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10 Unexpected Ways to Boost Productivity and Reduce Stress

Being productive isn’t about marking as many items off our to-do lists as possible.

Tom Werner/ Getty Images
Tom Werner/ Getty Images

We often think of productivity as marking as many items off our to-do lists as possible. But according to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and associate professor at Georgetown University, there’s actually more power in removing an item from our to-do list each day, and instead focusing on high-priority tasks that require our full attention. He calls this concept “slow productivity,” and it’s all about focusing on what needs to get done, and removing the stress of a longer list of things to do. 

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the ways they boost their productivity and stress less about their to-do lists. Which of these tips will you try?

Start by journaling

“To improve my productivity and keep myself in a solutions-focused mindset, I journal in a free-flowing manner. I find that doing this uncovers what is truly weighing on my mind and allows me to be more strategic about my to-do list.”

—Karisa Karmali, online personal trainer, Ontario, Canada

Write down your top priorities 

“I find that knowing what to do of high importance increases your productivity. I use a short list of high importance items for my week. I call it my three ‘Most Important Tasks.’ Each week during my weekly planning time, I prioritize three tasks that will move a  project forward. This way I know what to do and do the tasks during my powerful time blocks set aside for work. It keeps my productivity high because I know where to focus my time and energy, and it keeps me from getting overwhelmed.”

—Ellen Delap, professional organizer, Kingwood, TX

Don’t check email first thing in the morning

“One Microstep that I have incorporated that has had a profound impact on my productivity has been to dedicate the start of my day to reading and learning more about topics that are important to me as a woman and leader. I steer clear of diving into emails, and firing off responses and make sure that I focus on expanding my mind and trying to learn something new. Some days I can devote 30 minutes or more and on other days it might be only five minutes. I find that taking this time allows me to really focus as I step into my daily activities and conference calls.”

—Suzanne Schnaars, senior manager, Basking Ridge, NJ

Carve out a 15-minute planning window on Sundays

“Every Sunday, I carve out 15 minutes to design my week ahead in a paper planner. In my weekly snapshot, I create a list of priorities before I add any to-dos. These priorities help me stay single-focused and moving forward throughout the week, one step and task at a time. Having a weekly planning ritual has helped me focus on what’s truly important. It’s helped me ease the Sunday anxiety that can come before a full week. I get all the to-dos out of my head and onto paper, so I can start the week feeling organized and ready to start fresh.”

—Emily Madill, author and certified professional coach, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada

Try the “post-it note” method

“I’ve always used what I call the post-It note method. I find the 3-4 items that it’s most important to achieve that day, and write them on a post-it note. I’ll visually place it at eye level, stuck to my computer. When I finish all the tasks on my note, I stick the note in my diary and write up the next one. The benefit of this method is I can see at a glance what is most important to achieve that day.  It also stops me cherry-picking the smallest and easiest tasks on my long to-do list. Most importantly though, it controls the sense of overwhelm that a long to-do list can bring by presenting a much smaller, more manageable list of tasks.”

—Sarah Vizer, creator, Queensland,  Australia 

Take a break to go outside

“I find that stepping out of the workspace into nature allows me to regroup and stay productive. I will do this when I have meeting breaks, at lunch, or in the afternoons when I can spare moments. Being on a computer all day or in meetings forces us to centralize our attention to such a large degree that it can be draining and physically exhausting. We are constantly tapping our attention not realizing that this is also a limited resource at some point. Going for a walk, looking at the greenery and flowers, listening to the birds, and feeling the breeze allows me to take in nature without any effort whatsoever. Nature allows me to immerse myself in that experience without even trying and enables me to re-energize. I call it my restorative power bank.”

—Meena Singhal, co-founder of ScriptoPro, CA

Break down projects into smaller tasks

“I break things into small tasks, whatever the project is, so I can feel a sense of accomplishment and then I’m able to celebrate the small wins. This increases my energy level, and in turn boosts my productivity.”

—Kristin Meekhof, author and book consultant, Royal Oak, MI

Give yourself a pep talk

“I remind myself that everything on my to-do list is optional! Seriously, down to showing up for work or taking care of my child! While I obviously do those things because I don’t want to suffer the consequences of not doing them, knowing that most things on the to-do list aren’t life or death helps take the pressure off and makes the tasks more enjoyable.”

—Alana Van Der Sluys, certified intuitive eating counselor, NJ

Set aside designated email time

“I have done small things to rearrange my life and schedule in order to be productive but avoid getting stressed out about my to-do lists. One thing I do is set specific times to check my emails. Work can get very busy and overwhelming, and I realized that checking my inbox and responding to every email the moment it came in was distracting me and affecting my productivity.”

—Benedetta F., productivity expert, London, UK

Ask yourself how you want to feel at the end of the day

“Instead of focusing on checking off my laundry list of to-do’s, I decide how I want to feel about the day before I go to bed. My focus is on creating more time by doing two things. I align my mindset and words with what I want to accomplish, and I make sure I’m not starting my day by trying to accomplish anything on my list. The days I am most productive are when I stick to my morning and evening routines and commit to staying mindful. By bookending my days, I get to decide what’s important to do and what I’m grateful to have gotten done. This way, I can weigh everything against whether it moves me toward how I want to feel. When an activity doesn’t lead me where I want to go, I decide not to do it.”

—Whitnie Wiley, organizational, leadership and employee development strategist, Elk Grove, CA

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