As a part time college professor, full time writer, and mom to three children… well you know how the rest of that sentence goes. Over the years, I’ve tried various productivity hacks — from time management apps to power naps — and learned a lot from all my experimentation. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a WFH mom, or someone working from an office with days full of client meetings, these ten hacks can help you stay on track and boost your productivity, whatever your projects.
1. Write it down. Yes, analog style.
Before you poo-poo the idea of paper over digital, there’s research to suggest that physically writing something down helps it stick. I use an old-fashioned paper planner called the Day Designer Planner. My planner provides space for the day’s top three tasks, plus a running to-do list on the right. (There’s nothing like manually crossing something off a list to provide a jolt of motivation!)
2. Calendar the details.
Plenty of experts espouse the benefits of “scheduling everything,” assigning days and times for even mundane tasks like food prep, exercise, and taking out the trash. This works for a lot of people, but I find that seeing a filled-to-the-brim day planner just stresses me out. My solution: Dial it down. To avoid overwhelm, I only formally schedule projects I need to complete; not things like my morning workout or lunch. I calendar my day’s “top three” tasks and block the time I need to complete each in my calendar. If I’m speedy, I’ll start tackling the rest of my to-do list with the extra time.
3. Find your Power Hour.
Are you a morning person or a night owl? (If you’re somewhere in between, it may be helpful to train yourself to be more of one or the other.) Once you figure out when in the day you’re at your best, schedule a Power Hour during that interval. Shut down social media, email, and other distractions and focus on the tasks that demand the most brain power. The time of your Power Hour may change over time. When my kids were little, my most productive time was 5am, when the house was still quiet, and my children were sleeping. Now that we’re all older, I’ve shifted to a night-time focus hour after they’re in bed since I can’t seem to drag myself out of bed so early in the mornings.
4. Batch tasks.
With Batching, you block off a set amount of time in your calendar to complete a given task. The idea is to focus on a single project rather than multi-tasking through several, so you have a better chance of actually completing tasks. Note, though, that batching works best if your day isn’t choppy and loaded with interruptions. I try to batch projects so that I’m tackling the toughest tasks first. In a way, it’s like bribing myself. If I spend an hour writing a complicated article about cancer treatment, then I get to tackle my next project, which might be writing or revising an essay, which is less labor-intensive. The idea is to batch your tasks in a way that makes sense for your own specific workflow to help you achieve your daily goals.
5. Consider Pomodoro.
The Pomodoro Technique sets limits on work and break times. You work in 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks between them. Each chunk of time is dedicated to one task — and the timer ticking away is supposed to add a sense of urgency; for many people this is preferable to the feeling that they have a whole, unstructured day sprawling in front of them. After four pomodoro intervals (about two hours), you take a longer break of 20 to 25 minutes to reset. The beauty of pomodoro is that you can modify the intervals any way you like. For example, I recently expanded my focus time to 40 minutes since I tend to work best in longer bursts. My break intervals are longer, too. Instead of 5 minutes, I take a 7- to 10-minute break, often to train my pandemic puppy.
6. Tweak your phone’s settings.
Social media is a time suck. While I absolutely use it as a tool for work — sourcing stories, beta testing topics, and promoting my online classes — the amount of time I actually need in that realm is minimal. I’ve also realized that mindlessly scrolling before bed interferes with my sleep schedule. My solution: I use my phone’s settings to set screen time and social media limits. (If you have an iPhone, click on settings, then screen time to set time limits for apps.) My phone is open for use between 7am. and 10pm, and there’s only 30 minutes of daily social media time in there. And I make sure those 30 minutes aren’t emotionally draining. Whether I’m scrolling through Facebook, following industry tweets or checking out Instagram stories, I focus my social media time on feel-good posts and swipe or scroll past anything that doesn’t fall into that category.
7. Take a 20-minute nap.
Let’s face it, most moms are not getting enough shut eye. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, about one in three Americans is sleep deprived. Presumably that stat is higher among moms. While I still struggle with the negative internal monologue I attach to a daytime nap (you’re lazy!), the truth is, I know I’m more productive after a 15- to 20-minute late afternoon snooze. I wake up invigorated (not groggy) and with more stamina to work late into the evening when necessary.
8. Get a cheerleader.
Many moms I know like using the buddy system or an “accountability partner” to get things done. They schedule weekly check-in calls or meetings at which they can share progress and set concrete goals — out loud, that’s key — for the next interval. For whatever reason, this hasn’t worked for me, probably because I feel stressed about having to make yet another meeting! What does work: Surrounding myself with people — or even just one person — who cheers me on at a moment’s notice without the mandated, structured check-ins.
9. Go on retreat.
My goal is always to escape by myself at least once or twice a year to recharge my batteries and nourish my creative mind. It’s not just the extended quiet time (what a luxury!), but also the change of scenery that translates to increased productivity. I generally stay close to home and head toward the mountains or the beach. Your great escape doesn’t have to be pricey. You might even decide to stay in an AirBnB Airstream or at a nearby campground. The only requirement: uninterrupted solo time.
10. Take a breath.
We all already know it’s important to take breaks throughout the day to focus on our breathing. But if you’re anything like me, even finding time to pee without someone needing you STAT seems like an impossibility, so it’s all too easy to skip out on breathing breaks. But I do really try to do this throughout the day. When I feel the pressure of work or kids building up, I announce to anyone in the vicinity, “I need a minute.” Then I step outside. If I give myself three minutes to breathe deeply, inhaling for a count of five, holding for four and exhaling for six, I’m able to return to the task at hand and be more productive. Plus, I’m modeling the concept of “taking a breather” to my children.
Ultimately, the most important productivity hack is one that applies to all the rest: know thyself. Know your tendencies and spend some time thinking through your rhythms and your family’s. If you’re not a morning person, a productivity hack that requires you to wake up at 5am isn’t going to fly. Similarly, if you have trouble getting started, scheduling your most demanding task first is likely to backfire. Instead, work with your tendencies. Do some trial and error and be brutally honest about which strategies have legs. Then synchronize your activities to mesh with the way you work best, and lean right on in.