Let’s talk about productivity.
You can probably tell me in a heartbeat if you’re a productive powerhouse (team A) or a perfect procrastinator (team B).
I have to head straight into team A. Now, I know it’s not very humble, but I’m notoriously hardworking, and the proof is in the pie because… although I don’t see myself as particularly exceptional, my output is prolific, daily.
For the past decade, I’ve been repeatedly asked by my clients, friends and colleagues,
“Sara, how do you fit it all in?,”
but I’ve always laughed off this question. It felt very self-indulgent to spill the beans on what makes me seem so apparently productive to people watching on the outside. But, the question just keeps getting asked, so I thought it’s time to address this topic since I’m picking up the strong interest level.
Today I want to share with you some fresh and simple ideas around productivity. Of course, they are by no means prescriptive, and I can’t promise they’ll work for you, but I can vouch that these are some of the top factors that allowed me to bootstrap my business, keep up elite-level singing condition as a performer and manage to hit my word count for a PhD thesis in under a month!
Did you know that the best writers and scientists always wrote in the early morning (Darwin, Pavlov, Hans Selye and Skinner all did this)? While there is something magical about an early start, I won’t pretend it’s easy (at first). However, I know without a trace of doubt that I write with a sense of flow and create a better business strategy when I start at 5am. Here’s how I make it happen.
1. My phone (the alarm) lives on my desk at night, not by my bed.
I use inspiring music as my ring tone, which increases in volume and eases me awake. There’s no need to shock yourself out of bed, you need to enliven yourself out of bed, and music does this for me.
2. Get up slowly.
Leaping out of bed at 5am is not going to happen. I hate to disappoint you, but chances are blood pressure is running at a snail’s pace. Sit on the side of your bed, stretch a bit, breathe a bit. You’ve got this!
3. Homeostasis is in the kitchen.
Make sure there’s a food or beverage intake temptation that helps set early morning homeostasis. For me, it’s a big glass of water with lemon, my Tumeric tablet while I prep the coffee (set up the day before on the stove).
4. Affirm the day
I’m the kind of person who needs coffee to animate me at this time of day, but I add to the mix with a daily affirmation. So while the milk spins and gets all frothy ready for my 5am milky coffee, I pop a daily affirmation on my desk and in the living room to remind myself of life’s blessings.
5. Ease in
Coffee made, fluffy slippers on, and I head straight to my desk in PJs to get roughly 3 hours of writing done with micro-breaks most 50 minutes. I notice a very enchanting moment happen each morning, after 1 hour, where, if I’m writing, I experience total flow and can produce anywhere between 1000 to 2000 words within the next hour. Do the words flow at 5:30am? No, usually the first hour sees me writing 400 words, but from 6:30am as the light starts to stream in, clarity of thought comes. Most of my best ideas for thesis writing and strategy for my business come at this golden hour.
Get Addicted to Closure
I’m an excitable kind of person who loves new ideas. So over time, I trained myself to complete tasks before moving to the next. This is one of the most critical secrets to productivity…
Get addicted to closure.
You have to close the task, the sale, the deal, the project. So don’t leave things hanging.
I promise you, once you start closing the task more, you will get addicted to it, and this is one of the best principles to massive productivity for me.
Completing a task has a powerful impact on the brain’s reward centres and builds the habitual urge to focus your motivation and inspiration around the tasks at hand. One finished project is better for your confidence and mindset than 5 unfinished, half-done jobs.
Become Allergic to Procrastination
Life is stressful as it is, and so I love the feeling of not procrastinating.
I know this is a significant stumbling block for many people, but here’s a fresh idea to nip it in the bud.
Challenge yourself to start finishing tasks early. I first began doing this while at university. The feeling of procrastination was completely splitting my focus, and I struggled to relax. But it wasn’t until I stepped out in discomfort and decided to play with this feeling and submit essays early that I saw you can train yourself to eliminate procrastination. And once you feel the thrill and reward of submitting work early, you will start to shake things up. Procrastination clutters our headspace and is an enormous flux to confidence. Get those things done, sooner and you’ll see that you are the master of time.
The Right and Tight Niche
My biggest secret to productivity success is finding a way to do only what you want to do.
I’m obstinate about this. Call me stubborn, but I only do what I want to.
Now you may be thinking, gosh, Sara must never put the washing away but let me let you in on a process that works.
Flip your thoughts.
About a year back, I got to the point where I found myself rationalising with myself while folding washing, a chore that was the least enjoyable job for me. I used to absolutely hate it!
At that moment, I caught my thought and found myself questioning why I don’t apply the same logic that I use to other tasks in life and my business?
We don’t innately love every task at work, but we can manage to switch our mindset and embrace the process and maybe even find something fun in it.
Now, back to the washing, that job is never going to go away, but I had to find a way to make it enjoyable otherwise, every time I do the washing, I’ll be hating that moment. So I then sought out a few reasons for aspects of the job that I can find playful or exciting, like- admiring how productive it feels to fold a big pile of tea towels or taking care to neatly sort t-shirts into tight well-formed piles and restore symmetry to what was a mess. Or even colour coding the folding. Instantly my view switched, and I made it a task I can’t wait to do (my allergy to procrastination also reinforces this). This is a simple process, and nothing is stopping you from applying it to any task you have to do that you currently hate.
Then you can also think about long term goals to progress your career, business or studies in a direction that positions you to work within your tight and right niche. It’s taken me 10 years of 60 hour weeks and precise focus and strategy, but I can finally say I only do what I want to now professionally. What let me do this? My efforts to leverage productivity, because in so doing, it trained a strategic and entrepreneurial mindset.
Not every process needs the same system
I use many digital tech items in my clinic to keep me on task, but for writing my PhD, I found myself leaning towards a slightly different stem.
Find the planning method that suits the task. There is nothing wrong with a multi-modal or new system each time you have a new target. The following systems show how diverse you can be for specific projects.
For my PhD thesis, I use:
Google docs, Trello, 2 Paper-based diaries, digital planner, Endnote and Scrivener. The workflow around this is pretty systematic so let me know if you want more info on this. I can credit the system to enabling me to write the bulk of my doctoral thesis in a month while still directing my business and singing daily.
For content creation (blogs, Vlogs):
Trello, Google docs, Google sheets, Digital planner.
For social media posts (Instagram/ Facebook)
2 scheduling apps, Trello, digital planner.
For my singing studio to integrate daily practice, repertoire learning and getting concert ready:
Digital planner, singing diary (paper-based), habit trackers, forScore, a 5-min hourglass
Business strategy and clinic processes for directing my clinic
This process list is endless. Let’s say I have about 20+ tools I’m using to make it happen alongside my indispensable digital planner.
In short, apply systems that work for you but make sure progress is measurable and tracking and regarding it, in line with the principles, of habit formation.
Schedule everything and map out your day the night before. Weekly, monthly and quarterly planning is also vital to personal growth and massive productivity in my experience.
Curate your space
The study and work environment is critical to my performance and productivity. Therefore, I set up my space to optimise and inspire my view frame and all my senses.
I also always dress the part for a determined day of work. Full makeup, sharp blazers, there’s no sloppy, half-hearted approach with my attire because the day ahead is one of the many given to me which can incrementally change the course of my life.
Before bed, I make sure my desk and piano are cleared and ready for the new day every night. I arrange my diaries (!) and planner centre stage, prepped with a schedule of the day ahead and the core tasks I must finish. This is all part of creating an inviting space that animates me and calls me to it because my goals are beautiful and worthy of my time, dedication and attention.
Take some time to observe your workspace. What can you do to make it amplify your productivity? You do not need to spend a fortune on a bougie office, but think about a few tweaks you could add to make you look forward to being there and being there at length.
If you want to develop into a productive person, you will need to apply the laws of deliberate practice. One does not simply become productive overnight. It’s a skill that builds up through conscious choice-making. Sure, kicking back on the couch is vital for well being, and there are moments that rest is needed, but for every moment you slack off when you have the energy to apply yourself, you’re causing your work ethic to atrophy, and this will invariably impact confidence.
“Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years (Ericsson, 1993).”
See the development of productive habits as a longterm and dynamic puzzle that you’re intent on solving anew each day. Wishing you all the best with it!
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Ericsson, Karl & Krampe, Ralf & Tesch-Roemer, Clemens. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review. 100. 363-406. 10.1037//0033-295X.100.3.363.