I Tried 10 Productivity Hacks. Here’s What Worked.

A lot of the productivity hacks tossed around on listicles aren’t deserving of the name. Of course if you get enough sleep, exercise and drink water, you’ll be more productive, but that’s just basic life advice.

If you want to get seriously more productive, here are 10 actual road-tested productivity hacks and a review of just how well they worked – or didn’t. Be warned, this list includes some ninja-level productivity – there’s no ‘hug your dog’ advice here (you should definitely hug your dog, just don’t pretend it will have a direct impact on finishing those work reports).

#1 The two-minute rule

The hack: It’s simple – if something takes two minutes or less, do it now. Every task you have to remember or think about is like a monkey on your back, and who wants dozens of monkeys climbing all over them? Finish it and forget it.

The result: Quick and easy to apply, and made me feel like a productivity wizard.

#2 Banish to-do lists

The hack: According to Ari Meisel, author of Less Doing, More Living, to-do lists are often a “dumping ground for things that can’t actually be done.” Meisel describes himself as an achievement architect, and his book provides specific strategies for optimising all aspects of your professional life.

Instead of to-do lists, Meisel says, we should break each task into achievable actions and schedule those actions at appropriate times. This way, we never have a long list of unwieldy tasks hanging over us.

The result: Scheduling tasks instead of compiling them on lists immediately made me feel more organised. Instead of devoting time to reviewing a to-do list each day, I simply looked at what I’d scheduled in my diary. Easy.

#3 Read each email only once

The hack: When you read an email, decide on your course of action, do it then and there, and file or delete the email.

The result: Nope. This created way too much pressure. The concept sounds super efficient, but some emails need some decanting time. However, if you combine this hack with the two-minute rule, it makes a good general principle.

#4 Use an email scheduler

The hack: Your inbox can feel like another long to-do list. Meisel’s solution is to set a limit on the number of emails waiting there. His personal limit is 10.

The simplest way to keep your inbox within your set limit is to use an email scheduler. If the action required will take too long, use an email scheduler like Boomerang to return the email to your inbox when you have time to complete it. (See how we just combined three hacks into one fluid system? I warned you this was some ninja-level efficiency.)

The result: Through scheduling, I tried Meisel’s limit of 10 inbox emails, no more. This meant the most dreadful emails could never escape my attention – they were there on screen every time I opened my inbox. This forced me to get to them more efficiently as well, so I guess this system really is a gem.

#5 Start work at 5am

The hack: Get up stupidly early and get to work. You’ll be super focused because the rest of the world was sensible enough to stay in bed.

The result: Yes, I actually tested this for you. Sure, it’s quiet at 5. But 6am works just as well, and feels significantly less horrible.

#6 Focus on one thing for a set time

The hack: If you want to get something done, set aside time to focus on it exclusively. There’s a variety of methods for this. The (10+2)*5 system coaches you to focus for 10 minutes, then take a two-minute break. Do this 5 times, and you’ll have put in an hour’s work. With the Pomodoro technique, you focus for 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute break.

The result: The (10+2)*5 was too disruptive for me, but setting a timer for 25 minutes helped me get through challenging or tedious tasks I’d otherwise put off. Soon I found it easy to focus on one thing for up to an hour.

#7 Hide your phone

The hack: To really focus on one thing, you need to clear distractions. Yes, you can turn off your phone alerts, as some hacks suggest, but the temptation to check it will probably persist if your phone is in sight.

When you’re focusing on getting something done, put your phone out of sight and out of reach.

The result: I took this to the extreme. I actually left my phone at home one day a week for the last month and guess what? The Earth didn’t explode, and I was way more focused. Even on days when I had my phone with me, putting it in a drawer for an hour or two increased my ability to get things done.

#7 Do your hardest task first

The hack: That thing you really don’t want to do? It’s the largest, ugliest monkey on your back, so get it done first. This is the advice of Matthew Woolaston, a Sydney project manager who has worked in engineering, construction and IT and manages projects involving up to 300 people. “Unless you do that hardest task first, it lingers on your mind all day.”

The result: It’s so much easier to put that hard thing off! But on the days I steeled myself and got my most daunting task done before morning tea, I felt energised the rest of the day.

#9 Have a weekly review session

The hack: Set aside some time once a week to review where you’re at and get organised for the next week. Woolaston does this on Friday afternoons. “It allows you to reflect on what worked well, what didn’t work well, and what you could be doing less of.”

“You can be busy without being productive. A lot of people confuse them.” Your weekly review session is your chance to ensure you know what needs to be done and schedule your tasks for the following week. But it’s also a chance to reflect on whether your past week was genuinely productive or just busy. Woolaston advises that productivity “is about constantly tweaking. It might take a while to find the right balance.”

The result: Easy and useful, and I left work each week feeling monkey-free.

#10 Actually take a proper break

The hack: No matter how many hacks we master, productivity isn’t infinite. When your break time comes up in the (10+2)*5 method or the Pomodoro technique, get up from your desk and give your eyes, butt and brain a break. And when you’re not working, don’t work.

The result: I started taking walks on my lunch break instead of staring at my phone, and making sure I had a full day off on weekends. Turns out it’s true – it was easier to stay productive when I wasn’t trying to be productive all the time. I even hugged my neighbour’s dog, and that felt pretty great.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer and stand-up comedian. She’s written for McSweeney’s, Kill Your Darlings and Griffith Review. Her current project is How To Be Australian, a memoir. She runs the comedy website Full of Donkey and tweets at @AKalagianBlunt.