The Rules of Stress-Free Productivity

Stress-free productivity

Let’s be honest for a second: How do you feel about work? Is it challenging but satisfying? Do you spend a lot of time on the things that really matter to you? Does work make you feel in control?

Or is it more like you can barely keep up? That your workday is filled with minutiae and you jump from one phone call to the next while drowning in a flood of emails?

Do you feel incredibly busy without actually getting much done? Like there aren’t enough hours in the day? And that you never get around to doing the important stuff?

Well, you are not the only one.

Overwhelmed and underperforming

I have struggled with these issues a lot. Running a startup on the side while also taking care that you have a roof over your head and food on the table is not necessarily an easy task and requires a lot of energy.

If you don’t know what you are doing (which I didn’t since it was my first business venture), you can quickly feel like you are in way over your head. So I crashed and burned – many times.

Work consumed my life. I didn’t have time for friends or going out, my health suffered, and I neglected my usual counterbalance activities like strength training because I had no energy.

The real tragedy, however, was that at the same time I was highly unproductive. Even though I worked 12-hour days, I was actually treading water. Somehow all the important stuff, the bigger things that could make a real difference, rarely got done. It felt like I was racing a car in first gear.

Yet I saw other people get tons of things done. And worst of all: They seemed to enjoy it. How dare they!? And how was that possible? It was damn frustrating.

Why productivity matters

Being productive, being able to get the important things done without succumbing to stress and burning out is an important part of living a healthy life. Why? Because work is a big part of our life.

Most of us spend at least eight hours every day earning a living. If work fills you with dread and just thinking of it makes your adrenalin shoot through the roof, this will carry over to the rest of your life. Chronic stress is one of the most potent killers of our time and age.

Apart from that, being healthy takes time. Time to exercise, time to properly eat and enjoy your food, time to sleep and recover, and time to relax and play. How are you going to do that if you can’t lift a finger when the working day is done?

So what’s the solution?

I looked at some of the most productive and successful people I know, such as Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferris, Leo Babauta of zenhabits, and others to find out how they do it and learn from them.

There was a lot of trial and error but over time I figured out what worked and what doesn’t. The techniques I describe below are the ones I found to be the most effective. I’m not perfect at doing them and I drop the ball every now and then (I’m human after all), but this is what I keep coming back to.

The overarching theme here is sustainability. The goal is not to squeeze every last bit of productivity out of every day or overwork yourself (as many of us already are) but to get your stuff done without burning yourself out.

These rules apply whether you are an entrepreneur or you work a steady job. They can dramatically cut down on the hours you work and ramp up your output.

How to be highly productive without killing yourself

Rule #1: You shall only do one task at a time

Stress-free productivity - Avoid multitaskingMultitasking, performing more than one task at a time, is a myth. It does not work. Research has repeatedly shown that the human mind isn’t meant to multitask. When we try to do it anyway, in actuality our brains switch back and forth between tasks instead of performing them both at once.

The only exception is if at least one of the tasks is automatic and requires no thought (like walking), or if the tasks use different types of brain processing (e.g. it’s harder to listen to music with lyrics while writing an email than music without lyrics because both require language processing).

Conclusion: Only concentrate on one thing at a given time. Do it from beginning to end, then move on to the next one. Your brain and concentration will thank you.

Additional tip: Keep a notepad at hand. While you are working on one task, inevitably other ideas will come to your head. Write them down on the notepad to remove them from your mind and tackle them later if important.

Rule #2: You shall eliminate distractions

We live in a time and age where information isn’t something we need to seek but which is thrown at us with the momentum of water from a fire hose. The internet is like a 24-hour open buffet for information addicts, but most of it is of very little nutritional value. Just like with food, you have to decide what goes in and what stays out.

One of the biggest distractions is email. I highly recommend following the advice from The 4-hour workweek: Switch off automatic email notification and check your messages only at scheduled times during the day (I check at 11am and 16pm, then answer them all at once, see Rule #4). Same goes for phone calls. You don’t have to be available at all times, most so-called emergencies really aren’t any and take care of themselves.

In the same line of thought I block Youtube and other time wasters in my browser during work hours (check out Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocused for Chrome) so I can concentrate on getting more important things done.

Besides that you can easily get rid of your TV (as Katrin and Daniel over at bevegt have done). I haven’t owned one in six years and I don’t miss it in the least.

Rule #3: You shall set SMART goals

One big mistake that most people (me included) make when trying to be more productive or make any kind of change in their life is lack of precision. Often we set ourselves goals which are hazy at best and counterproductive at worst. Think “write report”, “eat healthier”, or “work out more”.

Each of these is made up of several subtasks. Trying to take care of them in one swoop is too big a thing to tackle and will leave you frustrated and feeling unaccomplished. So break down each task into its components and work on them one after the other.

A great way to remember how to set proper goals is the acronym SMART, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. I have written about this in detail elsewhere. Don’t neglect the time factor. As I said in the here: “Nothing gets done unless it has a deadline.”

Rule #4: You shall batch similar tasks

Have you ever washed dishes by hand? I will be so forward and assume you have. I will also guess that you did it in the following fashion: Wash all dishes, then dry them, then put them away.

Now imagine that instead of the usual routine you would process each piece from beginning to end on its own. Meaning you wash and dry only one plate, cup, saucer, knife, fork, or spoon and put each in their place before moving on to the next one.

Which method do you think will take longer? Every halfway reasonable person in the world would agree that the first one is the smarter way to go.

Combining similar tasks can dramatically cut down the time you need to accomplish them. It’s easier to do the same thing over and over again than switching between different processes. It requires less steps, less attention and provides fewer workflow interruptions.

One example of how I put this into practice is that I only check emails twice a day and process everything in one fell swoop until my inbox is completely empty. I also let all small, non-critical tasks like paying bills and running errands pile up over the week and collect them in one list. Then on Monday I do them all at once.

Rule #5: You shall work in bursts

Being “on” 24/7 is as much a myth as multitasking. Your brain is just like a muscle: Highly trainable but also in need of regular recovery time. Failure to give it that results in the loss of creativity, cognitive function, willpower and will overall make you feel like crap.

Many people in our culture tend to overwrite our brain’s natural need for breaks during bouts of work with stimulants, i.e. sugar and coffee. Don’t. It’s borrowed energy which you will have to pay back with interest later on.

What I recommend is something I like to call HIIP or high-intensity interval productivity. It is very similar to the high-intensity training style (which I am a big fan of) and means working in short periods (45-90 minutes) of focused effort, so called sprints, interspersed with rest periods to refuel.

This working style lets me work for longer periods of time in a more relaxed fashion. Instead of ending up with a headache and burning eyes after a marathon of screen time, the built-in breaks put some distance between me and my work and allow me to return with renewed focus.

Experiment with the length of the sprints. When I do very tedious work, I cut it down to half an hour. Then I take five to ten minutes off where I walk around, stretch, do some pushups or crunches before getting back to the task at hand for another half hour.

Rule #6: You shall prioritize

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” – Zig Ziglar

Stress-free productivity - Set prioritiesLet’s face it, a lot of our time is spent working on things which are far from critical. It is entirely possible to fill a whole day with activity without accomplishing anything. There is no work that can not be invented. Anyone who has ever cleaned their house in order to avoid writing a paper will attest to that.

The ability to discern between the important and the unimportant and to set priorities is a crucial skill. Instead of identifying what could make a real difference in their life or work, many people concentrate on being “busy” instead.

In the 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris calls this “work for work’s sake” (W4W). It should be avoided at all costs. Our resources (time, energy, willpower, motivation) are limited so we have to decide what we spend them on.

I used to have a to-do list with dozens of tasks which I could never all complete in one day. Many of them got carried over to the next day and to the next and so on without ever being accomplished, only serving to give me perpetual bad conscience.

Don’t be like that. Instead ask yourself: What tasks, if completed, would make you feel like you had an incredible day? Pick 1-3 of them, schedule them as the first thing you do, and make sure you complete them. Everything else can usually wait.

Rule #7: You shall learn to detach

The thing which has brought me close to burn-out more often than anything else is the inability to shut off my mind. I have often doubted my decision to become an entrepreneur because I often found myself mentally still working even if I physically wasn’t.

As a consequence my “free time” was merely time spent feeling guilty about not working on my career or business. If you are looking for a one-way ticket to nervous breakdown, this is it. It’s the equivalent of trying to build muscle by carrying around a loaded barbell on your shoulders all day.

Don’t be like that. Take regular breaks instead. And I don’t mean hopping over to Facebook and playing Farmville or watching YouTube videos. Cut all ties with what you are doing at that very moment, go somewhere else, and clear your head. Take a “million-dollar break” (thanks to Ramit Sethi for this idea). Trust me, it will make a real difference.

My personal tactic is to a) work in sprints with a timer running so I have interruptions automatically built in (see rule #5), b) to visualize each sprint as a closed-off block of activity and c) force myself to physically leave my desk when the timer rings so as not to get sucked into the internet.

Besides making breaks part of your regular workflow, it is important that you find ways to decompress outside productivity mode. For me this is working out, having a drink with other people, going to a movie with my girlfriend, or reading a book. I actually keep a list with places and activities which have the most positive impact on my feeling of wellbeing.

I also take Saturday completely off and exclusively do things that I enjoy. No email, no scheduled meetings, no work-related activities, no nothing. If I want to spend the whole day lying on the couch and watching movies, I can. Saturday is a day of guilt-free indulgence. Highly recommended!

Rule #8: You shall take care of yourself

In my experience, the ability to sustainably produce good results for yourself is as much about what happens outside of work. Being able to function at peak capacity is not merely a matter of sitting down and powering through, it’s also about creating the right circumstances for great things to happen.

It’s easy to neglect yourself and your needs in the process of getting things done, especially when you like what you do.

For me the big four to achieve balance in my life are: fueling right, exercise, making sleep a priority, and engaging in social activities. It might be slightly different for you but I would advise to start there.

Fueling right: Make sure you give your body the energy it needs. Concentrate on whole foods, avoid processed crap as much as you can.

Exercise: This doesn’t have to mean join a gym and go three times a week. It just means you should move. Walk around, stretch, jog around the block, do pushups, anything that gets your heart rate going. You can do this in between work sprints instead of watching that Youtube video or checking Facebook.

Make sleep a priority: Sleep is almost always the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more work. However, sleep deprivation, especially the chronic kind, leads to horrible things. If at all possible, stick to a regular sleep schedule and get your 8 hours. You may have to shift some priorities for this.

Social contact: Spend time with your family, stay in contact with old friends, have at least one night per week where you spend 3-4 hours with others. Put a reminder in your calendar to schedule plans for the weekend on Wednesday. Don’t underestimate the importance of this.

Stress-free productivity - Scrabble

Stress-free productivity in a nutshell:

  1. Do one thing at a time, don’t multitask
  2. Eliminate distractions
  3. Set precise goals
  4. Break tasks down into their components
  5. Batch similar tasks
  6. Work in bursts
  7. Set priorities
  8. Learn to detach
  9. Take care of yourself outside of productive phases

Recommended reading:

Jonathan Fields – Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance
Tim Ferris – The 4-hHour Workweek
Leo Babauta – Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System

Which one is your favorite? Do you have anything to add? Let me know!

Image source: Paul Downey, Daniel Lobo, epSo.de, Sean MacEntee

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2 Comments

  1. 26 / May / 2014
    Renee

    Toller Beitrag, gibt es diese Themenartikel vielleicht auch als ebook? Am liebsten natürlich kostenlos? Und Schokolade? Nee, Ohne Schoki reicht auch. Vielen Dank!

    • 26 / May / 2014

      Hi Renee, freut mich, dass es Dir gefällt. Danke für die Idee mit dem Ebook. Mit etwas mehr Material könnte ich da sicher etwas draus basteln. Schokolade lässt sich allerdings schlech digitalisieren.

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