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Easy Ways to Boost Your Productivity

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opolja / Getty Images

Every business expert claims to have "productivity hacks" that can help you get more done in less time. Of course, there are some common-sense tools you can implement to be more productive, like taking brief breaks, creating effective to-do lists and resisting social media.

We've found some of the top strategies you can implement to become more productive, but it's important to not view these tips as "hacks." There is no hack for becoming more productive; there are only new habits we can implement to try and be better, more efficient workers. By building in some of these habits, you're taking the right steps toward becoming more productive.

Before you do anything else, take a few moments at the start of each day to organize and declutter your workspace. Having a clutter-free environment helps you think more clearly and produce better results, said Kristoph Matthews, founder of on-demand storage company Boxbee. By cleaning up and organizing your space, you can greatly increase your productivity and limit the time you spend searching for items.

Color can have a major effect on your mood and productivity throughout the day, said Jenny Gauld, an interior designer for office furniture and accessory retailer Turnstone. Blue can impart a calming feeling and can help you focus, while red may be great for work that requires accuracy and attention to detail. Plants can also help people focus: A study from Washington State University found that workers who were exposed to plants in a windowless workspace reported feeling less stressed and more productive.

In addition to adding some color and plants to your workspace, decorating your desk or cubicle with a few personal knickknacks can help you feel more relaxed, which can boost your productivity. Gauld suggested adding meaningful career memorabilia, such as diplomas, awards and other decorative items that help you feel appreciated, and serve to motivate you.

Everyone has at least one task on the to-do list that keeps getting pushed back because the thought of doing it seems awful. That task is actually the one you should complete first, Matthews told Business News Daily. Instead of waiting until the last minute to finish it, get it off your plate as soon as possible. Your other tasks will seem less daunting by comparison, and you'll stop stressing about that one task all day, making you more productive overall.

Your focus should go to the most important tasks first, so think about everything that you do and just how pivotal or trivial each thing is. If you can, set aside the low-priority items, and come up with a plan to delegate or outsource them so you can spend more time on the things that add more value to your position and the company, advised Kathleen Kobel, a productivity business coach and founder of Smart Business Mom.

Instead of reading every email as it lands in your inbox, try turning off your notifications and check messages only at set intervals. Why? Constant email alerts popping up on your phone or desktop can break your focus. It takes 64 seconds for a person to recover from being interrupted by an email notification, according to Alex Moore, CEO of email productivity solution Boomerang.

Whether it's a walk around the block, a run to the nearby coffee shop, reading a magazine or visiting with a colleague, taking short breaks that are unrelated to your work can make a huge difference in your performance. Your productivity diminishes the longer you go without a break, Kobel told Business News Daily. Kobel explained that this is why it's recommended that people don't work more than eight to 10 hours per day – at a certain point, your body and mind simply cannot produce anymore, she said.

Exercise isn't just good for your body, it can have a positive impact on your work performance too. Physical exercise has been shown to affect mental health and focus, McIntire said. A great way to feel sharper and more productive? Try going for a run in the morning or starting your day with a workout, McIntire said. It doesn't hurt to sneak in some exercise on your breaks either.

Wearing headphones doesn't always mean you're antisocial. When working, listening to your favorite tunes can help you get into the zone and knock out your to-do list, Gauld said. Be careful, however: While music can help people enter "flow states," it can also serve as a distraction.

If your employer allows it, take some time during the week to work in a different environment. Meghan Khaitan, founder of seat belt device MyBuckleMate said that a change of scenery can be a big help in boosting productivity. Head to the library or a local park (weather permitting), or find a place that's quiet and full of natural light. This can help spur new ideas or shed new light on an old problem, Khaitan said.

It's not always easy to keep track of everything you need to do, so start each morning by writing down your goals for the day. When your focus is broken or you find yourself procrastinating, you can use the list to keep you on track, said Sam McIntire, founder of Deskbright, an online learning platform dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and employees. Write your list down on a Post-it or something that's visible from your desk, then return to it when you need a reminder of what you should be working on, McIntire said.

Doing more than one thing at a time may seem like the best way to get all of your tasks done, but it can hurt your productivity more than it helps. Multitasking simply doesn't work, and when you do, you end up wasting time, Kobel said.

David Allen coined the two-minute rule in his bestselling book Getting Things Done (Random House, 2002). If you see a task or action that you know can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. The principle is that completing the task right away takes less time than finishing it later.

If it'll take longer than that, schedule it and get it into your productivity system so you can tackle it when you're ready.

Making a to-do list is essential to staying productive. Different methods work for different people: Some people use smartphone apps, others prefer keeping a handwritten journal. Regardless of how you create and track your to-do list, make sure it's concise, realistic and flexible. Only list those tasks that can be done that day, and don't overwhelm yourself with a long list – that only compounds feelings of anxiety and fatigue. 

"A to-do list is terrific because it deals with past, present and future," said Mark Ellwood, productivity consultant and author of The Poetic Path to Getting More Done (Pace Productivity, 2018)"Think about your high-priority tasks … it doesn't mean you do those tasks first, but you plan for them first and then block off your time accordingly." 

If you're looking for a simple formula by which to manage your to-do lists, Ellwood recommends identifying priorities that affect long-term results. Break those priorities down into responsibilities that should be completed today. Include additional requirements for the day, such as filling out timesheets. Discard or delegate other tasks; you shouldn't be spending your time on them. 

According to Ellwood, it's critical to think about what you want to accomplish a month from today, and then break down those priorities into small tasks that can be accomplished in a single day. For example, if you want to hire a new staff member by the end of the month, you can start that process today by posting a job listing. Breaking down a big goal like finding a new hire into bite-sized tasks, such as reviewing a few resumes or conducting an interview, makes it far more manageable and creates a sense of progress each day. That feeling of progress can help stave off those overwhelming moments, Ellwood said.

Staying productive, clear-headed and calm is really about feeling in control. Whether you're delegating tasks to others or setting time limits for interruption, you are taking back room in your schedule to tackle the things you've deemed important. 

Avoiding burnout and fatigue is essential to boosting your productivity and memory retention. You can do all of that by simply influencing the direction of your day rather than being resigned to letting the direction of your day control your actions.

Social media is a part of all of our daily lives. However, you must have the discipline to not spend large parts of your day seeing what your friends thought of the latest movie release or what they had for dinner last night. Many companies ban employees from accessing social media when they are at work, as it is a drain on productivity. If you are allowed to use social media at work, use it only as a 'break' for a few minutes, because if it becomes a regular habit, it can easily take over your day and impact the work you need to get done.

What you put in your body matters. If you load up on junk food, you can end up with that 4 o'clock slump. To avoid feeling sluggish, prioritize healthy eating and nutritious snacks. No one works well on an empty stomach, but that means that afternoon snacking is an opportunity to give yourself a good, clean energy boost.

Multitasking, using social media and engaging in other distractions can prevent you from accomplishing what you need to in a reasonable amount of time. 

Stay focused and engaged at your current task to get things done more effectively. One way to make this easier is to meditate each day. This provides you with time and space to focus on one task – breathing – and this energy can be carried throughout the rest of your day.

Nicole Fallon also contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.

Matt D'Angelo

Matt D'Angelo is a contributor covering small business for business.com and Business News Daily. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in journalism, Matt gained experience as a copy editor and writer for newspapers and various online publications.

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