During the past couple of years, I have tried dozens of ways to improve my productivity. Fancy to-do apps, GTD, Evernote, Pomodoro technique; inbox zero and to-do systems by so called productivity gurus. The list goes on and on. However, only a few of them actually brought real productivity gains. Here are 10 productivity experiments that became cornerstones in improving my productivity.
#1. Simple To-Do’s
My journey to become a productive person started with GTD. Like most people, I jumped the GTD+Evernote bandwagon, hoping to overcome disorganization and overwhelm. For a few days, the GTD Evernote combination seemed like a silver bullet. I spent a whole weekend organizing “stuff”using the 5 stages of GTD workflow which goes like this – Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do.
In a few weeks, I realized that it was sucking too much time. The so-called productivity gains from a “clear mind”came at the cost of spending a lot of time in keeping everything tidy and organized. Productivity became a task in itself.
Instead of giving up on GTD all together, I settled for a simpler version that works for me really well. Here is what I did:
- Dumped Evernote for GTD. It was a terrible time suck and adopted “Things”to-do app, which is extremely simple to use.
- Keep one simple to-do list on “Things”App so that I do not have to remember tasks.
- Organized “non-actionable”stuff inside Notational Velocity (a free notepad app).
The results have been satisfactory. I am decently organized and work with a clear mind, without having to waste time in elaborate GTD workflow.
Do not follow a system just because it is famous. GTD has some important lessons to learn but at the end of the day, implement a version that works for you. Using simpler tools is much more sustainable than fancy apps.
#2. Checking email during Afternoons
At first, it seemed like a very simple thing to do. After all, it was just about “not”doing something. But this experiment was actually harder than any other experiments I have tried.
The reason is our brain.
Research proves that checking and replying to email is associated with dopamine secretion, a pleasure hormone inside our brain. Brain associates emailing with gratification.
Wired by the daily habit of checking emails every morning, it was challenging enough for my brain to avoid that pleasure.
Initially, I noticed that every morning after waking up, my default behavior was to switch on the iPhone and click on the mail app icon. I also noticed was how uneasy I became when I wasn’t checking my email first thing in the morning.
Here is what I did.
First, I removed the email account from iPhone/iPad. Then, I removed the shortcuts for email icon on my laptop and made it a little harder to access email.
But that wasn’t enough.
During the first few days, I had to literally tell myself “no”several times when I had the urge of checking email.
So far I have mixed success with this experiment.
Some days, I could live without checking email until afternoon. While other times, I simply couldn’t resist the temptation. Our reptilian brain can play really crazy games.
Productivity shoots up if I succeed in not checking email during mornings. Strongly recommended for creative professionals and those who can afford to do so. But if you are working in a team environment and need to communicate often, it’s going to be a steep climb.
#3. Yoga & Meditation
The reason I attribute yoga and meditation to productivity is because they have direct impact on our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy.
A year back, I had severe lower back pain and someone advised me to do Yoga postures before it turns chronic.
Let me admit. I was never a fan of Yoga or Meditation. But I reluctantly started under a coach, mainly to get rid of the back pain.
The results have been great. Not only the back pain vanished, but also my overall health and well being are at my best ever.
Yoga and Meditation do not bring immediate outcomes, but when done regularly, the results are exponential. Your energy, concentration, self-awareness and positivity will increase manifold.
#4. Working at 4:00 am
I had been a late riser for most of my life. But last year, I watched an inspirational video by Darren Rowse of Problogger fame and he attributed his success to writing early morning. Being passionate about writing, I decided to give it a try.
And it wasn’t easy at all.
It took me a few months to actually start waking up at 5:00 am and another couple of months to move my alarm to 4:00 am. Quite amazingly, now my brain is habituated to wake up at 4:00 without an alarm.
- Start gradually: Waking up at 4:00 am is big lifestyle change. If your usual time is 7:00 am, start with 6:30 am and then slowly take the alarm clock early by 30 minutes every few weeks.
- Sleep early: This is almost common sense but many people miss out on it. If you want to wake up at 4:00, sleep between 9:00 to 10:00. Surprisingly, I found that I need less sleep and quality of sleep is way better.
- Have a strong objective: Having a strong motivation to wake up early is the surest way to succeed in this experiment. I found my own motivation in writing. Likewise, find what motivates you and use it as the objective to wake up early.
- Use triggers: What’s the immediate thing you will do after waking up? Jog, write, have a cup of coffee or read something. Just keep those things readily accessible. For instance, every night before I got to sleep, I keep the word file open with the article title written. That way, when I turn-on my laptop, that’s the first thing I see. As soon as I read the article title, fresh ideas start flowing.
- Do not beat yourself: Life isn’t predictable. There are times when I wake up late (due to social functions, travel or hangout with friends), but I never beat myself up for waking late. The key is to embrace the “human”element and yet, not give up the habit. Even if you missed for a few days in a row.
#5. Short “bursts”of productivity
Tim Ferris inspired this productivity experiment. Instead of strolling on the work desk for 8 straight hours, it involves doing intense focused work on a specific task for a short period of 2 to 3 hours. If the task is accomplished, I reward myself for “finishing”it with something as simple as a cup of tea or allowing myself to check email.
Results have been fascinating. I could get so much done during those creative bursts. For this experiment to succeed, there are two prerequisites:
- Turnoff external distraction by disconnecting Internet and putting your cellphone on DND.
- Declare everyone around you that you are engaged in focused work
This practice is relatively harder to implement because it requires lots of discipline. Productivity gains are equally impressive. But if you are someone who gets easily distracted or cannot avoid distraction, it won’t work.
#6. Replacing Caffeine with Green tea
I used to drink coffee a couple of times a day and the temporary pleasure was addictive. But the effect of caffeine doesn’t last long. On top of that, the huge calorie intake in a single cup of coffee is harmful to health.
I was determined to replace it with Green tea.
Green tea did not taste well and so it wasn’t so much fun drinking it. But I didn’t stop and keep experimenting with new flavors and ingredients. In a few days, I started liking green tea because I found specific recipes to suit my taste buds. The best part is – I can drink it as much as I can, without worrying about calories.
Green tea has been one of the most fascinating productivity experiments because it’s so simple and yet, extremely effective.
Give it a try. Drink green tea even if you don’t like it initially. Experiment with different flavors and ingredients. In a few days, your brain will get habituated with the taste. Gradually, you will fall in love with this magical beverage.
#7. Saying “No” to News
For most of my adult life, reading newspaper, watching news on TV was inseparable part of my lifestyle. I gave up on both for almost 2 years now. I haven’t read newspaper for a long time now (except when I am waiting at the Airport lounge). I never watch News on TV or read News on the Internet or mobile app. I often get to know the most important news from friends and family. Fundamentally, it has made no difference in my overall knowledge of current events.
The time I used to spend on reading newspaper and watching TV is roughly the same time I am spending now in doing yoga and meditation as well as reading book. Which one is more useful? You know it better.
#8. Brief nap in the afternoon
Busyness doesn’t equals productivity. After ridiculously active first few hours of the day, this experiment allowed me rest my mind. A brief nap in the afternoon does a great job in recovering my energy, so that I can remain equally productive during the other half of the day.
Not possible if you are working at an office in a 9 to 6 grind. But if you are working independently, you can certainly take advantage of this practice. One of the flip sides of this experiment is tendency to sleep for too long, instead of a short 30 minutes. It can literally throw you out of rhythm. Be careful with this practice because if not regulated, it can get counter productive.
#9. Have Rescue Time watch my productivity
Rescue Time is pretty neat tool. It records app usage and reports the time I spent on various apps to determine the productivity score. At the end of each week, I get a detailed analysis of how much time I spent checking emails, writing documents, surfing web and much more. Best thing about this app is – it gives you comparative data you can use to improve your productivity. The two main benefits are:
- It keeps you aware of how you are spending your time on the computer
- It helps you remain objective by allowing you to improve productivity by numbers
Implementing this productivity experiment is as simple as installing Rescue Time app and checking the app classification to ensure that there is a clear distinction between productive, non-productive and neutral apps. The rest is done by Rescue time automatically. It’s free and a nice to have tool in your productivity arsenal.
#10. Technology Fasting
Technology has become an inseparable part of our lives. At the same time, when overused, it becomes an enemy of productivity. In this eye-opening book “Your Brain at Work”, David Rock recommends turning-off technology for a few hours every day. Given our huge dependency on the tools of communication, I thought this advice to be slightly impractical.
But instead of judging, I decided to give it a try.
I started by turning off all devices and gadgets at 9:00 pm, everyday. I also turned-off Laptop, iPad and iPhone on Sundays. Initially I was concerned about the reaction people might have or potentially important communication getting missed out. But in a few days, I realized that people adjust to your choices.
Initial experience of not being with technology was that of “missing something”. But soon, there was also a newfound freedom. Finally I can be with my own self, not tied to any device. There was a breath of fresh air and a lot of calmness to complement with it.
Start small and gradually increase the time when you can remain without technology. It will be peaceful and a calming experience. Do not use your cellphone for alarm. Use a dedicated alarm clock so that you can turn off your cellphone during nights. Turn off Wi-Fi and any other electronic gadget that emit EMFs for a peaceful rest at night. Once you have the realization how peaceful technology fasting is, you will practice it again and again.
The key to productivity is “Self-Awareness”
Not many people even try these experiments, let alone practicing them. The real reason is “self-awareness”. It is the most fundamental ingredients needed for any change to take place. It is the lever that shifts our knowledge from information domain to action domain.
What are your favorite productivity experiments? Which one of these productivity experiments inspires you?
Hrishikesh Jobanputra is a life-long entrepreneur and a marketing consultant. He teaches young entrepreneurs how to grow their freelance business at: freelancetactics.com. He is also the co-founder of 39shops.com, an e-commerce platform for start-ups.
Image Credit: www.lifehack.org