Do your mornings start in chaos and just seem to go downhill from there? Do you find it nearly impossible to stay on track with your daily tasks? Are you working into the evening to try to play catch up?
You may be screaming out for more hours in the day. But what you really need is a better understanding of how to organize your life.
Here are 10 key organizational tips to get you on track to a more productive day – downtime included.
1. Prep The Night Before
The best way to start an organized day is to begin the night before. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes to your morning when you’ve already got several tasks under control.
Prep your lunch and snacks so that you can literally grab-and-go. Plan what you’re going to wear so you can spend zero minutes combing through your wardrobe. And get a start on that “to-do” list.
Most of us usually have a general idea the night before of things that must get done the next day. Creating a basic to-do list before bed not only gives you a head start, it may also help to relieve anxiety and help you sleep better. Why? Because you’re taking all those tasks you’ve got running around your head and putting them down on paper!
2. Embrace a Morning Brain Dump
And it’s not just a nightly “brain dump” that’s good for you. It also a great way to begin your day. Grab your coffee or tea, sit at your desk, and think about everything that potentially needs to get done today. Don’t fire that computer up yet. Dump everything down on a piece of paper. Even with all the technology in the world, nothing beats a brain dump to paper. You won’t need more than about 10 minutes (or less) to do this.
Now, use what you’ve written down to either better flesh out your previous to-do list, or start a new and improved one.
The best way to make a to-do list? Give it two columns: “Top priorities” and “Could wait for tomorrow.” This is important because it forces you to focus on only what’s essential today (and leaves you with a far more achievable and actionable short list)
3. Make a Daily Schedule
Using your to-do list as a guide, make a schedule for the day. Identify three major things that really must get done today. Estimate the time you think you’ll need to do them, and block off that time in your schedule. You can also put a few smaller, less important things into any time that’s left over – if there is any.
What’s important about this step is you’ll notice an eight-hour day isn’t that much time. Sometimes, you can’t fit everything in. And that’s okay. That’s the idea. It’s often impossible to meet all of the tasks on your to-do lists every single day. By aiming for three major things, you’re giving yourself prioritized goals you can actually accomplish.
4. Do One Thing at a Time
Ever heard the saying, “A jack of all trades, master of none”? It might as well be about multi-tasking.
We’ve been brainwashed into thinking multitasking is some kind of badge of honor… that juggling many things at once brands us as amazing, irreplaceable workers. Here’s your wake up call: it doesn’t. It often makes us muddled, anxious, and less efficient.
If you want to master a task, you must give it your full, undivided attention. In doing so, you will actually get it done quicker. It takes less time to do something when you give it 100 percent of your attention.
5. Do the Hardest Thing First
Sure, you want to put off the tasks you hate until later and start off your day fun and light! But putting off the hard stuff never works. “Later” you’ll be far more tired, and even LESS likely to complete the task. And, once you get good at putting something off, you’ll just keep putting it off.
But, if you face the most painful task head on – while you have the energy and clear-headedness at the top of your day – you’ll not only get it out of the way, you’ll get it done quicker!
6. Manage Email Correctly
Ah, email… the destroyer of all great organizational tips. That evil master interrupts your flow and keeps you distracted from your goals.
Here’s the thing: most emails do not have to be answered immediately. Your computer won’t blow up, your life won’t unravel, and you won’t lose your job. In fact, you have the power to master it and make it work to your command.
Here are a few ideas that may help change your relationship with your emails:
- Turn off all sound or visual alerts when an email enters your inbox.
- Designate two times a day to check your email… let’s say 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Train people to realize that you don’t and won’t answer emails immediately. You can set up an autoresponder that mentions your designated check-in times and suggest that they call you for anything that’s time-sensitive.
- Once you leave your office (including your home office), no more emails.
- Let your boss and fellow workers know the best way to get in touch with you during the workday, and tell them by limiting your email checks, you’re actually getting more work done for them.
7. Clear The Clutter
Keeping your desk space clear is about more than being tidy. It actually helps to create a distraction-free headspace. Too much mess can drain your energy.
Set-up an efficient filing system to keep your space clear. That way, you’ll know exactly where to find things when you need them. This is also useful for your computer desktop, which can get equally cluttered. Set up clear folders, and file things in them immediately. It only takes a minute, but it can be a massive help.
8. Time Management
Time management is the key to true efficiency. If you spend four hours on a project you allowed two hours for, then you’ve already cut into the time you need to tackle the next priority on your to-do list. You’ll feel behind, and you’ll become agitated, anxious, and unfocused.
As silly as it may sound, setting a timer to stay on track is worth a try. Even if you’re not finished when the timer goes off, it gives you a moment to work out what is truly essential in this moment. Is it time to stop and move on? Does this project really need more time, and can you move that other task until tomorrow?
There’s a system called the Pomodoro technique that works quite well. The idea is that it increases productivity by dividing your workday into highly focused chunks, broken up by short breaks (because our brains need breaks to be efficient).
It works like this:
- Choose a task to be accomplished.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work until the timer sounds, then make a mark on a sheet of paper.
- Take a short break (5 minutes) – breathe, meditate, go for a small walk.
- Then, get back to work and set your timer for another 25 minutes.
- After every four of these short breaks take a longer break (about 30 minutes).
Which brings us to…
9. Take Breaks
“Breaks?! I don’t have time for breaks!”
When determining how to organize your life, the idea of taking breaks must be included. Science supports the idea that your brain needs breaks to be productive. Breaks help to fuel your efficiency. Rather than seeing a break as wasted time, it’s healthier to start seeing it as a productivity buoy.1
You could take breaks by using the Pomodoro method mentioned above, or you can develop your own personalized system. Pausing for a few minutes here and there to do some “four count” breathing can also really make an impact on your daily stress levels. This is a basic Buddhist practice you can do anywhere or anytime.
Here’s how to do it:
- Close your eyes, and focus on breathing from your lower abdomen.
- Inhale for 4 counts
- Hold for 2 counts
- Exhale for 4 counts
- And, hold for 2 counts
Repeat this several times throughout your day for as long as needed to feel more calm. The trick here is to focus only on your breath and the counting.
10. Know When to Stop
Whether you work in an office or from home, you must know when to stop and turn in for the day. Being the person that works the longest hours on your team only rewards you with greater stress.
By using these above techniques to increase your daily productivity, you won’t need to work after-hours. Because working harder doesn’t boost productivity… working smarter does. This obsession with such unhealthy working hours is what puts unneeded stress on families and relationships, and makes us chronically sick.
Know your “clock out” time, and stick to it. Highlight it in your email autoresponder if you must. But make those after-hours and weekends yours to live your life. No job is worth sacrificing your life and health for.
Onwards and Upwards!
Our lives are so jam-packed these days. But, let’s focus on being productive, not busy. The two are not the same thing. Productivity means working less to get results. Busyness is just mindless time-wasting.
Finally, you know what else inspires productivity, aside from organizational tips? Happiness. When you’re calm and happy, your productivity will soar!
For more health wisdom from Eastern philosophies, keep reading here:
8 Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with the Daily “Grind”
How to Start a Meditation Habit (10 simple steps)
How Gratitude Makes You Happier (And Why Science Agrees!)