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Principles I Use to Optimize My Daily Workflow

Finish tasks quicker and easier, without sacrificing quality

Everyone wants more time. More time to travel, shop, or relax. But we spend so much of our time working that those goals seem impossible. What if there was a way to finish your work in half the time?

What would you do with an extra hour every day? I’d probably learn a new language, work out, or write. Just a couple of months ago, I would’ve scoffed at the possibility of getting this extra hour. Then, quarantine began. I was determined to get myself more time. After doing some research on productivity, I found some principles that helped me cut my work time in half. Because of that, I found time to take courses on Coursera, practice basketball, and start writing here on Medium!

Principle 1: Consistency is NOT the key

What it is:

Sometimes we’re more concerned about looking busy than actually being busy. I thought I was being productive by spending hours at a time on something instead of playing video games. But then I realized that procrastination works. After slacking off for a week, I finished my English paper an hour before it was due. When I gave myself little time to do something, I was miraculously able to finish it.

Upon further research, I came across Parkinson’s Law. The basic premise is that your work expands to fill the time you’ve given it. We’ve all been there. A teacher or a professor schedules a test a month in advance, giving up ample time to study. Yet, most of us don’t start studying until the week before. We would’ve had similar (or better) results even if they scheduled it only a week in advance.

The brain is a muscle. Like your abs or your biceps, it gets tired if you use it too long. Forcing yourself to concentrate for hours won’t help you get more things done. A simple task that usually takes you ten minutes can take you half an hour when you’re tired. So give your brain time to rest — work only when you can.

My implementation:

The best way I’ve found to combat these two obstacles is the Pomodoro technique.

The Pomodoro technique is a way to structure how you work. Instead of taking breaks in between tasks, you take a five-minute one every 25 minutes of work. Then, after four cycles, take a longer break of 15 minutes. The basis of this method is to prevent burnout and exhaustion while getting more time to work. However, it didn’t work in the beginning.

For me, 5 minute breaks are too short. I can barely get started on a video, conversation, or book before having to start working again. Conversely, I can spend longer on a task without getting distracted. This led me to make my own version of this structure, of 45-minute sessions of work followed by a 15-minute break. I’ve also eliminated the 15-minute break altogether because I have one every hour.

I use this method on a daily basis. Usually, I group my smaller tasks and try fitting them all in one session (of 45 minutes) and take a session for each of my bigger projects. I also have a session in case I don’t finish all my work, but it’s usually not used.

This way, I only give myself 45 minutes per task. Since I force myself to move on even if I don’t finish, I combat Parkinson’s Law. Furthermore, I give my brain time to rest every hour, preventing decreased productivity due to fatigue.

Principle 2: Plan the right amount

What it is:

I’ve found that I spend much more time planning my workday than actually working. I get obsessed with the “best” way to do something. For example, I looked at blog posts, articles, and YouTube videos to compare different methods to learn to code. Instead of diving straight into it, I spent days wasting my time on how to start.

You have to remember this: Knowledge is not power, it’s just potential until you use it. You can read about optimizing productivity, being happier, or forming a new habit; but it’s not beneficial unless you actually follow through. The best way to finish is to get started — don’t waste your time trying to do it the “best” way possible.

This is perfectly summed up in one term: over-optimization. It’s possible to spend so much time trying to optimize something that you’re actually wasting time. The perfect balance is some quick planning for the structure before diving straight into work.

Conversely, not planning at all can also be a handicap. When we need to make decision after decision, our productivity takes a hit. Experts call this “decision fatigue.” As a result, we need to make most of our bigger decisions in advance (usually the day before), like what order we’re doing things, when we’re taking a break, etc. That way, you can quickly and efficiently start working the following day.

My implementation:

Taking inspiration from Elon Musk, I’ve started using “time-blocking.” The night before, I plan my day in increments of 15 minutes. This can be adjusted to any interval, but the point is to have a structured day.

The reason I do this is because I want to follow a schedule and prevent myself from getting off task. When my day isn’t planned, I often overlook some tasks and get sidetracked. Having a task list and planning your day accordingly mitigates this because you aren’t forced to decide what to do in the heat of the moment.

Personally, my time-block schedule has 3 parts: tasks, goals, and the schedule itself. The task list is everything I force myself to complete. I won’t end my day unless I finish every single one of them. These are things that are due or that I cannot put off any further. For my goals, I have a list of things I want to accomplish during that day. It could be writing for 30 minutes, publishing an article, etc. Finally, my schedule goes from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., and I divide it into 15-minute blocks of time. However, a task can last more than 15 minutes — it’s just listed next to multiple blocks.

Principle 3: Control what you can

What it is:

The only thing predictable about life is that it’s unpredictable. There are things that come up, emergencies that arise. It’s impossible to account for every minute detail in the day, but controlling what you can tremendously helps your workflow.

For example, don’t conform your work to the schedule of others. While it’s impossible for everyone else to follow your desired schedule, you can’t get held up by others’ delays. If a project you’re waiting for gets delayed, move on to do something else. If there’s a team meeting that someone misses, continue, and just update them afterward. The biggest time-waster in your daily workflow is waiting. Instead of waiting, move on and revisit whatever it is you’re waiting for.

Other things you can control include distractions, emotions, and productivity. Nobody knows you better than yourself. If you know that a cup of coffee makes you too energetic, skip it. If you get distracted by notifications, turn them off. If you get frustrated after working long hours, take more breaks. Control your environment so it doesn’t control you.

The other side of the coin is dismissing what you cannot control. Don’t get frustrated or angry because somebody can’t make it to the meeting. Forgive yourself if a task is taking longer than expected. Learn that being caught up on something that you cannot solve is pointless. In essence, forgive and forget.

My implementation:

I like to control things. I don’t like leaving things up to chance, so I try controlling everything, including what I cannot.

To do this, I start by controlling what I can. This includes my distractions, emotions, and efficiency. I know that I get easily distracted by text messages or calls from other people, so I turn their notifications off when I work. I’ve learned to control my emotions by taking a walk whenever I’m too emotional. I’ve made extra time slots in my schedule purely to finish whatever I didn’t finish during the day. If I’ve finished everything, I use that as my downtime to relax. That way, I ensure that I work at peak productivity by working towards a reward while having a fail-safe in case I can’t finish.

I’ve tried to improve my mindset towards things I cannot control. If there’s an emergency or if something is taking longer than I want, I try to forget about it. By dwelling on the mistakes or the obstacles that have popped up, you sacrifice your current and future productivity. Therefore, I let bygones be bygones, and focus on what I can do.

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge your mistakes. If I miscalculated the time it took me to finish something, I keep that in mind for the future. You can always retrospectively look and find ways to improve.

Takeaways

The biggest thing to take away from this article is that productivity is unique. I have friends who watch a motivational video every time they get lazy, but it would never work for me. My implementations have worked well for my personality, but that doesn’t mean it would help you.

If there’s one principle above all else, it’s to experiment. Even if something works, that doesn’t mean it is the best way. You can always find new techniques to improve the way you work, and that’s the biggest lesson to take from this article.

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Ethan Wei

Ethan Wei

High school student figuring out life | The Startup, Entrepreneurs Handbook, Data Driven Investor |