Being Productive

6 Tips for Being Productive

You have to wonder–has being productive always been this difficult?  With another school year just ahead of us, it’s time to start prepping ourselves once again for the battle between being productive and the thousands of distractions that college, technology, and life in general can throw at us.  But our 6 tips for being productive begin with one belief: being productive is a choice.

A Prevention Strategy Approach

Being productive is a choice because most distractions—besides family obligations and emergencies—are pretty manageable.  The trick is in prevention.  It’s very hard to say no to distractions when they’re staring you in the face, so prevent them; first, by avoiding situations where distractions are more likely to creep up on you, and second, by developing behaviors and habits that keep them at bay.

1.  Be greedy with your time.

Here’s some blunt advice to start with: be selfish.

You’re in college.  A lot of what the mass media sells about college is actually pretty accurate: there are parties, dating drama, sports games and tailgating, clubs, semesters abroad, spring breaks, summer breaks, and a buzzing social life unlike anything you’ll see again once it’s over.  But aside from all the fun, there’s one thing to keep in mind:  There is never going to be another time in your whole life when you’ll have this opportunity to grow into a serious, hard-working professional with ruthless ambitions for yourself.  So don’t waste it.  Be greedy, self-serving, self-centered, and completely ungenerous when it comes to your time.  Do what you need to do to be the best.  And don’t let anybody else decide that for you.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how to do it.

2.  Plan your day first

We all have our own routines when we begin our day, but one thing that’s universal to being productive is planning.  All productive people plan their day out.  Some carry a scrap of paper in their pocket with a to-do list on it.  Others prefer a spiral-bound agenda or daily planner that fits snugly in a purse or a backpack.  The more tech-savvy among us might a reminder or to-do list app on their smart phone, like Wunderlist.

The point is that being productive means reflecting each day about how you’re going to use your time.  And remember: planning means more than scribbling down some notes.  Pack your lunch as well as a snack so you can stay focused on your work when you start to get hungry.  Bring everything you need with you—a laptop, your books, notebooks, and other materials.  Don’t waste time running back and forth between campus and your house.

Now you’re ready to get to the fun part: making your routine.

3.  Bolster your daily routine with a weekly routine

In college, one of the things that makes being productive difficult is that your day-to-day routine can be wildly different from one day to the next depending on your class schedule.  You’ll squeeze an hour or two in at your job one evening, and rush to your student organization’s meeting the next.  But while your days may be uneven, it’s pretty likely that your weekly schedule is more or less consistent.  You can start being productive by mimicking the block scheduling system you might have had in high school.  Dedicate chunks of time on certain days (say Monday and Wednesday) for one particular activity, and other times on other days (like Tuesday and Thursday) for another activity.  If you don’t have class on certain mornings, put in your time at the gym.  If you have a wide open gap on the weekend, then try to get ahead on homework and other projects.

4.  Get out of the house—the earlier, the better

If you’ve struggled with being productive in the past, then you most likely know the easiest way to shoot yourself in the foot is to linger around the house or dorm too long in the morning.  Who can blame you?  Your bed never looks more tempting than when you’re battling yourself over being productive.  One of your roommates might stumble in with a story that they just have to tell you.  The TV can lure you away from your plans.  If being productive is a new goal for you, then do yourself a favor and get out of the house—run if you have to—as soon as you’ve showered and had breakfast.  Head to the nearest study hall, library, or coffee shop to stow yourself away.

These tips can help you avoid distractions as they arise.  But what about managing our tendency to get distracted in the first place?

5.  When you’re working on something, keep a Distraction List.

One of the greatest challenges to being productive is that nowadays we do so much of our work using computers, and often over the internet.  Yes, the internet, that vast cesspool of distraction that is the downfall of every student’s efforts to get a head start on their homework.  In 2005, researchers at King’s College in the UK found that email does more damage to our attention span than drugs!  And consider this—the study pre-dates the rise of Facebook and Twitter, but we can probably assume the effects are similar.

Our minds are growing more wired to the information age, and the downside is that the urge to look up whatever floats across our minds is stronger than ever.  In itself there’s nothing right or wrong about this.  Instead, being productive is a matter of taking control of how we think and mastering our concentration.

But the solution is deceptively simple: don’t let it distract you.  You can’t help what might pop into your head while you’re trying to work, but you can manage the time it takes up.  Maybe you suddenly remembered a phone call you need to make, or a concert date you want to look up.  Maybe something you’re reading reminded you of a book that you meant to check out.  Instead of interrupting what you’re doing, just keep a list on a pad of paper and get to it later.

You might be surprised how long your list gets after you make it through a couple hours of homework.  But that’s fine.  You can tackle it as soon as you’ve put in the time being productive.

6.  Discover what helps you perform at your peak

A large part of being productive is knowing yourself.  After you’ve finished your homework for the day, it’s a good habit to take a minute and reflect on the experience.  Do you feel like you accomplished a lot?  Why or why not?  Was something on your mind the whole time?  Was it hard to stay concentrated?  What sort of things were you doing?

The better you understand how you work, the easier being productive will be the next time around.  Would you be more attentive if you weren’t listening to Spotify as you worked?  Did you drink so much coffee you couldn’t sit still?  Did you spend more time people-watching at the café than putting in quality work?  Try figuring out what sorts of conditions are distracting, as well as which other conditions help make being productive less of a struggle for you.

And live by what you learn.  If you know in advance that you’re not going to get any work done if you’re studying with your boyfriend, then don’t be afraid to go it alone.  If there’s too much activity in the quad to stay on task, then reconsider working outside.  Telling yourself that this time will be different is usually bull.  On the flipside, if you know something works, then stick with it.

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