5 Ways To Increase Productivity In A World Full Of Distractions

Estimated read time 13 min read

Takeaways From This Post:

– Why effective prioritization = increased hourly worth = getting more stuff done in less time
– 4 apps to help you increase productivity today
– 13 of my favorite resources to increase productivity

When I got hired for my first real job at 18, my goal was to be the hardest worker. It was a commission-based sales job and I wasn’t compensated unless I made sales. I took a lot of pride in working long hours. And from what I could tell, all successful business people and entrepreneurs worked grueling hours to achieve their success.

I hit a critical point in about a year. 80-100 hour weeks weren’t sustainable. I started to get pretty burnt out.

Multitasking seemed like the best answer. After all, isn’t that what being “productive” means?

That didn’t work either. I worked less hours, but the quality of my work sucked.

I decided to try a new approach: complete disregard for the number of hours and more focus on the results. Sometimes it took 6 hours to accomplish what I needed to that day, and sometimes it took 14 hours.

This approach helped, but it didn’t help me accomplish any more than I already was.

My next approach was to find as many books, articles and websites relating to productivity.

My findings went against every assumption I made about productivity. My research showed that highly productive people do not

  • work the most hours.
  • work on more things at once than anyone else (multitasking).
  • look like the busiest person in the office…and complain about how busy they are.

Highly productive people do

  • work the number of hours it requires to get a desirable result.
  • work on one thing at a time, focusing on just 2-3 tasks in an entire day.
  • look busy, but not like they’re going to pull their hair out from stress.

How do you work less hours, do less multitasking and look less busy while increasing productivity?

That’s what the rest of this post is about.

Results-Based Focus: Find Your Hourly Worth

Increased focus on results is the first part of the productivity equation.

Start by finding what your time is worth. This will help you determine which tasks to focus on the most. Here are a few examples:

  • $80,000 / 50 hours / week x 50 working weeks / year = $32 / hour
  • $60,000 / 25 hours / week x 50 working weeks / year = $48 / hour

Now you do the same. Take your annual earnings and divide that by the average number of hours you work per week combined with the number of weeks you work each year.

What’s that number?

Use it as a frame of reference for everything. Increasing productivity will raise that number, and vice versa.

In my example, notice that the person who’s time is more valuable is the the one making $60,000. Their annual earnings are less, but their time is worth more.

I’d much rather be the guy who figured out how to make $60,000 by working 25 hours / week. He or she could charge a consulting or freelancing hourly fee of $48 instead of $32. They also have an extra 15-25 each week to spend on a side hustle.

Effective delegation is key to raising your hourly worth. This is what the person making $48 / hour understands that the person making $32 / hour does not.

You cut into your hourly worth when you do something you could delegate. Your time is only worth $10 an hour if you do a task you could pay someone $10 / hour to do for you. In the example above, if you’re time was worth $32 an hour, it’s now only worth $22 an hour.

What if you don’t have anyone to delegate to?

Depending on the task, it might be something you have a virtual assistant to do for $4.00 an hour (check out our podcast episode with Eric Barstow, who explains how to hire virtual assistants). Don’t look at this as an extra cost, it’s a way for you to free up time for to do other things.

Even if you just had your assistant work for 5 hours each week, it’s just $20 per week. Eat out one less night per week. A monthly investment of $80 could make you thousands of dollars months from now.

Bonus: Tool To Track Your Productivity

Tracking productivity is essential to increase it, and you don’t want a system that requires a lot of time to track it.

Rescue Time installs directly on your computer and runs in the background, tracking the time spent on different activities. I use it to track productive versus unproductive time. There’s a free version and a $9 / month version for more advanced users.

Here’s a screenshot of a day for me:

Notice how unproductive I am later in the afternoon? The red is time spent on activities marked as unproductive. This tool has opened up my eyes to the amount of time I spend doing unproductive activities.

The red part of the pie above is the time I spent on distracting tasks, broken out below:

11% of “work time” that day was spent on unproductive tasks.

40 hours x 50 weeks = 2,000 hours x 11% = 220 unproductive hours each year 

That’s 5.5 work weeks of time spent on unproductive tasks. I’d rather not pretend I worked those hours!

Prioritize The Most Important Tasks First

Work on the highest value tasks possible. It’s what you get paid the big bucks for.

Use the exercise above to help you identify those tasks. Here are a few more exercises to help you, taken from The Four-Hour Workweek. Ask yourself these questions:

  • If you had a heart attack and had to work 2 hours per day, what would you do?
  • If you had a heart attack and had to work 2 hours per week, what would you do?
  • What are the top-three activities that I use to fill time to feel as though I’ve been productive?

Take a few minutes to answer these questions. What did you wrote down?

Take the tasks you wrote down and make those the top priorities every day.

I take 5-10 minutes at the end of each day to write down the 2-3 most important tasks I must accomplish tomorrow to make it a productive day. This exercise limits time I spend on things that are not a priority.

Limit Distractions

Now, to the meat of this article. Limiting distractions is tough and often the most difficult to accomplish.

Let’s first examine the biggest time wasters each week, with the assumption you work 5 days per week and 2,000 hours per year:

  • Socializing with coworkers about things unrelated to work – 1 hour / day (250 hours / year)
  • Responding to non-urgent emails – 1 hour / day (250 hours / year)
  • Deleting emails you never read – 15 minutes / day (16-17 hours / year)
  • Browsing the Internet for things unrelated to work – 30 minutes / day (125 hours / year)
  • Getting on social media at work (non-work related) – 30 minutes / day (125 hours / year)
  • Answering unimportant, not urgent phone calls – 1 hour / day (250 hours / year)

These things add up to a little over 750 hours! That’s literally a month’s worth of time wasted each year! What would you do with an extra month each year?

If you’re reading this article, you’re not the type of person that wants to be distracted. So what’s the best way to limit these distractions?

1. Dealing With The Pesky Coworker

This was my biggest pet peeve when working in an office. I go to work to work. I don’t go to socialize or waste time.

“Be nice, be respectful and to maintain a positive attitude.” Ever seen that advice when dealing with a pesky coworker? Uh, that doesn’t work.

How does that get rid of the guy that is unaware he’s a distraction? I’m talking about the guy that could care less if he’s keeping others from working. He’s not going to respond to your “positive attitude.”

Distractions can be prevented the majority of the time. Bring headphones to work. Listen to podcasts or music. You don’t even have to listen to music if you don’t want to, just keep the headphones on. When someone calls for your attention, just ignore them.

If someone taps you on the shoulder to get your attention, say this with a smile on your face: “I’d love to chat, but I’m a little busy right now. Is there anything important that you wanted to discuss related to this project?”

They should get the point.

2. Taking Control Of Your Inbox

Answering non-urgent emails is a big time waster. Emails are hardly ever urgent. They’re also super distracting.

Just pick a few times during the day to check email. Respond to emails when you want to respond to them, not when others want you to respond. It’s YOUR inbox.

Close your email client outside of those two times to limit the temptation of responding to them as they come in.

My other recommendation is to migrate your email over to Gmail. Many of their features are not available on any other email client. I used to worship Apple Mail, but since I’ve migrated over to Gmail I haven’t looked back.

Use Filters and Rules

Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail and Thunderbird all contain a tool called “rules” or “filters.” Find yourself filing away the same emails every week or month? Rules and filters are perfect for those type of emails.

Invoices and receipts are automatically filtered into a “receipts” folder in my email. I don’t even see them until I look for them. Here are a few links for setting up rules for your email client:

  • Outlook
  • Gmail
  • Apple Mail
  • Thunderbird

Unsubscribe To Unwanted Emails

Deleting or having to read through 25 junk emails every day takes time. At 15 seconds an email, it’s around 7-8 minutes out of your day. Spend that same amount of time unsubscribing to unwanted emails. Less and less will start to come in.

Use the mxHero Gmail App

mxHero can be used with Gmail on a Google Chrome browser. It’s the coolest tool I’ve seen for Gmail. Here’s how to set up your email through Gmail if it’s on another email client right now.

The features are magnificent:

  • Total Track: Tracks clicks on all links in the email along with notification if the email was actually opened
  • Self Destruct: Message is destroyed 5 minutes after the recipient opens it (great if you don’t want your email forwarded)
  • Private Delivery: Include more than one person on the email without anyone else seeing it was addressed to multiple emails
  • Send Later: Schedule an email for a later date to avoid an inflow of unwanted emails or having to wake up early to send one
  • Reply TimeOut: Get notified a certain amount of time after the email was sent out if there’s no reply

The send later and reply timeout functions are great productivity boosters.

Be Concise
Tons of time is wasted in back and forth emails. Be concise with what you want and with what the next steps are. If you’re asking someone to schedule a meeting, give them a few times that work for you as well.

Most people send out an email like this:

Hi David,

I was wanting to know if you could take a look at this document I created for our presentation. Can we set a meeting next week to chat about it?

That could go back and forth 3-4 times just finding times that work for both of you. Use this instead:

Hi David,

I was wanting to know if you could take a look at this document I created for our presentation. Can we set a meeting next week to chat about it?

I’m free on Monday from 3-5pm, Tuesday before 12pm and fairly flexible Wednesday. Pick a day/time that works best for you in that timeframe and I’ll calendar it!

3. Limiting Notifications 

Constant connection to the outside world kills productivity! It’ll also drive you insane. Notifications end up controlling your life. A text draws your attention away from a movie. Staying up to date on Facebook keeps you from engaging with friends at dinner.

Try checking for updates instead of being notified by them. There’s a big difference between the two. Check and respond to notifications on YOUR TIME, not other people’s time.

Turn Off Desktop Notifications

Nothing is more distracting than getting pinged by an email during a time of intense focus. Turn off social media and email notifications so that they don’t pop up in the upper right of your screen.

Customize Mobile Notifications

I use an iPhone, but Android phones have a way of turning off notifications as well. Check out Lifehacker’s guide to managing your notifications for Androids and iPhones. Here’s what I did and I’ve felt really liberated by doing it:

  • Turned off ALL notification sounds
  • Turned the vibration function off for every app
  • Turned off the alert pop up for everything

Strategically Filter Incoming Calls

This is my favorite productivity app. Filter incoming calls with Call Bliss by designating which contact, or group of contacts, calls can come from. Your phone won’t ring unless you’ve approved them as a contact. They’ll just go straight to voicemail.

You can allow/disallow calls by your location with the advanced settings. I set “home” as a location. Call Bliss filters out any call that is not in my “work” folder so I’m not ever distracted by solicitors or unknown numbers.

Cost: $9.99, but it’s the best $10 you ever spent (except for when they have the $5 footlong deals going on at Subway)

4. Removing Social Media Accounts From Your Phone

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn made mobile apps to stay more connected. Delete them from your phone.

The temptation to check social media will disappear if you make the apps hard to access. Make the desktop the only way to access them.

5. Eliminating Multitasking

Our brains are not like computers. Focusing on multiple things at once is physically impossible.

Work one task to completion and then start the next one. People argue all of the time about this, so just check out these studies if you need more reasons why you shouldn’t multitask:

  • Think You’re Multitasking? Think again (NPR.org)
  • Multitasking Could Damage Your Brain (Business Insider)
  • Is Multitasking Bad For Us? (PBS)
  • What Multitasking Does To Our Brains (Lifehacker)

Bonus: Additional Resources On Productivity

Best Websites:

  • A Year of Productivity: Chris Bailey documented an entire year of experimenting every productivity tip you’ve ever heard of. He dispels a lot of myths on his site.
  • Zen Habits: Leo Babauta’s blog on productivity, happiness, goals, motivation and inspiration is one of the top 25 blogs in the ENTIRE WORLD.
  • Bulletproof: Dave Asprey is the authority on biohacking. He’s got a lot of great stuff on productivity in relation to your diet and physical health.

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