The 3-Ingredient Productive Day

A chalkboard with an array of post-it notes and a hand reaching up to one

We’ve all been there. A long list of tasks and motivation is lacking.

If you’ve ever felt like there aren’t enough hours in the day, then you probably also know what it feels like to have a productive day. You really hit your stride, you solve a big problem, finish an important project or tie up loose ends you’ve been meaning to do. 

Sometimes, though, those types of days are hard to come by, especially in a world where there’s so much to do and it feels like a thousand tasks are competing for our attention.

It doesn’t take a lot to turn any regular day into a successful one. You just need a little structure and a plan. 

This recipe for a productive day is an easy one. All you need is the right mindset and the rest falls into place. 

1. Set your environment

You just work better when the mood is right. Think about it, if your desk is messy, your surroundings are loud and the whole vibe feels, well, disheveled, you probably aren’t going to be at your most productive. Even if you can work in less than ideal conditions, you’re more likely to veer from your work.

Do what you need to do to set the tone for a productive day. That may mean sticking to a morning routine of working out, getting ready, eating breakfast and sitting down to work. It may mean putting on the oil diffuser, making a cup of hot tea and clearing your inbox. It may also mean turning off your phone or leaving it in another room so you aren’t tempted by distractions. 

It may take some trial and error to find out exactly what your “ideal productive environment” is, but once you have it, you’ll know it. 

Some things you can implement into a good work environment are: 

  • A clean work space. Take ten minutes and file those loose pages, return pens to the holder, get rid of trash and move any distractions from your desk. If you’re working from home, take a quick scan from your desk before diving into work. Anything that catches your attention now will probably also catch your attention later, so just deal with it beforehand.
  • Add background noise. Have you ever worked in a coffee shop and found that clinking dishes, a steaming espresso machine and undistinguishable chatter all seemed to help you thrive? That’s actually not that unusual of an experience! Studies have shown that white noise can help minimize distractions and keep you on track. Whether you seek refuge in your favorite cafe or have to imitate it at home or the office, white noise, cafe sounds or music without lyrics can be a great way to encourage productivity.
  • Grab a drink or a snack. Get in the habit of pouring a glass of water, making a tea or grabbing a latte before diving into work. It’s a signal to yourself that it’s time to work. Plus, you won’t waste any time later on when you’ve hit your stride and a craving.

2. Get your to-do list in order

Do you get caught up in your to-do list? It can happen probably without you even noticing. You keep adding and adding and checking off each task chronologically. It’s no way to handle a productive day. 

There are several methods to curbing an unruly to-do list.

First, is the prioritization matrix: It helps you by evaluating each project and determining the importance of each one. For example, projects labeled with a “1” will be required tasks. On the other side of the spectrum are “5” tasks. These items on your to-do list aren’t pressing. They’re actually probably enjoyable. Start with the “1’s” and work your way down the list.

Next: the Eisenhower Matrix (also called a time management matrix). This was the preferred method of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often had to make difficult decisions as the nation’s 34th president. He’d start by making a 2x2 table with four quadrants, labeled as such: 

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent and important 
  • Quadrant 2: Not urgent and important
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent and not important
  • Quadrant 4: Not urgent and not important

Like the prioritization matrix, this helps you to decide where to start and which tasks to tackle first. Urgent and important are the first order of business, followed by not urgent and important. Anything urgent and not important or neither urgent nor important can likely be put off or delegated to somebody else on your team. 

A precise and accurate to-do list can be crucial, but if it bogs you down with too much anxiety, try another technique, an already done list: Whether you like to-do lists or loathe them, keeping track of all the things you've done throughout the day (even if they aren’t on your list) can help keep you motivated. 

You probably complete more tasks in a day than you realize, and many of them might not even be a task you put on your list. Take some time each day to truly appreciate all that you do! 

3. Plan strategic breaks

It’s unreasonable to think a productive day means working through, no breaks. Our brains aren’t built for that. There are ways, however, to make sure disruptions or distractions are minimal and actually help your productivity.

Some research has shown that the ideal ratio is 17 minutes of break for every 52 minutes of work. Sure, it seems random, but it could be the key to getting more done throughout the day.

“Turns out, the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a workday is not working longer—but working smarter with frequent breaks,” according to The Muse, which performed its own study of the 52:17 method.

“The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.”

Others swear by the Pomodoro method, which works by breaking up your work into 25-minute sessions with 5-minute breaks in between. After four 25-minute work sessions, you take a longer break, around 15-20 minutes.

You can use any timer for either of these methods, though there are some apps dedicated to the techniques or easily adjustable to do so.
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