Five productivity hacks to kickstart your day

If you’re struggling to get your work days off on the right foot, then these five tips will help you rethink and prioritise your To Do list, and give you some tools for tackling even the most mundane of tasks.

Refine your ‘To Do’ list

To Do lists are possibly the oldest productivity tool we have, and many words have been spilt about exactly how best to maintain them. There are countless apps and websites to manage them, a lot of which let you set an incredible level of detail for each task such as allotting it to a project, adding a deadline, and defining multiple statuses that each task might progress through. The dirty truth is that it doesn’t really matter which app you use, or whether you prefer to rely on pen and paper, so long as you actually keep your list up to date and refer to it regularly.

Equally, amongst all To Do list tips, there’s only one that’s truly essential: Each to do item must be a single, well-defined task that can be executed without requiring further clarification. So ‘Write report’ is not a task, but ‘Draft report structure in bullet points’ is. Quite often, if you’re looking at your To Do list and feeling overwhelmed by it all and unsure where to start, it’s because you have written down a list of projects, not a list of tasks.

Luckily, the fix is relatively easy: rewrite your list and make sure that each item is a single action that you have clearly defined and could begin without needing to think further about what it means.

Urgent vs Important

Rare is the person whose To Do list isn’t, to all intents and purposes, infinite. As soon as you finish one thing, something else pops up to take its place. There is no end, let alone an end in sight. Equally true is that not all of the tasks on your list are actually worth doing, but how can you tell what you should focus on, and what you should ditch (or get someone else to do)?

Urgent vs important matrixOnce your To Do list has been rewritten, you can use the Urgent vs Important Matrix, or Eisenhower Matrix, to prioritise it. List your tasks in a two-by-two grid, classifying each task by whether it’s urgent or not urgent, important or not important.

Your main priority should generally be those tasks that fall into the urgent and important quadrant. Tasks that are not urgent but are important are next in line, or should be scheduled so that they don’t become urgent. Tasks that are urgent but not important need a bit of interrogation: Why are they on your To Do list and what would you gain by doing them? Can you delegate them or not do them? Anything in the not urgent and not important quadrant just needs striking off your list completely.

It’s much easier to focus when you can properly prioritise your tasks, and it’s easier to drop the distractions and interruptions once you recognise them for what they are.

The Pomodoro Technique

On days when it’s really hard to get started, the Pomodoro Technique is perfect. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – pomodoro means tomato in Italian – it is possibly the simplest way to force yourself to get on with your work:

  1. Decide what you’re going to do
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Start.
  4. Stop when the timer goes off, and take a 3-5 minute break

If you are really struggling with focus, then set the timer for 15 minutes – anyone can focus for 15 minutes, on any task and quite often once you’ve got started, it’s much easier to keep going.

The official technique, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, includes more details around counting pomodoros, which is what each bout of productivity is called, into sets of four, recording each completion with a tick, and taking longer breaks after sets. But ultimately, it’s really about just putting a timer on, and now allowing yourself any distractions at all until you hear that alarm go off.


For challenging days, a ‘buddy working’ system, where you explain your goals for the next half hour to a friend or colleague and then check back in at the allotted time to report on your progress, can really help you to hold yourself accountable. Buddy working can be very effective when you’ve got particularly tedious or gnarly tasks on your list that you really don’t want to do – telling someone what you’re going to do creates a commitment strong enough to push you through the difficult task. And your friends can nag you if you get distracted!

Track your time

The one thing easier than losing time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea is not recognising when you’ve lost time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea. And worse, if you’ve had the wrong kind of busy day, full of unanticipated or involved tasks, it can be easy to feel as if you haven’t done anything.

The best way to tackle both of these problems is to track your time so that you know exactly how much time you spent doing what. There are quite a few time trackers available, although Toggl is probably the best of the free trackers. Using it to track work on particular projects or types of task will give you a clear idea at the end of the day just how you used your time.

When setting up a time tracker, don’t be too specific with your tasks, so “Admin”, “Email”, or “Executive Report” are sensible categories, but “Sending an email to Georgina Harries” is too specific. It’s also important to be honest with yourself, and to turn the tracker off when you check Facebook or go to make a cuppa.

Toggl allows you to track in your browser, or using a desktop app, so it’s really easy to start and stop the timer. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re in the habit, you’ll gain a useful insight into your own habits. Are you taking a longer lunch than you should? Or losing time when you’re switching tasks? Or spending more time on social media than you imagined?

A time tracker will help reveal these gaps in your day so that you can make adjustments, such as maybe moving your lunch earlier so that you get a clearer run in the afternoon, or giving yourself a defined break mid-afternoon so that you can regain a little clarity for the last part of the day.

Posted in Skills & Training.