Eight productivity tips to free up your time

There’s always too much to do. Then again, we’re often caught up in things that eat up our time but aren’t really productive. The internet is full of tips and tricks. I’ve boiled them down to these eight items.

productivity tips

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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I’ve found that productivity tips I find on the net repeat themselves. You’ll hear them being packed up slightly different, but essentially, there’s a limited number of things most people suggest to save time and get things done. So lets look at these eight tweaks.

#1: Delegate

Delegating tasks to your team is definitely the Number One time saver when you do it right. I’ve devoted an entire post to the common mistakes in delegation, and I also cover how you can identify candidate tasks for delegating.

#2: Say no

The higher you go in your career, the more opportunities pop up. Faster than you can blink, you’re loaded to the brim with stuff that later you’re not sure you really want to do. Therefore, be choosy. About everything. New regular meetings you’re offered to attend. New projects. New collaborations that present themselves as opportunities. Think about whether these things are more important than the things you are already doing. If not, then don’t take them on.

If you’re the kind of person who is quick to say yes, this can be a really important change. Rather than saying yes immediately, make it a habit to say thanks for the offer, and that you’ll think about it. Create a buffer to think before you commit.

#3: Prioritize

Pareto’s principle states that 20% of the work create 80% of the outcome. Invest in the last 20% only when necessary. Research has a perfectionist side, and requires of us that we do 100% sometimes. But this is not always true. Identify where not. And stop investing beyond 80% in those.

#4: Schedule appointments with yourself

One of the most effective productivity tips I’ve encountered is to block time for appointments with yourself in your calendar. Here’s how:

  • Identify your most productive work times — those times at which you can concentrate best and get into flow most easily. Block these times in your calendar on as many days as possible. These should be recurring calendar events, so that this time is never free when you schedule other appointments.
  • Every day, use this blocked time for your focused work, that is, the most important work you currently need to do.
  • Consistently schedule all other appointments around your blocked times.

Why is this method so effective?

I’m sure you’ve experienced that feeling of oh, I can’t do that difficult task now, because I’ll need at least a couple of undisturbed hours for this. Many big tasks don’t get done for this reason. By deliberately assigning an appointment for them, you can solve the paradox that the most important things often get delayed the longest.

#5: Eliminate distractions

I’ve read that small interruptions, such as a phone call, someone coming by to ask a question, or an SMS, disturb your concentration for up to 20 minutes. I don’t know whether that number is really correct, but it is definitely true that getting back into flow after an interruption takes time and effort.

Accordingly, try to minimize such interruptions when you’re doing concentrated work.

  • Let your team know that you want to be undisturbed during your blocked hours.
  • Turn off email notifications. And then, don’t check your email by hand.
  • Turn off social media and their notifications. This seems to be so hard for some that there are now programs that block internet access or social media access for you. Hard times.
  • Blocking noise can be helpful, as well as listening to music. There are heated discussions about which kind of music has an activating effect (and first apps that try to monetize the trend). I’m not sure I can take them seriously. I bet you know which kind of music works for you.

#6: Batch

Things go faster if you pull together similar stuff. For example, you might do all your phone calls in one go.

The most discussed topic on the net is email. Although email is actually designed to be opened at your own disposal, many of us let ourselves be notified of new mail and have developed the habit of checking new mail as soon as it arrives. This is no doubt one of today’s major time killers.

To reclaim this time, batch your email. Some people claim they can do with checking once a day. I check in the morning and afternoon, and some days a third time around noon. I definitely notice that I concentrate better when I check less often.

Of course, batching works with many other things as well: doing internet research; checking table of contents emails; planning meeting agendas for the week; I’m sure you’ll have many more ideas.

#7: Templates and Workflows

For things that repeat, it can be useful to have templates and workflows. I’ve posted about them earlier.

Templates are forms or text snippets that you can re-use. These can be pre-filled forms for travel and reimbursement you regularly need; email templates with information for students you often have to send; or pre-formulated letters for stereotypical situations like hiring. These kinds of template can save tons of time.

Workflows are lists that remind you what all you have to do, and in what order, in more complex, recurring tasks. Workflows reduce the amount of planning required each time you have to do the task, and help you remember everything ahead of time for easy scheduling. Workflows are especially helpful if the task recurs in large intervals (so that you forget all the details in the meantime). Examples are preparing a seminar and setting up an experiment.

#8: Automate

Automation refers to any kind of little stuff that you have to do over and over. When you encounter these kinds of things, stop and think about whether you can create a shortcut or automation.

For example, I have set up email filters that direct all table of content emails by journals into a folder. That way, I never see them until I do my batch TOC reading.

But there are many more areas where you can automate. I was surprised to find how much time I can save by using keyboard shortcuts. Tools like TextExpander, Alfred, and Keyboard Maestro let you create quicker ways to type or to handle the things you do hundreds of times a day on your computer.

Many ways to get to Rome

Which of these tips work best for you is a matter of preference and testing. Things like keyboard shortcuts and desktop automation will potentially make some folks walk away with a head shake, asking how nerdy one can get. That’s fine. Each tip is independent of the others, although some of them work together neatly (for example, turning off email distractions, automatically sorting mail into folders, and batched responding to email). Take your pick.

What is your one most successful productivity hack? Have you tried the things I’ve distilled in this post? Which ones worked well, which ones didn’t? Share your experiences in the comments!


The book Getting Results the Agile Way has great lists of productivity tips. Before you buy it, be sure to read my post about it.

Tim Ferriss has a lot to say about saving time, automating, and productivity in his book The 4-Hour Work Week. This guy is somewhat crazy, but his book makes you question your habits and has lots of food for thought (and improvement).

The Beyond the To Do List podcast has many episodes that focus on productivity tips.

Photo credit: Unsplash


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

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