Today, there’s no shortage of productivity hacks that promise to supercharge your efficiency. And with the pandemic pulling us in different personal and professional directions, you might be reaching for those tricks now more than ever.
But some of these ubiquitous tips can actually backfire, preventing you from making the very progress they promise.
Watch out for these five productivity hacks that do more harm than good—and replace them with strategies that are helpful.
Unhelpful Hack #1: Do the Hardest Thing First
At first glance, starting your day with the hardest, biggest task on your list makes sense in that it can alleviate some stress and make you feel capable. But for a lot of us, the very idea of tackling a tough task actually can create additional stress and increase the chances of procrastinating.
What to do instead: To spark your motivation and maintain momentum, start with smaller tasks, says Paula Rizzo, author of “Listful Living: A List-Making Journey to a Less Stressed You.”
Since most of us gravitate toward fast and easy, break down bigger projects into bite-sized to-dos, says Maura Thomas, a productivity trainer and author of “Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day.” For example, instead of aiming to “write an article,” she suggests jotting down “draft article outline” or “write opening paragraph.”
Unhelpful Hack #2: Wake Up Early
Experts often note that the early morning hours are the most productive. But this assumes that you’re actually energized before the sun comes up or that you can easily transform into an early bird. The problem? Our internal body clock is largely inherited, which makes it tougher for night owls or anyone in between to focus on complex tasks—or any task—so early.
What to do instead: If your work schedule has some flexibility, rather than forcing yourself into a rhythm that clearly doesn’t work for you, “lean into how you work best,” says Rizzo. To discover your optimal productivity time, she suggests asking yourself: When do I typically feel sluggish? How much can I accomplish before lunch? After lunch? What kind of work do I like to do then? How do I feel when working in the evenings?
Unhelpful Hack #3: Avoid Email in the Morning
Email can easily monopolize your morning, preventing you from starting important tasks. But, as Rizzo points out, many industries may expect you to check in first thing in the morning. Also, late-night or early-morning email can spell significant changes to your day.
For example, not checking her morning email would’ve led professional organizer Sherri Curley to drive 45 minutes to see a client who needed to reschedule, as well as to show up at a networking event at the wrong place and time.
What to do instead: The key is to set parameters around checking email. Rather than checking your phone in bed and letting it derail your morning, take 10 minutes to brush your teeth, meditate, and stretch your body, and then scroll your inbox.
If an email will take less than a minute to respond, do so right then and there, says Rizzo. Also, check email between tasks, not during, adds Thomas.
Unhelpful Hack #4: Set Reminders
In theory, reminders ensure that we don’t forget vital tasks. In reality, when the alarm rings, you’re in the middle of something else and probably just hit snooze or delete, says Helene Segura, a productivity consultant and author of “The Inefficiency Assassin.” Or you spend more time rescheduling reminders than actually working—something else she’s witnessed.
What to do instead: To make reminders work for you, review your calendar to see when you can actually complete the task and then set a reminder for that specific block, says Segura.
Unhelpful Hack #5: Take Breaks Every 30 Minutes
All tasks aren’t created equal, which is why it’s helpful to take breaks at different times. According to Segura, “our brains work at different intensity levels and with varying attention spans depending on the task that’s in front of us.” In other words, with some tasks, taking a break after 30 minutes can hamper your focus and flow, interrupting a highly productive session.
What to do instead: Because all tasks are different, “take your breaks when you feel your energy dwindling or your attention shrinking,” says Segura.
Hacks are only helpful when they work for you. As Curley notes, we’re unique beings with different preferences, priorities, personalities, and learning styles. To set yourself up for success, experiment. Try a strategy for several weeks and only add it to your routine if it proves helpful, says Aja Frost, author of Work from Home Hacks.
After all, productivity is about “making progress toward achieving the life you want,” says Laura Vanderkam, so consider adopting the hacks that help you do just that.