Productivity Hacks and Where to Find Them

The search continues for productivity hacks for busy-brained people who have too much to do…

If you have always had a busy brain like me, distractable and often day-dreamy, you will probably have spent years looking for systems that help you “get things done” or “be more productive”. You probably have to work twice as hard to put the any suggestions in place – I can tell you with the added bonus of brain fog for the last 18 months, I have hard-won experience about just how tough this can be. Over the years, I have developed an insatiable appetite for the self-help books that help and here are the productivity hacks that have actually helped:

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

This book is such a a classic though I haven’t read it since I was an impressionable teenager some of the habits have stuck. It’s definitely quite a dense management-speak book that couldn’t solve all my problems but there is one hack that has stuck – the importance matrix. You probably know to always write a to do list: mine has too many things on it and some on there that “should have dones” that haunt me every time I look at this.

But I am having a tough time, I sit and make a matrix. In essence what Covey teaches you to do is to rank the most important and time-consuming tasks so that you get your priorities done first. When my brain is fuzzed with too many tasks to do, I still use this method after all these years to focus in on what’s got to get done first.

Graham Allcott: How to Be a Productivity Ninja

One book I think that runs alongside Covey’s book which helps you prioritise tasks is The Productivity Ninja. The section that stayed with me was both about knowing your best times of day but most importantly protect your attention. This means working in focus mode on my phone or putting a timer on to work solidly for that time. Now as you will know getting precious time alone with enough energy is my constant battle, but knowing that mornings are the times I can concentrate best and that I work well with instrumental music on helps me keep on task.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism was a book I have found quite recently. It actually seems more of a philosophy – a minimalism for your inner life and I enjoyed this introductory course on Skillshare (link not affiliated). Having thought through a lot of advice, it seems like he is asking you to design your life and I will share more on the project I am working on as part of the course in a future post. The general idea is to really identify not just your priorities but areas of your lives where you can improve so you are always moving in the direction. As part of this work, you really have to identify your boundaries and so that you really are focusing on what is essential.

Manoush Zomodori: Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything

I have written my account of trying a bored and brilliant project before. The ideas that have really stuck is taking breaks from our phone. She forces you to go on your commute without your phone or go for a quiet walk. What a revelation that we can cope without the modern crutch. The most difficult part is you might feel weird being the only one looking around, not down at your phone. As well as giving you a break, it allows your restless brain to work and often ideas will form. It may seem the opposite of being productive to let your mind wander, but our problem solving mechanism works hard for us and although I do still often have the crutch of my phone, I am much more aware of taking time without it.

Nir Eyal, Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life

The final book I have found helpful has some startling evidence to share about the impact of social media and the instant access of information on our attention. The message I take from this book, apart from making me horrified about my screen time, is that we need to be aware when we are trying to escape.

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality

Nir Eyal, Indistractable

For me I acknowledge I need these breaks, often into fiction or even writing itself. The hard disciplined work of being indistractable is not easy but will undoubtedly improve your productivity.

The fatigue recovery that I have had to undertake has taught me a lot about just how much energy focusing and using our brain takes. I am not yet at my full capacity but so much improved now I can see how important it is to be aware of how we spend our attention. As well as using these hacks, I would say we also need to balance. We need these hard and focused moments to work effectively in the time we have but also those things that give us a break.

Have you read any productivity books you think will help?

Take back a little control

When life gets in the way, what steps can you take to have some control?

I recently embarked on a project to complete 50 days of healthy habits, run by Smilin Aislinn. I managed 50 days of consistent meditation, reading as well as eating and exercising the best that I can. I didn’t manage 100% of all my tasks each day, but I hit 75% of the tasks every day and embedded some useful habits into my life. Her method worked really well for me and I would definitely recommend it to others.

In a bid to take this level of discipline forward for another 50 days, I have set myself some new tasks which includes writing 3 times a week. The tasks I set in the first 50 days were achievable because I had already started to try and put them in my life. What I did by taking on the challenge was stay consistent to support my health (hello daily green smoothies) and making sure I did morning pages (hello waking up to write.) The reason it worked so well was I was not strict or judgmental with myself. I enjoyed ticking off the tasks each day in my journal and getting that little hit of achievement. It also gave me a little bit of control over things I can do to help myself.

In the background of these next 50 days we have started another battle (always a battle) to get the right support for my Special Needs son. So, as we prepare documents and attend meetings and generally try not to worry about the future, it’s even more important to feel in control.

For me there are three things that help me manage my life: timers, lists and focusing.

Short bursts of time writing is one way to get work done.

These ideas are not revolutionary but if you knew how hard it was for my busy brain to knuckle down to tasks in this way, you would understand why I have to rely on them to function well. In reality this means I set a timer to write or read – essential tasks which take a lot of energy. I need a list of what I am working on next. And, and this is the hard one, I need time without interruption. Often I use the Binaural playlists in my ear buds but I also turn on “focus mode” on my phone.

Taking back control over our focus is a real skill in the distracted world. I previously took the “Bored but Brilliant” challenge to help me get into a more creative space. I have been reading a number of productivity books and will publish my essential list soon but for now I will say that being less attached to a device and more in control of my time is currently one of my main goals for part two of this challenge.

What are your essential tools to get your work done?

How to give your brain a break

Seeking soothing activities recently, I have found some things are much gentler on the brain than others

I was writing recently about how important audiobooks have been over the last year. It has been really important to give myself permission to ‘count’ these books as reading. It motivates me to have a reading goal but the realistic picture has been I can concentrate much less at the moment. Since getting ill in January, I have had post viral fatigue to manage. And this includes giving my brain a break.

In fact I haven’t had much choice about giving it a break as I often find apart from first thing in the morning, my brain is sluggish. Learning more about pacing to cope with fatigue, I am realising that this early morning burst of reading or writing is most likely impacting my ability to do more the rest of the day. Reading is an activity. Sounds such a simple thing to say but until you realise it has an impact on your cognitive functioning, you may not appreciate lying on your bed reading is doing something!

Another revelation that may be of no surprise to anyone else, you have to relearn how to rest. Again, at times, I have no choice but to rest. Lots of lying down at the moment! But we are so used to being busy, cramming in our friendships through social media, using any spare time to read or listen to podcasts to learn something. Stopping it all and prioritizing what you want to spend your energy on is a real skill.

Find What Soothes You

So, to give my brain a break, I am becoming very aware of what soothes me and also what takes too much brain power. Here are some ideas of my soothing swaps:

  1. Audiobooks: A lot of relistening. I have recently started the complete collection of Jeeves and Wooster read by Stephen Fry, not only do I know the stories, they are light fippery that I can enjoy without worrying too much about concentrating. Gentle humour keeps it light but means I am not bored.
  2. Classical music: there are a lot of soothing playlists readymade on Spotify and Classical Chillout has helped me relax. Sometimes even lyrics are too distracting. Short pieces of classical music often whisk you away somewhere.
  3. Short bursts of reading: where I can manage reading, I try to tead from my “comfort reading” list such as a Maisie Dobbs mystery which though often tender, have also a cosiness about them. It’s the perfect time to revisit old friends.
  4. Beautiful costume drama. I enjoyed the steamy romp of Bridgerton earlier this year, but honestly right now I am more in the mood for the gentler stuff. Rewatching, like relistening and rereading is very soothing because there are no suprises. You can’t beat the BBCs Pride and Prejudice or the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility.
  5. Doodling in a sketch book. I am even finding colouring in detailed patterns in a colouring book too much at times. I have been doing warm up drawing exercises in a sketch book, shading and drawing circles. Circles are actually a zen practice and I can see the appeal as you never truly know until you finish how well you have drawn it.

What I discover as I write a list of what helps me is that I am looking for comfort in familiarity. But also, that my brain is one that still has to be entertained. As I find this balance of what does and doesn’t work for me, I wonder if I will ever find I can just do nothing?

It may be time to revisit the Bored and Brilliant project again and consider Manoush Zomorodi advice that “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Do you ever just do nothing?

It starts with an image…

There are bored people, hanging out in parks and it reminded me so strongly of childhood I started to write…

It is strange to reflect on where inspiration can strike, I wrote last year that prompts are everywhere. But the people doing nothing, freed from lockdown, perhaps still not able to work, stood out to me as I sat and watched. It’s noticeable that more people are in the parks. In this area they have become the saviour of our lockdown lives. Many people with little or no garden rely on this space to see some green. Whether because there are fewer places to go, even now, or because we have remembered the great resource of green space, there always seems to be people just hanging around.

Well, I was hanging around on purpose this week as I was completing the Bored and Brilliant Project. I have been taking the challenges suggested in Manoush Zomorodi in her book in order to unleash my creativity. This has included less time online and taking fewer photos. This week I had to take a holiday from my phone so I deleted the addictive game that had been my go-to distraction. It was a wrench, I certainly notice that the phone is where I go to escape a bit from overcrowded living and work stress.

I had no choice then to take myself out to try some time doing nothing, noticing more around me. First I tried sitting by the river, a treat because I have not been so far afield until this week. I counted forty swans parading under the Thames bridge. But I also had to combat the fear and anxiety of being outside and on a pedestrian thoroughfare which still seems riskier right now that I am comfortable with.

From Seligr on Flickr, not taken by me

Plagued with the anxiety and trying to keep my tears to myself, I decided I needed a quieter spot to try and people-watch. So off to small, local park, where people of all ages lounged in small groups or exercised. Sat on a bench watching others, I had a brainwave and broke the rules. My phone is often where I put snippets of words that come to me and a nostalgia for my home town struck me.

I can still see them sat on the green electricity box, legs swinging, swigging from a bottle.

I don’t know that all the little sentences and phrases and collect have to go anywhere, but it was interesting to see that the bored brain did come up with the germ of an idea.

As far as the challenge goes, I would recommend it as a way of considering the impact of our fast-paced, online lives. The caveat I would make is that this book may not be for you if your anxiety often overwhelms you. I think there is a place for the way that we distract ourselves, particularly if you find your mind doesn’t wander to brilliance but spends time in rumination.

You can read more about my project here, have you tried being bored and brilliant?

On Photography

This week as part of my Bored and Brilliant project I tried to take few photos to mixed results

Last week I attempted with some success to reduce my phone addiction and become Brilliant and Bored using the advice from Manoush Zomodori’s book Bored and Brilliant:How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything. The challenges I faced this week were to not only put my phone to one side but also stop trying to capture every moment with photos.

You would have thought that having studied Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I would have found it easy to understand why taking fewer photos forms part of the Bored and Brilliant project. Photography is about trying to hold on to a particular moment, but Sontag argues at the same time not really live it. This ultimately chimes with the idea of our distracted lives which Zomodori is showing impacts on our creativity and concentration.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

― Susan Sontag, On Photography

The fact that the image is captured on camera seems to play into Sontag’s claim that a photograph is “imprisoning reality.” Her book was a series of essays from the 1970s but her ideas have become more prescient in the way we live our lives now. Instagram (which I do use) and Snapchat and TikTok, (which I don’t) rely on us communicating via image more than anything.

I do have a MumWriteNow insta but I am not very good at keeping it up and I didn’t think I was too bad at taking photos, only sharing on there and my personal account from time-to-time. That was until the first day I tried to live, not just capture reality. My son had been grumpy all morning, it was hot, so I decided to set up some tubs and toys for water-play in the garden. Without thinking, I took out my phone to take a photo of him playing. Part of me knows I wanted to show off that I had engaged him outside (not on a screen!) but worse still, he has grown to expect photos and often wants my to take short videos.

This was a wake-up call that even I am not immune to needing to capture everything, whether or not I needed to share my Mum humble-brag with friends online, or just because I felt I needed to have a record of our lockdown life, it was still quite mindless. I started instead to try and watch him, asking him questions and he ended up making up a story. This may well have happened even if I took photos, but it was interesting to see the change. I wonder also if the play lasted longer as I was definitely more present.

clouds hang on a blue background
Be. Here. Now

I know of course I idly scroll through my feeds which includes photos of friends, but also people I don’t know like celebrities, housewives and book-lovers of course. Quite often I think of Instagram as a replacement for magazines, a way to keep up with style, gossip, for example. But in watching my stats and admitting my addiction was greater than I assumed, I put my phone away again and stayed away from social media too. It was only then that I felt I was being more mindful.

By the end of the day, perhaps in a stroke of brilliance, I was watching out of the window, knowing sunset must be soon. I had a book in my hand, not quite able to give up all my crutches as yet, and my son who was supposed to be in bed disturbed me. Irritably, I hurried him back to bed worried I would miss it like it was a TV show back in the old days. Then as I came back into my room, my heart-lifted in triumph, the curved cumulus clouds were surrounded by the deep orange-red of sunset. I had just made it back in time. I watched it until the sun went down, and felt lifted by it. I had actually experienced that moment, on that one day.

If only I could show you what simple beauty there was in the evening sky, but I didn’t get a photo, sorry.