5 Productivity Tips for Ordinary People

These strategies can improve your efficiency.

Posted Sep 18, 2018

Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock
Source: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

When I read about productivity, the articles seem geared to CEOs or people who have extreme levels of self-control and energy. They may include some useful ideas, but I can't imagine myself ever being able to stick to the recommendations. If you're a normal person who is just looking to waste a bit less time, try the following tips.

1. Don't expect to exactly copy someone else's playbook.

Ideas from productivity gurus (and other people in general) can be very useful. However, the strategies you use in your life are going to be extremely personal to you. Each of us has a unique combination of our personality, preferences, lifestyle, and circumstances. Therefore what works for someone else won't necessarily gel for you. Also, we get bored with strategies and our circumstances change (like you become a parent or your job changes), requiring new approaches. 

Keep in mind that it's normal to need to tweak your strategies after initially trying them. When you first implement a strategy you've read about or thought of for yourself, it might work somewhat but not brilliantly. For example, you create a system for keeping your charging cords or your incoming mail more organized but then find you're not following through with your own system. Troubleshoot whatever aspects aren't working. Through this process, you'll find the version of the strategy that's optimal for you. In particular, think about:

  • How can I tweak my system so that it requires less effort? 
  • How can I adjust it so that it doesn't require effort, decision making, or self-control at times of my day when I'm rushing or tapped out of energy? 

2. Think about time the way you think about financial investments.

Think about investing your time just as you would think about investing your money. When you invest your money, you don't expect to invest $100 and get $100 back. You expect to get an ongoing return that eventually exceeds your initial investment. When investing your time, deprioritize tasks where your effort won't have a lasting benefit. A concept I wrote about in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, is to try to prioritize behaviors where you can put in a one-time effort and reap ongoing rewards. For example, you create a better system for your household for where you put receipts, so that when you need to return an item you don't need to spend 30 minutes hunting for the receipt. Or, at work, you create an intake packet of information for new employees in your workplace, so you don't need to keep verbally explaining the same information. Or, if people are always asking you how to refill the toner in the copier, write up a cheat sheet and stick it next to the machine.

3. Identify self-imposed rules that don't serve you.

My colleague Dr. Seth Gillihan and I recently recorded an episode of his podcast, Think Act Be (my episode isn't out yet). One of the concepts we discussed was self-imposed rules. These are self-generated assumptions about what we must or should do, that we just blindly follow. He told me about a cooking rule he had where he'd extract every last piece of garlic from each bulb, even if it virtually required tweezers to pull the flesh out of the last tiny, scrappy cloves. This is a very minor example but it illustrates the principle. When you've created a rule for yourself you can choose to just drop it. When you abandon very minor self-generated rules, like the garlic example, it's a stepping stone to recognizing that you can abandon any rule that you've created.

Especially if your temperament leans towards being a conscientious perfectionist, you're likely to have all sorts of personal rules for how you do things, that in reality, might not make any sense.

4. Create rules that simplify your decision making.

Heuristics are rules of thumb that remove a lot of the mental effort and drain we experience from decision making. They're shortcuts that are aimed at producing good outcomes most of the time, with far less effort than exhaustively thinking through every single decision. I use heuristics for prioritizing, and I have a few different versions. What I hope you'll see with these examples is how much my heuristics are personal to my nature and circumstances.

  • I do jobs that are worth over $100 before anything worth less than $100. For example, I don't spend time returning low-value items to stores if I have more important things to do. This heuristic has largely stopped me stressing and wasting time returning rotten avocados to stores!
  • If I'm in the mood for writing, then I write. A more general version of this rule might be that, whenever you're in the mood for working on things that are important but don't have deadlines, do that. People typically have a bias towards working on tasks that have short deadlines, rather than working on more important tasks that don't have a time limit. I know I could spend all day on tasks with short deadlines or doing things I feel socially obligated to do, even if they aren't important. There are sufficient times I feeling like writing that I get enough done, provided I don't trade the time I feel like writing for working on tasks driven by deadlines or social obligations that aren't actually important.
  • I prefer starting things to finishing them and tend to end up with a lot of half-finished tasks, so whenever I'm in the mood for completing something I've already started, I do that. Since I'm in the mood for starting things often and finishing them less often, this works out well.

Eliminate self-imposed rules that don't serve you. Create new ones that help you focus on the big picture and minimize the energy it takes to prioritize and make decisions.

5. You don't always need to make logical choices.

No one likes to feel boxed in, which can happen if your system for prioritizing is too rigid. Sometimes I find myself craving Thai curry from a restaurant that doesn't deliver and involves battling heavy traffic to get to. In no rational scenario should I spend an hour to pick up curry. But, sometimes I just want to do it. How is the balance in your life? Do you mostly stick to what's rational? If you do, would you enjoy allowing yourself to make a few more purely want-based decisions? If you're under-regulated, then the opposite is going to be true.

When you're improving time management, it's important to consider how you want to use that reclaimed time. The freedom to make some choices that aren't very efficient is one of the things you might want extra time to indulge in. Another benefit of doing some activities in a relaxed way, in which you're not focused on efficiency, is that it gives your mind a chance to wander. This can provide insights and epiphanies, and stop the focus of your life and work from becoming too narrow.