How to be more productive (without working harder)

Getting Sh*t Done: How To Do More and Have It All

January 19, 2018

Do you want to cram a ton of productivity into your life? Get insight into how to do that from a highly productive post professional.Get tips and strategies to maximize your down time or add something to your life you never had time for.

Day 19: 24 Insights in 24 Days 2018 New Year Marathon

I’m one of those people who crams a lot of productivity into my life. I want to give you some insight into how I do that without my head exploding, and with only 24 hours in a day. I hope that you can take some of my tips and strategies, to either maximise your recreational time, or add something to your life you never thought you had time for.

People ask me a lot, “how do you manage it all? What’s your secret? Are you even human?”

I do a lot. I’m a polymath, and I am curious. Right now, for example, I:

  • Am a VP at a large post facility
  • Occasionally grade features
  • Hold a leadership role in a non-profit that has me contributing in some capacity daily
  • Am on the board of directors of an organization overseeing three companies
  • Am the CEO of another corporation that contains several developing microbusinesses
  • Advise and consult at Film Schools and Startups
  • Write articles and papers regularly for publication (including Mixing Light)

I don’t do all of these things, simultaneously every day. But over the course of a week, I fulfil my obligations to each of those duties. In 2018, I’ve started two new ventures:

  • Attending Business School
  • Writing a book

And if all of that wasn’t enough: My hobbies include R&D, research and music. I geek out on neuroscience, historical anthropology and the future. I mentor a lot of people in the film & television industry, I love to cook, read, watch TV, and I train as a long-distance runner. I also do regular things like laundry, gardening, supermarket shopping and brunch, and I even manage to keep up relationships with my friends and family.

I haven’t always been like this, but I’ve learned how to structure my life in a way that allows me to satisfy all my curiosity, achieve my goals and do more of the things that I enjoy most.

I don’t expect that anyone wants to be just like me. Hell, some days even I don’t want to be me! I do expect that almost everyone wishes they had a little more time, to do a little more of what they love.

Actual photo of me, showing my cyborg brain

I have a few strategies that work well for me, and they’re pretty simple. They take some discipline, but it’s worth it.

The most important part of my strategy is this: being super-productive isn’t just about doing more; it’s about having the energy to do more in the same amount of time.

How to be a productivity machine without blowing a fuse:

Optimize your hardware

“Prioritize having more energy and not burning out.”

A lot of people who start some sort of workout or physical training are encouraged to “find the why”. If you have a deep and meaningful reason to get out of bed and hit the gym every morning, you’re more likely to push through and commit to your goals. My “why” is “so I can have the energy to do more, and to do it well”.

For me, doing more doesn’t take more hours of my day. In fact, I sleep no less than 9 hours every night. That 9 hours is my body’s favorite amount of sleep, the number of hours it takes for me to wake up feeling well-rested every morning. You need to know what your ‘sleep number’ is. And I’m not talking about the ‘minimum’ sleep you need. You need to find out the ‘optimum’ sleep you regularly need.

Power down regularly to Extend battery life.

“To do more, sleep more.”

Getting 9 hours sleep every night is a non-negotiable for me. I go to bed early, so I can get up early and exercise. If I am out late for some reason, then I have to juggle the next day to make my workout shorter or start work later, because I will not sacrifice my sleep.

Once a week I sleep-in, and I let myself wake up naturally. That way, if I’ve had a particularly tiring week, I can let my body reset itself. I am disciplined enough to not let myself get tired very often, so I never end up oversleeping by more than an hour or two.

Starting each day at ‘full power’ requires I allow my body to rest and repair itself, fully, every night.

I realize that this advice won’t work for people with young children. As I mentioned before, I don’t expect anyone to be exactly like me, but I hope that some of what works for me can be added or modified to fit your goals and your world.

The CDC defines physical fitness as “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and respond to emergencies”. The very definition of fitness is the foundation for being productive.

If life is an endurance sport, then train for it.

I’m a long distance runner. I train for endurance. The science of training for sport also applies to being productive. I train to:

  • Avoid feeling tired
  • Have more energy to take on a significantly higher workload
  • Be physically fit enough that the mental, emotional and physical energy required to achieve my intended goals is not taxing

I take care of my body, because I don’t have time to be sick or tired. I eat well, limit my alcohol intake, and I exercise daily. Using the brain takes up lots of energy, so the more daily tasks you want to add, the fitter you’ll need to be. If you’ve ever sat a three-hour exam you might remember how exhausted you felt afterwards. Training your brain to take on more is the same as training any other part of the body, it takes time to adapt. It also really helps to have a good base, be healthy, and generally able to maintain a decent level of exertion.

It doesn’t make much difference whether I’m training to run a marathon or to do twice as much complex thinking in a day. The same principles apply. Health, overall fitness, rest and recovery are the keys to long-term success.

Burning Out is Not an Option (it’s too expensive).

Rather than focusing on maximizing and pushing myself, I focus intensely on ensuring I do no more than I am comfortably capable of. I cannot afford to burn out.

When you’re on the edge of burn-out you narrow your choice to one of two things: I can either do one less thing today, or I can do nothing at all next week. Making that choice is usually impossible if you are in over your head. Pushing yourself to burn-out creates a no-win situation.

I’ve been burned-out before. It takes a long time to recover, and it’s not pleasant. I remember one time having a complete meltdown at work because I couldn’t bring myself to decide what to order for lunch. I was so exhausted that the simple decision of which salad to get was too much. I blew a mental fuse, broke down into tears and malfunctioned. I needed a full reboot. Right at crunch-time for a feature film deadline.

Burnout can take a number of forms. None are worth it. That is why my priority is rest, recovery, health, fitness – and always checking in on myself. Avoiding burn-out is more important to me than completing my to-do list, or sticking to my schedule. It’s what allows me to stay consistently productive, meet all my obligations, and never disappoint those who rely upon me.

If staying rested and being fit is the first key to my productivity, then having a schedule is the second secret to my success.

Scheduling Tasks, Updates, and Maintenance

Schedule everything and have a strict routine

I plan and schedule as much of my week as possible. That schedule includes time for sleep, exercise, chores and personal chill time (I schedule watching a movie with my Significant Other every Sunday afternoon between 4-5.45pm). This has a lot of benefits, including allowing me to know what I can and can’t fit in. The greatest benefit is that it gives me permission to “say no” to adding extra things to my already busy week if I really don’t have time. I don’t have to explain to others what my Sunday afternoon commitment is, they just need to know I have something planned already.

Building and maintaining a schedule gives you control over your life (instead of the other way around).

A schedule helps me to optimize my time. My life without a schedule looks something like this for next Saturday:

  • Do half a day of chores
  • Do half a day of work
  • Hang out with friends for 3 hours
  • Quick run before breakfast.

Do you see the problem there? I’ve got at least 20 hours of activity scheduled. In addition to a full day of chores and work plus hanging with friends and running – what about the rest of life? Where’s the time to shower after running? Where’s the time for shifting between each of those activities? If I follow that schedule (and as you’re about to see, I don’t consider this a schedule at all) then I’m bound to disappoint my friends (since I’ll need to cancel to get everything else done) or I’m going to disappoint myself (since chores, work or running won’t get completed).

The meaning of the word ‘Schedule’

When I advise that you need to create a daily schedule, this is what I’m talking about:

Next Saturday:

0730-0845: work out

0900-0930: breakfast, check emails and social media

0930-1000: shower, get dressed, tidy kitchen

1015-1200: clean bathroom, vacuum, do laundry, tidy house, chores.

1200-1245: lunch, chill time. Check emails and social media

1300-1445: address emails, answer queries and clear a short list of work tasks

1500-1515: chill, potter about in the garden a little, get ready to go out

1530-1542: (google maps estimate) travel time to beer garden

1545-1745: hang out with friends

1800-1915: travel home, make dinner, eat dinner, tidy up

1930-2030: chill out and watch a tv show

2100: be in bed. Read for 30 minutes or so, then sleep.

Notice that I’ve allocated time to do things, including time to do things slowly and take breaks. I’m actually able to do a lot with my Saturday, and it’s pretty relaxed. You’ll also notice that I have 15 minute buffers between scheduled blocks. It generally takes that 15 minute buffer to switch tasks, allowing me to be fully focused within the scheduled blocks. There are little things that take time, it’s impossible to be working out one minute then suddenly making breakfast, or hanging out at the pub with friends then suddenly standing up and leaving to go home and make dinner. That 15 minute buffer allows me to be realistic about sticking to my schedule.

A lot of time is wasted thinking about what to do next, or how to spend an afternoon. We consider all the things we should be doing, try to prioritize them, and then procrastinate. By taking a little time regularly, (I schedule this too!) to schedule my week or my day ahead, I can optimize my time and waste none of it. I also don’t need to worry about finding the time to get something done that’s on my to-do list. I can relax knowing there’s time already allocated to thinking about and doing that task. If that time isn’t now, I don’t worry about it.

I know the task will be done, because I’ve scheduled it.

You might be thinking “but how do I make time to make a schedule?” The trick is, that most of my schedule is routine. I don’t change much, therefore I don’t need to take the time to plan most of it.

You must also schedule for the unknown

There are a handful of gaps – blocks of open, unscheduled time – in my week which are flexible, and I schedule those ad-hoc. This also allows me to add and move things around, but within set boundaries, keeping things simple and manageable. Whenever I need to find time for something, I look at my open blocks of time and pick one. Each morning I look at my day ahead. If I see a free block (or a free afternoon) coming up, I take 5 minutes to plan what I’ll do with that time based on my to-do list. I often leave the weekend relatively flexible, and over brunch Saturday morning, shuffle the weekend’s pieces around and fill in the gaps then.

Automate regular tasks like a Call Stack

My schedule involves a lot of routine. Within each block, regular task patterns (like getting ready for work and my evening routine) are rarely changed or disturbed so that I can automate my brain for maximum energy conservation. Even knowing larger patterns and sticking to them helps me autopilot as much as possible, like my Saturday morning long-runs, my Sunday afternoon chill and my Tuesday night classes.

Developing set routines is big key to scheduling success.

Cognitive Scientists have proven that routine allows us to “automate” our brains, freeing up neurological energy and “headspace” for more complex thinking. Some of the world’s modern geniuses, like Steve Jobs and Peter Jackson, are known for taking this to the extreme, even wearing the same outfit every day so that they don’t have to waste mental energy making fashion decisions. As Gretchen Rubin puts it, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

Psychologists do note that in order to optimize the brain for creativity, it’s essential to not take this too far to the extreme.

I allow for spontaneity within and around my routine, and switch up my weekly schedule without disrupting the smaller automated tasks within it. For example, I do different things each week, and I almost always shuffle the blocks of “workout”, “chores”, “meal prep”, “chill”, “socialize” and “work” within a weekend, while keeping what’s within many of those blocks structured consistently enough that I can do them on autopilot. Changes that keep my brain creative also include walking a slightly different route to work occasionally, moving from my office to work in another room (or outside), and when I can afford to, keeping a block of time completely unplanned, forcing myself to think about what to do and being truly spontaneous and free about it.

Optimize your schedule to your strengths

I used to always get to work stressed because my morning routine was rushed and I had to keep it tight in order to make it to the office on time. Then I realized I’m not a morning person. I started allocating a whole extra hour to my morning routine, including exercise. With ample time to walk around the house like a zombie pre-coffee, I often find myself arriving at work early and relaxed.

Identifying your more (and less) productive times of the day – and scheduling accordingly – means you can remove one unnecessary bit of stress, and waste a little less energy. It also allows the brain to have rest periods throughout the day before going-hard again when energy levels peak. I’m terrible in the early morning, but I know that my brain is at optimal strength between 10am and noon. I schedule my most crucial or difficult tasks for that time of day. My second best time of the day, where I am not as fast but just as smart, is mid afternoon through about 7pm. During that time I can focus intensely for about 45 minutes at a time, then rest for a bit before getting back into it without feeling tired or demotivated.

Program a set of rules and exceptions

Rules and exceptions allow you to have a strict schedule and routine, without being militant about it. Discipline is essential, but not definitive.

I allow myself the freedom to break my schedule or routine within certain parameters, and under certain circumstances. Every task or event that I have scheduled is of a different priority. I personally don’t ever like to “flake” on something where there’s another person involved, so I tend to either avoid making too many inflexible social commitments, or I prioritize anything on my schedule that affects or involves another person. I can skip doing my chores sometimes, but if my Mom is coming to visit there’s less flexibility because not doing those chores will effect her.

Blocks of tasks, be they personal, work, or social, all have different weights in terms of flexibility. Anytime something is changed, another thing needs to be sacrificed, and I have to consider that carefully. I suggest you prioritize your energy levels, so relaxation time is not something you should see as “the first thing to go”. Seriously.

Priorities are ranked. Rules are binary.

I have rules that make my decision-making easier, too. For example, I schedule no more than two social events in a week, and no more than one late night. There are a few [if (x) then (y)] or IFTTT exceptions allowed. I’ve allowed less than five people in my life special priority, those people I’ll always make exceptions to my rules or schedule for. I’m someone who struggles with being impulsive. These rules really help.

Just Say No

Try saying “no” to more things, it gets easier once you realize how much more time it gives you for things you’d rather be doing. Start with “let me check my schedule and get back to you”, if a simple “no” seems harsh (like, if it’s your Grandmother). Even more diplomatic is “I’d like to make sure I can give this the time and energy it deserves, let me check my schedule and let you know when I have a good chunk of free space”.

Events will try to push you off your schedule. Having an actual, detailed scheduled allows you to say No without being a jerk.

Micro tasks as Background Processes

Another way that I optimize my time to get more done in a day, is by identifying as many “micro-tasks” as possible and having them on a to-do list. These are tasks that take little or no effort, minimal time, and may be tiny parts of a larger task.

Micro-tasks include answering emails, checking social media, reading articles, making phonecalls, formatting, tidying or organizing. These things can be time-consuming parts of a macro-task like planning an event, or running a business.

I knock off these micro-tasks while I’m doing other things during the day. Because they’re generally short, and don’t require too much thinking, they are easy to get done during a commute, while starting your computer, or waiting for something else. You’d be amazed at how much you can achieve this way.

I used to commute by train, so on the way to work, I would take care of my overnight emails and social media. When I’m driving or walking, I make calls. I call my parents and catch up with friends regularly this way, and it doesn’t take up additional scheduled time in my day.

I am already in front of a computer, so I often take care of proofreading, formatting, or quick and easy writing tasks while rendering. Rendering is becoming less of a “thing” these days, but we will always find ourselves waiting for something. This is when I’ll take care of tasks like answering queries, making lists, looking something up, or throwing together a quick quote/invoice. If I’m not in the office or in front of a computer, I’ll still do what I can on my phone, or in a notebook.

I do micro tasks while waiting for the coffee machine, when my partner pauses a TV show we’re watching to use the bathroom– any time I get a couple of minutes free. I’m that person who is always on her phone while waiting for something. Rather than checking Twitter or playing Tetris, I’m getting sh*t done.

You can use the little ‘pauses’ in life to accomplish quick tasks – and greatly boost your productivity.

Manage The Expectations (of others and yourself)

Be realistic about what you can achieve

The best way to know how much you can add to your life, is to add things slowly and incrementally. It’s hard changing your habits to become disciplined enough that you can add things to your life. If I’m inspiring you to start exercising (to raise your energy levels) and making a schedule (to be more productive) then these are new things you are adding to your life. If you give yourself a complete overhaul all at once, you will feel overloaded.

It’s always better to do less and kick ass at what you do, than do more and be half-ass at it.

So be patient and start incrementally. Make small adjustments and keep checking in on yourself. Manage your own expectations of yourself, and give yourself the space to grow into any changes you make or goals you add.

Be clear and direct to others: Underpromise. overdeliver.

One of the biggest challenges for me, is having to live this lifestyle around other people who don’t.

Yes, I’m boring with my scheduled life. No, it’s not that I don’t care about your one-woman-show (or whatever project you’re approaching me about). I have to look like an a-hole sometimes because if I say Yes to you then I’m also saying No to something based on my schedule or my rules and exceptions.

I constantly need to go back to my “why” and remind myself that I’m making these tough disciplined calls to achieve my goals. So that I can do more, do it well, and not burn out from trying. Thinking about my goals makes it easier to say no to after-work drinks, or to adding something to my schedule that I really don’t have time for. Knowing that I’ll suffer, and be able to achieve less, if I sacrifice my “me-time”, my sleep or my rules, makes it much easier to unapologetically decline an invitation.

An easy way to underpromise and overdeliver is to be non-committal, or to request a lot more time to complete a task than you think you need. I often am very clear about my needs to people who ask things of me. I might explain that I’ll have the time to answer an email or look at a question someone has for me, on a specific day. Last weekend, I had a Skype call scheduled with a mentee.

After 45 minutes, I wrapped the call, and asked her to email me with bullet-points of things I had offered to help her with. I let her know that I would have the time to do the things I’d promised, sometime within the next few days. I then scheduled microtasks based on those bullet-points she had emailed me.

People will always take from you whatever they can get.

If you want to achieve more, you’re going to need more time. Scheduling is key to that, but you’ll also need to offer less of your time to others, keeping more for yourself.

So get used to giving less, be firm about your own priorities. Those around you will eventually start respecting your time and your needs more. It’s not an easy shift for everyone, but your persistence is going to be driven by how motivated you are about your goals.

Here’s a little inspirational poster I made myself to remind me to make my goals, and the needs I have to achieve them, of greatest importance:

Only you can manage your time. And you should manage your time based on your goals – and prioritize accordingly.

Feel free to use it.

You can be a productivity machine and still be human.

Tinker and hack my methods to suit your goals. Just remember that the most important goal is not doing more, the goal is doing as much as you can without burning out. You will need a lot more energy if you want to cram more in, so you’ll need to make sure you’re physically fit and well rested.

It’s amazing how much more can be fit into a day or a week, if you schedule meticulously and are disciplined. You need to hack your schedule by automating routines and identifying micro tasks that can be accomplished in parallel to macro tasks.

Finally, be patient and make incremental changes to avoid overloading yourself and confusing others. Be clear and disciplined about the limitations of what you can, and want, to get done. This all sounds pretty simple. And it is. Just give yourself the time to adjust into this new approach to managing your life. This ‘system’ is also proof that I am indeed human, despite appearances to the contrary. Because I don’t have an actual cyborg brain – but when you finally get good at this stuff, it sure seems that way to everyone else.


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