Being productive is really about being efficient. It's about finding the best, least difficult way to get something done. It's also about not putting something off because you don't want to do it.
It requires discipline, and it's not always fun. But it is oh-so-satisfying to get things done, and done well.
I recently embarked on a slightly-insane work/study life plan that saw me cramming full-time work and full-time study into the same seven days of the week.
The only thing that kept me going was wringing every last drop of time out of every day. Even when I didn't want to, I forced myself to keep on going, and get the work done.
And it turns out, there's evidence that backs up the idea that if you force yourself to be productive, it really does help you.
So, here are some ways to make your brain work with you, not against you.
Really, actually, for real make a list.
I know, everyone says you should do this. And most of the time I am right there with you, not making a list and then getting annoyed with myself later when I forgot to pack my youngest, most annoying child Kevin for our Christmas vacation (okay fine, that's Home Alone).
But when you really are super busy—like when you are juggling a job and study, or moving house, or hosting a dinner party—nothing is going to make you more efficient and productive than writing every little thing you have to do down, and checking it off as you go.
The sheer size of the list will also probably panic you into not watching that sixth episode of Scandal and just doing some things on that list instead.
Think smart, not fast.
This may seem a little silly, but do you know how much time you can shave off your morning routine by knowing—before you have to get dressed—exactly what you're going to wear? A lot.
If you're not the kind of person who picks out tomorrow's outfit the night before (and I'm not), then use the spare time you have in the morning to figure it out.
When you're in the shower, for example, is the perfect time to think about it. The stuff you're doing requires almost no actual thinking, so you can either turn your mind to singing Disney hits at top volume (a valid life choice I would never judge you for) or you can figure out your literal next steps. What you're going to wear, how you're going to style your hair, what stuff you need to pack in your bag—all of it.
This method applies to any "down time" you might get, like the morning commute (great for putting your tasks for the day in order in your mind), or the walk to get a coffee (figure out what emails you've seen in your inbox that need to be prioritized and how you're going to answer them).
Don't put things off, but do give yourself rewards for good behavior.
If all you ever do is work, you will not enjoy your life at all and you will burn out. It's no good for you, or anyone else. So figure out what stuff absolutely has to be done that day, that week, that month. Then build in some reward time.
Never make a life plan that is just: Work.
Maybe you have a big project due on Wednesday. So Wednesday night, when it's done and dusted, head out for dinner with friends, or stay in and binge-watch Outlander on your own. Take time to reward yourself, and then get right back to work the next day.
And don't just reward yourself when something is finished. Reward yourself for making progress, too. Set smaller goals within a larger timeframe, and when you meet them do something nice for yourself.
Know your strengths and your failings.
If you know you think better in the morning, but, say, write better in the afternoon, structure your tasks to reflect those strengths. Don't just make a list and move through it top to bottom. Look at it, identify the tasks you want to do most, the ones you think will be hardest, and the ones you really hate, and then prioritize them accordingly.
I like to do one must-do, then one thing I'm excited about, then one hard thing; and keep on juggling the good, the bad, and the difficult all day long.
Don't set unrealistic goals.
This is absolutely the most important thing. Never set yourself a deadline that all evidence suggests you simply aren't going to be able to meet.
If someone says to you, "I'd like that report by 3pm today, can I get it?" and you have three back-to-back meetings and no time to pull it together…do not say yes because you think that's what someone wants to hear. Say, "Today is tough. I've got three meetings back-to-back from now until 2.30pm, and want to be able to get that report done properly. Can I get it to you by the end of the day?"
No one wants you to do a rush job over a good job. No one.
The truth is there is no one way to make yourself a more productive person. But thinking honestly about how you work, and coming up with ways to combat your known weaknesses, is going to make a difference. Avoidance is the fastest route to failure.
And therefore, if you think about it, non-avoidance is the fastest way to success.