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Whether it's taking care of our families or dealing with the demands of our work, we all feel overwhelmed from time to time. So here are several tips for increasing your productivity when it seems as though you have a million things to do.
1. Make a to-do list
Start by getting everything written down. Write down everything that's on your mind, every task, deadline, meeting, errand, even your grocery list. Once it's on paper, you won't waste valuable brain bandwidth thinking about—and trying not to forget—all those little things you need to get done.
Next, identify the top three or four things that have to get done today. On a new page write those down, don’t write more than four, and rank them in order of importance. It can be helpful to make an Eisenhower Matrix, also called a Priority or 4x4 Matrix.
Draw a “+” in the middle of a piece of paper. Along the left side, at the bottom write Not Important, and at the top write Important; along the top edge of the paper, mark the left as Urgent, and the right, Not Urgent.
Put each of your four to-do list items into one box. You only get one. Remember, take one day at a time, and this is just for today. The thing that's in the Important and Urgent box is your Number One Top Priority for today. Now, flip your to-do list over, and on the reverse side, write the Number One Top Priority, and break into smaller discrete tasks.
If you need something more automated, here are some great to-do list apps that can help you.
2. Organize your inbox
This can be overwhelming, but you’re not going to tackle all of your email in one day. Open your inbox and immediately make one folder titled Look at Today and one titled Look at This Week. Based only on the subject lines, quickly go through and moved each email into one of your folders, and delete any obvious junk. Set an away message saying that you’ll get back in touch within the week—or maybe not at all! Some people are opting out of the email-tag game altogether, with mixed results. At the very least, try to set specific times for email and don't let the urgency of new message alerts distract you from your focused work.
3. Take breaks
The human brain can only engage in deep focus work for about 90 minutes before it needs a break. And after about fifty hours of work per week, the additional work that is accomplished is negligible, and may even lead to rework due to mistakes or omissions. This is the law of diminishing returns, where the additional input into a situation no longer leads to the equivalent output. So get away from your desk at strategic times, and return recharged so you can actually finish your most important tasks.
For example, at 10 a.m. every day, get up and step away from your desk. Go get a cup of coffee or glass of water. Stretch your arms over your head. Take a walk to pop in and say hello to your work bff. Go stand in the parking lot for a minute and get some sun. Check your phone now, but don’t return messages yet, and walk while you do it. Whatever you do, take at least a few minutes away from your desk.
Then, at noon, on your lunch break, leave the office to eat (if you can). Go run that tiny errand that is nagging at you. Treat yourself at your favorite coffee shop. Before you head back in, soak up another minute in the fresh air and sun.
And at 3 p.m., take another walk around the office, refill your water bottle, check your personal messages, and take a few minutes to return any that need to be addressed.
4. Leave better
Fifteen minutes before you leave, clean up your desk, put your notes and files away where you can readily find them in the morning. Make yourself a note of where you left off on a project, so you can easily get back into the swing tomorrow. Five minutes before you leave, write down your four-item to-do list for tomorrow.
5. Get up earlier or stay up later
Many people find the early morning to be a great time to tackle their top priorities. If you can get up an hour or so earlier (make sure you go to bed earlier, too!), use that quiet time to plot out your day, squeeze in a workout, or even chip away at your big project. If you're a night owl, find out if flex-time is an option for you, and whether your boss really cares about seeing your face. Work from home once everyone's gone to bed and your creative juices are flowing. Either way, get yourself on a better sleep schedule.
6. Don't forget to eat
Between taking breaks and limiting your email and getting up early (or staying up late), you really just don't have time to eat, you might think. But if you don't eat, you won't have the fuel your body needs to continue and produce good work. Our brains demand 20 percent of our resting metabolism on a lazy day, or nearly 11 calories an hour. Add in deep thinking, focused work, and a crazy schedule, and you need to feed your brain, or you'll end up unfocused, confused, and error-prone. So eat breakfast, stop for lunch, and have snacks as you need to! Bring a piece of fruit or a small dish of trail mix to snack on at my desk. And for lunch, eat something that makes you feel good to eat, and that will stave off the mid-afternoon slump. Aim for a good mix of lean protein and complex carbohydrates. A turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and sprouts is a good and easy bet.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.
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