How to Have a Productive Day

Have you ever had one of those days that flies by, and you don’t know where the time went? Although it’s important to relax and enjoy your free time, it doesn’t always feel good to have a completely aimless day. Productivity gives you a sense of purpose. It helps you look back and say, “I really lived today.”

What is Productivity?

Before we dive into the meat of this article and explain how to have a productive day, we want to discuss the meaning of productivity. Most people think that the goal of productivity is to get as much done as possible so that you can cross more and more off of your to-do list.

But being productive just so that you can do more isn’t the point. Productivity is about using your time wisely. It involves prioritizing the tasks that you have to do and want to do so that you can also have free time to put your feet up and relax without feeling guilty.

Productivity means that when you’re working, you’re getting things done instead of dragging them out. When you’re taking a break, you’re giving yourself a chance to refresh instead of busying yourself with other activities.

Productivity gives you the momentum to grow in any area of your life. When you’re productive, you always have a chance to work on yourself.

Productivity in one category seeps into others. For example, when you focus on your health, you probably have more energy to wake up early and accomplish more at work. When you nurture your family relationships, you likely have more patience with your colleagues and deeper connections with your friends.

In contrast, when you’re unproductive in one area, it affects other parts of your life. Have you ever taken time off of work and lazed around all day? You may not exercise or eat well that day either. You might go to bed feeling frustrated and irritable.

If you don’t ramp up your productivity the next day, you can fall into a negative cycle that can make you feel depressed. Furthermore, research shows that even mild depression fuels a lack of productivity, spiraling you into isolation and making your symptoms worse.

In sum, it’s important to stay productive, but you don’t have to work so hard that you’re always buzzing around. Productivity means that you’re doing tasks that are in line with your responsibilities, obligations, and desires.

If you want to be active, you’re getting things done. If you want to relax and watch TV, you’re doing that without worrying that you’re missing out on something else.

Wake Up Early Enough for You

To have a productive day, you need to start at the beginning. Technically, you should begin by making some plans the night before. We will get to that at the end of this article.

Many experts say that you should wake up early if you want to have a productive day. However, not everyone needs to set their alarm for 5 a.m. to be successful.

One of the reasons that waking early can set you up for a productive day is that it tells your subconscious that you’re in control of your actions. When you can choose to snooze and snuggle for another 10 minutes or hop up and start your day, which option do you think is the more productive one?

The voice that tells you that you’d much rather stay in bed than rising because you went to bed too late or deserve this luxurious time to rest is the same voice that makes you procrastinate or puts up resistance when it’s time to do something essential.

Show it who’s boss first thing in the morning by getting up at the time that you intended to. Snoozing your alarm is just an indicator that you’re letting that inner voice of sabotage win.

Something to keep in mind is that if you woke up one hour earlier every day, you would gain 15 full days in your year. If you are trying to get a lot done, imagine how much you could accomplish just by setting your alarm a little earlier.

This may involve changing some habits. Perhaps you need to stop falling asleep while watching TV at midnight. Maybe you need to instill a bedtime routine so that you fall asleep faster. You may need to set your alarm five minutes earlier for a week and gradually make your wake time earlier.

Most adults only need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you’re getting more than that, you might want to consider adjusting your schedule and determining the ideal amount of sleep for you.

Develop a Morning Routine

Nick Wignall says that the key to productivity is waking up easier, not earlier. Sleep deprivation will only make you feel fuzzy, unfocused and distracted. You probably won’t be very productive if you’re chronically exhausted.

If you blanch at the thought of waking up early, don’t fret. The amount of time that you have in the morning isn’t the secret to success. The way that you spend your time ultimately sets you up for a productive day.

Creating a morning routine is one of the best ways to hack your productivity and start your day on the right foot. When you have a routine, you can move quickly over obstacles. You don’t have to spend time deciding what to do (i.e., procrastinating). Instead, you already have your morning set out for you. You just have to follow along.

Plus, once you have followed your routine for a while, it will become a habit. You’ll be less likely to have to drag yourself out of bed. Your routine will pull you out.

If you’re just getting started with establishing a morning routine, don’t worry about waking up earlier. Just give yourself more space in the morning by prepping the night before. You can set out your clothes, make your lunch and gather everything that you need to get out the door before you go to bed. Doing this could save you up to 20 minutes or so in the morning.

Once you have that extra time, don’t use it to sleep in. Use it to begin your morning productively.

If you feel groggy when you wake up, shower and go about your daily routine. Doing this will signal to your brain that it’s time to get started with your day. But you don’t have to do that. You can use your morning to journal, meditate, exercise, do yoga or set intentions.

Perhaps most importantly, make your morning rewarding. When you know that a treat awaits you, even if it’s as simple as a good stretch or a caramel macchiato, you’ll be less tempted by the snooze button.

You don’t have to start working right away. Your morning routine should consist of something that’s good for your mind, body, and spirit.

Although it can be tempting to catch up on a podcast during your morning walk or check your emails while you’re still under your comforter, consider avoiding digital devices until after you’ve begun your work. Your morning routine should serve as a time to clear your head. Hopping on social media or reading a few articles can clutter your mind.

Cross Something off of Your List Early On

Once you’ve taken 20 minutes or so to be good to yourself, it’s time to spur your productivity. During or immediately after your morning routine, you should touch base with your to-do list.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of doing some prep work the night before, you may already have a to-do list written out. At this point, you can simply reference it so that it’s fresh in your mind. If you haven’t worked on it yet, this is the time to do it.

There are a few techniques for creating the ideal to-do list. If you have a lot on your mind, you can do a brain dump and put it all on paper. Don’t go off into your day with this colossal list, though. Organize it so that it’s less overwhelming.

Here are some tips for writing out and organizing your to-do list:

  • Choose three things that must get done today.
  • Create categories, such as work, home and school for your action steps.
  • Add time frames for each item, or schedule the tasks in your planner.
  • Before you move forward with anything on the list, decide what you’re going to accomplish and check off right now.

The last item on the list may be the most important. Make sure that you check off a task as soon as possible. When you do, you tell your subconscious mind that you’re the kind of person who gets things done.

Accomplishing tasks leads to a dopamine release in your brain. Dopamine improves your mood and energy levels. It’s also a neurotransmitter that has been associated with motivation. When you complete an obligation, the dopamine release makes you motivated to achieve your to-dos once again.

Getting this dopamine surge first thing in the morning primes you for the rest of the day. It also makes you feel confident about being productive. Finally, if you do nothing else that day, at least you can go to bed knowing that you checked one thing off of your list.

If you’re the kind of person who writes small things on their to-do list just to check them off, you know how this feels. Keeping an ongoing list throughout the day can help you stay productive because you’re constantly motivating yourself with a dopamine surge.

Moreover, if you do all the heavy thinking at the time that you write your list, you don’t have to work hard to make big decisions over and over again throughout the day. You create your game plan, and then all you have to do is follow it.

Do Something Urgent, Hard or Overwhelming

Starting with the most important tasks makes the rest of the day an easy downhill slide. When you’re making your to-do list, think about the most important or urgent task that you can get out of the way. This can be the first thing that you do.

Sometimes, it’s a pressing task that won’t take long. Other times, it’s a difficult task that you don’t want hanging over your head all day.

It may also be a project that you’ve been procrastinating or resisting for some time. If so, get it started. You’ll gain some momentum, and you may realize that it’s not as hard as you thought. Sometimes, the hardest part is getting started. Once you get over that hump, you find your flow.

Do Something that You Love

Don’t do all of your work first thing in the morning, though. One mistake that many people make is waiting until they’ve finished the obligations that they consider to be the most important before getting to the activities that they truly love.

If you get into this habit, you may find that you never have time for your passions or hobbies. Therefore, make an effort to do something related to your interests early in the day.

If you’re a writer, you might write 500 words every morning. If you’re an artist, you might work in your sketchbook. Someone who plays an instrument could take 15 minutes to play their favorite tune.

Whatever it is, don’t put it off. You might never get around to doing it.

You can do something that you love even on your busiest days. Set a timer, and take 10 minutes to do it. If you really have other pressing obligations, move on to those when the timer goes off.

You might find that those obligations are just excuses that stem from your resistance. Any creative person who has experienced a block can tell you that resistance is a killer of creativity.

Eat Healthfully

At some point, you’ll need to nourish yourself if you’re planning to have a productive day. Whether you eat breakfast or not is up to you. You’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

It jump-starts your metabolism, telling your body that it doesn’t have to conserve calories because there are plenty more available. Research shows that eating breakfast can boost children’s brainpower. It improves memory and concentration, which can help you be more productive throughout the day.

But everyone is different. Some people feel clearer and more focused when they fast from dinner to lunch the next day.

Perhaps what you eat is more important than when you eat, however. Consuming nutrient-dense foods that give you energy without creating a spike and subsequent crash is the best way to go.

Your brain functions best when you have about 25 grams of glucose in your bloodstream. That’s about the amount of sugar in a banana.

But the type of sugar is important too. Downing a teaspoon of sugar might give you a burst of energy. However, as your body sends out large amounts of insulin to handle the sugar spike, it blasts away the sugar, leaving your blood glucose levels low. The result is sluggishness and tiredness, which are enemies of productivity.

Some tips for eating for productivity include:

  • Eating carbohydrates that are low on the glycemic index
  • Consuming healthy fats, like those found in fish and avocados
  • Getting a good balance of carbs, fats, and protein
  • Avoiding foods with empty calories (i.e., those with calories but few nutrients)
  • Loading up on a variety of colorful, fresh foods for maximum nutrition
  • Eating frequent, small meals to keep the brain fueled up

Just as crossing items off of your to-do list boosts dopamine levels, so does eating fruits and vegetables. Make sure that you consume enough of them to stay motivated throughout the day.

If it’s hard to get comfortable with this habit, start by adding instead of taking away. Eat a serving of veggies with those potato chips. Eventually, you can wean off of the processed foods as you become accustomed to eating more healthfully.

Make Time for Deep Work

Now that you’ve had a great morning, accomplished a few things  and eaten something nourishing, it’s time to dig into your work. Productivity expert Cal Newport says that deep work may improve the quality and quantity of your output. In other words, you’ll get more done in less time and be more productive.

Deep work differs from shallow work in that it allows you to practice and improve on a skill. In his book, “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle calls this deep practice.

Shallow work might involve answering emails and planning your daily schedule. It consists of repetitive tasks that are easy to do even if you’re distracted by other things.

The draw of shallow work is that it makes us feel productive. It’s akin to crossing a bunch of things off of your to-do list. But you’ve already done some of it today. That’s why it’s important to make room for the deep work.

Deep work is cognitively demanding and requires you to push yourself. But it’s ultimately more fulfilling and rewarding than shallow work. That’s why you need a balance of both to be productive every day.

Because deep work requires a great deal of brain energy, you can’t just jump into it. Newport recommends creating a ritual that transitions you into it. The ritual works because all you have to convince yourself to do is start the ritual. Before you know it, you’ll be engaged in the deep work.

If you’re an artist, your ritual may involve clearing your drawing space, pulling out your art supplies, grabbing a cup of water for your paintbrushes and a cup of tea to sip on, and putting on music. If you work in an office, make time for deep work by putting a do-not-disturb sign on your door, putting on headphones and putting away your phone.

Your deep work usually involves an ongoing project. You probably can’t complete it all in one session. Therefore, it’s essential to create a strategy before you dive in.

Writing down your goals for the project is vital. Be specific. Consider exactly what the project will look like when it has been completed. Take some time to envision how you will feel when you accomplish it.

Note the action steps that you’ll need to take to finish the project. Don’t skip over this step; if you take the time to do it now, you’ll find it easier to transition into deep work every day because you’ll just have to follow your notes instead of coming up with an action plan.

The time that you spend each day shouldn’t feel as breezy as responding to a text on your phone. Your work should be challenging but not so difficult that you get blocked.

While doing deep work, many people get into a flow state. During this time, they’re immersed in the activity. To enter this state, you have to be confident that you’ll succeed. That doesn’t mean that you won’t experience setbacks. It does indicate that you need to break down your action steps into manageable chunks.

You also have to eliminate distractions during this time. Some people can work for several hours without distractions. Others need to manage this in smaller segments. Decide what works for you, and schedule it in your calendar.

Take Breaks, and Use Them Wisely

Even if you feel like you have more tasks to do than time to do them in, you need to take breaks to maximize your productivity. Although that sounds counterintuitive, research demonstrates that breaks are vital brain boosters.

Did you ever notice that you get the best ideas when you’re doing nothing? Perhaps you get your inspiration in the shower or on a run. That’s because your brain is taking a break.

Scientists call this the default mode network. It occurs when you’re in a meditative state. You don’t have to meditate to relax your brain enough to get into this state, though. It happens when you’re doing something that you don’t really have to think about, like strolling on the beach, driving on a regular route or cooking.

It happens when you take a break from your work. Your breaks don’t have to consist of empty space. In other words, you can still be doing something else. You just have to change your activity to something that allows your mind to unwind.

When you’re thinking hard, such as when you’re in deep work, your prefrontal cortex is doing a bulk of the work. This part of your brain helps you stay focused on your goals. It allows you to think logically and override your willpower to get things done.

But keeping your attention on the same thing for too long can get in the way of productivity. You may need to turn off your goals and reactivate them to stay excited about them.

You can use your breaks wisely in a number of ways:

  • Exercise during your breaks
  • Check off some of the easier tasks on your to-do list during a break
  • Combine a chore with something enjoyable, like watching TV while doing laundry
  • Do something easy and productive during your low-intensity time, like listening to a podcast while you’re cooking

When you take breaks, you restore your motivation. You’ll refresh your brain and have more inspiration. You might even be more creative and finally come up with the answer to that problem that you’re trying to solve.

What if You Fall Into Procrastination or Inertia?

Nobody is perfect. You’ll have moments in your life when you just don’t feel like doing anything. That’s ok. As we mentioned before, it’s important to take breaks.

Being intentional about your downtime can make it feel productive. When you feel like you just need to rest, schedule it in your calendar. Shift some of your other tasks around if you need to.

We often feel guilty about doing this. You might look at your planner and decide that you don’t actually have time to take a break, so you keep plowing along. But you end up burning out eventually. When you do, you may lose momentum for a much longer period than if you just created regular time for a much-needed break every day.

If you have to, write down “take a 2-hour break” in your to-do list. Even if you just used the time to nap, you’ll feel productive when you cross it off later.

Procrastination can be even tougher to deal with than burnout. When you procrastinate, you know that you have to get something done. But you do everything in your power to avoid it, and it eats away at you. You can’t give yourself an intentional, fulfilling break until you’ve finished the thing that you’re putting off.

If you experience procrastination, don’t judge yourself harshly for it. It happens to the best of us. Shame is an enemy of productivity and motivation. Instead of discrediting yourself, accept the way that you feel.

There are many strategies to combat procrastination. One of the best is just to do the thing that you’re avoiding for a short period of time. If you still don’t feel like doing it after the time limit, give yourself a break, knowing that you gave it your best shot.

You can also schedule a break. Tell yourself that you’ll do the avoidant activity for a certain amount of time, even if it’s something completely unproductive, like binging on celebrity gossip online. When the timer goes off, it’s back to your productive day.

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