Lately I’ve had a number of people ask me for productivity tips. While I don’t claim to be an expert at this, I thought I would share the main factors that drive my decision-making with regards to managing my time. I attempt to put these in order of most important to least important.
Since I am a tenure-track assistant professor at an R1 university, these tips are most applicable to people in the similar career phase as me. That said, other knowledge workers may also find these useful.
Many of these tips are adapted from Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which I highly recommend.
- Get enough sleep.
For me, sleep is the #1 important factor for my cognitive productivity. I typically get between 6½–7¼ hours per night. Much less, and I feel my brain turning to goo when I try to do anything cognitively demanding. I track my sleep with a fitness tracker so I can anticipate when I should expect a “bad day” and plan accordingly.
- Observe a Sabbath.
I have one day each week where I try hard not to do anything work-related. This is a great way to renew my energy and clarity of thought for the upcoming week.
- Plan out every minute of the workday. (See image below)
I use a spiral notebook to create a block of what I am working on in each half-hour block. At the bottom of the time block, I list the things I plan to do that day. On the right-hand side I make notes of additional things I need to do, as well as any activities I can use to fill in “open time” (such as office hours, where I may or may not get interrupted).
Some tips on this:
* Schedule administrative tasks and other low-demand tasks for times when you are unlikely to be productive
* Understand that even a 15-minute block of free time can be utilized to some productive end. Keep a list of tasks in mind for these blocks so that you can pounce when an opportunity arises.
- Use a “clock in” app to track your hours spent on different tasks.
I use the app HoursTracker to keep track of
* How long I spend working
* How much of my work time is spent doing research, teaching, and service
Being at an R1, I find that I need to spend about 60%-67% of my time on research in order to stay on track. During the school year, I tend to work about 40 hours per week, and in the summer I work a bit less (35 hours).
- Use distraction blocking software.
I use RescueTime to track how productive my time is. I have it set up so that email counts as a “distracting” activity, which penalizes my productivity score for spending too much time on email. My productivity average is usually in the low 80s (on a scale of 100).
- Limit time on social media and mobile devices.
Social media can be useful, but too much time on it can suck your energy away from the things that will make you most productive. Following Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism, I did a 30-day reset of all of my social media and phone usage. I found that I was much happier not using Instagram, so I deleted the app from my phone and haven’t logged on since. (I should probably delete my account.) I found Twitter to be too useful professionally to give up, but I work to keep my usage of that platform down. (I still probably am on it more than I should be.)
- Schedule activities in your down-time that will force you to not work too much.
When I get home from the office, I have children to keep me engaged and not thinking about work. I also am involved in my church. These activities keep my mind from constantly thinking about work, which keeps me sharp for when I need to be focused on work.