The go-to productivity tips of efficiency experts

3 pieces of advice that are so simple, but bound to work.

3 pieces of advice that are so simple, but bound to work

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When is the last time you had a spare moment to read a book from cover to cover or simply book all of your medical appointments? If you're constantly pushing off indulgences and tasks that you can't seem to find time for, you're not alone. 

Statistics Canada reported that more than one million Canadians held multiple jobs as of 2018, so it's not surprising that many people find it difficult to get through their to-do lists, never mind pick up a new hobby, hit the gym or pencil in social outings. Time famine is the scourge of modern society, and for many of us, it can feel like there are never enough hours in the day. Ever.

"The pace and volume of work continues to rise," says Ann Gomez, productivity and leadership consultant and founding president of Clear Concept Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont. "Email is more prolific, and there is more of an expectation of being 'always available.' This is translating into an unnecessary expectation of immediate responses, which is getting in the way of deep, focused work. We are busy being busy. Despite the long hours many people log, many feel they are not accomplishing as much as they want to. Interruptions and competing priorities get in the way of substantive work on our most important goals."

What's more, while being busy has become a status symbol for our time, being busy doesn't necessarily equate to being productive.

"We live in what has been aptly termed the 'age of distraction,'" says Tim Stringer, a Vancouver-based productivity coach and consultant, and founder of digital productivity tools Technically Simple and Learn OmniFocus. "Until we become skillful at gracefully managing and filtering this informational barrage, there's a tendency to see time and energy as a scarce commodity. This is an inherently unproductive perspective," he explains. "I see time as a river: A skilled kayaker can navigate even the most challenging rapids with ease and joy. Someone who is less adept may have an experience of being swept along by the current with little to no sense of control."

Vancouver-based life coach Olga Rickards agrees. "It's what we do with our time that matters," she says. "In the era of social media and instant connectivity, there are many distractions to manage. However, it's what we choose to focus on and the boundaries we set, or don't set, that make all the difference."

Whether your goal is to find time to fit in a fitness class, cook one or two more homemade meals with your family per week or power through that daunting task at work in good time, we asked these experts for their tips and techniques. They may just help you crack the code on time management, and become less stressed and more productive.

Be clear about goals — your goals

One of the most common hindrances to productivity is a lack of clarity and alignment when it comes to our goals, according to Rickards.

"You can't reach a goal that's not defined," she explains. "This is why I'm a big believer in setting specific, measurable goals. However, the real issue here has to do with a fundamental lack of alignment with who we are, what we stand for and what matters to us. Too often, we are trying to fulfill other people's expectations instead of defining success in our own terms and working on things that make us feel inspired and fulfilled." 

Choose one task, and stay focused

"Mental juggling" typically results in dropping the ball in one way or another. In fact, a report from the American Psychological Association explains that our brains just weren't designed for serious multitasking. 

"Focusing on one thing [at a time] is faster, leads to better quality work and is easier," says Gomez, who is a fan of the Pomodoro Technique. Inspired by a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, the method involves breaking work down into manageable segments separated by short breaks. You start by isolating the task at hand, set the timer and then concentrate solely on that task until your time is up. "I use this technique every single day to help with my writing," says Gomez. "I believe that this one strategy, together with a commitment around daily writing, helped me write a book."

If a timer alone won't cut it, you can try a more gamified version like the Flora habit tracker, a free Pomodoro-style app that plants a virtual tree when you start a task. The tree dies any time you pick up your phone, and the shame associated with potential arboreal murder should be enough to keep you focused.

And we know, procrastination problems are real. For tips on how to even get to pressing that timer to begin with, check out these tips for getting over that motivation hurdle.

Remember that time out is actually key

Chilling out when you've got 300 things on your to-do list may seem counterintuitive but, according to the experts, it will actually help you get more done. 

"I advise my clients to allow space [in] their day, even when there's a strong temptation to power through every waking moment," says Stringer. "Setting aside time to do nothing but take a leisurely stroll and let your mind wander can greatly enhance those times in your day that you're engaged in 'doing.'"

Stringer says that mindfulness through meditation is a great way to take stock of how you're spending your time, and allows you to step back and evaluate priorities. "In this state, it's natural to accurately gauge whether what you're spending time on is in support of productive results," he says, adding that "mindfulness is also a breeding ground for creative ideas."

Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.