Want to be more productive?
That means focusing on the work that matters and finishing it without all the distractions most of us struggle with now.
But there’s a big challenge to overcome: without the self discipline of a monk, even the most elegant productivity systems and strategies seem out of reach.
If you aren’t as disciplined as you’d like to be, are there still ways to work smarter and faster?
Keep reading to find out why a lack of discipline doesn’t have to hold you back… and how you can develop it gradually to be even more productive with time.
Your Environment Is Against You
Fast food drive-through windows.
Streaming online videos.
Social media and smart phones.
All of these technologies that make modern life so exciting are like double-edged swords. We’re more connected and stimulated than ever before. But we’re faced with so many distractions it can make our heads spin.
We live in a time where our environment acts against us in our efforts to be disciplined and productive. Maybe we avoid YouTube today, but Instagram sucks away an hour after lunch. There’s always a new distraction just on the horizon standing between us and important work.
So it’s understandable if you feel like you could use some more discipline. It’s discipline – being able to make yourself do what needs to be done when it needs to be done – that will have a huge impact on your success.
But a mission to “build your discipline” so you can be more productive seems vague. Especially when you need to be productive now to get your business off the ground. You don’t have time to retreat to a monastery and practice meditating for three years before returning a productivity machine.
The ideal solution is one that boosts productivity now and builds your discipline over time, making it easier to be even more productive later.
Start with Productivity Tips That Don’t Take a Ton of Discipline
There’s no shortage of productivity hacks and complicated systems out there. But most of them are worthless unless you have the baseline of discipline needed to put them into action.
Here’s how you can increase your productivity and start flexing your discipline “muscle” – even if it’s super weak right now:
1. Get Clear on Your Ideal Future
It might seem weird to start off a list of productivity tips with a “big picture” mental exercise. It just doesn’t seem practical at first blush.
But it’s key in unlocking your productivity. Productivity systems dive into details, but many don’t address the foundation.
And that foundation is this:
You’ll never be as productive as you want to be until the vision for your ideal future is clear.
A lot of us struggle through our work and chalk it up to a lack of discipline. That could be what’s making things so difficult. Or, you might be trying to force yourself down a path that doesn’t align with your deepest goals.
Your brain is like a teenager. It doesn’t want to do anything just because it “should” be doing it. So it rebels against hollow, unfulfilling work. You end up stressing, procrastinating, and all kinds of other destructive stuff.
So take an hour or a day (or as long as it takes) to get clear on your ideal future, professionally and personally. What does your average day look like five years from now? Where are you living? Who are you spending your time with? Writing this stuff down is powerful, and it makes it easy to review your vision whenever you’re feeling unmotivated.
Now take a look at how you’re spending your time right now. Maybe the reason you’re unproductive is because you know, at least on a subconscious level, that your work isn’t aligned with your deeper goals. Depending on your situation, the first step to better productivity might mean a radical change.
Note: this isn’t an excuse to avoid boring but necessary activities. Even rock stars and pro athletes have to handle tedious stuff. Just make sure it’s leading you towards where you want to be.
2. Change Your Environment
Ever try working with your cell phone on the desk right next to you?
Distracting, isn’t it?
You have to force yourself to ignore all those text messages and notifications over and over again. Most of us cave eventually, giving in to the temptation to stop working and check them.
There’s an easier way to do this. Instead of accepting pesky distractions as just part of the average workday, you can change your environment to avoid them.
Leaving your web browser open and your cell phone on invites distraction into your life. You open up the door, they come in, and your work time disappears. Sometimes without you even realizing it.
When the distractions are an arm’s length away, you have to use discipline all day to avoid them: not a pleasant task if you’re lacking in that department. But changing your environment – removing the distractions before you get started – only takes a single burst of discipline. You rip off the Band-Aid once and get ready to work.
It’s easier to get important work done. Focused work becomes your default setting because there are less things around to compete for your attention, and you build confidence as you crush your to-do list. This is probably the highest-leverage thing you can do to radically transform the way you work.
Here are just a few ways you can tweak your environment to be more productive:
- Disconnect your router if getting distracted online is an issue.
- Keep the room temperature above 68 degrees Fahrenheit for maximum productivity
- Open windows and rely on natural light instead of fluorescent bulbs
- Turn off your personal cell phone during dedicated work time (or at least put it in airplane mode)
- Use apps like StayFocusd to block distracting websites if you need to be online to work
- Wear headphones to reduce noise, as it has been shown to disrupt productivity
3. Schedule Breaks
Most of us start our days with ambitious plans and schedules…
But things get messy once we start working. When it’s time to quit, we somehow miss out on accomplishing the important tasks and wonder where our time went.
There’s a big reason why this happens – one most people don’t think about. It’s freaking hard to stay motivated when all you have to look forward to is 10 or 12 hours in front of your computer.
We aren’t machines, and expecting yourself to work like one limits your productivity from the start.
There’s a fix, though:
What if you planned breaks during your workdays?
It sounds like a recipe for getting even less done. But the psychological impact of knowing you have a break approaching makes it a lot easier to work productively. It’s easier to dive into that difficult task when you know you’re going to take a walk and listen to your audiobook in an hour.
Beyond the psychological “release valve,” the physical effects of getting away from your desk and moving your body help you return energized and ready to pick things up right where you left off.
This can be a bit tricky if you work in an office, but it’s still doable. Schedule your next coffee break instead of taking it randomly. Plan a quick walk through the office. It only takes little things to reset your brain and stay on track.
4. Batch Similar Tasks
One of the biggest challenges to being productive is having to deal with a wide range of tasks. You need to write that email, but you’re also thinking about an upcoming phone call to hopefully land a new client. Someone else is pinging you on Skype requesting revisions for work you already turned in.
Switching back and forth between these tasks constantly ruins your productivity. It takes a certain mental state to write a blog post and an entirely different one to send an invoice. Shifting between these states dozens of times a day will shred your focus. Multitasking is overrated.
Instead of jumping between tasks as you think of them, you can batch like tasks and knock them out in chunks. Just batching your email time alone – you can set 2 or 3 designated times a day to write and respond to emails – can free up a huge portions of your day and mental baggage.
How you decide to batch your tasks depends on your niche (you’ll have to play around with this until you find a system you like), but here are some potential categories:
- Client proposals
- Scheduling/admin work
- Social media
5. Hold Yourself Accountable
Does the thought of seeing exactly how you spend your “work time” horrify you?
That means there’s a lot of time in your day where you can squeeze out more work.
It’s easy to get off track if you freelance and are left to your own devices most of the time. But it’s harder to do that when you have someone standing over your shoulder constantly checking on what you’re up to.
No, I’m not saying you need to get your old boss back. Time tracking software will do the trick just fine. There are tons of different ones available, and plenty of them have at least base versions you can download for free.
This software will add some crucial accountability to your work. It can be uncomfortable to see just how much time you’re wasting, but measuring how you spend your time now is the first step to improving it.
Sometimes just seeing how you’re frittering away your time can cause you to change how you work. Time tracking software also reveals patterns and insights you wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own. Notice your productivity falls off a cliff at 3 pm? That might be the perfect time to schedule a short break.
You don’t have to monitor your time every day, but doing this occasionally is a big motivator to bump up your productivity. All you need is enough discipline to start the software tracker.
6. Eliminate Unnecessary Decisions
For most people, there are way too many things to think about during the day.
It’s impossible to focus on what needs to get done when you’re worried about what to wear, what you’ll eat for lunch, and a thousand other things. All of that mental chatter really does a number on your productivity.
You might be suffering from decision fatigue. When you make hundreds of conscious choices involving other aspects of your life, it’s hard to choose to work at all – much less work effectively.
If you automate as many of these little decisions as you can, you’ll free up a ton of mental horsepower to focus on the work that matters. That’s why Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck every day. Even President Barack Obama mentioned the importance of avoiding as many small choices as possible.
You don’t have to wear the same clothes every day. Here are just a few things you could try:
- Exercise: do this at the same time for every session, which helps you worrying about squeezing it in and develops a strong routine
- Meals: try planning your meals for the upcoming week on Sundays, or decide to have the same thing for lunch every day if you can stand it
- Spend a weekend going through your things and donating/selling stuff you don’t use anymore
- Try to do the most important task of the day early (before you’re burned out from making too many decisions)
- TV/entertainment: instead of surfing 100s of channels on cable or bouncing back and forth between different streaming services, choose one and stick with it
You don’t have to live in a cave and meditate for a year working on your discipline before you can become more productive.
Instead, you can apply the tips above to work more effectively and build your discipline at the same time.
No need to try them all at once. Even if you feel like the most undisciplined person in the world, pick just one thing from the list above – the one that looks the most doable for you. Try it until you get the hang of it. Then you can branch out and add more tips to boost your productivity and flex that discipline muscle.
Get started today. There’s important work to be done!