10 Ways to Stay Focused and Productive

Be your most productive self with these ten smart tips from someone who knows how to get things done.
October 15, 2012

For our brains, being in the Internet Age is like being a five-year old in a candy store. But while five-year olds in candy stores have tons of fun, they aren’t known for achieving great things. Sometimes, your brain just needs to accept it can’t always get what it wants. Your brain needs structure and focus. 

Here are ten ways to improve productivity by preventing your brain from turning work into playtime.

1. Get off the Internet.

Breaks are important. But unscheduled Internet breaks can keep you from ever getting into the “flow” of work. Even quick surfing as a reward will snap you out of your most productive periods, which can be hard to restart.

For those of us who don’t trust out own willpower in the face of that shiny, browser icon, you can get Internet-blocking software like Freedom that actually prevents your computer from logging onto the Internet for set periods of time. It might feel silly—but so does a grownup who can’t quit looking at pictures of kittens.

2. Quit tapping on that phone.

Your phone is like the feeder bar for your brain. Hit a button, get a jolt of dopamine. Yes, we know smartphones are great for when you have to wait in line for more than five seconds. But phone tapping during work periods often just means about a hundred unearned breaks.

Of course, some jobs require constant access to your phone. But most of the time, you’d be better off accepting that nothing bad will happen if you disconnect for a few hours. Put your phone in a different room—out of reach, out of sight and out of mind.

3. Make a list and go through it methodically.

The list is one of the simplest and most ignored relics of the pen and paper age. There is something viscerally satisfying about manually crossing a task off the list. Without a “guide” to the work that needs to get done, we’ll tend to forget what needs to be done.

Make your brain a chores list, and don’t let it go play until the chores are done. No excuses.

4. Turn on some music—without words.

Music helps productivity. This has been documented many, many times. The mistake people sometimes make is to listen to music with lyrics. While it shouldn’t be considered a black and white scenario, music with lyrics can be distracting if you’re trying to work or read. And especially if you’re trying to write like I am now. 

5. Make someone (or something) your personal productivity trainer.

If you thrive on pressure, put someone else on your butt. It can be your friend. It can be your colleague. It can even be a concrete goal you set for yourself. All that matters is that you have some kind of external force that needles you to push yourself harder.

Promise someone, or something, you’ll get something done. Say it out loud. When you make consequences for not finishing your work, you can give yourself that much more motivation to stay on task.

6. Set a deadline and do not break it.

If you don’t have a deadline to get something done, you can push it off till tomorrow. And as we know, there is an infinite supply of tomorrow. As Henry Rollins said, “Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, do it.”

7. Pomodoro isn’t just Italian for “tomato.”

The Pomodoro Technique, developed in the 1980s, is a time-management tool that combines several of the productivity tools mentioned already. It promotes intense focus followed by regularly scheduled breaks. Pomodoro encourages you to map out what needs to get done in manageable, 25-minute continuous blocks. After each “pomodoro,” you take a 3 to 4 minute break, and every fourth break you take a longer, 15 to 20 minute break. This allows you to both enter a stage of workflow, while taking time to let your brain recoup and incorporate information.

8. Be like Seinfeld and “Don’t break the chain.”

A technique popularized by workaholic Jerry Seinfeld, “don’t break the chain” is his motto for doing pretty much all of these steps, every day, and not allowing even one day to go by without accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. Here’s how it works: String together a whole year of dates on a wall. When you get everything set out for one day done, mark that day off with a big red X. After awhile, you’ll start to form a chain of X'ed out dates, which visually make a chain. Don't break the chain!

9. Have an office, of any kind.

Working from home can be difficult when where you work is also where you eat, where you sleep, where you play and where you relax. A growing number of people work from home (myself included), but they often mistake working from home with telecommuting. Telecommuting can be done from anywhere. And separating the space you use for work from the space you use for everything else can greatly increase productivity. If you don’t have the cash to rent an office or workspace, then libraries, coffee shops and parks can be great alternatives that will help you keep business and personal life apart and both more enjoyable.

10. The journey is long, so slow down.

The biggest impediment to productivity is unrealistic expectations. This is often a result of excessive guilt over not having been productive lately. Taking a couple days off?  Don't try to cram in everything you "have to" do. Even if tasks seem tiny, remember to just work on one at a time.

Jacob Harper co-founded the Vintage Vice clothing store and apparel brand in 2006 when he was 23. He sold Vintage Vice in 2009 and now works as a teacher and writer.

Read more productivity advice.  

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