How to find the best productivity method for you

A simple guide to figuring out how to boost your productivity

Kai Wong
Kai Wong
Dec 16, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

It’s that time of year, when you may be trying to figure out exactly how to be more productive.

Perhaps holiday planning has taken its toll, and you’re wondering how you can be more on top of it next year.

Perhaps you’re standing in line or waiting for hours, wondering how you could’ve used your time better.

Perhaps you’re not where you want to be, so you’re thinking about being more productive with your time.

You’ve heard about Bullet Journaling, things like the Pomodoro Technique, and there’s a slew of mobile productivity apps out there. Not to mention the much-touted mindfulness at work.

But don’t just choose one at random: take a moment and relax. Here’s the difference between several different productivity methods.

Paper methods, such as Bullet Journalling, are about drafting and consolidating thoughts.

What that means is that this is best for rough thoughts.

In the words of Getting Things Done guru David Allen, “…the easiest and most ubiquitous way to get stuff out of your head is pen and paper.”

Also, paper is disposable, which means that if these rough thoughts don’t turn into anything, you can scribble it out, tear them up, or otherwise dispose of it. You can even tear up completed lists, which is a much more visceral action than putting a line through it with other methods.

Lastly, paper is slower than other methods, which means you tend to be more thoughtful with your words. While you can type, text, or speak at a faster rate, often while doing something else, you often have to be more deliberate when you are writing things down.

Paper is strictly a uni-tasking activity, which means that all potential distractions are put aside while you write down what you need.

So it’s best for either jotting down a few words (such as grocery or to-do lists) or turning rough thoughts into more detailed ones.

Things to remember when using paper:

  • You have to have both paper and pen on hand: Your fancy new giant journal is less useful than a pocket-sized one if you forget to bring it with you.
  • Find a way to safely store paper: You don’t have to use a journal to start with, but one of the advantages is that the paper is protected within a hard shell. Use index cards or at the very least have a designated space so that your lists don’t get torn up.
  • Alternatively, schedule time for writing on paper: If you don’t want to have it on hand all the time, set aside some time to review your paper notes, create more notes or dispose of them. I like evenings (to reflect and prepare for tomorrow), but you may find something different works for you.

Mobile and digital apps, on the other hand, are for organizing recurring events.

What this means is that is great for building habits and setting reminders.

Digital apps are built to be accessible across platforms: a Google Calendar invite, for example, can be input on a computer and receive reminders on a phone, tablet, or smartwatch.

Also, these platforms are great for storing things long-term with quick recall (through the use of things like Ctrl + F) so you can easily revisit a specific event. For example, you can search for all the times you resisted temptation if you’re having a particularly rough day and want to have a smoke.

Things to remember when using digital apps:

Don’t use the same platform to do both input and output: If you’re going to be receiving your notifications on your phone, don’t also write the reminders on the phone. You want the reminder to seem automatic to act as a trigger, rather than something you manually programmed in an hour ago.

Consider using voice: I found that voice was super helpful in getting me to make use of otherwise unproductive time (such as my work commute). Google Assistant also supports making Google Calendar events with voice commands, although it can’t do automatic events.

If you miss an automatic event, write about it: This is a mindfulness technique, but it helps in processing why it happened to try and prevent it from happening in the future.

The Pomodoro technique is about breaking a large task (or set of tasks) into smaller tasks and spending hyper-focused chunks of time on a single task.

That means it is great for making incremental progress on larger things or knocking out small tasks that require focus.

It usually requires slightly more upkeep than the previous two as you may often have to break down larger tasks into smaller ones, but it is great for procrastinators or those that don’t know where to start.

By working for 25 minutes on a single task, and then taking a 5-minute break, it also mitigates the possibility of distraction while not losing motivation because it’s short enough to not seem impossible to deal with.

If distractions are tempting you, you’re supposed to either write them down on a separate piece of paper (such as what you wanted to Google) or “Inform, Negotiate, and Call Back” (i.e. inform the person that you can’t talk right now, but you can call them back in 10 minutes).

While the technique recommends doing roughly 2 hours (4 x 30 minutes) of Pomodoro in a single sitting, just a single 30 minute Pomodoro session can yield productive results. This is especially true if the nature of your work requires concentration (such as coding, designing, or data analysis).

Things to remember when using the Pomodoro technique:

Prepare your environment: One critic talked about failing a Pomodoro because they needed to use the bathroom. If you’re going to use the technique, make sure that you have everything prepared. This usually includes bathroom trips, water/coffee, a sheet of paper (to record your thoughts), and headphones.

Use a second screen, phone, or physical device as a visible timer: The timer is not only for yourself (to see that you only have X amount of time left) but for everyone else who might distract you. You may have to “Inform, Negotiate, and Call Back” at first to remove possible distractions, but a screen visible to everyone which shows time counting down will subtlely inform people that you’re not to be bothered for X amount of minutes.

It’s hard for something like this to be ignored (Source:

Get up during your break: It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it, spending time away from the computer is going to help you: it’s much harder to concentrate deeply on a task for an hour rather than just 30 minutes.

Mindfulness is about focusing your attention on the present moment.

That means it’s great for prioritizing tasks as well as recovering lost focus.

In terms of prioritizing tasks, being mindful is a way of putting your mind in a neutral state so that you can accurately assess which things you need to prioritize.

Negative mindsets tend to narrow in on things while positive mindsets can boost creative problem-solving.

This is also very helpful if you’re trying to regain lost focus. If you’ve had an incredibly bad morning, this is a way of regaining your lost focus so you can be productive during the afternoon.

Things to remember when using mindfulness:

Set up a cue to seek out another room: Have either a routine or a specific cue that tells you to seek out a specific environment to do mindfulness. It is VERY hard to try and practice mindfulness techniques in your office.

Consider your car: Cars are a quiet space with minimal distractions (especially if the key is not in your ignition) that can be private if you are seeking this out in quiet time (i.e. not starting or finishing work).

Don’t let distractions derail you into stopping: It’s okay if your thoughts are distracted at first. It’s okay even if your mind wanders: just notice where your mind is going.

I’ve highlighted the differences between the different techniques and apps. But ultimately it depends on you and your situation. Make sure you start this new year off right by finding which one suits your needs the best.

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Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer, Author, and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Author of Data Persuasion, a UX-centric journey to learn Data Visualization:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer, Author, and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Author of Data Persuasion, a UX-centric journey to learn Data Visualization:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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