost 30 years to learn it. Do you know what that's like? It’s shit.
This isn’t “9 habits of productive people.” It’s not “32 secrets to being productive.” It is a proven routine to be a more productive human being. It works, for me, and I am the single laziest, least productive person in the world.
That’s the real talk, right there. I am not a natural born hustler. I have only recently been accused of being efficient. Ask anyone who knows me. Question anyone who’s worked with me. They will not lie. I was the worst.
I tried everything. At least, I thought I'd tried everything. Apps? Yep. Hacks? Heaps. Magic food? Give me your best quinoa-goji-berry-brown-rice-ginseng-smoothie, please. If there’s been a tip or trick written about productivity, I’ve heard it, watched it, tried it and failed it.
I'm not here to give you any more bullshit. There is no secret cure for your laziness. What you need is routine.
So without any further ado, here’s the research-backed system I used to go from lazy to productive.
I'd like to tell you that these habits aren't listed in order of importance. And they’re not. But the morning comes first, because it’s the morning, and it is 100% the most important. Without nailing your morning you won’t get anywhere.
First things first:
WAKE UP EARLY
To all who think you're night owls and "can't get up early," the research says only one thing: bullshit. You want proof? If you were a productive night owl, you wouldn't be reading this blog post.
The reality is that for the vast majority of us, the morning is our most productive time of day.
If you're still in bed at 7:30, welcome to being behind. Welcome to having less energy. And welcome to missing out. Start with waking up 15 minutes earlier than your usual time. Then, adjust until you’re where you need to be.
Just switching from waking up at 8 to waking up at 7 gives you an extra, more productive, hour of the day. Out of bed an hour earlier than you used to be? Fantastic. Well done. Do that every day. Then get out of bed and do some exercise.
Oh man. You thought I was going to offer platitudes and hacks, right? Well, you're right. I am. But, before that, you have to realise that the most important driver of growth is your health. Almost everyone who is or has been successful has some sort of exercise routine. Mark Zuckerberg runs, with his dog. Elon Musk lifts. Sheryl Sandberg works out in her home gym every morning.
You don't need to be an Iron Man (shout out to our client D. Henson, who is exactly that). You do need a good amount of heart-rate-elevating exercise, every day. Don't have a gym? Google "at home workout routines.” You’ll be set.
If you think this sounds like New Age crap, breathe a sigh of relief (and focus on how the breath feels going in, and out. And in. And out. And...). I’m not here to tell you meditation will change your life. I’m here to tell you that as part of your morning routine, taking 5-10 minutes to reflect sets the tone for your day. And change your life.
Not convinced? According to a study by the Massachusetts General Hospital, regular meditation:
You can start with two minutes and go from there. I recommend trying an app like Headspace to help get started. It’s great (and we never use affiliate links on our blog).
If there’s one step in this routine that you could skip, it’s this one. If you don’t need it and don’t want it, don’t start it. That said, caffeine is something I will never quit. A good cup of coffee is one of the highlights of my day, and the boost it provides me is fantastic. Studies have shown that caffeine can provide a wide range of benefits. Plus, good coffee is delicious.
Ok, so this is where the apps and workflows start entering the world in a big way.
I know how easy procrastinating is. I have gone to ridiculous lengths to avoid doing things. Procrastination is such a monster of a thing. We don’t often give it the respect it deserves. Instead, we write it off as some funny thing we choose to do, but can stop whenever we want.
The thing is, though, for many of us it’s not that simple. Anxiety related procrastination is common and it takes more than willpower to get out of it.
I needed a combination of three things: task management, time segmenting, and focus.
I could write thousands of words on this subject alone. It comes down to two things: goal setting and prioritisation.
Setting goals gives you a sense of purpose to guide what you’re doing. Every day, remind yourself of your big, guiding goals. Then, make sure you know the concrete things that you want to get done today. At STB, we set three things we’re going to get done that day. And then we get them done. When we don’t, we figure out why.
Over time, reflecting on “why?” identifies areas for improvement. It helps us to see where others might need help, who can take more on, and how we can do things better, as a company.
We use Trello. I recommend it to anyone who wants a flexible task and information management system. They have great guides on how to get the most out of the platform and are well worth checking out.
For time segmentation I use two things, depending on how I’m feeling during any given work session.
The 43 Folders ‘(10+2)*5’ system, or the Pomodoro technique. Both of these approaches rely on breaking time up into small, focused work periods. These periods are broken up with repeated short breaks, before a longer break.
What this does is ensure that you burn through an hour (or another period’s worth) of work. Eventually, you’ll look forward to both the break and the task section of the cycle. Everything flows a lot more smoothly.
What any time segmentation system requires, is focus.
Oh my God. The lengths I used to go to to convince myself I could multitask. I can’t. You can’t. No one can. Stop trying.
When you think you’re multitasking, you're actually rapidly switching between tasks. Research shows that when you do this, it takes up to 15 minutes to ‘reorient’ yourself back to your primary task. The more complex the task, the harder it is to reorient.
Gaining the type of game-changing focus we value at STB is not an easy ask. Particularly if you work in an office, or with people who don’t make this easy for you. The approach you need to adapt is three pronged.
Focus your technology. One app at a time. One tab at a time. There are lots of good site-blocking Chrome extensions. I’m fond of a hardline approach, so Go Fucking Work suits me quite well.
Focus your environment. Reduce clutter. Ask yourself what you need in the space around you and what you can afford to clear away.
Focus your inputs. End bad-noise and outside distractions. Use the right music or noise to help you achieve a sense of control over your environment. I find that if I set the noise, it doesn't stress me out or bother me. If it's caused by someone else, it's aggravating. A combination of noise-cancelling headphones and the Noizio Mac OS app give me what I need.
PRO tip: meditation helps. When you meditate, you train your brain to be more aware. This means that when you stray, you identify it sooner and can bring your mind back to the task at hand.
Take genuine, real world breaks. Don’t work through them. Even walking to the water cooler or a brief stroll outside will help. Give yourself an actual chance to step away from the thing you’re working on. Studies show that brief diversions can dramatically improve your ability to focus.
Work's done, sun's down. Now what?
I’m not suggesting this is a good idea for you, but I only eat one meal a day. This has more to do with me and the way I am, and I don’t recommend this to anyone. If you want to explore it, do your own research and seek medical advice.
Read something, for pleasure. Reading expands your mind by exposing you to new information. New writing styles. New ways of thinking. Consistent reading even makes you a better writer.
HAVE FAM TIME
Call someone. Spend time with your family. Be a human being. Productivity doesn’t come without health and balance. You don’t want to be on your deathbed regretting time not spent with loved ones. Don’t be that person.
GO TO BED AT THE SAME TIME
As much as possible, go to bed at the same time every night. Support this by practising electronic hygiene. Turn your phone off, or keep it away from your bedside. That blue light and mental stimulation can mess with your ability to sleep. That is not something you want to mess with.
Done? Ok. Cool. Wake up, and repeat. Don't be too harsh on yourself. Find a system that works for you. Put in place it over time. Take it from system, to habit. Most importantly, let the STB crew know what works for you: firstname.lastname@example.org.