Your time is precious.
You want to wake up and know exactly what you need to do. When you get to your desk, you picture yourself putting all your ideas and thoughts into a concise format. You imagine yourself finally finishing work before dinner and kicking up your feet to watch TV without feeling guilty.
The moment arrives.
You walk towards your desk, turn on your computer, and then… the bubble bursts. Ten minutes later, you’re laughing at cat videos, checking your Twitter feed, and scrolling through five internet tabs at once.
What happened? You had the best of intentions. Yet somehow those aspirations didn’t translate into actions.
Why Your Actions Don’t Fit Your Goals
In an ideal world, big aspirations equate to working diligently towards them.
But it isn’t that simple.
The fact is, most of the actions we do on a daily basis are automatic. They might or might not be optimized to get work done, but we’re so accustomed to what we do, we don’t give it a second thought.
It’s time to re-evaluate your daily work habits.
The good news is that you can go from unmotivated and tired to energetic and pumped for work.
Each step alone will help you get more done, and all of them combined will help you progress by leaps and bounds.
Step 1: Set up your work environment.
Here’s the secret to accomplishing tasks: Make it easy to get started.
Contrary to what many people believe, a lot of what we do on a daily basis isn’t a matter of choice. Our actions are largely driven by the environmental cues around us.
Companies know this and take good advantage of it (for better or for worse). If you’ve purchased through Amazon before, you know that Amazon keeps your browsing information on hand.
Whenever you shop on Amazon, products related to what you were searching for last time will pop up as suggestions, making it easier for you to click on them. You might not have gone onto Amazon intending to look at certain products, but once they’re in front of you, it’s hard to resist.
I apply this environmental principle to my own workplace setup. I created a separate work space away from things such as the TV, fridge, and areas that have a high noise and distraction level.
My work area simply consists of the things I need: a computer, a desk, a light, and a chair. I use my “work computer,” which has minimal programs and applications. It only contains the tools I need to focus on my tasks.
George R. R. Martin takes his distraction-free environment even further. The best-selling author of the series A Song of Ice and Fire writes novels on a program from the 80’s that I never even heard of: WordStar 4.0.
He’s written thousands of pages that have been read by millions, and he does it all on a DOS-based computer. No Internet, no social media, just words.
So if you find it hard to get to work, start with your work setup.
Step 2: Are you a morning lark or a night owl?
What if I were to tell you that it’s time to reconsider your work hours?
Research from Pennsylvania State University shows that we get distracted most easily from noon to 4 p.m. We also get sleepy at around 2 p.m.
People tend to be more energetic and upbeat in the morning as body temperatures rise. Our energy goes downhill after lunch, and then rises again later in the day.
Just ask Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium. He focuses on work in the mornings and takes the middle of the day off. He said, “It feels weird to leave to leave the office in the middle of the day, but total time spent is nearly the same with higher energy and focus across the board.”
If you find yourself frequently going to bed late though, you might work better at night.
Can’t tell whether you’re a morning lark or night owl? Try recording your sleeping and waking times when you aren’t working. The next time you have a few days off, jot down answers to the following:
- When do you feel the most energetic?
- When do you feel yourself getting sleepy or tired?
- What time do you naturally wake up?
I’ve found that I tend to stay up later on the weekends, and alarm clocks are not my friend. So I make use of this fact by focusing a lot of my energy towards working later in the day, when I can concentrate best.
Step 3: Use the “less is more” principle.
People like creating “to-do” lists. It makes them feel productive and useful, since each completed task gets a well-deserved check mark beside it.
In theory, all the tasks on a daily list get completed. In practice, it can leave you feeling stressed and not very productive after all.
Here’s the problem with creating lists: There’s no priority in sequence.
For example, let’s take a look at a list of things I want to do today:
- Complete deadline project
- Spend time with family and friends
- Check email
- Plan work strategy
- Respond to phone calls
- Post on social media
- Watch TV
- Surf the net
Phew, that’s a lot of ground to cover in a day.
In a “to-do” list, our goal is to get rid of the pending tasks as soon as possible. The fastest way is to do the easiest tasks first, such as checking email, tweeting posts, and watching TV.
Except, by doing this you would never get around to the important tasks. You would feel exhausted mentally halfway through and run out of time.
So instead, I suggest sorting out the tasks in order of importance. One useful tool for doing so is the Eisenhower Matrix.
The principle behind this tool is that we should separate tasks that are important from those that are urgent. So what’s the difference then?
Urgent tasks are those that need to be dealt with immediately. We react to a situation and must resolve a problem right away.
Important tasks are crucial to a long-term goal. They may or may not need to be handled right away, but if we want to improve in an area, we should be focusing on what’s important.
Unfortunately, we often end up working on tasks that fall more into the urgent category than the important category. The Eisenhower Matrix keeps our priorities focused.
Check out the tasks above mapped out on the matrix:
Ideally, you should just have one or two activities in the top left quadrant that you absolutely must do in the day. For the activities in the top right quadrant, it’s important to schedule them so that you don’t keep putting these things off.
In my case, I choose to exercise in the afternoon and catch up with family and friends in the evenings. Meetings, phone calls, and emails are scheduled.
My email system is divided up into different categories, so that my emails are sorted automatically. Sharing on social media can be automated using a number of apps, such as Buffer.
I love using this method to decide what I need to do for the day. It gets me super-focused on what’s important and eliminates those unnecessary tasks that eat up a lot of time without giving much benefit in return.
Step 4: Listen to your biological clock.
That’s right — we all have a biological clock. Just as there are times in the day when we’re more energetic, there are also limits to the amount we can work.
In a study of violinists, researchers found that the top performers practiced the same way: In the morning for three sessions, each session lasting no longer than 90 minutes, and a break in between each session. This pattern was also found amongst chess players, athletes, and writers.
It’s interesting to see how top artists and athletes practice their craft. We normally picture someone who trains or work intensely for hours non-stop each day, when the secret may be to work in short bursts, with rest in between.
When many of us are hard at work, we fight through our fatigue by downing cups of coffee, junk food, and forcing ourselves to stay alert. What happens is that our bodies move into the “fight or flight” state of mind, distorting our thinking and ability to rationalize.
If you’ve been working for a while and start losing focus, consider putting aside your work. I’ve had times where I couldn’t concentrate anymore and decided to either go for a walk or a nap. Afterward, I found myself feeling refreshed and alert.
Energize Yourself to Get More Done
Getting your work done and achieving your long-term goals is largely about knowing when you have the highest energy levels. The good news is that you don’t have to slave for hours to get more done (and you shouldn’t, either).
Instead, get your work done in set periods and give yourself time away from your desk.
It’s also not about squeezing every single task in each day. A better approach is to determine what will push you towards your goals and then focus on your top priority.
When you know what to do, can finish what you wanted to achieve, and have more free time, it means you’re well on your way to becoming powerfully productive.
Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com. You can grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.