I don’t like relying on the time of day to tell me when I should be productive, because having a strict schedule inhibits my ability to think ‘outside the box’ and be creative with my work — writing.
It’s something Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, explains best in his essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. He says creators are less likely to start something ambitious in the morning if we know our day is going to be broken off in meetings or appointments that we must attend. And that if we had to switch tasks at certain times, it’d change the mode in which we work — sometimes lasting the entire day.
That’s why it’s better to work without a schedule and to instead employ ways that’d keep your productivity high throughout the day.
1. Stretch for 5 minutes after waking up
The first thing I do right after waking up is stretch.
I don’t even touch my computer or phone, because I’d been overwhelmed in the past by the number of emails I have to respond to or the tasks on my to-do list.
So I stretch and it keeps my mind relaxed while my body warms up. Once I’ve done 5-10 minutes of it and my circulation is flowing, I know it’s time to start the day.
The best part about stretching besides the increased flexibility is the fact that it also primes your mind for a productive day. By completing a session of stretching, your mind will feel more accomplished and that’ll set the tone for the rest of the day.
My friends have also recommend yoga or meditation in the morning — they all work; I just prefer stretching.
2. Keep your to-do list in a highly visible place
Every time I open a new tab on chrome, I see my to-do list staring back at me. It’s on every tab and every window.
I use a chrome extension called New Tab Draft which basically turns your new tabs and windows into a type-able notepad. I use it to jot down random thoughts, quick reminders but most importantly, my to-do list.
Having your to-do list in a highly-visible and accessible place gives you a constant reminder to stay on track.
It’s been highly effective for me because everything I do is on the internet. By having my to-do list the first thing I see when I open a new tab, it’s becomes impossible to even open Facebook or Youtube because it reminds me of the things I should be focusing on.
This trick works well with everyone — I’ve seen startup founders use it, kitchen caretakers, mothers, office workers, lawyers, etc. The key is not to overwhelm your to-do list with tasks and focus on solving no more than 3 (preferably 1) major task that day. More details below.
3. Brainstorm 10 ideas
I got this idea from a very prolific writer, James Altucher, who says that by brainstorming 10 ideas each day, you force your mind to become more creative.
I practice this exercise religiously as a writer. Most of the topics I write down are scrapped, but there’s always one or two out of the 10 that makes for a great piece.
I’d suggest anyone, even non-writers, to practice this. If you’re a mom trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, practice writing down 10 things to cook. If you’re a comedian, come up with 10 jokes. If you’re an artist, do 10 quick sketches. The true value of coming up with 10 ideas, besides the improvement in creativity is that it’s a numbers game: supposedly the more ideas you come up with, the more good ideas you can generate.
4. Disable all notifications/Turn phone on silent
This is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s something that many people still don’t do at work.
Social media notifications, email alerts or any kind of notification in general is a major distraction to getting things done. We click on it, the badge with the red numbers, because our minds are built that way — to feel good when we see that we’ve accomplished a task or received a message from someone.
The reason why we feel good clicking these numbers is because our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gets released anytime our brain wants us to feel good. It’s the same reason why people drink, gamble and have sex.
Disabling notifications are easy — there are generally settings or apps available for most phones that’ll allow you to set notifications to silent or disable them entirely. I use the ‘Do not disturb’ on both my Macbook and iPhone to achieve this.
As for things I can’t avoid like Medium notifications (because I write for a living), I use Stylish, a chrome extension that allows you to alter the appearance of a website. It’s for the slightly more technical people, but you basically hide the notifications entirely using CSS rules.
By disabling notifications whenever I’m working, I feel more focused and as a result, I’m more productive. That’s the best way to start the day.
5. Don’t overeat before you work
Ever get a food coma after breakfast or lunch?
The reason why you’d feel more tired and less motivated to work is because when you consume a big meal, especially foods rich in carbs, your body starts producing more insulin which floods the brain with sleep hormones.
You could technically drink coffee to counter it, but why do it if you can avoid it? Moderation is key.
I often break my meals into smaller portions. Whenever I’m hungry or just want a break from writing, I make a snack and replenish my blood sugar levels.
6. Focus on completing ONE major task first
Ever have a to-do list filled with tasks and no matter how hard you try, it never gets smaller? Yeah, it’s discouraging.
Instead of having a giant list of things to-do, I focus on completing ONE major task first. This is often the most important, most urgent, or hardest task to complete.
For me, this would be writing a draft. The moment after I wake up and stretch, I pour myself a glass of water, sit down and just start typing away for the next 3 or so hours (with breaks in between of course).
Focusing on only completing ONE major task a day forces you to prioritize your day and focus only on the things that are important. If you’re able to complete that task — great! If you’re not, you’ve still started the day productively and any other task you do throughout the day will feel significantly easier.
7. Schedule breaks in between work
The average human performance tanks after 50–90 minutes of focused work. That means, if you’re consistently work long periods of time without any breaks in between, you’re no longer operating at peak performance. Instead of completing a task in let’s say 4 hours, you’re now spending an upwards of 6 as a result.
I use the Pomodoro technique for most of my writing — 25 minutes of focused, continuous writing (I’ll extend this up to 60 minutes if I’ve got a good flow going) with 15–20 minute breaks in-between. I find that this helps because the pressure of the timer keeps me focused on writing rather than editing and the breaks allow me to clear my mind between sessions.
Working with scheduled breaks is a must especially if you’re a creative. It might sound a bit counter-intuitive since you’re working less as opposed to more, but in the long-run, it’s better for productivity because you’re actually achieving higher-quality work but with less time. The best analogy I’ve heard for this are students studying for an exam — who’s more effective: a student that spreads out their studying time or a student who crams everything in one day? The times are longer, but the concept is more or less the same.
If you don’t use a timed technique, it’s fine too — just make sure to schedule breaks throughout your day to avoid mental fatigue and potential burnouts.