Have you ever felt that you are not producing output to your full potential? Have you felt that you could yield a lot more in a regular working day then you are doing now? Have you looked at one of your most productive colleagues and wondered how they could do so much in the same length of working time as you?

Then you are not alone. Most of the people feel somewhat similar things at least occasionally. Most people consider that there is room to improve their productivity in day to day life.

There is no one secret to increasing productivity. Productivity depends on a lot of things. I will not claim that I am going to describe some magic to increase your productivity overnight in this article. But I have been practicing a few key things that have helped me significantly to increase my daily output by some noticeable degree. In this article, I will discuss those things that have helped me improve my daily productivity. It is important to mention that, these productivity tips or practices are not my personal inventions. I have read a lot of books and blog posts about productivity and tried to learn from people who are highly productive. I have finetuned these things with my personal experiences based on what worked best with my work life.

To be honest I myself cannot follow these things completely. Some of the practices I have discussed in this article are the things that I am trying to follow because I know that they will be beneficial. But I have been following most of the habits discussed here and they have been helping my day to day work life.

Know what to do before start doing

A significant portion of our working time is spent in figuring out what are the things we need to do. For example, you receive a ticket or an issue at the start of the day, which describes the requirement very vaguely. You quickly assume what you need to do because you have done a similarly described task in the past so it seems to be familiar. You spent some time working on the ticket, but as time passes and you dive deep into it, the details seem to be different than you initially imagined. At first, you want to keep your original track of the work because you have invested some time into this. You try to make things work by changing the minor details, adding some parameters, modifying some smaller things. You can make it work if you are lucky, but sometimes you need to start from scratch and do the whole thing again.

Did the above example ring a bell? Have you been into a situation like this before? That is because you did not make sure 100% what you were going to do before jumping into work. This is the most important thing to increase your productivity. Get a complete idea of the requirement. Analyze the requirement from different angles, edge cases, user perspectives. If there is any confusion, the time to ask questions is before you have started actual work. Only start working when you completely know what you need to do exactly to reach your goal.

This is more difficult than it sounds. In practice, you will often feel pressure to start early and show something as soon as possible even with a vague requirement. You will feel pressure when your peers are running a storm over their keyboard and you are studying the documentation to get the full picture. But trust me, you are not wasting time, you are investing your time so that any of your hard work is not wasted. When you know the requirement completely by heart, you can quickly produce the output and the right solution.

Breakdown the large job into smaller atomic tasks

On several occasions, I received some large job which overwhelmed me. I could not figure out where to begin. The deadline would approach steadily but progress would be very slow. Because I could not size up the whole thing and organize the workflow. After facing these kinds of situations a few times, I learned an important lesson.

Do not consider that you have a large task to complete which will take several days, or weeks or months. Instead of having a very large job, have a series of small tasks that can be completed within one or two hours each.  Every large job can be broken down into atomic tasks that can be completed in a single sitting. Whenever you receive a big task, the first thing you should do is to break it down into the major components. Then break down the components into smaller features. Each feature then can be broken down into atomic step tasks which can be done in one or two hours. This breakdown itself is a difficult job and may even take a whole day. But this will make the whole process significantly simpler for you. After doing the breakdown, you now know each of the small things you need to do to complete the overall job. Now you have focused work for one or two hours sessions and finish one atomic task after another. Eventually, with a few tens to hundreds of such sessions, you complete the original large job. You should maintain a checklist or issue list to track your progress. You can use tools like Trello or Redmine for tracking your issues or task list.

Set targets and track your progress

After you breakdown a jib into a series of atomic tasks, the next step is to set milestones and targets. Distribute your target for the next few weeks. Decide, how much should be done in each of the weeks? When setting this target, you will see that you most probably over-estimating your caliber and assigning more tasks in a week than you actually can achieve (or quite the opposite, you will be assigning fewer tasks what you could actually do). Eventually, you will fine-tune your target setting skill.

When your weekly target is defined, you can then set your daily targets. On the first day of the week, you can spend an hour to assign days for the tasks you have scheduled for the week. Or you can assign days of for the tasks of next week on the last day of the previous week. Again you can use tools like Trello or Redmine to keep track of your assignments.

At the beginning of each day’s work, you can go through the tasks you have set for the day and plan your day at first. You can prepare an order in which you will execute your tasks. This ordering is up to your comfort, but one good way to do this is to sorting importance wise. That means, doing the most important task at the start, then the second most important task, and so on. Another way is to sort difficulty wise. Analyze your work pattern for some time. When do you feel most energetic in the day? What part of the day do you tend to solve the most difficult task with ease? At what part of the day you seem to become slow and struggle to work through difficult tasks? Based on your energy pattern, assign the most difficult task at your most productive hour, and assign easier tasks in your down hours.

In most cases, you will need to readjust your daily targets. For example, in some days, you will need to move some tasks to the next day because you cannot complete all the tasks within the day. On some other days, you will finish all your tasks early and have some free time. In this case, you can take a task from the next day and work on it, or you may enjoy the free time as a reward to yourself for achieving your goal.

Having defined weekly and daily targets will help you to keep yourself motivated to achieve the goal and will provide you the pleasure of achievement. The human mind likes regular challenges and the feeling of winning. By setting weekly and daily targets, you are providing your mind the feeling of playing a game and you will instantly see the difference in your productivity. Eventually, week by week, you will be able to increase your weekly targets when you get used to this technique. But my suggestion is that, do not push yourself too hard and cause fatigue on your mind. You will eventually know your limit if you continue this technique for some time.

When you are accustomed to having weekly and daily targets, it is time to plan ahead and having monthly and quarterly targets. These large targets need not be precise but can be like this: I shall finish project A within next month and will start working on project B and do at least 25% of it. Or, in the last quarter of this year, I will do two projects, read three books, learn how to swim, and go on a tour in Bali.

Be focused: get more done in less time

You already know this, when you are fully focused on work, time flies like magic and you produce an enormous amount of output with relatively easily and far more quickly. And when you are struggling to focus and continuously distracted, your output goes down. So how can you be more focused?

You may have guessed it already, you need to cut down the sources of distractions. But most importantly, you need to decide that you want to be focused for the next hour or the next couple of hours in a task and commit yourself to this decision. At first, being focused is a conscious decision. You choose to be focused on a task. Doing a task with your soul attention on it is very tiring for your mind and this is the reason I advised to breakdown your large job into atomic tasks of maximum two hours long. You should not force yourself to remain focused on a task for more than two hours, which will harm your productivity dramatically on the next task.

Once you decide that, you will be doing focused work from now on, it is important to identify what are the causes of your distractions. It can be social media, texts, and calls, checking emails, or just some random app on your smartphone. After identifying the distracting factors, you need to have plan for avoiding each of the distractions during your work time.

I use the “do not disturb” feature of Android regularly to avoid being interrupted during my work. The recent version of Android has a very smart “do not disturb” feature, which lets you set a timer, override what apps can do, and don’t during this period. You can allow alerting notifications and important phone calls to reach you even during the “do not disturb” setting turned on. This will give you peace in the mind of not blocking very important calls but will save you from most of the unnecessary interruptions.

For doing a task with complete focus, the hardest part is the beginning. At first, most people struggle to concentrate because it takes some hard work mentally. But being focused is something you can practice and be good at over time. At first, force you to be working continuously for an hour into something and do not let yourself to do or think anything else in this period. It will feel unnatural and difficult for the first few days. But eventually, this will be your natural working style and you will find it very easy to do your task with full concentration. This will be a gamechanger in your day to day productivity.

Do one thing at a time

Multitasking may sound a good idea to get a lot of things done is a short time, but trust me, performing multitasking on a regular basis for a long time is never a good idea to be highly productive. Multitasking will make you feel tired and overworked but your output on all your tasks combined will be under par than doing one thing at a time.

I understand that you cannot often avoid handling several things in a single day. But scheduling your work in a way that you need to focus on one thing at a time is very important. For example, you can do a full-time day job, also do personal projects and dedicate some for your hobbies every day. In my case, my day job requires me to manage and work on multiple projects and teams. Your personal projects may include client projects, projects that you are doing to kickstart a side business, and open source projects. It is only normal to be overwhelmed by all these things. You may spend doing your day job thinking about a problem with your personal project. Spend your personal project time procrastinating about your hobby. And during your hobby time, you are panicked about the issue you need to solve at your office the next day. This type of mindset will cause you an enormous amount of pressure and will consume significant portion of your time without any output.

Try to be present at what you are doing right now. Do not think of any other project or any other problem you are facing elsewhere during solving another problem. Solve your current problem now. You will have time to solve the other problems at their designated time. Do not allow one project to ruin your every other project. Harnessing this skill is one of the most difficult things and this will take a long time. But if you are good at “being present”, both your work life and personal life will be benefitted greatly from this trait.

Lead a balanced life

When thinking about productivity, it is very easy to forget the work-life balance. If you are obsessed with productivity only, it can harm your personal life, which will eventually take an adverse effect on your productivity. Balance in life is very important in order to be happy and productive.

Balance of life varies from person to person, and also changes with time for the same person. Only you will understand clearly how much effort you can put to your work without harming your personal life in the long term. Having a lot of problems in your personal life will drag you behind at your work and will not allow you to focus. Similarly, if you constantly fail to achieve your goal at work, you will be stressed in your daily life which will hamper your personal happiness.

Spend time with yourself figuring out your strengths and weaknesses, think about your long time goals, both professionally and personally, and think about what you need to do in order to fulfill your goals. Work with full concentration and take time offs and vacations to avoid burn out. Know your limits and stay in your limit. But give your 100% within the limit to achieve the maximum possible output you could possibly have.

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