How to be productive – without the gimmicks

Written by: Emma De Vita Posted: 26/01/2017

Everyone wants to work as smartly as possible, but do all the apps, hacks and dubious ‘advice’ make you less productive? Maybe now’s the time to ditch all that nonsense and get back to basics

Who wouldn’t want to be a productivity ninja? It’s impossible not to feel as though you could be working faster and smarter if only you tried this app or that hack. 

And it doesn’t help that we’re bombarded on a daily basis by all sorts of tips from the likes of and Lifehacker, which more often than not leave us feeling guilty for being such slackers – or worse, give us a seemingly legitimate excuse to procrastinate.

“Most personal productivity measures are actually tools of procrastination – they’ve just become another demand on our working days,” says Professor André Spicer of Cass Business School. “It’s about turning your whole life into some kind of bureaucratic filing exercise, and that can be terribly time consuming in itself.” 

He believes we’d all be better off ignoring the advice we’re assailed with and just get on with our work. “The point of most productivity hacks, apps or tips is to enable you to get on with the most valuable and critical aspects of what you do by minimising less valuable but presumably necessary activity,” explains Stephanie Abbott, Head of the Knowledge Management and Innovation Practice at Janders Dean.

“If you’re not focused on getting on with the core parts of your job, then productivity tips are probably not for you – just knuckle down.” 

Spicer says a lot of advice out there is produced to feed an industry, and might only be tools for self-promotion by an expert. “They have to put forward some tips and ideas and these are often dressed up as being brand new and very unusual, but they’re not,” he says. “Your first task, when being bombarded with advice, is to push aside a lot of the bullshit and the empty jargon.” 

Recent tips on working smarter from, for instance, included eating more chocolate, taking a morning cold shower or staring at a pot plant. 

Another problem with productivity tips is that they can actually cause more confusion than they’re worth, because people try to implement something that doesn’t fit with their working style. 

“A one-size-fits-all approach to personal productivity doesn’t work,” says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply. A tool that doesn’t match your individual style will be doomed to failure. “By understanding your unique work style, you’re able to quickly and easily select the productivity tools and strategies that will work for you,” she says.

What works for you?

The first thing you need to do in order to improve your personal productivity is to understand exactly how you work best. Try out Tate’s self-assessment on working styles to identify your own. Are you a people-focused Arranger, a goal-oriented Prioritiser, a Visualiser or a Planner?

You’ll then be able to pick the tools most likely to suit your cognitive style and have the best chance of working. For example, a to-do list app will satisfy a Planner but will leave a Visualiser cold – they’re better off using mindmaps to organise their tasks. 

You should also try to match tasks to energy levels. Ruth Field, self-styled ‘Grit Doctor’ and author of Get Your Sh!t Together, advises that you listen to yourself to find out what time of day you’re most productive – for most, it’s the morning. “You have to know your body, know your rhythms and work with them,” she says. 

Save the demanding tasks for when you’re naturally more energised, and the least for when your creative juices have run out. “Align the execution of tasks to your energy level,” says Tate. “If you’re tired, hungry or pissed off, it will be incredibly difficult to focus and manage your attention.”

Next, ensure that you’re prioritising your work correctly. “For those who genuinely want to be more productive, poor prioritising and a lack of analysis of where the time really goes are among the biggest barriers,” says Abbott. 

Start by clearly understanding your priorities and goals, and what tasks contribute most directly to those, she advises. You can then identify activities that are taking up too much time compared with their value, and look for ways of addressing those specifically. “‘Better’ is a much more practical goal than ‘perfect’, and incremental gains can soon add up,” she says.

Keeping a time log can be an effective way to find out how you really spend your time. Keep a diary for one week to record what you’re doing every half-hour. Once you’ve completed your log, which can often throw up surprising revelations about how you spend your time, you can see how to better manage it. Spend more time on the tasks that matter most and minimise the tasks that don’t.

To do or not to do?

This brings us to the ‘to do’ list. While it’s nice to tick off a list, Spicer and Field see no merit in using anything more than the most basic of lists that serves solely as a reminder of the three most important things to get done in a day. This can free up your brain from unneeded information – spending hours prettifying, coding and managing a list is a surefire way to procrastination hell.

Once you’ve worked out your priorities and how much time to spend on each task, knuckle down. That’s easier said than done for most of us. Keeping focused means learning to control distractions such as social media, meetings and emails. 

Field recommends putting your phone and other devices out of sight if you need to concentrate on a task, and disabling the internet and notifications when you’re working at your computer. “People might think they’re still working, but I guarantee you are way more productive without these things in your sight,” she says.

Spicer is also a big fan of the Pomodoro technique to get you focused – time yourself to work for 25 minutes, then reward yourself with a five-minute break; repeat this four times and then take a longer break. “We have a limited attention span and you need to take small breaks now and then,” he says.
If you find yourself putting off a piece of work because you find it daunting, reduce it to smaller tasks. “Break things down so it’s not a huge elephant – that makes you feel you can tackle it,” says Field.

Should companies introduce rules to help us be more productive? Spicer suggests organisations ban meetings on certain days or during certain parts of the day. And Tate urges companies to be more aware of the impact of distractions on staff. 

“Open-plan offices are popular for the collaboration that’s possible,” she says, “but they’re often loud, and staff frequently interrupted. By making closed office space available, companies can support their employees’ needs for a quiet space where they can work without interruption.”

Top five tips for productivity

• Learn how you work best and match your tasks to your energy levels. Most people tend to be at their prime in the morning, so don’t lose the early working day to time-wasting admin.
• Pick tools and apps that suit your working style and forget the others. 
• Prioritise your work. Tackle the most difficult tasks first – if you don’t, you’ll only procrastinate.
• Track your time for a week to uncover the truth about how you spend your working hours, then minimise the time you spend on pointless meetings and emails.
• Ditch your phone and switch off the internet when you need to focus. Out of sight, out of mind.


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