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Can’t Get Out of Your Slump? Check Out These Productivity Tips.

We all have those days… the ones where every distraction is far more enticing than what we’re supposed to be accomplishing for work. Sometimes we’re able to pull ourselves back with sheer determination and willpower. Other times, let’s face it, we’re driven solely by guilt and a sense of responsibility.

So how do we keep the productivity train rolling and the hazardous distractions from popping up? I turned to our community to find out what their best productivity tips and tricks are for keeping on track throughout the day.

Understand the Scope of the Project

One of the biggest enemies of productivity is ambiguous direction. Nothing is worse than finishing a large project, only to find out that your idea of “complete” wasn’t remotely the same as the person who requested it.

“If someone says ‘I want an artificial intelligence based recommendation system,’ that could be something I could do in 10 minutes or spend my entire life on. The entire “task” becomes unapproachable,” says David Antaramian.

“Whittling it down to ‘I want an artificial intelligence system that always recommends at least 5 users for me to follow and is updated every minute,’ that task is much more approachable because I have boundaries to the task and a definition of when I will be ‘finished’ with the task.”

Many companies use the SMART method to help define goals. This method helps you think through projects to make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. This ensures that the project is both well-defined and aligned with company goals.

Work in Small Increments

Understanding the scope of a project allows you to break it into smaller, more manageable increments. This takes away some of the “Where do I start?” predicament that can so often paralyze and stall even the best minds. Getting Things Done author David Allen says, “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it complete.”

This also allows you to make your work visible to those around you. Darren Cauthon refers to this as producing output: “Tickets, screenshots, messages, unit tests, branches, pull requests.  There should be outwardly visible output on everything I do.” This gives you the satisfaction of crossing things off the list and also keeps you accountable to your team for what your progress is on a particular project.

Steve Lackey suggests making a game out of small goals, seeing how many things you can accomplish in 10-30 minutes perhaps, or how many Pomodoros you can check off in one day. “The first step is to break the projects down into a list of smaller tasks,” he says. “For a larger project I tend to use either a spreadsheet, tiddlywiki, or even markdown documents in a common directory to manage notes and lists.”

This helps keep the project manageable and also gives you a clear path to follow. For Antaramian, simply seeing results feeds into that feeling of productiveness, which furthers the productivity. “You could think of it as working with yardstones instead of milestones,” he says. “Break it down into smaller increments that show value.”

List One Key Goal for Each Day

Breaking your projects into small tasks also allows you to define a clear goal for each day. Barthelemy Dagenais says, “I need to have at least one clear output done by the end of the day.” This might only be one portion of your overall project, but having that one clear output that you can hold up as the day’s accomplishment can sometimes be just what you need to have the motivation to start the next task.

Take Short Breaks

Now that you’ve broken your projects into smaller tasks and started to whittle down that list, make sure you’re taking breaks to rest your brain in addition to your eyes! The Ontario Ministry of Labour actually requires it at some jobs and emphasizes that “short, frequent breaks are much more effective in preventing excessive fatigue… than longer, less frequent breaks.”

Jenn Lebowitz agrees that “brain breaks” are good for productivity after long periods of intense focus. Whether you head to Dunkin’ Donuts (Jenn’s favorite), to the beach (my favorite), or simply step away from your computer to stretch your neck out, it’s bound to make a difference in your focus when you sit back down to tackle the next task.

Need yet another push toward remembering to schedule breaks throughout your day? Ciphr lists 6 great reasons why breaks are useful, covering everything from increased productivity to improved relationships with your colleagues!

Hint: If you’re looking for apps to help you remember to take breaks and de-stress, Techlicious has a great round-up post

Optimize for Time of Day

Lastly, figure out your “brain schedule”. I set aside an hour or two early in the afternoon (aka after my coffee kicks in) to write blog posts and tackle strategic tasks that require my full attention. My mornings are reserved for smaller, more manageable tasks and teamwork, including reviewing changes, brainstorming new ideas, and responding to community members.

Dagenais’s schedule takes a slightly different slant: “I work on different tasks depending on the time of the day. Early morning and morning are for creative/software design tasks. I never work on software design in late afternoon or evening because I’ll probably have to fix it the next morning, so it’s not really productive. Writing tests and lots of code once I have a clear direction is best done during the afternoon. Meetings that require creativity or critical input from me are best done in the morning too.”

Optimizing for particular times of day and the way that your brain works keeps you from banging your head against the wall to solve a particular problem that you might be able to cross off your list in no time, if you were only in the right frame of mind.

What Are Your Productivity Tips?

What are your tricks for staying productive? Leave a comment below or shoot us a tweet to let us know where you stand on Pomodoros, goal-setting, and best times for brainstorming.

— Mary

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