Productivity Hacks for Regular People

On Sunday I watched five episodes of Suits in my pyjamas while eating a big plate of Greek food and only achieving 25% of my move goal on my Apple Watch. As I tried to drift off to sleep I starting thinking about the emails I hadn’t returned that day, the projects I hadn’t gotten a head start on, the calories I hadn’t burned, and the healthy eating plan I hadn’t stuck to.

My panic was compounded when I woke up to yet another “productivity hacks to make you a superhuman” article this morning. You’ve probably seen similar articles while you’re scrolling through your iPhone before bed (a practice they all recommend against).

They all expound the same message: maximize your time and therefore your productivity, because wasting time doing nothing means you’ll never Lean In like Sheryl Sandberg and you’ll probably have to put “Netflix and chill” on your business card in five years. While you won’t fail at life if you take a day off every once in a while, there are lots of successful entrepreneurs and executives who seem to have it all together, and their average day exhausts me when I read about it. They’re morning people. They work out daily. They drink just enough coffee to keep their energy up but not enough to become a jittery mess. They have journals and meditate and always call their mom. And they certainly never procrastinate.

These people just make me feel terrible about my own productivity. I’d like to think I’m a productive person, but there’s nothing like “A day in the life of Marissa Mayer” to make you feel inadequate. Naturally there are a few things from these articles I’ve adopted to become more productive, some of which I’ve stuck to and some that have faded away. Here are the things I’ve learned along the way about how to be productive:

Track your fitness to motivate yourself to be more active. I’d never had a fitness tracker, so when I got the Apple Watch I thought the activity tracker would be secondary to cool things like ordering pizza from my wrist. To my surprise though it’s become a daily motivation to get to the gym, or to stand at my desk or walk an extra block at lunch. Not hitting my move goal for the day makes me angry, which makes me work out more, which in turn makes me…productive. Bonus: you can still order that pizza when you’re done at the gym.

Learn while you do mundane things. Podcasts have seriously changed my life since that November day when I (along with everyone else in the country) discovered Serial. Not only did I find out there’s this whole other medium, I discovered that I can LEARN THINGS while I dry my hair, walk to and from work, wait in lines, or drive my car. Since then I’ve spent countless hours learning about marketing (Under the Influence, 99% Invisible), keeping up on technology (Planet Money, Note to Self, Reply All), and generally being entertained (The Moth, The Mystery Show, Invisibilia, Criminal, Radiolab). If learning about the most notorious true crimes of the past 100 years while you style your hair isn’t productive, I don’t know what is. (More podcast recos from our resident podcast junkie Gabriella. If you’re not into podcasts try e-books via Audible)

Accept that you’re just not one of those people. I’m a journalism grad, so my nature is to do things right before the deadline. I’m also someone who needs 8 hours of sleep, so I’ll never be able to answer emails until 2am and then be up at 5am for spin class. I am someone who procrastinates, who can be swayed away from exercise with a whiff of a freshly-baked cookie, and who likes to spend time doing things like scrolling Facebook and going down Wikipedia black holes. Productivity is subjective, so getting over the fact that you won’t have the same productivity habits as other people is as important as actually being productive.

Recognize that downtime is an important part of being productive. There’s a reason I don’t leave my condo most Sundays, and that I block off one weeknight every week to sit on my couch and flip through Next Issue: being super productive all the time leads to physical and mental burnout. You need time to recharge, relax, and just be, so while sometimes I feel like I’m wasting time, I remind myself that downtime is my secret weapon, and the thing that helps keep me at my most productive 90% of the time. Okay fine, maybe 75% of the time.

You can take pride in the small things. I’ve made a few tweaks to my routine, like working out in the morning instead of after work (when there are so many sweet, sweet temptations not to). I’ve tried to use The Five Minute Journal although, admittedly, I stopped using it after week two. I attended a goal-setting and leadership seminar with Victoria Turner, whose Get Out of Your Own Way workshop forces you to make goals and formulate a plan for achieving them. I’ve used That Clean Life to create healthy meal plans and grocery lists so I don’t order pizza from my wrist every day. Oh, and I always eat breakfast! Small steps people – small steps.

And to end this post, here are the “productivity hacks” I’ll never try, regardless of which life guru tells me it’s the secret to happiness:

  • Writing down my feelings
  • Meditating
  • Waking up earlier than 6am
  • Replacing solid food with Soylent
  • Cutting out reality TV

Now go forth and be productive!

Erin Bury is 88 Creative’s Managing Director. You can follow her on Twitter.