Back when I worked in a communication agency, we needed to fill in our time sheets every Friday. We broke down our days into units as low as 15 minutes to account for how we were spending our time at work. On the surface, it seemed like an inconvenience, but over time, it became a time-keeping tool for me. Now that I am self-employed and no longer have the luxury of expensive time-sheet technology, I needed to find other ways to track how productive I am each day.
One of the darker sides of the app economy, as I have noticed frequently of late, is how little it requires us to do! From ordering groceries to bingeing on our favourite shows, there is very little we seem to do now that is not in some way or the other dependent on an app. So when a few months ago, I was struggling with productivity and too many things demanding my attention now that I worked from home, I thought apps and tools would come to my rescue. Over the next few days, I downloaded apps that allowed me to meditate, to make to-do lists, right down to one that reminded me to take frequent breaks. I will tell you this – the apps sure helped, but there is nothing quite like behavioural changes to actually boost your productivity and focus.
Here are some changes I made to my routine, organization skills, and how I interact with technology and social media that really changed the productivity game for me:
I made my mornings count
I am not a fan of routines that are set in stone – office timing, rigid work hours, and the like. But too much fluidity between work, life, personal goals, and interests has ensured that there is very little we do well and with complete concentration. I don’t know about you, but this constant switching between screens and frames of mind doesn’t help my discipline and quality of work, which eventually affects my emotional well-being. I have found mornings the best time to set the tone for my days. If I start my day on a screen, rapidly checking notifications and switching between mails and social media, I am already in an unstructured frame of mind. It often reflects on how the rest of my day unfolds – productively focused on each task on my to-do list, or mindlessly switching between tabs, apps, documents and sometimes even moods!
An ideal morning routine means different things to different people. But I have found that there are some common threads. Unsurprisingly, almost none of them advocate losing to the urge to look at a screen. It is not so much about what you do in your first few hours each morning, but what you accomplish out of them. It could be a task or just some emotional brownie points. Whatever you are trying to accomplish, just beware of your bottomless screen getting in the way.
I turned off all my notifications, barring calls
I have written at length about my issue with relentless and often unnecessary notifications on my phone. Eventually, I turned all notifications off. Initially, I did fear that I would miss out on important emails and WhatsApp messages. But soon, everyone from family to clients realized that if something was truly urgent, I was only a call away. If they send instant messages or emails, I will respond to them when I get to them. Most of our apprehension around turning off notifications is our own, often-manufactured fear of missing out. Do you remember the ‘90s, when our landline phones would temporarily die every monsoon and yet we did not miss a thing? We were still aware, still required to be in places and be accountable for deliverables at work and school. But we were not glued to screens to make life and work happen.
Turns out that you can still do it! If some of the new technology is getting in the way of productivity, you can always let go of it, and nothing changes. It is only a matter of making that switch fearlessly and unapologetically.
I streamlined how I consume my content
My work requires me to read – a lot. But in the process, I often found myself clicking on practically everything that came my way. After days and days of mindless surfing, I realized that almost none of the content I was consuming online was relevant, important, or timely. Thanks to social media, my reading was far too “algorithmized”, and it was all far from useful. That is when I returned to Feedly. Once again, I now consume content based on the portals and topics that make sense to my work and interests, instead of clicking on everything that comes my way, from Right Wing fake news to thoughtless workplace behaviour listicles.
This conscious selection of what I read and what I don’t and causes and issues I care about enough to consume content has freed up a lot of time in my day suddenly. I now use this time to actually glean learnings and work on story ideas instead of quick and endless clicking, browsing, and moving on.
I found ways to organize my ideas
Spending hours on Twitter meant that I came up with many new story ideas, personal essays, and causes I cared about. But it also meant that I wasted my time ranting about these things in the form of Twitter threads. None of it translated to any actual work.
So my first step was to stop doing Twitter threads and rants as much as I could. I also started using either Evernote or a small notebook that I carry around with me to jot down ideas and thoughts related to work. I no longer write wherever there is a blank space for my use all over the internet. As soon as you realize the pointlessness of it, you would move to note-taking apps too.
I track how I spent my time online
The final step in my productivity game was to track closely how I spend my time online. I found Rescuetime really helped with this. It tracks how much time I spend on different websites and apps. There is nothing quite like the way reality hits you when you finish the day’s work and realize you spent 2 hours on Facebook watching mindless videos. Since most of our social media activity happens in bits and pieces through the day, it comes as a shock when you see such significant lengths of time going down that dark tunnel!
Rescuetime is incredibly easy to use. It runs in the background of your laptop or smartphone, constantly measuring and categorizing your web activity. It also allows you to set goals, for instance, 30 minutes on Twitter and 60 on responding to emails everyday. At the end, it lets you view – on its dashboard – your web activity, your tendency to procrastinate, and whether or not you have been able to achieve your time management and productivity goals.
I have realized over the last few months that downloading productivity apps is not the pressing issue. Starting to use them regularly and religiously is the real challenge, but it must be done in order to be productive. In our times, we switch so many screens, tabs, and devices in a day that it is easy to lose track of our time. Measuring and tracking yourself closely is the first step. So if you too are exhausted at the end of each day at work but still find yourself chasing deadlines at the last minute, it is important that you evaluate exactly how and where your time goes. Do it before you decide that you are over-worked! You might be surprised with what you find out!
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