So initially, I started writing this as a note for my personal use as a way to distill all of the productivity tips I had learnt by watching countless YouTube videos and through my own personal experiences after nearly 2 decades of school.
But after the whole virus fiasco laid waste to our country’s educational system and with the Ministry of Education doing the bare minimum to keep students [both returning and new ones] somewhat afloat while doing their exams in these troubling times, I thought it was best to share my acquired knowledge with the rest of you. And since schools are bound to start in the next few weeks, I think this is the ideal time to publish this article.
1. Set up a daily morning ritual
By setting a daily morning ritual that you do everyday, preferably one that gets your blood pumping and includes some caffeine, you get yourself mentally and physically ready to tackle the work you have to do for the day.
2. Keep your room and desk organised
Decluttering your desk and room would also greatly improve your productivity. Removing any stuff you don’t need on your desk or tidying up the books and notes in your room onto your shelves would remove distractions and you’d focus more on the task at hand rather than keep pushing stuff out of the way or start reading a random note you had written a few days ago.
3. Organise your documents [digital and physical]
This is linked to the previous point of keeping your room organised, but I had to make a separate point just for documents and files.
Organising both your physical and digital documents, files etc, you cut down the time you take to find a certain piece of information you would need.
Make generic folders and then break them down into subfolders that become more detailed than the previous one. For example, I use 2 main folders for university:
– First year
– Second year;
Which are further split into two folders for each semester.
Each of these semesters are then broken down into:
Each of these folders is then broken down into all the different units that I would be attending for the year. By doing this I can easily locate the notes I had written in first year semester 1 of a specific unit. I’d also recommend giving each file for a specific unit a different colour, so you’d be able to differentiate between them easier.
To use a visual representation:
While we’re at it, make sure you do regular backups for all of your digital files. Have at least 3 places you know they’re stored in. I use Google Drive as a cloud service, my laptop’s hard disk, and an external hard disk which I use on the first of every month to transfer all files and documents on my laptop.
And while you don’t/won’t get many physical papers due the current situation, it’s always good to have a folder that is sectioned into the different units just in case.
4. Make sure you have everything you need
Ensure that you have the materials and equipment you need for doing the task before starting. If you know that you’re going to have to write down mathematical equations for one lecture and have another that requires you to stare at a PowerPoint, then make sure you got a notepad, pens, and a charged laptop.
5. Do the hardest tasks first, and do them in the morning
This is quite a simple one. By doing the hardest tasks first [which most of the time also means spending long stretches of time to accomplish them], any tasks that you would do later on in the day would seem far easier to do. And most of the people I know have more energy in the morning than they do at say 19:00, since you’d be full of energy from a good night’s sleep [except in the cases when you crammed for an exam or had to finish that assignment by the deadline, which are things you’d hopefully stop doing after reading this article] and a nice coffee in the morning. Oh and pro tip: don’t take coffee or any drink with caffeine after 12, since caffeine has a 10 hour half life, meaning you’d still have half the amount of caffeine you ingested in your circulation at 22:00, roughly the ideal time you’d want to start turning off your devices and start prepping for some sleep.
6. Batch similar tasks together…
…in order to streamline the amount of time you spend doing the tasks. This can also be applied for checking up on social media. This gives me ample time to focus on more important things to get done and also puts a cap on the amount of content I watch.
Lately I even tried to batch calls on the same day, so instead of spreading them out over the week I can dedicate one day to just calls. This helps me to get in the right mindset for dealing with talking to people through a screen for the entire day, and I also won’t lose the momentum once I gained it.
Batching the time you spend on email is also another good example of tasks to batch together. Email as of late has been a necessity for lecturers to communicate with us students, and university also sends a few unimportant emails a couple times a week that I don’t really care about. Since there would be the occasional important email from a lecturer, I tend to check my email early in the morning and I give myself no more than 5 to 10 minutes to check them all and delete the stuff I’m not interested in.
Towards the late afternoon, in which the dreaded afternoon slump takes a hold of my body and I’d start feeling drowsy, I opt to go for mindless, small and easy tasks, so that even in my tired state I could still get some things done. I try to batch the tasks that take 5 minutes or less in this time frame, so that I won’t get bored and dose off while doing one of them.
7. Remove distractions…
…such as your phone. Preferably you keep your phone out of the room to further limit the chances of you picking it up and spending the next 2 hours scrolling on social media or watching YouTube, but if say you absolutely cannot stay without your phone in the room – for valid reasons only such as: you’re doing an online exam and would need to call the department in case your WiFi goes out, you’re expecting a call for a job interview, etc – I would recommend using Do Not Disturb mode.
I find that it is hardly used within my peer groups, with many not even knowing this feature exists. By putting the phone on this mode, turning it on vibrate instead of sound and keeping the phone out of sight but in the same room [like putting a few papers over it], you’re much less likely to find yourself mindlessly scrolling through content when you’re supposed to be studying for that exam that’s in 3 days time. [Another way of keeping yourself focused is by making your phone’s screen monochrome] so that when you open apps like Instagram or Facebook, they would be far less appealing in black and white than if they could display all the colours.
This tip also refers to any social media sites/apps that are causing you to waste countless hours by browsing through them. For your laptop or computer, I’d recommend getting a plugin like StayFocusd and Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook or an app like Freedom to help you avoid those time-draining sites you tend to be drawn towards.
For your phone, I’d recommend removing the most distracting apps. Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and lately TikTok are some of the most magnetic apps that people have on their phones and also the apps that most people tend to waste their time on. And anyway, you can still access them through their websites, so you won’t lose out on anything. And guess what? Everybody is still going to be there, and you won’t miss out on anything.
8. Set a time limit on your tasks
Using a timer helps to avoid putting certain tasks off by imposing a deadline on yourself. The shorter the amount of time you input into the timer, the better, since that would mean you’d invest more time focusing on the task at hand rather than possibly getting distracted by other things going on in your brain. I find that 20 to 30 minutes is enough time to start and finish a task, since any shorter would mean I barely would have just begun the task and was about to get my momentum going, and any longer than that and I’d most likely get distracted by other thoughts and start daydreaming.
9. Use checklists
By using checklists you’ll be giving yourself a thorough overview of the work you need to get done within a set time frame. Most people would write them down for a week or even a month, but I find that those are harder to stick to since I keep procrastinating and putting them off until it’s just a few days before the deadline.
An app that helps me to keep track of my to do list for the day ahead and that I use regularly is ToDoist. Having a to do app is a good alternative to the analogue method of using a pen and paper, since most of the time your phone would be within your reach and you can set up regular notifications to remind yourself of the tasks you should be doing throughout the day. You don’t really need to use an app for long-term checklists, and since I personally like to write stuff down using a pen and paper, I resort to writing tasks that I should do in the next week or month on paper instead of on ToDoist. I leave the paper out for me to see on my desk or hang it on the small whiteboard I have just above my desk, so that way I’d have the long-term tasks that I should be doing on my mind.
10. Keep track of events by using a calendar
I used to use Google calendar as both a calendar and a to do list, checking things off as I got things done during the day.
However after a few months, I found that it wasn’t the best way to keep track of both things at once, since I’d be mixing up university tasks with personal ones. This is the main reason as to why I used Google Calendar just for events. Any recurring tasks that were either personal or related to university, I’d put them under different projects in ToDoist.
11. Buy a good pair of headphones
Using headphones, preferably noise-cancelling ones, to block out any audial disturbances. By investing in a quality pair of headphones, especially in these times since most of us are working or studying at home with our families [or you just live in front of a road where they’re doing some construction work], you can limit the amount of times you’re going to be disturbed. Hit up some lo-fi beats on Spotify or YouTube, and you’re good to go.
12. Write down any long-term tasks and notes
This part might not be for everyone, but it definitely helped me recently. While yes, you can write down notes and things to remember on a notes app, I personally wouldn’t remember to open said app and would totally forget I have a note written down until I mistakenly click on the app in a couple months. Long-term tasks or goals are best written down and hung up somewhere visible since you’d be less likely to forget about them if you see them everyday.
13. Find an accountability partner
By telling a friend or a family member that you plan on starting and finishing a task, you’re putting pressure on yourself to do the work done in order to not let them down. You’re using your fear of guilt to do the work you need to do, and you’re also weaponising the possible disappointment of your friends/family and using it as the carrot in front of you [or the gun against your head] that makes you strive to finish your work done in the given time frame. It sounds kinda odd, but it works.
14. Breaks are important
While being productive to many people means a state of deep focus on the work you’re doing for long stretches of time, this is actually counter-intuitive to being productive.
By not allowing yourself time to refresh your mind, you’d be severely undercutting your productivity, since as time goes on, despite how investing you are in your work and how much you love [or hate] doing it, you’re going to get tired and burnt out regardless.
Since many people are stuck at home and aren’t moving around as they used to by walking around their workplace or climbing as many stairs, it’s important to remember to keep your body refreshed. Keep a bottle of water or two on your desk to keep yourself hydrated throughout the day, and make sure to get up and stretch your legs every hour or so if you’re sitting for most of your day.
In your breaks you should also remove distractions such as your phone so that you keep your momentum going. During breaks try to read something that interests you like a good fiction book or write down your thoughts. These activities help to keep your mind and body feeling refreshed as you’re doing your work.
15. Just start
After all this time planning and preparing and reading these tips and various other articles about productivity, the best thing to do now is to just start. Stop making new folders, stop making new checklists, stop scrubbing at that spot on your desk you can’t seem to get rid of, and just start doing.
And just know that no one out there is perfect, despite what they seem to believe and no matter how organised and Tumblr their desks are. Sometimes they too get those days when they binge YouTube for an entire half day or just end up wasting 4 hours on Facebook or Instagram Just make sure you don’t do that everyday 🙂
Of course these tips aren’t just for university students, since anyone and everyone can use them. So if these tips helped you in any way and gave you even an iota of value, share this article with your friends.
Written by: Matthew J. Cassar