Productivity Hacks, Systems, and Techniques
The term "productivity hacks” refers to simple, easy-to-apply tricks to improve productivity. These so-called "hacks"—along with regimented systems designed to improve output (such as the GTD method), or structured approaches to to-do lists—have a strong psychological pull. For many who struggle with productivity, the idea of taking the necessary steps to become more effective at work, home, or school can feel daunting. Searching for the perfect “hack,” system, or to-do list trick, by contrast, can make the process seem more enjoyable, less frightening, and ultimately more achievable. And though few productivity hacks will truly be the magic bullet they’re painted as, they often can help someone become significantly more focused, productive, and efficient.
In the long run, changing habits is the key to improving productivity. A large part of the reason that productivity hacks and regimented systems hold such wide appeal is that they appear to make changing someone's long-ingrained, unproductive habits quick, effortless, and painless. But though such approaches are often pitched (or sold) as productivity cure-alls, they still require dedication to start and maintain. Modifying one’s environment to make productivity more likely, and/or focusing on improving motivation in addition to productivity, can help someone better commit to their newfound hacks and strategies without becoming overwhelmed or discouraged.
For a particular person, specific “productivity hacks” will likely vary widely in efficacy. The best approach is typically to test out several “hacks,” ultimately combining a few into an approach that meshes with an individual’s goals, productivity style, and motivation level.
That said, some commonly used productivity hacks include:
- Using a to-do list, setting phone reminders for tasks, or otherwise tracking progress externally
- Setting aside specific time slots to read and answer emails, and shutting the program the rest of the workday
- Changing one’s environment periodically—by working in a coffee shop, for instance, or sitting in the park to outline a report
- Rewarding oneself for finishing smaller pieces of a larger project
- Taking frequent breaks (preferably those that incorporate movement)
- Finishing tasks that take less than two minutes immediately when they pop into one’s head, rather than trying to push them to a later time
Popular productivity systems include the Getting Things Done method (GTD), the Pomodoro Technique, bullet journaling, Eat That Frog, and Zen to Done. While some widely-known systems (such as GTD or Zen to Done) are explained in books or require a membership, others, such as the Pomodoro Technique and bullet journaling, are free to learn and implement.
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is a productivity system developed by productivity and organizational consultant David Allen and popularized in his 2001 book entitled Getting Things Done. The core tenets of the GTD system involve writing down everything that needs to be done, breaking them into actionable steps, grouping similar tasks together, and scheduling blocks of time in which to complete them. Though many aspects of the GTD method are widely-known or shared by other productivity systems, the GTD method has gained a large following for its simplicity and straightforwardness. Some proponents claim that in addition to improving productivity, the GTD system may also reduce anxiety.
The Pomodoro Technique is a relatively simple timing technique that is thought to be effective for helping someone get something specific done or to work more efficiently over the long-term. Someone using the Pomodoro Technique will set a timer for 25 minutes and work on a single task for the duration of that time. When the timer goes off, they will take a 5-minute break, reset the timer for 25 minutes, and start again (either on the same task, if needed, or on a different one). After working for four "Pomodoros" (each 25-minute unit counts as one Pomodoro), they will take a longer break—usually 15 to 30 minutes.
The Pomodoro Technique was named for the tomato-shaped timer its creator, Francesco Cirillo, used to devise the technique (pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”). Though there is little formal research to back up the Technique’s effectiveness, many individuals, coaches, and time management professionals report that it helps boost productivity by improving concentration and discouraging multitasking.
Bullet journaling is a productivity and planning system devised by a designer named Ryder Carroll. It requires a single journal that is then used to track almost everything in a user’s life—including their schedule, goals, appointments, events, budget, random thoughts, and whatever else they see fit to keep there. Information is written in short, simple bullet points (hence the system’s name) and typically denoted with symbols or colors that indicate what each item is. Though Carroll has a website and book that outline a system for first-time users, bullet journals are highly customizable and many users create unique systems and layouts that meet their specific needs.
The bullet journaling system has gained widespread popularity in the latter half of the last decade, for its simplicity, its claims of effectiveness, and because bullet journaling can be aesthetically pleasing; many bullet journalers take great pride in beautifying their journals and/or sharing them on social media. Carroll himself has said that bullet journaling helped him manage his learning disabilities and ADHD, both of which he was diagnosed with as a child; because of the system’s low barrier to entry, it has been popular in the ADHD community, those with memory problems, and others who struggle to follow complex systems or routines.
Though it can feel counterproductive, among the simplest ways to get more done in less time is to eliminate multitasking and focus only on a single task. Multitasking requires the brain to shift its focus repeatedly, which is inefficient and mentally draining; every switch, however rapid, results in lost time.
Other counterintuitive ways to achieve more while working for less time is to take frequent breaks. Breaks “reset” the brain and body and reduce the chance that one will become distracted, hungry, bored, or tired while working—all of which can reduce efficiency.
Certain strategies and tricks are designed to bolster lagging motivation, both for short- and long-term goals. Motivation hacks include:
- Bundling: Combining undesirable activities with desirable ones; for example, someone struggling to find motivation to work out could make sure to do so while listening to their favorite podcast
- Buddy System: Completing tasks with a friend or other “accountability partner”; some experts recommend that simple but tedious “life admin” tasks (paying bills, scheduling appointments, etc) be done in the presence of a friend to make the task less unpleasant
- Your Future Self: Deliberately imagining how one’s “future self” will feel if a goal is (or isn’t) completed; this can serve as both positive and negative reinforcement, based on an individual’s preferred motivational style
Yes. Research has consistently found that people are more likely to stick with good habits if the cues and tools are directly built into their environment. Someone who wants to eat more fresh fruit, for instance, should buy a fruit basket and store the fruit directly on their counter, where they’ll be visually reminded of their goal throughout the day. Someone who wants to improve their focus at work, on the other hand, could reorient their office so their back is to the door, making them less likely to be distracted by coworkers walking by.
Beyond specific behaviors an individual wants to promote, there are additional environmental tweaks that may improve productivity. Working in a well-lit and properly ventilated room, for example, has been linked to greater well-being, productivity, and concentration, while having plants nearby has been associated with increased attentiveness and reaction time.
To-do lists are rarely categorized as a productivity hack. But they are among the most popular tools for getting more things done, and the approach one takes to their to-do list can have a significant impact on how useful it is for improving their productivity. Like the hacks and systems described above, not every to-do list strategy will work for anyone who tries it; rather, it will often be necessary for someone aiming to be more productive to try out several approaches to figure out how their to-do list can best work for them.
Generally yes, but it depends. To-do lists have often been found to be effective if they are used consistently—but whether they’re used consistently tends to come down to someone’s personality, productivity style, and the nature of the work that needs to be done. Some research, for instance, has found that individuals who make structured, regular to-do lists tend to procrastinate less and work more efficiently than those that don’t. However, many of these individuals appear to also be significantly higher in the personality trait conscientiousness, which may make them more likely than others to follow through on tasks in the first place. Less conscientious people may still benefit from using to-do lists, the researchers argue—but they may need to first get used to doing something that may, at least at first, feel “out of character.”
Making lists of what needs to be done can help quell anxiety; people who feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done often find that having it down on paper renders it more organizable, less frightening, and easier to tackle. Similarly, crossing items off once completed can be a form of motivation and even stress relief. To-do lists can also help an individual separate unimportant tasks from important ones, keep track of easily forgotten responsibilities or appointments, and break large tasks into smaller chunks.
There is no one right way to write a to-do list. However, there are specific strategies that many people find helpful, including:
- Separating appointments (to-do list items that must be attended to at a set time) from tasks that can be completed at any time. Writing appointments on a calendar, in addition to on a to-do list, can also be helpful.
- Grouping similar or related tasks together on the to-do list. This can serve as a reminder to move from one particular task to another related one, which can improve efficiency and allow more work to be completed in less time.
- Breaking large tasks into smaller steps, with a to-do list item for each one. Large, complex tasks can be daunting to start, and may linger on a to-do list as a result; breaking them into "baby steps" can help lower the barrier to entry and make it more likely that they'll be completed. In addition, crossing off each milestone as it is finished can be mentally rewarding and provide motivation to move to the next one.
- Creating a regular entry for recurring, necessary tasks, and scheduling specific times each day, week, or month to complete them.
The most common problem people face is that their to-do list is too detailed and becomes overwhelming. Some people benefit from having every possible task, both large and small, on a long, running to-do list. But others find that this approach creates visual and mental clutter and makes it difficult to direct their energy to what matters. Those who find that exhaustive to-do lists overwhelm them or make it challenging to prioritize may benefit from a different approach.
David Burkus, a leadership and management professor, suggests a counterintuitive solution: identifying the most important items on a to-do list, removing them, and transferring them to a calendar instead. Having a specific time scheduled for critical tasks—and leaving other, less vital tasks that can be tackled at any time on a running to-do list—can help someone determine what to prioritize now and what can be put off for a bit longer, Burkus argues. Others, however, take the opposite approach—only including the most critical, need-to-do tasks on their to-do list and removing the rest. Each individual will likely need to experiment with a few to-do list strategies to determine what works best for them.