How to Be Productive on Your Own Terms

A planner in a wool sleeve, on a wooden desk next to office supplies like pencils, tape, a pen, envelopes, and paper clips.

It’s physically impossible to be productive all the time.

No matter how long your to-do list is, or how tight your deadlines are, going nonstop all day every day doesn’t guarantee you results -- the hours you’re spending working are going to have diminishing returns after a certain point. 

In fact, the key to success isn’t putting in the most time — it’s about making the time that you put in truly valuable.

It means taking advantage of the times when you’re most productive, working on the things that matter most, and setting boundaries against people and tasks that drain your time and energy.

The thing that makes this difficult is the fact that all of those things look different for everyone! There’s no one-size-fits all solution. Only you can know exactly what works for you.

Ready to start making the most of your efforts, on your own terms? Here are some of our favorite tips for finding what type of work style is going to be most productive for you.

Track your day and then reflect

The first step to being productive on your own terms is to identify when exactly are the most productive periods of the day. This is something that’s different for everyone, so the best way to find out your own personal work style is to track your day.

Grab a notebook or notepad to keep handy throughout the day and set a reminder on your phone or computer to alert you every few hours that it’s time to check in. 

Start in the morning and write down how you’re feeling. Are you tired? Energized? Feeling creative? Make certain to take note of the periods throughout the day when your focus, energy, and inspiration waxes and wanes. You may need to track your energy levels and productivity like this for a few days to get a clear picture. Not every day is the same.

For example, I am not a morning person. It takes me forever to get out of bed, and you will *never* find me doing a morning workout. Even with a cup of coffee, I often feel sluggish in early morning meetings and struggle to brainstorm or come up with creative ideas. But come late morning? I’m a different person. I do my best work from about 10am til noon. So that’s when I try to schedule the meetings when I really need to be *on*, or I carve out time for whatever deep, creative work that needs to get done for the day. 

Once you’ve identified the times of day when you’re most productive, be protective of those times! Make sure that whatever you’re doing during your “on” hours is the most important, highest priority, most brain-intensive stuff on your plate. And save the less-important meetings and more menial tasks for the times when you’re feeling a little slower. 

By taking the time to track your day and reflect on how you feel from hour to hour, you can make massive strides in being more productive in less time. 

Take stock of your priorities

Once you’ve identified your most productive periods during the day, it’s time to take stock of your priorities and make sure that you’re allocating your time appropriately during your most effective windows of time. 

We love the Ink+Volt Priority Pad to help with this. You’ll start by sorting the elements of your to-do list into the following categories:

  • The tasks that support your long-term goals and endeavors
  • The tasks that are your obligations
  • The tasks that are fire drills and favors for other people
  • And the tasks that are guilty pleasures

The first group of tasks — the ones that support your long-term goals — are the ones that you should be focusing on when your energy is highest and your productivity will be at its maximum level. Then, as your energy starts to wane a bit, you can move on to the obligations, or the things that you have to do. 

Reserve the fire drills and favors and the guilty pleasures for the lowest energy times of the day, as those should require the lowest amount of thought and time to complete.

This exercise can also help you assess how well you’re balancing your time: Are most of the elements of your to-do list falling under the “fire drills and favors” category? If so, you might want to consider what tasks and responsibilities you might need to start practice saying “no” a little more often.

Look for things you might be able to delegate to someone else, or figure out a way to automate those less-critical tasks so that you can devote more of your precious time to the things that are actually going to move the needle on your biggest goals. 

Set realistic deadlines

What’s a surefire way to kill your work-life balance and increase your stress? An unrealistic deadline. 

When your manager comes to you with a request and you say, “I’ll get it to you by the end of the day,” but you already have 5 other critical tasks on your plate, you are not only setting yourself up for failure, you’re also killing your productivity, because you’re now going to be working with elevated stress and no time for breaks. 

Next time this scenario presents itself, stop and think for a minute before you commit yourself to a deadline. 

Take a look at your to-do list and do a quick re-prioritization. And then respond with something like, “I’m working on finishing up the proposal you asked for today; would it be okay if I worked on this tomorrow morning?” If your manager says no, then ask them to help you re-prioritize so that you’re still respecting your time. It’s okay to push back and make it their issue to help you deliver everything they need at an appropriate time.

If you’re working on a longer-tailed project, try the Planning Pad to help with deadline setting. The timeline format will help you visualize the big picture along with key goals and milestones, which will allow you to realistically plot when each phase of the project needs to be completed, making sure to account for things like review time, rounds of edits, and so on. 

Look at your time holistically

It’s tempting to plot out every day down to the minute, but if you never zoom out to look at the big picture, your day-by-day plans won’t end up making much sense and will often end up getting upended.

Using a goal planner (like the Ink+Volt Goal Planner!) is a great way to calibrate the big picture with the day-to-day. By committing to the scheduling and goal-setting systems laid out within its pages, you’ll be building in check-in and planning sessions at the beginning of each week and each month. This will allow you to take into account any important dates or deadlines on the horizon and plan your time — and your productivity — accordingly. 

For example, if you know that you have a big deadline coming up next Wednesday, take a look at your schedule and see how you can accommodate that so that you are setting yourself up for success and to tap into your maximum level of productivity. Maybe you don’t set up a coffee meeting for that morning, or you plan to drive to work early rather than taking the train at rush hour.

Where can you move all your meetings so you have one, uninterrupted day of deep work? Are your most productive hours getting spent on the work that matters most to you? What is consistently getting in the way, and how can you change that?

Understanding how you work best and then looking at your schedule holistically and making it work for you will help you maximize your productivity every single week.

Check in with yourself

As in all things, it’s important to check in with yourself and reflect on any changes that you’ve made to your schedule to ensure that it actually *is* working for you. 

The Ink+Volt Reflection Pad is the perfect tool to help with this. The pad features 18 different check-ins, guiding you through an easy 1-5 rating on everything from productivity to mindfulness. You can then reflect on how you graded each topic, see where the gaps are, and develop ways to work towards balance.

The only way that you can tap into your maximum productivity is by listening to yourself -- both physically and mentally. If you need rest, or water, or movement — do those things! And then you can turn back to the tasks on your plate. By taking care of your whole self, not just your to-do list, you will be setting yourself up for much greater success than you would by working the whole day through without breaks and without paying attention to what you really need.

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