Let’s be real: Who couldn’t use a few more hours in their day? Between your numerous obligations and your never-ending to-do list, learning how to be more productive—so you can get more done in less time—is a crucial life skill.
Yet, if you keep repeatedly finding yourself behind despite regularly keeping up with your calendar or writing a well-intentioned to-do list for the coming week, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you become more efficient.
Beyond helping you establish better time management skills, these five smart productivity hacks will help you focus your efforts on what’s most important so all your efforts start yielding real, tangible results.
1. The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 20th century, can help you be more productive by clearly defining periods of focus and periods of rest for a given task. By carving out time for regular breaks and building periods of rest into your schedule, the Pomodoro Technique can help you cut out distractions and increase your overall efficiency.
To try this productivity hack at home: Pick a task to focus on. Then, set a timer for 25 minutes. Work—without any interruptions or distractions—until the timer goes off. Take a 3-5 minute break and repeat the process from the beginning up to three more times. Once you’ve been working for four Pomodoro cycles (about an hour), take a longer 15-30 minute break before restarting the Pomodoro Technique over again for another hour, or until the task is complete.
2. The Top 3 Rule
There will always be something else that comes along and demands a bit of your attention. But rather than using all your energy to put out those little “fires” that seem to crop up throughout the day, make your effort count by using the Top 3 Rule for productivity. Essentially, it helps you prioritize your top 3 to-do’s for a given day, so the stuff that really matters doesn’t get pushed to the back burner.
To try this productivity hack at home: The night before, write down your top three priorities for the day, in order of importance. Think of these as your “must do’s” for the day. Then, first thing in the morning, revisit your list and attempt to bang out all three of your priorities before 10 A.M.
3. The Pareto Principle
According to the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 Rule), just 20 percent of our efforts result in 80 percent of our overall success and progress, meaning that a vast majority of the energy you expend isn’t working as hard for you as it should be. Knowing this, you can use Pareto’s Principle to inspire your actions and create even more productivity in your life. Think of it as working smarter, not harder.
To try this productivity hack at home: In order to put this principle into action, you need to first identify what actions yield the highest overall impact in your life. Then, over time, you need to slowly start re-allocating more of your time toward the result-yielding activities and less off it elsewhere. A practical example might be your exercise routine: Let’s say you exercise four days a week, but your Tuesday kickboxing class is the only one that’s really outside of your current fitness comfort zone. To help you reach your fitness target faster using the Pareto Principle, consider dropping one of your easier workouts to make room for a second kickboxing class in your weekly schedule. This applies to work, chores and other areas of daily life, as well.
4. Time Boxing
Time boxing is exactly what it sounds like—a time management technique where you block off set periods of time on your calendar in which to complete specific tasks. It works in two ways: First, it creates mini-deadlines throughout your day that limit the amount of time you dedicate to any one task, helping you work more efficiently. Second, it holds you accountable for where your time is actually going.
To try this productivity hack at home: Consolidate a list of all the tasks you need to complete tomorrow. Then, lay out a schedule for your day—by the hour or by the 15 minute mark, depending on your needs—allocating a specific time block for when you’ll tackle each task on your list. Consider setting timers for yourself at the end of each time box period to help yourself stay accountable.
5. Saying “No”
There are 24 hours in a day—that’s it! Which means you simply can’t accomplish everything, no matter how hard you try. As Oprah famously said, “You can have it all. Just not all at once,” and this sentiment rings true for your productivity levels, too. We have limited amounts of time, energy and attention each day, so no matter how productive you are and how many of these efficiency tips you master, you’ll have to learn to turn down invites and opportunities if they aren’t important enough or don’t serve you. You might even decide that your to-do list item, “Digitize grandma’s photo albums” will never actually get done and cross it off your list, rather than keeping it on and letting it stress you out.
To try this productivity hack at home: While it can be tricky to start executing at first (after all, turning someone down or letting an opportunity pass you by is never easy), just remember that saying “no” will get easier with practice. For example, try saying no to social obligations that you’d only go to out of a sense of guilt. Ask yourself: Is it really worth my time and money to attend an old roommate’s wedding, considering we haven’t spoken in the past 5 years? If you decide to say no, it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it means is that you’re consciously choosing to reserve enough time in your day for the people and things that matter to you most—and that’s perfectly OK!