Finding it harder than ever to stay focused and productive? Considering the pull of email inboxes, social media feeds, and a relentless news cycle, it would be surprising if you weren’t.
Even experts openly admit that staying productive in the modern world is no easy task. “Life can be mentally and emotionally draining. Whether you’re job hunting, working from home, dealing with the kids who are home for the summer, or returning to work for the first time in person, there’s a lot on our plates,” says productivity expert Tanya Dalton, author of On Purpose: The Busy Woman’s Guide to an Extraordinary Life.
So what’s an overwhelmed mere mortal with a never-ending to-do list to do? Here, experts share their do’s and don’ts for increasing your productivity ASAP so you can feel less frazzled and more focused.
Don’t Over-monitor Your Inbox
“Emails, texts, and returning phone calls are things that cause the most distractions in your day,” says Dalton. She recommends designating specific times each day for tackling emails, as well as non-urgent text messages and phone calls, rather than rapid-firing responses without respite.
“If you’re a person who gets a high volume of emails, you could do morning, lunch, late afternoon, and then the early evening before checking out for the day,” she suggests.
The main takeaway here is to decide intentionally how many times you’re going to check your email each day and stick to that. “If you’re over-monitoring your inbox, you’re going to be distracted and that work is not ultimately what drives you forward,” she says. “Nail down your inbox so you can make the true impact you aim to in your career and life.”
Do Eat Satisfying Meals
Though you might not think what you eat directly impacts your productivity, including a balance of protein, fat, and fiber at meal times really does keep you performing optimally. “The interplay of these nutrients maximizes satisfaction,” says dietitian Christianna Gozzi M.A., M.S., R.D., of Gozzi Nutrition.
For example, at lunch, try a big salad with your choice of salmon or tofu for protein, avocado, nuts, or oil-based dressing for fat, and beans and veggies for fiber.
How you eat your meals matters, too. Having a relaxing lunch without distractions, for instance, can help you return to your desk recharged, says Gozzi. Savor your meals as much as possible. “Always remember your food is meant to be enjoyed, so select flavors, colors, and textures that appeal to you.” This way, you won’t be thinking about your next snack the minute you’re back at your desk.
Do Wake Up Earlier
“[How many hours we have in a day] is never going to change. However, what can change is our relationship to time. Make time work for you, instead of against you,” says executive coach Teresa Vozza, A.C.C.
One major way to do this? Wake up earlier! You can use the time to meditate, go for a walk in your neighborhood, or do a quick yoga video on YouTube. These intentional activities give you an opportunity to mentally prepare for your day—and ultimately be more productive.
Don’t Make Unrealistic to-do lists
Psychotherapist Dana Colthart, L.C.S.W., is a big proponent of not making your expectations too high or your to-do lists too long. Often, people set the bar at accomplishing 10 things in one day, which leads to anxiety and overwhelm, ultimately backfiring and paralyzing people.
Your move? Start small and put just one or two must-do priorities on your daily task list.
She also recommends doing a gut check on those to-do list items. Make sure they’re specific—and consider giving yourself more time, not just the day, to get them done. For example, if you’ve been trying to land a new job, one weekly objective might be “reach out to three people for informational interviews.”
Do Prioritize your mental health
The number-one priority for anyone who wants to be more productive, according to Colthart? Mental health-care. “If you’re anxious or depressed, you will automatically be less productive,” she says. “Taking care of your mental health for productivity is essential.”
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, she suggests working with a licensed therapist “in order to calm negative thought patterns and decrease problematic behaviors,” both of which stand in the way of your productivity.
Even if you’re not clinically anxious or depressed, there’s a good chance burnout might be affecting your ability to get things done. If you find yourself exhausted all the time, are having trouble finishing things you start, and/or frequently crave carbs like pizza and cookies, consulting with a therapist may help you get to the root of your burnout and start to recoup.
Do Pick Up the Pace
CEO, entrepreneur coach, and author of WIN FAST, Siimon Reynolds, recommends “the timer method” when you really need to get something done.
“First, estimate how much time a task is likely to take. (If it’s going to take more than 90 minutes, you may wish to break the job into sections.) Next, shorten your estimate by 20 percent.” For example, if you think cleaning your kitchen or writing a memo to your boss is going to take 60 minutes, set a timer for 48 instead.
Then, during this period, take pains to avoid any interruptions or breaks (unless it’s an emergency or you have to use the bathroom) while you chug away on your task. Reynolds advises: “When implementing the timer method, don’t answer the phone if it rings. If someone interrupts you, tell them you’ll come back to them as soon as you’ve finished. Working with incessant stops and starts is poisonous to effectiveness.”
Another benefit of working this way? “When you pick up the pace, you get hit with a burst of energy: You feel sharper, clearer, and more motivated. It’s a great feeling; certainly far better than trudging through your workload at a snail’s pace,” he says.
Don’t Slack on hydration
Another unexpected hack for feeling your sharpest and most focused? Drink that water.
“Dehydration can cause you to feel irritable, tired, and even confused,” says dietitian Johna Burdeos, R.D. “Choose water as your main source of hydration and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been linked to inflammation and chronic disease.”
FYI: Hydration requirements vary by individual. To estimate how much water you should drink daily, divide your body weight (in pounds) in half and drink that many ounces of water daily. So, if you’re 150 pounds, that’s 75 ounces. Here are eight fun ways to drink more water if you’re not the biggest fan of H2O.