Stop putting things off with our tips for getting more done in less time.

By Real Simple Editors
January 19, 2021
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Sometimes, you just can't get it done. Whether "it" is that online shopping return you've been meaning to send back for weeks or the challenging work presentation you really need to start, dealing with items on your to-do list can be a struggle. Add some national and international crises, and you may be fighting procrastination and distracted thoughts on a daily basis.

While giving yourself a little grace is important (and necessary), you can also take some steps to be more productive, if only to keep your home- or work-life afloat until broader conditions improve. Sometimes, attention management can do the trick, or revisiting working from home tips can remind you what you need to do to focus. (We're particular fans of the The Pomodoro Technique, also.)

But sometimes you just need to reconsider your productivity process completely. Whether you're working to re-find your focus after a few weeks (months?) of feeling chronically distracted, or you want to boost your productivity to start chasing a promotion at work, turn to these expert tips to learn how to be productive, even now. From self-care suggestions to practical, work-oriented tips, these ideas will have you checking more off your to-do list in no time.

How to be productive - expert tips (arrows)
Credit: Getty Images

How to be productive

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1 Set three goals for the day

Make a must-do list, not a to-do list, of three things you have to get done. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. “Limiting your goals takes the overwhelm away and keeps you focused,” says Sarah Knight, author of Get Your Sh*t Together. There’s also a secret power in the number three, says Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: “The three little pigs, three Olympic medals, three parts of a story—our brain is wired to think in threes.” When you follow through on what you intended to do, you’ll end the day feeling great and motivated for tomorrow. And if you finish early enough, you can get a jump-start on tomorrow’s tasks or spend some time outside.

2 Set limits on distractions before they happen

The enticement of checking social media can peak in the summer (or while you’re working remotely), when half your office is on vacation or flex-hours, and your energy (and motivation) naturally dips, says Bailey. “Whenever we bounce around on apps, our brain releases a hit of dopamine, which makes our phone more tempting than our actual work,” he says. Don’t fight it; instead, check social media with intention. Do a feed sweep to see what’s going on, then put your phone on airplane mode for the next hour. When you fight through distraction and get tasks done, reward yourself with a little time to chill out.

3 Start with the toughest task

Whether it means phoning an obnoxious client or making sense of wildly disparate data points, effective people give priority to their toughest chore. Finishing the most challenging and important item on a to-do list first (a strategy recommended by Brian Tracy in his best-selling book Eat That Frog!) frees up mental energy that would otherwise have been frittered away worrying about it. And it makes the rest of the day seem manageable by comparison.

4 Get some sun

“If you don’t receive enough exposure to natural light, you can feel jet-lagged,” says Christopher Meek, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington’s Integrated Design Lab. “This happens because your circadian rhythms—including the way your body responds to the changes in light level between day and night—are disrupted. Try to get outside in the morning, when your body craves brightness, and then stand near a window a few times a day when you sense yourself slowing down. Getting enough sunlight can stimulate your internal clock, providing you with the energy you need.”

5 Start a procrastination journal

It’s natural to zone out from work, but mindless procrastinating reduces productivity. To figure out when procrastination strikes, Knight recommends starting a time journal. As with a food diary (remember those?), you write down how you spent every minute of your day to see when distraction creeps in (e.g., you research dinner recipes at 3 p.m.). Don’t ignore it—plan for it. Tailor your schedule to when you’re most focused (and when you’re not) by scheduling grace periods for free mind time.

6 Compliment someone

“A tech company I worked with found that its employees became more productive after the supervisor started offering one piece of praise a day,” says Michelle Gielan, a cofounder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, a company that works with businesses and schools to increase productivity and happiness. “It wasn’t that each person received a compliment. All it took was one flattering remark total to make everyone, including the manager, feel more positive. Why? Whether you smile yourself or watch someone else smile, the happy facial expression can trigger your brain to release dopamine—a chemical that helps control your body’s reward centers and, in turn, kick your productivity into high gear.”

7 Take regular breaks

People cycle from being alert to being fatigued about once every 90 minutes, according to Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project. Schwartz himself used to put in marathon 10-hour days writing his books. But learning to manage his energy more effectively—he now writes in three focused 90-minute intervals, with breaks between for exercise and socializing—has doubled his productivity, he says. Completing a manuscript used to take him a year, but now he can bang out a book—The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working is his latest New York Times bestseller—in just six months.

8 Create a focus ritual

Try making your favorite morning activity—sipping tea, walking around the block—a mind-clearing pre-work ritual. Devoting a few minutes to relaxing and centering can help erase and even prevent mental frazzle, according to Paul Silverman, an executive coach for Fortune 500 companies, who draws on his training in Zen Buddhism to teach clients how to develop single-minded attention: “The purpose is to deepen your breath, make you energized, and help you come into the moment, fully focused and concentrated—a skill many exceptional people have.”

9 Energize your brain

You know that drinking water and exercising are good for your body, but they may also boost brainpower. Research cited in Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism suggests even minor dehydration can affect cognition, alertness, and concentration. Studies also show that small bursts of exercise—say, 10 to 20 minutes—can make you feel sharper. “A quick walk improves memory and increases ability to generate ideas and make better connections,” says Bonnie St. John, coauthor of Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, and Energy.

10 Do something mindless

“If you need to make a lot of progress on a project, you may be tempted to work on it nonstop,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California in Santa Barbara. “Don’t. No one can focus on one single task all the time. Ensure that you break up your day—and your thought patterns—by routinely engaging in an activity that’s repetitive and not intellectually taxing, such as vacuuming or gardening. When your mind wanders, creativity can flow, enabling you to synthesize information in a unique way. Then when you sit back down to your work, you’ll have new ideas and be able to get more done.”

11 Get more sleep

More than a third of Americans are underslept, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “No matter how conscientious you are, inadequate sleep saps concentration, focus, and energy,” says Silverman. “It has a major impact on every aspect of your life. If you’re getting up at 7, you need to be asleep at 11. It’s not advanced math.” And because e-readers and computers interfere with our ability to sleep, experts recommend sticking with paper books right before bedtime.

12 Admit you’re dissatisfied

Maybe you just don’t feel like working, or you’re resentful that you’re not on vacation—or anywhere else. That’s OK, says Sue Rasmussen, author of My Desk Is Driving Me Crazy. Own those emotions so they don’t consume you. “Most people ignore what they’re feeling and think if they buckle down and muscle through the workday, they’ll be fine,” she says. “But if you admit how you’re feeling, you’ll move past it more quickly.” St. John recommends that you try reversing your thoughts from negative to positive. For example, if you wish you were someplace else, say, “I am so glad I am right here working on this project.” Even if you don’t mean it, says St. John. “By saying it out loud, it shifts your energy, flips a switch in your brain, and tricks you into pushing your emotions in a new direction.”

13 Plan a vacation day

Having a little something to look forward to—maybe a girls’ weekend or a day off to yourself—can increase your happiness right now, says Knight. “Setting a goal, even if it’s just to get to the beach on Friday, can bring you peace in all the weeks and days leading up to that trip,” she says. Keep your sights set on that goal.

14 Challenge yourself physically

“A lot of people don’t think they have time to fit exercise into their busy schedules,” says Ted Kennedy, the founder of CEO Challenges, which organizes sports competitions for CEOs and business owners, and a cofounder of Ironman North America. “But I’ve found that engaging in endurance activities, such as a long bike ride or a triathlon, makes me more disciplined and diligent. If I go a few days without doing these things, my productivity declines. My energy decreases, my focus wavers, and I can’t make decisions as easily. So I encourage people—even those who don’t think of themselves as athletes—to commit to a physical event, such as a walkathon or a community 5K. Once it’s on your schedule, you’ll make the time to train and realize that you can accomplish more in a day than you thought.”

15 Start planning early

Don’t wait until Monday morning to start thinking about your work schedule, says Julie Morgenstern, a time-management expert and the author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning. Begin scheduling two weeks before, particularly for the weeks and days leading up to a holiday, vacation, or summer. Identify exactly what you’ll be able to achieve and when you’ll tackle each task. Book the early part of the week, when more colleagues are around, with meetings and calls. Leave the (often quiet) last days before the weekend, a long weekend, or holiday week for solo work, like expense reports. Jot down potential roadblocks so you'll be prepped to maneuver around them.

16 Reject distractions

Banish interruptions from coworkers who pop in to chat (or even people who need you for legit reasons). Morgenstern suggests this exit line: “I want to give you my undivided attention but can't give you that now.” Then offer a time and date to meet—in the future. Also effective, says Shari McGuire, a time-management expert and the author of Take Back Your Time: standing up at your desk, which tacitly “communicates urgency to wrap things up.” But don’t skip lunch or breaks, says Morgenstern: “You'll end up working harder and longer but not as effectively.”

17 Schedule blocks to check email

Set aside two 45-minute chunks per day to batch-process messages. The constant checking of email and social media “is the number one enemy of productivity,” says Morgenstern. This is not news to us, but oh, what a tough habit to break.

18 Break tasks down

“I tend to avoid projects that seem too big, so in order to be productive, I have to cut overwhelming tasks down to size,” says Kate White, a former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and the author of numerous books, including I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This. “I do that by working in small increments. When I first started to write novels while running a magazine, I told myself that I would write for only 15 minutes a day. I knew that working for a short amount of time was an achievable goal, and I managed to get 10 books written in just this way.”

19 Make a plan before getting started

Start by establishing a clear mission statement and assigning incremental project goals to keep everyone on track. People who devote time to focusing on project plans before the project even starts, according to Silverman, are far less likely to find themselves lost in the weeds, wondering how to proceed—and procrastinating. “Take as much time as you need working with colleagues to get consensus and define, down to one crystal-clear line, what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. Pre-determining measurable benchmarks also helps everyone stay focused on the parts of a project they’re responsible for. Finally, with a clear mission statement, you’ll know when a project’s finally met its objective and everyone can call it a day.

20 Learn from failures, then move on

In keeping with kaizen, the Japanese principle of continuous improvement, productive people have a knack for analyzing what went wrong with a flopped prototype, or in snippy conversation with a colleague. But instead of endlessly rehashing the problem, they simply vow “to engage better as a human being, or somehow tweak things a little bit the next time,” says Silverman. “They have the ability to make incremental improvements in their performance and ask themselves, ‘Ok, what can I learn from this? What can I do better?’”

Reporting from Louisa Kamps, Kathleen Murray Harris, Brandi Broxson, and Jennie Dorris