There’s gobs of merit in chiseling away at one of your bad habits for months in order to make a long-term improvement to some aspect of your career. In fact, we champion that approach here all the time. However, we’re also going to make the alternative case that there is nothing wrong with a quick fix that you can implement right now and will provide you with immediate positive results. So the 99U staff and contributors have rounded up seven of our top productivity tips to give you a head start on your next work move.
1. Be No. 1 (into the Office)
Getting creative work done when it’s peaceful and quiet? Easy. Getting up early every day? Not so easy. A humble suggestion: Start small. Break free from the train of people shuffling into the office starting at 9 a.m. by being the first person into work just once a week. You know, the kind of early arrival where you are the one turning on the lights. The easiest way to start is to aim for Fridays. This way you’ve already ticked off your most import tasks by the time your body is tapped out in mid-afternoon and everyone in the office is buzzing about their weekend plans. (And if we’re being honest, it’s way too easy to push late Friday afternoon work to Monday.)
Let’s be clear, still work your normal amount of hours. Just approach them differently. If you tell yourself that you can leave work by 4 p.m. on Friday if you complete your to-do list, chances are good you’ll be done by 3:59! An added bonus? Doing something hard first thing in the morning just plain feels good. Like the endorphin rush from hitting the gym in the morning, you will experience a boost in spirits.
Make it fun too — treat yourself to breakfast and a fancy coffee on the way in. (Work at home? Then creating something by 8 a.m. is your goal.) But for God’s sake don’t send an unnecessary email like, “Hey, Ron, I will be in the conference room if anyone is looking for me” time stamped at 7:45 a.m. when absolutely no one is looking for you. This isn’t a contest: It’s about you feeling good for your extra effort and using your time wisely.
2. Replace Your To-Do List
Feeling overwhelmed has many forms, but we bet that most times when you feel this panicked sensation it’s not about the number of things you have to do, but your ability to sort out the priority and timing of each task. Here’s why: A to-do list typically only has one “axis”: the number of items you wish to complete. This is a step forward, but also severely anxiety-inducing. Avoid those times you feel like you’re drowning in documents by replacing your to do-list with a production calendar. It works like this: Brain dump every possible task you have in your head, both big and small, both long term and short term in a spreadsheet. Empty your mind. This may take a few sittings (plane rides are great for this).
Then, place these tasks in buckets based on time. Which tasks need to be done this week? This month? This quarter? Drag each row into the month you need to accomplish the task. Once you have a calendar of tasks make a promise to yourself: Only worry about the tasks of the current month. This way you place a boundary on what to worry about, which should, hopefully, make it much easier to keep a clear head.
3. Help Me Help You Help Them
Those that work in a large company know that the bigger the organization, the more meetings you’ll have to tackle. Partially, that’s understandable. To get a lot of people moving in the same direction, communication is required. Standard stuff. But when you add shared calendars into the mix, things get messy.
In many places, it’s culturally acceptable to place a meeting on your calendar without checking first. Or, its sinister cousin, emailing you and suggesting you “get together to chat.” Or, yes, “pick your brain.” If this sounds like your day, we suggest a simple “pushback” email. Each time anyone adds a context-less meeting to your calendar, deny the request and ask, “Happy to offer insight, but did you have anything specific you were facing or that we can help with? It would help me contextualize how I can be most useful.”
Sometimes you get a thoughtful response and then by all means, take the meeting. But sometimes the person won’t have specifics, in which case you can respectfully say, “I’m sorry I don’t see how I can help, but please let me know if you think of anything specific.” This is a tactic to be deployed judiciously and with care, of course. But if you don’t protect your calendar, who will?
4. Run That Back
There’s a sub-genre of productivity enthusiasts that like to obsess over the best music to listen to maximize creativity. Streaming services like Spotify have entire playlists designed to encourage deep thought. But there’s a problem with new albums and playlists: They’re…. new. Depending on how you listen to music, a new artist and new lyrics have your brain doing some low-level background processes. Who sings this? What are they trying to say? Do I like this? Those are mental cycles better spent on whatever you’re working on. So while most creativity comes from novelty, here’s an idea: Only listen to stuff you know very well.
The key here is to be shameless, that emo-rock album from high school fits the bill just fine. Shane Snow, an author who has somehow managed to write several books while running his own business, takes this a step further: He just listens to the same song over and over again. Sounds crazy, but if his output while helping to run a 100-plus company is any measure, it’s worth trying.
5. Your New Routine Is Your Old One
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You want to start a new routine or habit. To “prepare” yourself, you’ll chop three hours out of your day and lock yourself in a room in hopes of being your best productive self. Or you’ll binge read everything you can on your hoped-for new self. Resist that temptation.
Instead of trying to create a new routine, add to your old one. In the morning, preferably. Whether you begin your day with coffee or a jog, take 10 to 15 minutes afterwards and “piggy back” your new habit on one you already have. Do some deep reading, research your side project, or sketch your new design, whatever you had in mind. Adding a small amount of time to your morning habits allows you to accomplish important tasks without significantly disrupting your already rock-solid routine. As a bonus, taking this time first thing every morning helps you feel more accomplished at the start of your day because you’ve done what truly matters to you first. You don’t always need a crazy new routine to be productive and you’ll be surprised how much you get done in 600 seconds.
6. Network in your Network
Think of your “traditional” networking advice: Attend conferences, meet ups, and school events all as a means of “getting your foot in the door.” However, if you ask anyone you know, chances are their last job didn’t come from someone they met at a random function. It came from someone they already knew.
Rather than hoping to get your next big break from someone you don’t know, connect with your peers first. Often times, you don’t even think to ask your best friend for help getting a job because it can be awkward and uncomfortable. In a way, it shifts the equal balance you both are on, making you a bit more vulnerable. But when thinking of your career and your next steps, being vulnerable can actually help rather than hurt you. Your friends and family can get you that next big break if you ask them. However, this will be difficult if you’re vague or lazy in your questioning. People won’t know how to help you if you don’t know what you’re asking for. Take initiative in your career: Ask yourself what is it that you’re really looking for. What industry do you want to work in? Who do you want to work for? What client would you like to pick up next?
Then, and only then, start with your friends, family, or people you may have worked for in the past – this is your network. Ask this group of people a specific request: “Do you know anybody looking to hire in this area…?” rather than “I need a job!” Networking in your immediate circle can build connections faster, boost your confidence, and jumpstart your career. Take advantage of your people. Besides, you never know who your mom knows.
7. Hey, Thanks
When you adopt a daily gratitude practice into your work life, you increase energy level, lift stress, and cultivate more alertness, determination, and optimism in yourself and those around you, according to research presented by Psychology Today.
Here’s how it works: Every day, thank at least one person you work with. That’s it. Whether it’s someone who reports to you, your manager, a teammate on a project, or someone you connected with at a conference, thank them. It can be an in-person “Thanks for your help on this,” or “I’m so glad you’re on this project,” or an emailed “Really appreciate it!” or “You rock my socks.”
It’s not just some new age-y advice, it’s also practical. Expressing gratitude increases morale for both parties. It also deepens connections within your network. The warmer people feel toward you, the better you’ll work well together and the likelier they are to do you a solid when it’s needed.
Just make your thank you genuine. Mean it. Think about how you’d thank your parent for his or her wisdom and support over the years, and channel that spirit into this daily expression of gratitude. Set a daily reminder so you don’t forget. Thanks for reading. Your time and attention are much appreciated.