5 Crucial First Steps Toward Optimal Productivity

“There aren’t enough hours in the day” is not an uncommon complaint. And yet, the most productive people that exist today have the same amount of hours in a day as anyone else. What makes them more productive?

We can’t change how many hours there are in a day, but we can change how we use them. That is, we can better manage our energy, which will in turn make our use of time more efficient. Here are a few tweaks you can make to your daily routine that will help you start maximizing the time you do have.

1) Start your day the night before.

Decide the night before what time you want to get up, and what you are going to do in the morning. If you decide to wake up at 7:00am but spend an hour wandering aimlessly around your apartment, you might give in to a mid-morning nap, which defeats the purpose of getting up at 7:00am. Whether it’s exercise, writing, or reading the newspaper, having a plan will make it easier to get up—and stay up—when sleep inertia is telling you to press snooze.

2) Get out of bed when your first alarm goes off.

When your alarm wakes you up, instead of hitting snooze, get right out of bed if you don’t want to feel groggy throughout the morning. Even if you’ve gotten seven hours of sleep, you might still feel groggy when your alarm goes off because of sleep inertia: the period between waking and being fully awake, when you’re more likely to be tempted to snooze for “just a few more minutes.” But those extra five minutes of sleep can make you feel worse than if you had just gotten up, because your brain restarts the sleep cycle. When your alarm goes off for the second time, you’re likely in an earlier, deeper part of your sleep cycle.

3) Build in flex time.

The key to planning out your day the night before is to build flex time into your schedule. It may sound counterintuitive. You want to get the most out of your day, so you shouldn’t waste a single minute not having something on the schedule to do. But downtime is actually beneficial for optimal productivity. It gives your mind a break—a chance to unwind and reenergize so that you can reach maximum productivity the next day, or while tackling your next task.

4) Make meals a priority.

Healthy eating may not seem compatible with a busy lifestyle. But food is energy, and we all need energy to function, let alone excel at the tasks before us. You may sometimes get so caught up in a task that when you finally look up, it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten lunch. To avoid this, plan out your meals the day before so that you don’t feel like figuring out what to eat is an interruption that you can’t afford, or that you’re wasting valuable mental energy deciding what to eat. If you don’t want to waste your decision-making energy on minor things, plan ahead so that you’re simply doing rather than deciding.

5) Don’t let emails dominate your day.

While it may feel like you’re really on top of things if you answer emails immediately, don’t keep refreshing the page to see if there’s new mail. When an email comes in, deal with it right away when you read it. This is different from constantly checking to see if you have a new email, which will actually make you feel more pressured throughout the day.

Making small changes such as these will be beneficial as you take the next steps toward your goal of being more productive.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

A Casual Relationship With Time

Though not everyone is given the same amount of days, everyone is given the same amount of time in a day. It might seem as though most people have just enough time in the day to not complete everything on their to-do list. Have you ever paused to consider someone—your toddler in one arm, your vacuum in the other, and dinner roasting away in the oven—and wondered, “How does she do it all?”

Time management is a widely considered topic, which is not surprising given these days of 24/7 global communication and instant gratification. There exists plenty of advice on how you can better manage your time, how you can make yourself more productive in shorter periods of time, how you can break the habit of “multitasking” and complete one task at a time to actually make progress.

What’s less considered when thinking about how you can better manage your time is how other people can affect your schedule—or even how their perception of your schedule can influence the way you perceive your own level of busy.

1) Meetings

There are two ways that meetings can become an inefficient use of time before they even begin. The person with whom you are meeting could arrive late, or could cancel the meeting altogether.

It is understandable in some cases when a person arrives a few minutes late to a meeting. Don’t necessarily expect it, but budget for it. If you are like me, you always try to arrive to meetings with at least ten minutes to spare. This means if someone is even five minutes late, you might wind up waiting fifteen minutes for a meeting to actually begin.

I’ve heard many people say, “I wish I had more time to read…” but I know those same people to sit in cafés at times waiting for their friends/colleagues/etc. to arrive, staring blankly at their phones not because there is something interesting on the screen, but simply because they are sitting alone. Swap those fifteen uncomfortable minutes of pretending there are important things on that phone for fifteen minutes of reading.

If you don’t want those fifteen minutes of waiting to turn into thirty and beyond, confirm the meeting the day before. I once set up a meeting a week in advance and confirmed the day before. The person with whom I was scheduled to meet responded to my confirmation that she thought I had cancelled the meeting. She had mixed up her contacts—another one of her meetings had been cancelled and she thought it was ours. If I hadn’t sent the confirmation, I would have been waiting for a meeting that would never begin.

About meetings that will never begin…

Some meetings will inevitably be cancelled. There are those that are cancelled well in advance, and those that are cancelled after you’re already on your way. They are both time-consuming. Oftentimes there is an understandable reason for cancelling a meeting. You might even do it yourself. Some other times you might find that you sent a confirmation email only to have the meeting cancelled in the reply (and what would have happened if you hadn’t sent the confirmation email? Perhaps it would have been cancelled even later…when you were already on your way.) Still other times you might find yourself in the middle of rescheduling a meeting (you’ve found a mutually agreeable date and time…it’s just a matter of place) when the other party simply stops responding.

The mysteries of what causes these things to happen may never be known. It may just be that some have a more casual relationship with time.

But time is a nonrenewable resource for individuals regardless of its inherent infinity.

A cancelled meeting could mean that suddenly there is a block of open time in your schedule. You understand the value of your time, and this might seem like a good thing. But you could have so much on your plate that you become paralyzed not knowing what to attack first, not wanting to waste your extra hour. Don’t dwell on how much time you spent preparing for your cancelled meeting—instead focus on the time that you have at that very moment. After all, time that has passed is fixed in a state of non-existence and therefore cannot be changed. Take one minute to readjust, pick a task, and do it. It truly doesn’t matter what it is; anything that you accomplish in that time is a better use than letting it slip away.

2) “You’re so busy…”

Another phrase I’ve heard a lot is, “You’re so busy,” or, “You probably don’t have time, but…” The strange thing about these phrases is that whenever they are directed toward me, I always feel that while they could be true, they are not necessarily true. If something is important, there is time for it.

Time is fixed. The hours on our clocks do not change. There are 24 in each day. Assume I automatically subtract 8 from those 24 for sleep, because sleep is not optional. I am left with 16 hours every day to be awake and productive. If hours are fixed, we are left with variables that we assign to each of those 16 hours. Those variables could be Eat, Read, Family, Work, Leisure, Tennis, Study, Guitar, etc. Variables will change for everyone, depending on what’s important/necessary in their life. Notice, however, that I classify neither Read nor Guitar as Leisure. They are their own variables. If they are important, they must be assigned a time. Otherwise, Leisure from 12pm-1pm could quickly turn into TV watching rather than the intended guitar practice, and you’ll find yourself down the ever-shortening line of time ahead of you wondering when you stopped playing guitar.

So when someone says to you, “You probably don’t have time to direct this film…” (or meet for coffee, or become a Certified Pilates Teacher), that may seem true at first. But because you are the puppeteer of the variables that fill your fixed 16 waking hours, if directing that film is important, it becomes the variable Direct, and it must be assigned the appropriate slots. Other variables will shift, but that’s why they’re variables and not fixed. They are flexible in their placement, but not in their existence.

Variables as discussed here are like rubber bands. If a variable has been assigned to a fixed time slot and must be replaced, the further away from that original time slot you move that variable, the more tension in the band. It can only be moved so far away from the original slot (days, weeks, months) before it snaps. A snapped band implies that variable is no longer important.

If someone posits that you might be too busy to do something that you deem important, it might be tempting to agree. But in reality, their perception of your busyness has little to do with how you manage your fixed hours and variables.

3) Scheduling Logic

Assume that you have 16 waking hours to complete 8 variables: Eat, Family, Guitar, Leisure, Read, Study, Tennis, Work. (I am assuming here that you wish for each of these things to be completed every day. If different days of the week have different variables, create a spread, as shown below, for each day of the week. You can also create spreads for a week or a month, depending on how variable your variables are.)



Because the 16 hours are fixed, they are in a fixed line above. Each slot represents one hour. The variables are represented by the first letter of the activity to be completed. You can figure out the assignments of each variable to the 16 slots using a series of conditional statements, or rules, that you determine to be true.

There are 16 slots and only 8 variables. You can assign multiple variables to a single slot, or you can assign a single variable to multiple slots. You can assign that single variable to successive slots or not. Here is an example:

Assume each variable requires either 30 minutes or 1 hour to complete, except W, which takes 8; E, which takes 2; and F, which takes 2. That leaves 4 hours for G, L, R, S, and T. Because there are 4 hours left to do five things, two of those things must be 30-minute tasks. You might determine a rule to be: If I play tennis for one hour, I do not eat in the hour that immediately follows. If you assign the first slot to Tennis, then Eat cannot occupy the second slot.

Depending on the travel time required for each of these tasks, you may need to add another variable, C (commute) and adjust the rules of your spread.

With a spread like this, “busy” has no place. You do not need to eat and study at the same time (create a rule that says Eat and Study cannot take up the same time on your spread), which can lead to cold food, sauce-stained books, and the feeling of time pressure. You do not need to panic that you haven’t spent enough time with your family—you will know exactly how much time you spent with your family (and it might be more than you give yourself credit for, Guilty Gil).

With this more formal relationship with time, you won’t find your hours slipping by unnoticed. You will know where you are in space at designated times, and any variation of dealing in some way with a meeting (attending a meeting, having a meeting cancelled, waiting for a meeting to begin), or other variable whose fixity is largely dependent upon others, won’t hemorrhage into your future time slots, causing a massive temporal clean-up and readjustment of variables. No one has time for that.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

To Have A Life, Automate Your Life

I thought I had reached wardrobe equilibrium the last time I cleaned out my closet. Apparently not. As I filled the second bag with clothes to give away, I wondered how I still had so much.

How had I accumulated all these shoes? How many shirts do I really need? How many more times will I edit my closet before I actually reach wardrobe equilibrium?

The problem, I realized, was that my wardrobe seemed to be connected in a strange way to my work: The more projects I had on my plate, the more streamlined I was trying to make my life outside of work. This meant being able to go into my closet and pick out anything knowing that it would be appropriate, look good, and reflect my style without wasting any thoughts on it. My closet editing wasn’t just about getting rid of things—it was about my ability to work efficiently, which meant minimizing the attention paid to anything external.

Here are a few ways you can streamline your life outside of work so you can actually have the life you want outside of work.

1) Unsubscribe from all emails.

A few weeks ago I expressed to a friend my shock at how many emails I had received overnight. I was surprised when he replied, “How many of them were newsletters?”

As much as it would be nice to think that for every ten emails I receive only one needs an actual reply, I am subscribed to precisely zero newsletters. When I do receive one that I haven’t actually subscribed to, I unsubscribe immediately before deleting.

If you find yourself deleting newsletters, offers, etc. every morning because you are overwhelmed by their existence, start unsubscribing. Keep a reading list instead. It is possible to keep your inbox manageable if you opt out of all the excess.

2) Eat the same thing.

If you have a good variety of foods in your rotation, you won’t get sick of them, you won’t miss out on things you need, and you won’t spend time wondering what to eat.

You can be flexible even if you prepare your meals in advance like I do. Have everything chopped, sliced, and cooked for the week so that you can mix things as you feel like having them.

Spend some time figuring out what you need in your diet, and what is important to you (Free-range, vegetarian fed chicken? Milk from growth hormone-free cows? Soy-free everything?) and find brands that match your values. You can clean up your schedule and your diet at the same time.

3) Stick to your routine.

If you leave room for decisions during the day, you are likely to waffle. Have a morning and an evening routine.

If you have tea every night before you brush your teeth, wash your face, and lay out your clothes, you will waste less time than if you decide to brush your teeth at some point before you go to bed while walking back and forth to see snippets of the show you don’t really care about on TV.

Just know that for ten minutes every night after tea, you brush your teeth, wash your face, and lay out your clothes, and there will be no thought wasted about how you are too tired to do any of it and just want to watch TV. Procrastination has never been good for the time-conscious.

4) Edit your wardrobe.

You make enough decisions during the day. Do you really want to stare at a bunch of clothes that don’t really look good together, and don’t really look good on you?

You don’t need a lot of clothes, you just need the right clothes. If you have an outfit that you only wear on days you want to look your best, get more clothes like that. You should aim to look your best every day, and looking your best shouldn’t take a lot of brainpower. Find what works and do it more. Get rid of the rest.

It doesn’t mean having a boring closet—it means being excited about what you’re wearing each day. It also doesn’t mean wearing the same thing every day so you don’t have to think about it. If you can pick out anything and know it is a good choice, no thinking is required.

5) Go paperless.

This is good for so many reasons. Aside from the ink cartridges and paper saved, you won’t have stacks of papers waiting to be filed, or unopened mail burdening your soul. While you should keep a copy of certain important documents, you should also keep your paperwork to a minimum.

There are few legitimate reasons to have twelve filing cabinets full of papers you haven’t seen in twenty years—and when you go looking for the one you do need, how much time do you spend trying to find it?

Often we are faced with a task that makes us wish we had an assistant. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could pay our bills, bringing us a stack of checks already filled out that just need to be reviewed and signed?

Even if there is no assistant to delegate to, you can still “delegate” to a third party by setting all your bills to autopay. You should still check them for errors as they come in, but you can save a lot of time by just monitoring.

Same thing for grocery shopping. Sure there are some things that you may want to buy fresh, but for the most part, grocery delivery services are a great way to save yourself time.

You’ll need to do some research up front to find one that fits what you are looking for, but it will pay off. Plus, if you eat the same thing, your orders will start to look the same (with a few tweaks to keep it interesting), and you can reorder without even needing to create a new shopping list.

Some of these things may not seem like they are even worth a second thought. That’s exactly the point—they’re not. Automate as much as possible so that you can focus on things that are worth your attention, and you might even find that you have—gasp—downtime.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

Productivity Physics

You know the feeling, right? Emails are flying, your phone is ringing, things are happening. By 10pm you’ve gotten what feels like a week’s worth of work done. And strangely, you want to do more. That last email that comes in that thwarts your Inbox:0 goals. Or one minor administrative task on your To Do list that you really don’t want to leave until tomorrow, but which will definitely take some brain power to complete. And so, you either press on, or you go to bed with your mind racing.

The next day, you feel like you haven’t slept in a decade. You can barely answer one email without losing focus, and everything you put into motion yesterday is piling up again on your desk.

What happened? Work inertia.

I remember studying for a science exam when I was in middle school, and memorizing definitions. I never forgot the definition of inertia, because it sounded lyrical in my head: The tendency of an object to resist change in motion. I experience inertia every day, but I am never more aware of it than when I fall victim to work inertia. Here is what I learned about the physics of productivity.

1) Time

If you love waking up early, working efficiently, and blasting through your To Do list, you need to give yourself time to unwind. While it’s usually not a good idea to leave until tomorrow what you can do today, sometimes that one last thing really should be left for tomorrow. If you’ve been spinning all day and feel a bit hyper as bedtime approaches, stop working. Start shutting down around thirty minutes before sleeping to give yourself time to come to a stop.

2) Space

Even if you do give yourself time, it means nothing without space. If you’re spending the thirty minutes before bed reading a book, but are really just moving your eyes over sentences while you think about work, you’re not giving yourself the mental space you need to shut down. If your mind is still racing when you try to sleep, you will probably have a restless sleep. The next day, all those brilliant thoughts you had will fall away, because you will be too tired to do anything about them.

3) Frame of Reference

At the end of a busy day, there are two steps to giving yourself mental space. First, definitively decide that you are done working. Don’t waffle. This will only contribute to decision fatigue and a lot of wasted minutes. Second, zoom out. Take a look at what you’ve put in motion and what is still waiting to be put in motion. This will help you synthesize your day, and organize and prioritize for the next day. If you have a plan for tomorrow, it might be easier to mentally let go of what you didn’t finish today.

If you keep work inertia in check, you’ll find that you come to rest more easily, so that you can start again refreshed.

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– Kaitlin Puccio

A Formula for Decision-Making Without Anxiety

In business (and life), it’s easy to start overanalyzing when you’re making a critical decision or trying to plan your next steps. This often yields more stress than answers. A four-step process can help you find your answer without thinking yourself in circles. 

1) Gather all the information.

You may be tempted to come to a conclusion as soon as you are faced with a question. Oftentimes, this backfires. If you try to find answers before gathering all the information, you might wind up rethinking your decision at a later date when new information pops up.

Much of the time we don’t even know what information is out there to gather. If it feels like you are faced with an impossible decision, you may not have gathered all the information. Talk to your contacts. Make contacts who will talk to you. Ask questions. Ask broad questions if you don’t know where to begin, just to get people talking. You’ll probably be surprised by how much you’ll learn just by letting people talk.

2) Stop listening to people.

At some point you will have gathered so much information that it feels like there is simply no more room for mental input. If, when you talk to people, you are finding that you are analyzing their information based on your other research and forming confident opinions about it, you’ve probably gathered enough information. It’s time to stop listening to people when they start telling you what you should be doing, because you now have enough information to decide for yourself.

3) Think for yourself.

Think time is important. Sort through the information you’ve gathered without trying to form a conclusion. Mentally eliminate any information that doesn’t mesh with your goals. It’s likely that before you start actively thinking about everything you’ve learned, you will have already started synthesizing in the back of your mind. The decision-making process will feel less fraught with anxiety and mental blocks if you give yourself space to process independently.

4) Talk to people about your decision.

Once you’ve organized your thoughts and have a general direction, talk to people again. This group of people might include family, friends, and trusted advisors who have your best interests at heart. Present the information you’ve gathered and communicate how it informed your decision. Then listen to the opinions of others. Consider all advice alongside the results of your own think time.

You may be surprised by how naturally you reach a decision after following these steps.

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– The Editors