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Productivity Hacks, Systems, and Techniques

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

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.

Common Productivity Hacks and Systems

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.

What productivity hacks can help me get more done?

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

Turning tedious tasks into a game

- 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

What are some common productivity systems?

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.

To-Do Lists Techniques

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.

Do to-do lists work?

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.”

What are the benefits of writing a to-do list?

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. 

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