50 Genius Ways to Be More Productive in 2020, According to Experts
Use these tips to tackle your to-do list and have your most productive year yet.
As a new year begins, you have likely set out some ambitious resolutions for yourself, or at least some modest changes you'd like to see in the year ahead. But whatever your plans—weight loss, career change, or maybe taking up a new hobby—getting it done might be less about what it is you're aiming to do, and more about how you go about doing it. To that end, here are 50 smart ways to get things done and be more productive in the new year.
When you have a lot on your to do-list, your instinct might be to handle it all at the same time. But a key to ensuring your work gets done effectively is to avoid the temptation to do everything (or more than one thing) at once.
"We're hurting our productivity levels by doubling up in order to get more done," says growth and productivity expert Jandra Sutton, host of The Wildest Podcast. "Instead, focus on one thing at a time and only that thing. Every distraction, every time we try to pick something else up, we end up doing something called context switching—which only slows us down. Then it takes us time to get back 'into' doing the thing, and we have to repeat that process every time we check our phones, emails, etc. That lost time adds up quickly."
Think about the people you'd consider truly high-achieving—whether they're CEOs, rock stars, or Olympic athletes. Do you think they do everything themselves? Of course not. To take your productivity to the next level, you have to get comfortable delegating tasks.
"Forget the hustle culture. You do not need to be busy for the sake of it," says Rhys Williams, managing director of Sigma Recruitment. "Focus on the tasks that are most important to you, and find ways to get others to do the rest for you. This also helps with your mental health."
If it takes two minutes or less, do it.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, has something he calls a "two-minute rule" that can make a major impact on anyone's effort to get a handle on their workload. The rule is simple: If it takes less than two minutes, do it right now. When you remember you need to send that email or call to make a reservation, don't add it to your to-do list or tell yourself you'll do it later—just get it out of the way now and get on with your day with one less thing to deal with.
When it comes to New Year's resolutions, most lists include this right near the top—but what does it have to do with productivity? Quite a bit, actually.
As Robert C. Pozen explains for the Brookings Institution, an exercise routine can give you more energy throughout the day thanks to the stimulation of mitochondria in your cells.
"That gives you more energy to exert yourself physically, but it also means more energy for your brain, boosting your mental output," he writes. "A modest exercise habit can help keep you sharper into old age, give you more energy to take on the day, and improve your mood. So stop making excuses, find a group of like-minded peers, and start exercising today."
When you're taking breaks throughout the day, it's beneficial to overall productivity to turn at least one of those breaks into a brief meditation. This is a time to attempt to fully relax and clear your mind of all distractions.
"Find little moments throughout the day to meditate," says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. "This time will help center and ground you to be in the moment and express gratitude for the little things that might be forgotten throughout the course of the day."
A 2018 study published in Psychological Science points to how meditation can provide a person with greater focus throughout their day. If you're new to meditation, Psychology Today offers these helpful tips for beginners to help get you started.
Get enough sleep and get up early.
The classic Ben Franklin exhortation, "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," has been proven by science to be sage advice. For example, a 2014 study published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research found that those who go to bed later are more likely to suffer negative and repetitive thoughts.
Christopher Randler, a biology professor at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany, writes, "When it comes to business success, morning people hold the important cards. My earlier research showed that they tend to get better grades in school, which get them into better colleges, which then lead to better job opportunities. Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them." The researcher has found that those who wake up early tend to be more persistent, cooperative, agreeable, and conscientious.
Add something green to your workspace décor.
"Research shows that … looking at something green—trees out of the window, office plants, or even the green screen—can make us feel a bit better and increase our productivity," says Darko Jacimovic, co-founder of WhatToBecome. "What's more, attention restoration theory suggests that nature has therapeutic benefits on people and enables us to recharge and refresh, regain focus, and increase overall productivity."
So pick up a few plants and add some flora to your workspace.
Find an accountability partner.
You are more likely to complete many tasks, whether that's an exercise routine or a writing assignment, by telling someone else you are going to try to do it.
"You are more likely to achieve your goals if you have an accountability partner or partners," says Nina Dafe, a networking advisor for women entrepreneurs. "This is because of the many benefits that accountability holds. As such, accountability and mastermind groups are great ways to keep focused and motivated—especially if you find it difficult to stay on track independently."
And establish a system to make each other accountable.
Even more impactful than an accountability partner is one who you have to pay when you blow a deadline or don't follow through on what you said you would do.
"Urgent things usually get done," explains Jeremy Redleaf, co-founder of productivity company CAVEDAY. "It's those important goals that don't have deadlines that we really have to watch. Send a friend a list of important tasks every month and pay them $1 for each one you don't complete. We've seen this lead to some remarkable results in our community."
Identify your values.
This may be a big-picture way of thinking about productivity, but especially as we begin a new year and you consider what changes you'd like to make in your life, it's good to think about what really matters to you before you start worrying about tackling those daily to-dos.
"Values are aspirational and cannot merely be checked off like a goal," explains clinical psychologist Stephanie J. Wong, PhD. "However, they can help us lead more authentic and productive lives. Ask yourself, 'Is participating in X event or doing X behavior, consistent with values or inconsistent?' This helps weed out problematic or unproductive behaviors."
It will be from these big-picture values that your day-to-day priorities and projects will flow.
Remind yourself of your larger goals.
Setting out your values and priorities is not a once-a-year effort. Once you are clear on what matters most to you, remind yourself of that on a regular basis. The point is to not lose sight of why you're working on what you're working on—or to decide you should move on to something else.
"Remind yourself of your larger goals and purpose to create a decision filter for your projects," says leadership coach Megan Accardo. "We all have the same amount of hours in the day, but we need to be clear about what we are saying yes to, because that means saying no to something else."
Use a digital task list to keep your mind clear.
Keeping your to-dos in your head usually means you either forget them, or you keep turning them over in your head without actually doing anything about them—which prevents your brain from focusing on more worthwhile things. Sometimes a simple written list can do the trick, but Frank Buck, author of Get Organized!: Time Management for School Leaders, suggests getting a little more sophisticated.
"I use a free web-based tool called Remember the Milk, along with the companion mobile app," he says. "Every time a task comes your way, put it on the list with a due date for when you want to see that task again."
Put repeating tasks on autopilot.
"We all have tasks that need to be done at the same time every year or every month," says Buck. "Put them on your digital task list with a date and how often they should repeat. They'll automatically show up at the right time."
That may be changing the batteries in the smoke alarm or calling to check in on an important client you don't have urgent business with but want to stay in contact with.
Capture your to-dos as they come in.
Your day will inevitably bring on an onslaught of new things you need to get done. Just as you finish one project or move something forward, four more things pop up that need to be addressed. Buck has some tips for that.
"Use a paper journal and your digital task list to handle the flood of incoming information," he says. "Trap the details of phone calls and meetings in the journal. Later in the day, look at everything you wrote, and make decisions about the 'to-dos.' Put the results of the thinking on your digital task list."
Turn projects into "next actions."
You've no doubt heard the advice that you can more effectively get to work on a major project by breaking it into "smaller parts." This is true, up to a point, Buck says, but it might be more useful to think of every project as a series of "next actions," instead. That is, ask yourself, what is the next action that needs to be taken in order to move this forward? If you've got a thesis to write, the next step might be checking out a book on the topic at the library or just researching which books to check out. Instead of thinking about the giant, amorphous project that needs to get done, clarify what you can actually do right now, and take that action.
"Work those small next steps into your task list for each day," says Buck. "The secret is to word them clearly so they are easy to do."
Get more specific about your to-do list.
Hand-in-hand with turning "stuff" into "actions" is getting clear about whatever it is you actually want to do. Instead of spending mental energy thinking "I really need to revamp that website," you're far better off thinking a little more deeply, to answer the question, "What exactly is it I want to do with the site?"
"When writing down goals or tasks, always try to be as descriptive as possible," says Raven Beria, founder of brand consultancy Brandalaxy. "With clear and concise goals, you'll feel less resistant to starting—and that's typically the biggest hurdle in the first place."
Beria adds that when you're finished, you'll feel more fulfilled, since when tasks are kept vague, you could end up doing a tremendous amount of work and never really feel like you've made any "progress."
Get organized the night before a big day.
"Many people often scramble in the morning to find their keys, wallet, phone, etc." says Wong. Instead of beginning your day with this rushing around, she suggests you instead "prepare everything you need for the next day, the night before the specified day. This will reduce the risk of being late for an important meeting or dropping your children off at school."
It will also mentally prepare you for what you will be doing the next day. You will wake up with your mind already primed to tackle whatever you have on the agenda, and will feel a few steps ahead with all of your things packed and ready.
Use a Tickler File to get your desk clean.
And speaking of getting organized, let's talk about what you're going to do about all that junk on your desk. Buck suggests a tool for tackling the clutter of things you will need to reference down the line: a Tickler File.
"Much of the desk clutter comes from papers you need some time in the future," he explains. "With a set of hanging files labeled 1-31 (for each day of the month) and 12 more folders behind them (one for each month of the year), you have a place to put paperwork needed in the future. When you open today's folder, there's everything you decided you want to do today."
Schedule time for deep work.
While many of our tasks are quick items we can take care of in a few minutes, there are also those things that require some serious concentration. It's important for one's productivity to set aside time during the week for this kind of "deep work."
"That means no social media access, no e-mail, no phone," says Priya Jindal, founder of Nextpat. "Figure out what you want to do during these sessions (about two hours twice a week) and then show those deliverables."
Designate one meeting-free day a week.
Speaking of cutting out distractions, one of the greatest killers of productivity during one's day is too many meetings. While they can often be a good opportunity for face time with colleagues, it's important to limit the time you spend in meetings each day in order to avoid losing productive work hours.
"Proactively choose a day per week to have no meetings," suggests Amber Christian, founder of productivity software Wonderly Software Solutions. "Maybe it is Meeting-less Monday or Frustration-Free Friday. Pick a day that can be devoted exclusively to work. Give your meeting-less day its own theme, so that it mentally establishes a place in your mind and becomes a priority. By establishing this habit, it will allow you more time for deep work to devote to getting your critical projects and priorities done."
Build routines into your day.
"At the beginning of the day, plan out one key priority that you need to get done during the day," suggests Christian. "Now, schedule it on your calendar. Every single workday. This will help you get in the habit of making sure your top priority is done each day."
At the very least, get into a steady routine that gives the start of your day predictability and energy—perhaps with a brief morning workout, an affirmation, or reading a chapter of a book you're enjoying. The repetition will prime you for the day to come.
End your day by emptying your brain.
Making a morning to-do list has its value, but it may be more productive to take this kind of inventory at the end of your day instead.
"Even on the good days, many to-dos or follow-ups will come into your mind," says Christian. "As part of your transition to evening, brain dump out any open loops on to your to-do list."
You will find that by putting it down on paper, you feel a greater sense of control over the many incomplete items you have left and will be better prepared to tackle them the next day.
"It's like closing the door on your work-day," as Christian puts it.
Ask for help.
No matter how productive you may be, no person can do everything alone, nor should they. Truly productive people know the power of asking for help when it would be of value.
"To-do lists can be effectively completed if you identify who could help you with specific tasks," says Wong. "Do you need to drop a book off at the library? Perhaps your significant other works closer than the library than you? Is a co-worker more effective than you in organizing inventory, and has more time to dedicate to the task?"
You're surrounded by resources that can help you be more productive—don't be afraid to tap into them.
Learn to say "no."
While it can feel easier in the moment to agree to whatever you are being asked, in the long run, for the sake of that relationship and your own productivity, you are better off getting comfortable saying "no" when you know it's not something you can swing.
"This may sound crazy and self-interested, but in this busy world, no one can put his or her productivity on the stake to please someone," says Jessica Chase, sales and marketing manager for Premier Title Loans.
Focus on one important thing.
Your list of things to get done is always longer than you'll realistically be able to tackle in a day—or in a year, if you're being honest with yourself. And while different people have their preferences for how many things you should really try to tackle in a given day, Accardo suggests keeping it to just one.
"Focus on one important project for the day, and secondary projects only if necessary," she says. "Multitasking dramatically reduces productivity."
Manage your energy as well as your time.
Productive people have a fine-tuned sense of when they are at their sharpest, and most likely to get the best performance out of themselves. For many, that's in the morning, while others prefer tackling big projects later in the day. Whatever your preference, plan your projects accordingly so you're getting the higher-level thinking done at times when your mind is sharpest, and save the mindless filing or emailing for when your brain is on autopilot.
Being productive doesn't mean powering through hours and hours of work nonstop. Nobody works well that way, and 2014 research from Stanford University and elsewhere has shown that planning breaks as part of your daily routine can make you work more creatively and productively.
"Schedule positivity breaks to get unstuck," suggests Accardo. "Since we know our mind works like a muscle, we need to intentionally schedule regular breaks—ideally every 60 to 90 minutes. Many productive people find themselves stuck, take a break, and come back with a terrific new idea! It is also a good moment to practice gratitude and increase your positivity."
Build rest and rewards into your schedule.
Similar to breaks during the day, you also should take your fun and relaxation as seriously as you take your work—and that means drawing a stark line between your "personal" time and your professional hours.
"Mark down your self-care and social appointments in advance so you can give yourself permission to find enjoyment," says Accardo.
And when you are taking these breaks, be sure to fully enjoy them, experiencing them in the moment rather than letting your mind wander to the work waiting for you when you get back. Enjoying yourself this way will allow you to work better when you return to the office.
Practice the Pomodoro Technique.
If you're looking for a more formal way to approach your breaks, considerer the Pomodoro Technique. Named for the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that helps practitioners time their day, this approach basically breaks down your hours into 30-minute cycles.
"We work continuously for 25 minutes with maximum attention, and make a 5-minute break in between," explains Jacimovic. "I think this method is very efficient because it gives us time to rest frequently, restart, and fill our batteries."
Look at the big picture.
While every project requires taking care of numerous next actions to get it to a place of completion, it's also important for one's productivity to have a clear picture of what all this work is for.
"Focus on the outcome you want," advises Rusty Gaillard, a life coach with Silicon Valley Dreambuilders. "If you want the promotion, get clear on what it really takes to get the promotion. Most of the things on our to-do lists don't get us the outcome we want."
Picturing the final product will help you make better decisions about how to get there, while also inspiring you to keep working toward your goal.
Get rid of digital clutter.
Look at your browser: Does it have a dozen tabs open even though you're only using one? How about your desktop: Are there six documents open when you aren't actively working on any of them? It's time to close a few.
"Operating systems and software updates have made it easier for us to cram more and more content onto our screens concurrently," say Foram Sheth and Nicole Wood of Ama La Vida, a Chicago-based career coaching company. "Eliminating clutter is also an unequivocally good thing. All of those pages and documents will still be there when you're actually ready to attend to them. Give yourself the time and space to get to where you need to be on individual tasks rather than thinking you can complete everything at once."
Check email only at designated times during the day.
For many, email is something that is just always open, so you can respond the moment a message comes through. But how often is that really necessary?
"Beyond the obvious distractions from our mobile devices, we're also bombarded with email notifications on our laptops and work computers," Sheth and Wood say. "With what we already know about the issues with distractions and our focus, creating set times throughout your day to check emails will help you keep your concentration on the task at hand rather than jumping sporadically from thought to thought."
They suggest developing a schedule (and adjusting it as needed) for when you're going to check your emails, and making sure notifications are shut off when you are working on other things.
Optimize your inbox.
It's not the size of your inbox—it's the way you use it.
"Turn off things that it does to distract you, like pop up notifications and chimes. Anything that you can answer in two minutes or less, do so. Otherwise, push to your calendar, delegate, or delete," says Jindal. "Anything else should be filed as part of a task list."
She adds that you should also know that it's not necessary to respond to everything, and certainly not immediately.
"Being able to quickly triage an inbox and then focus on tasks instead of responses makes you far more productive than sending back a response with no substance," she says. "You also save hours by ensuring that you triage in an efficient way."
Get off social media.
Email is bad enough as a distraction, but social media platforms are even bigger killers of time and productivity.
"Unless you work in social media, try and limit your social media use," says James Dyble, managing director of Global Sound Group. "From my research, I have found that browsing social media regularly is a huge drainer of productivity. The reason is because there is so much happening on social media. Therefore, your mind is all over the place."
Embrace airplane mode.
When you're at a movie, play, or preparing for takeoff, and smartphone distractions are explicitly prohibited, you turn your phone to airplane mode. So why not extend this approach to other aspects of your workday?
"Not only will the focus-grabbing messages and alerts stop, but you will be less inclined to mindlessly check your phone with the knowledge that nothing new will be there under that setting," say Sheth and Wood. "Putting your phone onto airplane mode and out of sight altogether will allow you to be much more present in your work and with anything else that you need to accomplish."
Use apps to improve time management.
For those of you who feel like going straight to airplane mode is too much of a plunge, Sheth and Wood recommend downloading usage apps, which allow you to set limits and restrictions on any apps on your phone, including messages and other highly distracting functions.
"Apps like these also give you the important (and sometimes shocking) data as far as how many times you're unlocking your phone and the total amount of time spent on it," they say.
Track your habits.
Checking email and social media are just a couple of the bad habits you need to keep in check when trying to have a productive day. But what about the good habits you are trying to make part of your daily routine?
"Use a habit tracking system and check a box for every day you do the habit," suggests Beria. "There's a lot of science behind tracking down habits. For one, it feels great to know you're keeping the checkmarks going. Two, it's a self-accountability system, especially when you place your habit tracker somewhere it's visible at all times."
Beria adds that this process of self-discipline will eventually provide you with the most rewarding results, instilling an internal motivation in you to continue the positive behavior.
Make a timer part of your toolkit.
It's not just about keeping track of your habits, but also about keeping track of how long said habits are taking. Whether you are using the Pomodoro technique or prefer some other approach, a timer can be a major help toward becoming more productive.
Beware of decision fatigue.
Just as you should be careful about over-booking your day, you also do not want to pack in too many decisions or projects that will cause your mental energy to drain and make you unable to deal with important choices later in the day.
"Decision fatigue is a real thing," says Accardo. "The brain works like a muscle and gets fatigued as the day goes on. For this reason, we need to tackle our most important project first. Write the name of the project you'll spend the first few hours of the day working on and then get to it straight away."
Know when to step away.
If you find that you are hitting a wall on a particular task, consider trying to stop and move on to something else.
"So often we get caught in trying to finish up something that we can't see the forest anymore, which can result in errors or boredom," explains Jindal. "Walking away physically and doing something slightly different, whatever that might be, can help our brains pull on new threads, open our eyes to a slightly different perspective, and give our minds some rest so that it can get back to the grind when you return."
This can be part of a formal break that you take every 45 minutes, or a more informal change of setting when you find yourself hitting a slow patch in your work.
Try a change of scenery.
This shifting of gears can sometimes work best when you physically move from one place to another.
"Do you ever find yourself sitting down at your desk with the intention of 'getting work done' only to realize half an hour later that you're still procrastinating?" asks Yaz Purnell, founder of personal finance website The Wallet Moth. "It's easy for this kind of procrastination to become a habit in which we associate our desk and typical work environment with boredom and stagnation. Changing your scenery by heading to a co-working space, coffee shop, or just taking a five-minute walk to get some fresh air outdoors can make all the difference in helping you shift from procrastination into work mode."
Schedule a "CEO date."
Racheal Cook, CEO and founder of the CEO Collective, suggests a weekly "CEO date" to get a handle on productivity. But that doesn't mean meeting with the actual CEO of your company.
"This dedicated time on your calendar helps to plan and prioritize your week by design," says Cook. "It's an opportunity to track progress against your bigger plan for the year, determine if you're on or off track, and make the adjustments needed to reach your goals."
Give yourself a scorecard.
Following the logic of approaching your work as if you are the CEO of your own life, Cook also suggests assigning dollar-per-hour values to specific tasks, to ensure you utilize your resources correctly.
"Score tasks from $10/hour all the way up to $10,000/hour," she says. "For instance, $10 tasks could include admin work in the office, while in the home it could be unloading the dishwasher. Delegate these tasks to secretaries, or in the home to your children. As you make your way up the chain, $10,000 tasks should be focused on your highest value skillset."
Time block your tasks.
Different tasks and projects require different parts of your brain and different resources, so it makes sense that you will be more effective by doing as much as you can to group similar tasks together.
"Break up each day of the week into themes that help you reach your five core tasks," says Cook. She defines these as "determining the mission and vision, guiding the values and culture, creating the strategic plan, leading the team, and making the big decisions," but they can vary depending on your particular demands and ambitions. For example, Cook breaks up her week by devoting one day entirely to her clients and another to creating content.
Use recurring appointments.
We are creatures of habit and as much as we can do to build routines into our days and weeks, the more likely we will create positive habits that stick.
"Use repeating appointments to work on projects that take long periods of time," suggests management coach and consultant Amie Devero. "For example, create an appointment every Wednesday at 3 p.m. for two hours to write that novel you've been planning to start since college."
Streamline your calendar.
Just as you should optimize your inbox and to-do list, your calendar should also be approached in a way that maximizes its value to your personal productivity. While every calendar is ideal for tracking appointments and providing reminders, there is more that you could be doing with yours.
"For example, when scheduling a meeting in Google Calendar, it automatically generates a Google Meet code so that you can simply click the link and the conference is set up and waiting for you to join," explains Mark Webster, co-founder of marketing education company Authority Hacker. "No extra scheduling, no need to send invites or worry about people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a powerful tool for streamlining scheduled meetings, particularly video conferences."
There are many other ways you can get more out of your Google Calendar (here are 25 to get you started).
Track how you spend each minute.
As you become more productive, you gain a greater appreciation for just how much can get accomplished with a minute here and a minute there—or, on the other hand, how quickly a sense of accomplishment can drain away when these minutes slide by in useless meetings or time-sucking habits.
Webster recommends manually tracking how each minute is spent.
"These minutes add up," he says. "That is why I'm always thinking about the long-term implications and how I can make these small tasks even more productive."
Get a week-long perspective.
Many of these tips have focused on how to make the most of a day or even an hour, but there is great productive power in taking a week-long perspective, looking at how your time is spent. Entrepreneur Romi Neustadt, author of the forthcoming You Can Have It All Just Not at the Same Damn Time!, suggests creating a weekly plan.
"Make a list of everything you do in a week—and I mean everything—and how long you spend doing it," she says. Then label each task based on its function, importance, and appeal. After that, Neustadt says, delete or delegate everything you "hate doing" or "think you should do." She recommends spending 20 minutes doing this before the start of every week.
Differentiate between daily actions and long-term goals.
Beyond looking at your day or week, you will also want to do a monthly review of how you are progressing on your bigger-picture goals.
"While goals can be important, you often don't have control over when you reach them," says Trevor Lohrbeer, founder of Day Optimizer, an app that helps people plan their day. "By focusing on your actions daily, you create the necessary momentum required to achieve your goals. Focusing on your goals once a month them helps you direct that momentum and ensure you're continuing to head in the right direction."
Acknowledge your progress.
Productivity isn't only about work, work, and more work. To ensure you have the momentum to move forward, you have to step back and see how far you've come.
"Your productivity is to a large extent connected to your self-confidence and self-trust," explains Yoram Baltinester, consultant and executive coach with Decisive Action Workshops. "Nothing bolsters these attitudes more than acknowledging progress. Make sure to reflect for a few moments at the end of the day about the progress you made."
When you fail to make direct progress, Baltinester adds, you're still gaining experience that will translate into better odds for success in the future. So even being unproductive can produce some valuable results.