Productivity Essentials: Tips To Make Every Day Better

A planner open to a calendar page with a filled in schedule, on a desk next to two pencils and a roll of tape.

Feeling stuck?

Every so often, we need a new productivity technique to help us recharge and refresh our work routine.

What can we do when our normal planning and organizing doesn’t seem to cut it? Is there a fresh take on beating procrastination? A new way to finally manage our email?

If you're reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of every productivity hack out there. From creating morning routines, to making to-do lists, to breaking your goals into small chunks, you know what it takes to create a successful life. 

Below, we’ve rounded up our favorite productivity essentials and useful strategies that will help you tackle everything from procrastination to email to overwhelming goals. Of course, these strategies won’t always be one-size-fits-all, so feel free to try them and incorporate your favorite components to make them your own. 

Focus on “today” goals

If you want to enhance your productivity and feel good about yourself in the process, focus on “today” goals.

Sometimes, we become so fixated on our long-term goals that we lose sight of the here and now. And it can be a challenge to keep rallying for our goals when they seem so far away.

In his How to Build a Life column for The Atlantic, writer Arthur C. Brooks recommends focusing on achievable goals that you can do today. Known as “day-tight compartments,” it’s a strategy that Dale Carnegie outlined in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

You can use a Today notepad for this purpose and make a list of 10-20 things you can do, starting right now:

  • Organize your email inbox
  • Send that one email you’ve been meaning to get around to
  • Clean out your fridge
  • Update your website
  • Reach out to someone whose career you admire on LinkedIn

Whatever it is, do it today. Not only will you get through a bunch of tasks on your to-do list, but you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment afterwards--and you won’t even have to wait an entire year for it! 

Use that energy and enthusiasm to push forward and sustain momentum. 

Break up your projects

If you have no idea where to start with a big, overwhelming project, then the best approach is to identify all the key steps you have to do and then do them, one step at a time.

Our very own Ink+Volt founder Kate Matsudaira recommends this approach, “Literally the powerful realization was to break up the work into the pieces of how I would start the work. What would I search for on Google? Who would I ask about the project?”

So as long as you can define what the next step is and what you have to do, then you can keep moving forward, keep progressing.  

If you have a big project coming up, you can use a Priority Pad to record all the tasks, assignments, meetings you have to do.

Maybe your first step is “research XYZ topic.” Start by writing down all the steps you will take  to do that; what will your overall plan look like? Write a list of websites, articles, and people you’ll consult. If your next step is to design slides, then write down your plan for how to achieve that, like finding digital assets or choosing the background and font.

Think of these individual tasks as your project stepping stones--execute one task and then move onto the next one, until you’ve completed the entire project. 

Manage your email once and for all 

Every productivity article will tell you to stop checking your email or to only check it once or twice a day. But easier said than done, right?

Trying to avoid our email is like managing any other bad habit. We can’t rely on willpower alone--we need to put systems in place to help us.

Here are some practical and creative ways that you can set email boundaries so that you can focus on work and finally have some peace of mind.

1. Establish out-of-office messages when you’re in the office

We all know that setting out-of-office messages when you’re on vacation gives you a much-needed break from the onslaught of emails. But if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by email during the week, then creating an out-of-office message during the work week can be a game-changer.

Think about it: why do we only employ auto-responses for when we’re out of town or on vacation? If this gives us peace of mind when we’re on vacation, then we should take advantage of them when we’re in the office. 

Auto-replies can communicate what your office hours and boundaries are, allowing you to reset people’s expectations when it comes to your availability.

Creating an out-of-office message when you’re actually in the office may seem unnecessary or even a bit unconventional, but it’s a very simple and effective way to get the point across: you’re not on call 24/7. 

Here are some examples you can use:

  • Hello! My email hours this week are Monday-Friday from 11am-5pm. Messages received outside of that window will be read the following day. If this is urgent, please call me at...
  • Thank you for your message! I’m currently heads-down working on a project, so my response will be delayed. You can expect a response in ___ hours/days.
  • Thank you for your message. If this email is in regards to [insert topic here], please know that I am not taking on those requests at this time. 

This can feel uncomfortable because it isn't the norm, but doing this can relieve so much stress around our own expectations for email. Give yourself permission to release your email vigilance and let your auto-responder do the work.

2. Manage expectations by using your email signature

If you’re still on the fence about auto-responders, then give email signatures a try. It provides another way to communicate your availability or about how often or when you will respond. 

This can be particularly helpful if you’re a teacher or coach or freelancer who wants to avoid responding to emails at all hours of the day.

Set your “office hours” in your email signature or let people know when they can expect a response. This way, you won’t feel like you’re “on call” all the time and lets you off the hook for responding to late-night or weekend emails. 

3. Create a separate email account for your side gigs/interests

Another way to organize your inbox and manage your sanity is to create a separate email account for your side business or for non-urgent emails related to things you like to read about.

For example, if you subscribe to productivity newsletters and enjoy reading them on the weekend, create an email address just for your newsletters, so that they don't clutter up your regular inbox throughout the week or make you feel stress to read or delete the messages in a timely manner.

This also can be helpful if you’re a freelancer and want to separate your business messages from your personal ones. You can set up your email signature or auto-responder with your office hours and only check in when you want to.

Set boundaries to get started

While we’re on the topic of boundaries, it’s worth noting that setting boundaries around your work can make you more productive as well, especially if you’re having trouble getting started.

As writer of Atomic Habits James Clear says, “We often think that we want an open road and the ability to choose any direction for ourselves. But sometimes, what we need is a tunnel that can reduce our choices and send us in a focused direction.”

So start placing some boundaries and restrictions around your work. If you want to write a novel, then set a timer and only write for 15 minutes.

If you can keep writing after the set time, then go ahead, but the important thing is that you don't have to. It is more important to get your 15 minutes in on a regular basis than to do hours and hours of work every once in a while.

If you’re working on a creative project but you’re at a loss as to where to start, then only give yourself 30 minutes to work or limit the medium or tools that you can use. 

It seems counterintuitive but creating boundaries will actually give you more freedom to work, because you eliminate the need to make the perfect choice. The only choice is to just start.

Face the dragon 

For a lot of people, procrastination isn’t about the work itself, but regulating our emotions. We fear that we won’t succeed or we fear that we’ll fail if we attempt to do this project. And the more we drag our heels on a project, the more shame it creates, which just leads to more inertia and emotional resistance. 

One strategy you can use when you start to feel emotional resistance is to journal about “why” you’re feeling this way. What is it about the project that’s making you feel overwhelmed?

After releasing your emotions onto paper and addressing any self doubt or fear that may arise, you will most likely feel a wave of relief. The problem might not seem so big anymore; the way forward might feel quite clear.

You can always try writing down a list of past achievements to remind yourself that you can do this.

Here’s another strategy you can use, which is recommended by author of Deep Work Cal Newport:  

“Write down everything that’s demanded of you, even if you can’t possibly satisfy all of the obligations. Then make the best plan you can given the difficult circumstances. The comfort comes from the plan, not the achievable outcomes. Face the dragon, in other words, even if it’s terrifying. You’ll end up calmer and with more resolve than those who flee.”

Sometimes, the best way to topple a giant of a project, is to slay it with the simplest tools you have on hand.
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