I’m a software developer, designer, and entrepreneur. I’m the co-founder of Asana, team productivity software that many great companies (e.g. Uber, Pinterest, Dropbox) use to run their companies. Back when I was an engineering manager at Facebook, I designed the internal team productivity tool that the company still relies on.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been obsessed with productivity for a long time.
Here are the tips that I’ve found essential to my creative output. Each tip relates to optimizing one of three areas: your environment, your mind, and your process.
Optimizing your environment
Turn off all distractions. The verdict is clear: “multitasking” makes people feel more productive, but research shows that it makes us less productive. The temptations of email are strong. But frequent interruptions make us dumber and it takes much longer than expected to get back on task. So when it’s time to focus,
- Set your phone to Do Not Disturb. On iPhone: swipe up from the very bottom of the phone, and then hit the Moon icon.
- Close all browser windows that aren’t directly related to the task at hand.
- If part of your work is composing emails, get into a state where you can write them without seeing new ones come in. In Gmail, bookmark Gmail (filtered to show nothing)
- Turn off email push notifications on your computer.
- Log out of chat.
Find your flow time. If your day is constantly interrupted by meetings, it’s very difficult to get into flow, a state where you’re really jamming and go deep on complex tasks.
- Add 3-hour “meetings” to your calendar where you’re the only attendee. Coworkers will schedule around these busy times, and you can get uninterrupted work done.
- If you can, get your whole company to agree to a day per week where there shall be no meetings. At Asana, we have No-Meeting Wednesdays.
- Track what times of the day work best for you for different activities. Do your hardest work during your “Superman time.” Here’s the process I used to determine that mine is from 10:00a-noon: Finding Your Superman Time.
Master your tools. If you use a computer all day, every time you reach for your mouse, it slows you down a little, and you lose a little bit of flow. You want to interact with your computer at the speed at which you think. Doing so requires learning the keyboard shortcuts of the software you used most.
- Every time you find yourself using your mouse, see if there’s a keyboard shortcut. Usually it will appear right next to the menu item, or on the little tip that shows up when you put your mouse cursor over a button. On a Mac: ⌘ means Command, ⌥ means Option, ⇧ means Shift, and ⌃ means Control.
- Use SizeUp to quickly rearrange your windows without a mouse.
Optimize your mind
One of my favorite books on this topic is Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. Even the book’s name is a powerful reminder.
Take regular breaks. Common sense tells us that the more time we spend working, the more work done we’ll get done. But that’s just not true. Humans are not robots. Our minds need time to recharge. Research suggests that a 15-minute break every 90 minutes is a good rule of thumb for accomplishing more by doing less.
Meditate. Here’s how I picked up a daily habit.
Take care of your body.
- Hydrate. At the beginning of the day, I put 5 tall glasses of water on my desk. I drink them all by the end of the day. Seeing them sitting there is a good progress indicator.
- Eat well. A carb-heavy lunch is often a disaster for afternoon energy.
- Take supplements. According to the book Power Up Your Brain:
• Vegetarian DHA: 1000mg daily
• Olive oil: 1tbsp daily
• Alpha-lipoic acid: 600mg daily, 30minutes before meals
• Coconut oil: Virgin, organic; 1 tbsp in morning
• Pterostilbene: 50mg morning & evening
• Sulforaphane: 30mg morning & evening
• Curcumin: 200mg morning & evening
• Green tea extract: 200mg morning & evening
- Exercise. Cardio at least twice a week has been connected to productivity.
- Fast. One day a month to one day a week.
- In short, make sure you’re using your time outside of work to get nourished, so that you have the energy to give it your all when you’re at work.
Overcome procrastination by facing discomfort. I don’t procrastinate because I’m lazy; I procrastinate because my highest priority task makes me subtly (or not-so-subtly) uncomfortable. When this happens you should:
- Be honest about what’s making it uncomfortable. Explicitly, compassionately write down (or share with a friend) the exact source of the discomfort. Why does this feel so dreadful?
- Identify one easeful next step.
- I’ve written more on this technique at How to Overcome Procrastination by Facing Discomfort.
- If you don’t have the energy to face the fear right now, then at least do the second-highest-priority thing on your list, rather than switching to Facebook. Prolific Stanford professors John Perry calls this “Structured Procrastination,” and attributes most of his success to it at StructuredProcrastination.com.
Optimize your process
Get clarity of plan. A lot of un-productivity arises from a lack of prioritization. It being unclear what you actually need to do to achieve your goal, and what’s highest priority.
- Don’t do any more work until the next steps are 100% crystal clear to you, and agreed upon by everyone on your team.
- Start by grounding in: What is our goal? Why do we want to achieve it? What are all the steps required to achieve it? Who’s responsible for each step? What order must they be done in?
- Here’s more on how to get clarity of plan.
Buddy up. Some people love working alone, but, for complex tasks, I generally find it painful and prone to distraction.
- Find a teammate who would enjoy collaborating. Sometimes tasks that would have taken me 2 days can be completed in 2 hours with the right partner. “Pair programming” is common in software engineering, but it works for anything.
- Alternately, you can have a conversation with yourself by buddying up with a text editor or journal: start asking yourself the big questions and write out your answers. I’ve had long, strategic, and productive dialogues with my computer by simply writing out questions and answering them in free-flow form.
Publicly commit to a deadline. Harness peer pressure to your advantage. If an important task doesn’t have a natural deadline, I’ll tell people confidently, “I will send you a copy by end of day Friday.” Now I don’t want to look ridiculous in front of my teammates, so I will naturally make damn sure it’s ready for them by Friday.
Use software to track your work. Unsurprisingly, I believe Asana is the best place for this. Not only does it keep track of your own to-do list; it also manages the flow of work among the entire team, so you don’t need endless meetings to stay on the same page. And it keeps the conversations alongside the work, so you’re not constantly wading through emails to get the information you need.
Take time to reflect. Budget just a few minutes at the end of each day, and consider what went well and what went less well. Are there improvements you could make in your workflow next time? If every day you could get 1% more efficient, then by the end of the year you’d be 15x as productive.
This question originally appeared on Quora: What are some little-known productivity tips from various professions?
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