Staying productive while running a business requires a careful balancing of time, energy, and personal resources. The stakes are high when you’re running all the things by yourself, which means the pressure to perform and to stay productive never really goes away. But how can you survive the day to day while keeping an eye on the future? We believe that putting productivity front and center might be a solution.
Productivity is the art (and science!) of getting things done. It’s not just pressing your nose against the screen and staying there until your work is complete. It also can’t be measured by any single metric, as it means different things, for different people, at different times.
Even though there’s no simple answer to the question “How do I stay productive?”, there are several reliable methods business owners and CEOs can use to keep things moving forward.
#1. Ditch the Distractions
Distractions used to be a mildly annoying part of our working day. Now, with the internet and its endless supply of social media content, and online communication channels, distractions are the bane of modern productivity’s existence. All it takes is one click and you’re falling down the rabbit hole of analyzing funny cat pictures and exchanging instant messages with old friends.
The best way to boost productivity is to ditch as many distractions as you can, right from the beginning. Turn off the TV or music to remove the impulse to shift your attention. Put your inbox on pause and only check e-mail at certain times throughout the day. Block social media outlets and other sites that do nothing but divide your thoughts.
Getting rid of distractions is largely a matter of willpower. You know what you need to be doing with your time, and you know what subtracts from that. Be honest with yourself and start removing every distraction you can from your day. This alone will make your mind feel fresher and more alert, which is one of the most direct routes to increased productivity.
#2. Structure Your Time
Time is our most limited resource. There are 24 hours in a day, many of which have to be spent on daily necessities like sleeping, commuting, and meals. Every minute outside of that is yours to do with as you please. Squeezing the most out of your day means breaking down your time and structuring it for maximum productivity.
It seems like there are as many methods for organizing time as there are people who want to structure their day. You can track every minute and analyze where you waste the most time, but a better solution is to stick to a simple method of productivity, one that follows the natural flow of your mind.
The Pomodoro technique was developed in the late 1980s and reigns supreme as one of the most effective methods of managing time. The idea is that our brains drift towards distractions like a moth to a lamp. We can spend effort fighting that, or we can go with the ebb and flow of our thoughts to maximize their usefulness.
Following the Pomodoro technique is straightforward. All you have to do is work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. That’s it. Keep this framework for all your workdays, sticking to business tasks during the 25 minutes but letting your mind wander for the trailing five.
It’s critical to take those short breaks, as they’re required to let your brain re-focus. That small pause in whatever work you’re doing can inspire a tsunami of creativity and efficiency, increasing your focus during the working times for a vastly more productive day.
#3. Make To-Do Lists
To-do lists represent another productivity method that has been around for ages. Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals, according to a study with this exact title published in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They keep you accountable, and they do so without being an annoyance or a distraction. Writing a to-do list lets you offload tasks to an “external mind”, thus freeing you up so that you can focus on more decisive topics, and giving you an easy metric to see what you’ve accomplished throughout the day, as well as what needs to be done before you punch out.
How do you make a to-do list? Get a pen and paper and start writing. Don’t use your smartphone or PC, those devices are fraught with distractions, making it far too easy to switch over and check your e-mail when you go to read the to-do list. Write down any little idea that comes to mind on your to-do list, no matter how small. Do this throughout the day and you’ll soon fall into the habit.
Whenever you have a free moment, get one or more of those tasks done. Cross it out and move on to the next. Try to complete the list by the end of the day, but don’t stress out if you can’t quite make it. Some items take more days to be completed, anyway. As long as it’s on the list, and as long as you continually work on that list, you’ll be productive and, most importantly, stay that way.
Another benefit of keeping to-do lists is their ability to ease invisible burdens off your mind. The so-called “open loops” are unfinished activities or reminders of which we make mental notes to follow up on at a later time. These are often as simple as “remember to call about the meeting next Thursday”, but they can include bigger, more complex ideas as well.
Keeping track of things like this adds to our cognitive load, even though we don’t realize it. When handfuls of those tasks are being stored at once, it actually has a negative effect on the brain. It’s a lot like opening a few dozen tabs in your web browser, then wondering why the one you’re using is suddenly slow.
To-do lists help you delegate the necessity of storing open-loop information to pen and paper. It immediately lightens your mental load and allows you to stay focused and be more productive on a day to day basis.
#4. Set Smart Goals
Achieving goals is what we all set out to do. The problem is the goals we set aren’t always attainable. This could be either because they’re outlandish in nature, or because they aren’t specific enough. Either way, failing to achieve a goal denies us that hit of satisfaction, the very same sensation that motivates us to stay productive and to succeed on a daily basis.
Learning how to set a good, achievable goal can take a little practice. Start by thinking small, near-term. Maybe you want to score two new clients by the end of the month or boost your revenue stream by 2%.
These may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but they keep you focused week after week. And, because the goals are attainable, you’ll get that nice sense of satisfaction once you reach the target, encouraging you to do it again, maybe with slightly higher goals in mind.
A sub-strategy in the goal-setting field is to create micro-goals that branch out like a tree. Signing contracts with two new clients, for example, could be divided into smaller goals such as sending out a dozen cold e-mails or connecting with 25 people on social media whose network could include new clients. Those goals, in turn, could be comprised of other smaller goals. Make them as small as you like!
Regardless of the type or content of those goals, create them with an eye for success. Once you achieve a few, move the difficulty bar up a little and aim higher for the next goals. This will keep your productivity trending up month after month, and it won’t feel like a slog through boring chores, either.
#5. Embrace Delegation
There’s something to be said about business owners that do everything themselves. What a hard worker, people might say. True entrepreneurial spirit, a real go-getter!
Praise like this is certainly welcome, but doing everything yourself isn’t necessarily the best way to stay productive. It may save some money here and there, but in the long run, it drains your time and energy, both of which are better spent trying to boost your business in every possible way.
There are loads of non-essential yet arduous tasks that are ripe for delegation. These include managing social media accounts and communication groups, bookkeeping responsibilities, hiring and training staff, writing and editing content, and so on.
There will be an initial time loss as you search for qualified people you can delegate responsibilities to, but once that’s done, you’ll be able to spend more of your time on improving the business instead of dealing with the details of the daily routine.
#6. Focus on Your Health
Discussing health and exercise topics in light of business productivity often sounds either cliche or indulgent. However, you can’t ignore the fact that your body directly affects your productivity. Just because you make it out of bed each morning doesn’t mean you’re getting the best possible version of you.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of staying at the office from dusk till dawn. That may make you feel productive, but are you really making the most out of that time? Instead of burning the midnight oil, schedule a few hours a week to get involved in some physical activity. Anything will do, including workouts at the gym, a quick bike ride, tennis with a friend, or even just a walk around the block.
Managing your physical health through exercise is enlivening. It keeps the mind sharp and dynamic, allowing you to maximize your working hours through ground-up productivity improvements.
#7. Keep it Personal
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for staying productive. The tips and tricks you’ll read from other business owners can prove helpful, but at the end of the day it all comes down to you.
What works for you? What doesn’t work for you? These are questions you should ask yourself every single business day. If setting complex to-do lists make you more anxious than productive, try cutting back, simplifying, or changing the to-do list altogether.
Any “rule” of productivity can be broken if you find it less useful for you than advertised. Don’t just drop the suggestion from your repertoire, though. Scale it back, change the way you do it, try variants until you approach a method that feels right. Productivity is all about experimentation, so don’t be afraid to try (and fail) to find out what works for you.
Some successful business owners work on their schedule by using decorative pens and drawing out tasks using pictures instead of words. It may sound ridiculous to you, but if it works, how can you argue?
#8. Set Rewards
Productivity isn’t necessarily a goal in itself. Your brain certainly doesn’t see it that way. In order to keep the mental channels clear and the task-oriented mind focused, you need to provide yourself with rewards here and there.
These rewards don’t have to be big, nor they have to be business related. Some successful authors ‘bribe’ themselves by allowing a drink of brandy only after they’ve hit their word count goal for the day. Others use chocolate or even YouTube videos as prizes for concluding their work. Try to opt for something healthy, though!
Pick something you feel is a simple but suitable reward, then pair it with a small daily activity. This gives you something to look forward to after getting some of the necessities out of the way. Productivity is a natural result of this task-rewards system, and the best part is you’ll have fun doing it.
#9. Take a Few Days Off
Sometimes we just need a break. It goes against every business sense you might have, but the fact of the matter is we aren’t machines. Time away from work offers a chance for the mind to reset, see things from a new perspective, and function with a renewed interest in the chores at hand.
Here’s the part you don’t want to hear. When you do take those days off, make sure you’re 100% off, not just working from a new location. Set the smartphone on silent, let the e-mail inbox pile up with new messages. This is some you-time, and you-time translates into boosted productivity the moment you’re back in the office.
Staying productive while running a business is a constant struggle for most people. Picking even one or two of the tips above and following through with them can transform your productivity, however. Then just imagine how much you could get done if you combined them all.