Work better, do more in 2020: Be more productive with the right tools

Welcome to the first full work week of the year. Over the next five days, we'll explore 20 techniques that'll light your productivity on fire. Today, we begin with core productivity.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
working dog. Cute dog is working on a silver laptop with a cup of coffee. Dog breed : Continental Toy Spaniel Papillon.
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It's 2020. The holidays are over and now, it's time for that long winter slog where everything seems dark and cold. The US government's National Institute of Mental Health even has a name for what some of us feel: seasonal affective disorder (or SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder has many severe symptoms and it would be inappropriate to try to address them here on a tech site. But merely as a result of having to get back to work and get into the groove, many of us experience some of the symptoms, including low energy, difficulty concentrating, feeling sluggish, and finding it difficult to stay interested in our daily activities.

The fact is, whether we want to be at work or not, whether we're in the mood for it or not, most of us have to be productive in order to get work done and get paid. That means you have to step up and perform, no matter how you feel.

Fortunately there are techniques you can use to fire up your productivity, fuel your motivation, switch on your inspiration, keep you healthy, help you quantify your life, and get into the groove for 2020.

Before we kick off the list, one quick note: different techniques will work better for different people in different situations. I'm presenting these in no particular order. I've used all these techniques from time to time and they've kept me on deadline and on track.

So let's get started.

The full series

Put together a stable of productivity apps

With the advent of SaaS, the cloud and smartphones, productivity apps like Evernote, AnyList, Google Keep, Google Calendar, Todoist, Notion, and TextExpander (along with a similar, but more powerful tool on Windows: ActiveWords) are more useful than ever before. Put together your own suite of apps that help out your workflow.

Consider using automation tools like Siri shortcuts, IFTTT, Zapier, and Microsoft Flow to create workflows between your productivity apps. But here's a fair warning: don't get bogged down in customizing these too much. You want productivity, not an excuse to play with automation software.

If you want to improve your habits (either by creating a new habit or stopping a bad habit), consider using Habitica. Habitica gamifies habits in the form of a very creative RPG. Each time you accomplish something, you gain loot. Missing a daily habit costs you armor or loot. You can party up with friends and everyone has to perform their habits for a quest win. 

You can then trade your loot for either new armor or real-world rewards that you define, like watching an hour of bad TV, buying a new hat, or getting yourself a Baby Yoda plushy to cuddle.

Manage the three performance fatigues

There are three types of emotionally-draining brain effort that can actively damage your performance: decision fatigue, motivation fatigue, and will-power fatigue. The idea behind each of these is you're using brain cycles to perform complex emotional operations and the more of them you do in a short period of time, the more worn-down you become.

I recently went food shopping and managed to walk past the bakery section, the candy section, even the red meat section. In each of these cases, my will power fired and kept me from buying unhealthy food. But when I was at the deli counter picking up some grilled chicken breasts, I was offered a free piece of fried chicken. I'd used up most of my willpower for the day, so I took home that piece of fried food.

Pushing yourself to work out requires motivation. Choosing components for a computer requires making decisions. Avoiding that drive-through peanut butter mocha even though you want it baaaad requires willpower. Give yourself a break and spread out the emotional effort over time. The good news? Experiencing regular, incremental successes over days, weeks, and months will make you stronger.

Establish a daily workflow pattern

One way to reduce decision fatigue is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make about what to do next. Each day, we're faced with a myriad of choices, including what tasks to take on and in which order. If you establish a daily workflow pattern which helps identify the categories of work you're going to do during the various phases of your day, you can develop a working pattern that will help you plan, as well as manage internally and externally-imposed routines.

My daily workflow pattern consists of distinct stages. Immediately upon waking, I check to see if there are any urgent messages so that, right after coffee, I can take care of any burning issues that would disrupt my flow and require reprioritization. After that, I spend some time reading and watching instructional YouTube videos. This is training time and it helps me come up to speed with the latest industry news, technological breakthroughs, and areas of study I feel a need to explore.

Next, when fully awake and nicely caffeinated, I spend an hour or so on general management. This is when I answer and compose email messages, deal with incoming paperwork, schedule appointments and meetings, prioritize to-do activities, interact with vendors and my team, and otherwise do basic management activities.

Finally, assuming I don't have scheduled meetings, I spend the rest of the day on project time. This is when I write my articles, work on assigned projects, do reviews, build things, and experiment with new ideas, techniques, and technologies. This is when I produce my deliverables.

Your daily workflow pattern may be different. No matter what, if you can find a flow that fits your needs, you'll be more productive, innovative, and motivated.

Plan out work in blocks on your calendar

I use Google Calendar to manage when I work on multi-day projects. I have a named calendar for projects and when I have a new project to schedule, I create a multi-day untimed event. Then, I can organize these projects across the month, making sure I'm spreading the work out and avoiding days where I have to work on more than one project at once.

Here's a power tip: create a second named calendar called "Tentative." Use this for projects that aren't yet firmed up, but which you need to keep track of. Because it's easy to drag around multi-day untimed events, it's easy to move around your work to fit a changing schedule.


So there you go. As you get fired up for 2020, keep in mind these productivity suggestions. I've listed four here, but there are many more. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below. And stay tuned for our next installment, optimize how you organize your work, coming tomorrow.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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