Being Productive: 5 More Ways to Avoid Killing Productivity

Abstract figure of a person juggling to symbolize being productive,

“Focus on being productive instead of busy.”– Tim Ferriss

Ahhh, life as a graduate student! You’re thrown into the deep end, responsible for being productive across a variety of tasks and schedules with little to no training, and wondering why you signed up for this in the first place. People get certifications in project management to be able to do this professionally, but as a graduate student, you are expected to figure it out on your own.

If you are lucky, you might have an advisor that can share some tips for being productive, but most of the time, it’s a subject that rarely comes up. Thankfully, there’s the internet these days, filled with tips, tricks, and strategies to help you boost productivity. So, without further ado, here are:

5 Things that Get in the Way of Being Productive

1. Bad Moods

Being sad, stressed, or frustrated is unpleasant. Moreover, dealing with these emotions takes cognitive resources that could be better spent motivating yourself to get stuff done. Even worse, it’s often a self-perpetuating cycle where you feel bad, so you don’t get stuff done, which makes you feel worse, which makes being productive harder. So how do you get out of this cycle? You can start by avoiding things that put you in an unproductive mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Turning off the news feed on your phone,
  • Removing apps on your phone that might get you riled up (like social media, which incidentally is designed to manipulate you emotionally so that you keep clicking). You can still look at them in your browser, but you are less likely to look at them when they aren’t so convenient, and
  • Not reading the news until the end of your day, instead of the beginning.

Pay attention to your mood before and after different activities. If your mood is worse after an activity, do your best to either eliminate the activity or delay it until after you’ve had a productive day.

2. Digital Distractions

Turn off distractions. If you are prone to looking at your phone frequently, leave your phone in the other room or in your bookbag when you do work. Put your computer in Focus Assist Mode (this is a windows thing, there might be an Apple option too). Use browser block apps like Leechblock for Chrome or Firefox, StayFocused for Edge, and Focus for Apple to temporarily block access to websites you tend to get distracted with.

If you aren’t being productive and losing hours on the computer with little to show for it, try an app like RescueTime to track what you are doing. Once you figure out what the time stealers are, you can block access or modify your approach to them as appropriate.

Turn off email notifications, so you aren’t tempted to go look at that email that just came in. Create an email schedule that works for you and stick to it. Whether it’s checking email every two hours, four hours, or once in the morning and once in the afternoon, make a plan and stick to it. Check the minimum number of times necessary to not fail in your duties. Then, if you want to be professional, put a note in your email signature. “I check email at 10 am and 2 pm, for urgent matters, call Phone Number.” This lets people know when they can expect a response from you and gives them the power to choose if it’s urgent enough to call.

3. Brain Drain

When you are focusing, your brain is working to filter out non-relevant sensory input (visual, auditory, olfactory, touch, and even sometimes taste). Your brain never stops doing this, which is good because otherwise you would be overwhelmed by the sensory noise of existence.

However, this is work for your brain. It takes energy and leads to fatigue. Reducing the extra stimulation your brain is filtering can reduce fatigue. Some people are good at tuning out things like notifications, visual clutter, and distracting sounds, but it doesn’t matter because their brain is still working to do that, still using energy. So, if you have any options for reducing sensory distractions, like reducing office clutter, turning off notifications, and wearing headphones, take the opportunity to do so. These little changes may not seem like much, but they add up and can make all the difference on a difficult day.

4. Decision Fatigue

A lot of people waste time and mental energy making decisions, like should I work on the paper for statistics or study for the qualitative exam next? Should I be doing the literature search now or writing the methods section? Often, they are trying to make these decisions at the beginning of the day and sometimes even using it as a procrastination technique to avoid actually getting started.

Preventing day-to-day decision fatigue is as easy as taking the time to plan upfront. At the beginning of your week, draw up a plan of what you want to work on and when, so on those days you are having trouble getting going, you know exactly where to start. Additionally, it’s often easier to see where to go next as you are finishing up for the day, so jot down a note about what to get started with the next day.

Did You Know? Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day to reduce decision fatigue.

5. Attention Diversion

Diverting attention takes cognitive resources. Checking email while you are doing a school assignment, switching between writing a paper and reading an article, writing a paragraph and then editing it, or swapping between your statistical output and your results section all require you to shift your attention AND change the type of task you are doing.

These little changes add up. First, they take time. If you lose 30 seconds each time you switch attention, and you switch attention to something and back again once every 15 minutes, then you’re losing a half-hour of productive time every workday (and some people divert their attention far more often). Second, every time you change the type of activity you are doing, your brain needs to adjust. Take the example of writing a paper and reading an article. A lot of people do this, they start writing the paper and then switch to looking through the journal article to find a specific fact or figure they want to add to the paper. This means your brain is going from a writing mode to a search and reading mode. This pulls you out of the flow and slows down your productivity. Add the time it takes to get back up to speed, with the time it took to switch attention and you might be losing an hour or more of productive time.

Stopping this is fairly simple. First, never try to multitask, it makes everything take longer and generally reduces quality. Then, think of your work as an assembly line, where one type of task is completed at a time. For example, if you need to write up the results section of a paper, transfer the statistical output to the document first and then write the results, instead of writing then moving to the output, then writing more. Similarly, in the case of writing the paper and searching journal articles, if you need a quote or a statistic, just put a placeholder in the paper and keep writing, then when you are done go back and search the journal to fill all the placeholders at once. This helps keep you in the flow while writing and reduces the number of times you are shifting attention.

More on Being Productive

Are you ready to be more productive? Then take 10 minutes, right now, to implement some of the changes I noted before you get back into your schoolwork, and if you want to learn more about things that block being productive, check out my blog post on Productivity Killers.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!