“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about,” asked Henry David Thoreau in a letter to his friend, H.G.O. Blake, on 16 November 1857. In more modern-speak, the quote would read something like “It’s not enough to be busy; what are you busy about?” Basically, Thoreau is saying that everything is busy; we’re all busy moving about our days and lives, whether it’s ants gathering food and building ant hills or humans pushing through a 9 to 5 routine. But what, exactly, are you busying yourself with during that 9 to 5? Is there a purpose to your “busy?”
I pulled this quote because it’s too good not to Thoreau down (I’ve wanted to use that pun forever) and because we spend a lot of time as humans considering how to improve our productivity. “What can I do to accomplish more in less time,” we ask as we stare at a computer screen or a task list (however we measure the work we need to do) while not actually doing anything. Productivity, in an industrial sense, means producing more output more regularly, but are we considering the quality of the output?
Before I start into a philosophical rant on our modern concept of productivity, I’m going to back up and say that, yes, this is a post about boosting your productivity and I’m going to list some awesome tips that seem a bit... counterintuitive... to the task at hand. Before you take a glance at these tips and give them a try yourself, I challenge you to take a moment to think about why you’d like to be more productive and what you’d like to accomplish.
When I think about this question myself, I mostly get stuck in a procrastination loop; I’m taking time away from being productive to think about being productive and that’s not very productive at all. Not a great starting point. But when I think about it outside of a stack of work that piles up and stresses me out, I can say that the reason I want to be productive is to be a responsible employee and to be able to get work done to reach my goals. As a student, you probably want to complete your coursework ASAP, with the best grades as possible. You want to avoid procrastination and make sure what you do accomplish is done well. We’re after something similar: reaching the goals we’ve set for ourselves.
With that long intro out of the way, let’s talk about how to organically boost your productivity!
Find the right music. Or movie or ASMR track or whatever background noise keeps part of your brain occupied but also lets you focus on what you’re doing. I try to have a few different playlists in my phone. Each has a list of songs curated for an emotional purpose: I have my fun, pop playlist with oldies (if N*Sync and Backstreet Boys are now oldies) that is upbeat and lets me jam out happily while I’m typing up a fun or silly blog post. I have one that I call my “crushing it” playlist; this list includes my inspirational music as “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Final Countdown”- music meant to pump me up and make me feel like I can tackle anything. There’s also a softer rainy day playlist that is meant for moments when I need to slow down what I’m doing and take a look back at my work for revision and reconsideration. Besides setting the mood for how I want to rock my day, having those earbuds plugged in help me avoid ambient office noise. I can often get caught up in office chatter and focus on what others are doing instead of getting done what I need to finish.
Take a brain break. Take a brisk walk around your office while you’re considering how you should accomplish something. Or, when I take a “brain break,” I’ll move from one type of task I need to work on (say, a blog post I’m having serious writer’s block with) to another like engaging with students on the Community. Both things are tasks I’m responsible for on a (mostly) daily basis, so I’m still being productive and getting things done but I’m giving myself a break from one task that is stumping me, staring at my computer, clicking through tabs on my browser, hoping for blind inspiration to hit me. If you’re stuck on a particularly rough assignment or study guide, take a step back and consider tackling a different project while your brain works on the tough one in the background.
Start the day on a positive note. This one can be tough, especially on a Monday when it seems like everything you need to get done is due on that day, but I know from experience that one surefire way to be unproductive is to dwell on how much you need to get done before you even get to the office. If I start the day by thinking of all the tasks I need to accomplish and how I don’t know where to even begin to move forward with them, the entire day is flavored with that viewpoint. How can the day be good and how can I get anything done when I know it’s impossible? Instead of eyeing your list of things that need to be done first thing, take a step back and start out with something positive. This could be a funny video, rereading a particularly good piece you wrote, or even emailing/chatting briefly with your work or school bestie. Whatever gets the day going right, start with that. The rest will follow.
Avoid the Debbie Downers of your office/school. There’s always one. Or five. Or who knows how many? We’re all a Debbie Downer (someone who only sees the bad or the annoying things in life) every now and then. It’s unavoidable in life, but if you start every day with “I can’t” and “I won’t” and “this is stupid,” your brain is going to be conditioned to think, you know what, we can’t do this thing so why even bother trying?! Listening to the constant unhappy thoughts of your downer office pals will start having an affect on you. You’ll start to agree that, yeah, why bother? And thinking that there’s no reason to do your tasks is part of the foundation of being unproductive.
Realize that you’re not going to finish everything. And know that that’s okay! We’re humans, not robots; sometimes, things happen and unexpected detours pop up throughout the day. When I know that I’m not going to accomplish every task set out for me in a particular day, I’ll take that brisk walk I mentioned earlier and think about what I need to get done versus what can wait a day. I’ll usually prioritize tasks and projects that involve other people. If I need to finish a particular section of a project before everyone else can move on to their parts, I’m going to work on that instead of the one-off task that doesn’t put anyone else behind if I’m late turning it in.