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Productivity 101: Six Popular Methods for Getting More Done

People sitting at a conference table planning during a meeting
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Advances in technology should, in theory, make your job easier, but sometimes it feels impossible to get it all done. These productivity techniques can help.

If you’re struggling with being productive, you’re not alone. A quick Google search of “how to be productive,” yields 190 million search results. You and just about everybody else out there are looking for ways to get more done.

Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of tried and true productivity boosting systems out there. While all these systems can be useful, finding the one fits in with your lifestyle can be a little overwhelming. This quick guide to six popular productivity techniques should make it a bit easier for you to find ways to ramp up your workflow.

Pomodoro

History: This time management technique was created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. The term Pomodoro is Italian for tomato (Cirillo named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used.)

What is it:  The premise behind this technique is that you are training your brain to focus intently for short bursts of time, with the idea being that you can accomplish more in short, focuses bursts of intensity, over longer, distracted chunks of time. The Pomodoro technique is made up of six different steps:

  1. Choose a task
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task for until your timer goes off
  4. Mark your progress on a sheet of paper
  5. Take a quick break (about 5 minutes)
  6. After every four 25-minute segments take a longer break (20 to 30 minutes)

Effort: Easy. All you need is a timer and a willingness to stay focused for less than half an hour at a time.

Resources: You can read the book The Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo, or head over to the website for more detailed information.

Drawbacks: Some people don’t like that it’s such a rigid method for focusing, and it’s focused strictly on time-on-task work without any system for organizing or managing your tasks.

Time Blocking

History: This history is a bit murky, but one of the earliest records of time blocking is in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Many well-known people like Elon Musk and Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn CEO) say that time blocking helps them get more done and have time for family and personal events.

What is it: Time blocking is a way to organize your tasks into, well, blocks of time. Some people block their entire day; others focus on the working hours. Once you block off all your work hours (say 9-5), then you segment those hours into smaller blocks. One tip for this method is to schedule any appointments or meeting on specific days, and only those days, to help keep productivity flowing.

You can even block your time, and people like doing this because it might be hard to fit in that run or pottery class otherwise!

Effort: Moderate. You must think about your day, organize events in advance, and learn to say no.

Resources: This detailed post from Cal Newport, a computer science professor, gives a great look at how time blocking works.

Drawbacks: This requires commitment, and you must take time to plan. It’s rigid, which some people find frustrating or overwhelming.

The Ivy Lee Method

History: In 1918, Charles M. Schwab was busy running Bethlehem Steel Corporation. He wanted to improve his productivity. According to stories, Schwab met with Ivy Lee and asked him for advice on getting more stuff done. Lee told Schwab to try his method for three months, and then he could pay him what he thought the advice was worth. Three months later, Schwab mailed Lee a check for $25,000.

What is it: The Ivy Lee Method is simply the act of prioritizing your to-do list by focusing on the most important things you must accomplish each day. The practice goes as follows:

  1. At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you need to do the next day.
  2. Rank the items in order from most important to least.
  3. The next day, you should focus only on the first task on your list until you complete the task. Then move on to the next. Do this with each following item on your list.
  4. Any items left over at the end of the day, move to the list for the next day.

The trick here is to not add more than six items on your list and to stay focused on each item until you have finished.

Effort: Easy. You only need a few minutes each evening to plan your list for the next day. The tough part is sticking to your list and not getting distracted.

Resources: Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, features the story about this method.

Drawbacks: Other than the time investment of tending to the list, there aren’t a lot of disadvantages to this method. Sticking to a list of six can be tough, but setting limitations can reduce anxiety and improve focus.

Eating Live Frogs

History: Success-guru Brian Tracy is most often credited with popularizing this productivity method. The idea comes from an alleged Mark Twain quote (there are different variations of the quote floating around) “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. Moreover, if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

What is it: The premise is that you tackle the most arduous task first thing in the morning so that you can get it out of the way. Keep working on the task until it is finished before you move on to another commitment.

Effort: Moderate. It takes some will power to go after the most intimidating project. However, once you get started, it should get easier to plug along.

Resources: You can learn more about Brian Tracy’s method on his website.

Drawbacks: The biggest drawback is the method itself. If jumping into the deep end isn’t comfortable for you, you may have a hard time committing.

Personal Kanban

History: The system dates to the 1940s and to an industrial engineer at Toyota named Taiichi Ohno. The method was created to help streamline processes and increase productivity in the factories. The idea was to find the bottlenecks in production and address those issues. You can use the same method to figure out where you need to be more productive with your time.

What is it: This simple productivity plan relies on visual cues to keep your brain motivated to keep pushing forward. If you tend to start many things at once, this trick can be the nudge you need to finish something. You can use a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or sticky notes. Split your “board” of choice into three categories: To Do, Doing, and Done. Move each project into its respective categories as necessary. People who swear by this says it works because once that to-do or doing column starts filling up, it can be a kick in the butt.

Effort:  Easy to moderate. It’s a simple method and requires very little in terms of supplies, but you’ll be forced to focus on your tasks.

Resources: You can learn more about this method on the Personal Kanban website.  There’s also a book you can purchase if you prefer.

Drawbacks: It might be tedious for some people.

Must, Should, Want

What is it: This method is simply a tool to help you prioritize your tasks so that you can focus on things that need attention immediately without getting distracted by items of lesser importance. The first step is to make a list of everything you need to do. Then, categorize each item as a must, a should, or a want. Must’s are your non-negotiables. They must happen. The should category is for important items, but you can put them off if needed. The want category is for things you want to do, but they can be put off indefinitely.

Effort: Low. Once you have your list of priorities, you can focus on the most important tasks until they are finished without worrying about items that don’t need attention right away.

Resources: There is a variation of this tactic called MOSCOW. It’s a little more in-depth and offers reminders for things you should say no to every time.

Drawbacks: Not many, though you might initially feel guilty putting things into a less important category.


Once you find a way to be more productive during the time you have to get things done, you might find that your downtime feels more like time off!

Angela Brown Angela Brown
Angela has 14 years of writing and editing experience, including as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. Angela has a Bachelor's in communication with minors in creative and technical writing from BYU-Idaho. She works closely with real-estate and financial industry clients. Read Full Bio »

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