You CAN be more productive - 4 proven techniques!

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These four habits that consistently productive people do written by Annie Mueller are going to be difficult to establish for most of us. My advice is to add one at a time, making gradual positive changes that will help you to become more productive and certainly more consistent in your life.

Consistent habits for consistent productivity

Build these important personal habits, one at a time, until they are integral to your life. The result will be you, but better, working at higher levels of efficiency, intelligence, creativity, and focus.

1. Value Your Sleep

Lack of sleep, or poor quality of sleep, is a pretty big problem: sleep deficiency results in increased risk for obesity and disease, reduced immunity, moodiness, and impaired cognitive functioning. You're just not as good at thinking, concentrating, being creative, solving problems, or making decisions when you're tired. So why aren't we sleeping enough? Our ability to create artificial daylight, plus our tendency to get lost in screens and our weird cultural obsession with being busy enough, adds up to a devaluation of sleep. We have developed a caffeine-culture which awards points to the one who stayed up latest, got up earliest, and seems to be the busiest, most important, most sleep-deprived of the group. Frankly, that's just stupid. Not sleeping enough doesn't make you important; it makes you tired. The truth is that we do end up getting "enough" sleep, somehow. But it's often due to lack of routine, sleeping in past alarms, sleeping away weekends and days off, or crashing for a short nap that stretches into all afternoon. We end up missing out on the parts of life we want to be experience.  

The recommended eight hours of sleep per night is no magical number. The amount of sleep you need may be less, or more; you'll need to do some investigating to find out. First, start tracking your data: when you go to bed, when you wake up, your quality of sleep, and how tired or alert you feel during the day. Next, give yourself either a regular bedtime or a regular wake time. If you set a regular bedtime, let yourself sleep until you wake naturally. Or, if you set a regular wake time, let yourself go to bed when you start to feel tired. You may need "extra" sleep for a few days as your body catches up, but soon you should start to see a somewhat steady sleep amount. Once you've determined that amount, stick to it as best you can. Say no to things that keep you up past your ideal bedtime, turn the screens off, or, if you know you'll be up late at an event, give yourself a later wake time the next day.

With adequate sleep, you won't be operating from exhaustion anymore. You'll process and analyze information better, you'll make better decisions, and you'll remember more. You'll get less frustrated by obstacles and feel less overwhelmed by big projects or complex tasks. Hypothetically, you'll even be less irritated by idiotic people, but I make no guarantees on that last one.

2. Exercise Every Day

Here's what happens when you exercise, according to neuroscientist Judy Cameron, Ph.D:     Immediately, the brain cells will start functioning at a higher level... making you feel more alert and awake during exercise and more focused afterward. When you work out regularly, the brain gets used to this frequent surge of blood and adapts by turning certain genes on or off. Many of these changes boost brain cell function and protect from diseases...You take in more oxygen when you exercise, and your hippocampus, the part of your brain that makes learning and memory possible, gets a boost from all that extra oxygen floating around. Regular exercise can actually increase the size of your hippocampus, over time, effectively reversing, or slowing, the effect of aging on your brain. Exercise makes your brain work better, in other words. It also gives you more endorphins, which make you feel happier and better about life in general.

Pop quiz: Is it easier to tackle a big project, make a difficult phone call, or finish a complex task a) when you feel tired and down and sluggish or b) when you feel alert, focused, and optimistic? I know, I know: exercise takes time. Who has extra time? When you're busy, stressed, and behind, exercising regularly seems unappealing and impossible.

The benefits are worth the effort; it's when you're busy, stressed, and overwhelmed that you need exercise the most. You don't have to join a gym or carve out an hour of time. Aim for 20 minutes a day, which will get you a recommended 2.5 hours of exercise each week. Making exercise a small daily habit can make it easier to stick with than doing a longer exercise session a few days a week. Daily means no excuses, no options, and no negotiating. It simplifies the process, by giving you less to resist or bargain with yourself about, so it becomes easier to just do it.

Tai chi, walking, and strength training are among the top 7 exercises recommended by Harvard Health, but there are plenty of other options. The key is to make it simple, accessible, and easy to begin.

3. Establish a Power Hour

You can call it something different. Planning time. Morning motivation. Evening ritual. Personal growth pursuit. Whatever. The important thing about this habit is not what you call it, but that you do it.

Set a regular time. Daily is best, but biweekly or even weekly is acceptable. An hour is great, but not required; if thirty minutes is what you have, thirty minutes will do. This habit is difficult to teach, because precisely what you do is up to you. The goal is to spend this time improving yourself and managing your life.

At first, don't worry about the agenda. Maybe write down some notes, or read a book or an article. Review your calendar. Think about a big goal and how you could work toward it. It's the practice of attention that is important as you establish the habit: you are training yourself to give proactive attention to your personal development and your life. Instead of waiting for the next crisis, you're thinking about your desires, your priorities, and the things you need to accomplish ahead of the need. Maybe at first, you will always feel behind the need; that's normal. It will get better.

When you establish this daily time in your life, you will start to feel more in control of your life. That feeling of control will not be absolute; doubt creeps in, your task list is still too long, the stress comes back. But every day that you accomplish this small but powerful routine, you will sense the control grow and the stress diminish. You will see that you are able to change things. You will gain perspective. You are on your way to creating and governing your own life, rather than responding to various events and circumstances, running frantically and never catching up. You'll start seeing things before they happen. You'll be taken by surprise less: fewer instances of "Oh, I totally forgot about the seminar today!" and more instances of "That seminar is tomorrow, I'd better get ready." Those are small victories, sure; but they add up to a life that's less stressful, less chaotic, more certain and confident.

The internal confidence you build by spending time on yourself and life management is huge. You'll start to get to know yourself. You'll start to peel through the layers of obligation and need and begin to discover your own desires and abilities again. And you'll start to see how to reclaim your time, how to manage your life, how to pursue your goals, how to reach your potential. There's one caution with this habit, and that's to avoid the trap of overconsumption.

It's easy to get addicted to the input portion of this hour, the part where you're reading or researching, doodling or sketching out plans or taking a course. Those inputs are good, but without a corresponding output, they create internal stagnation. If you've been doing some kind of power hour for a while, but you feel stuck and unmotivated, this might be your problem. All inflow, no outflow. Stagnation creates self-doubt, which turns into paralysis. After your habit is well-established, then, examine your input-output balance. Do some reading, researching, planning, and learning, then do some practicing, publishing, doing, sharing. Start producing what you're learning, even in the most rudimentary way. As you match output with input, you create flow in your internal life. Each small bit of progress creates more momentum, leads to more progress, and ramps your productivity (and happiness) up another level.

4. Give Your Brain Downtime

This habit translates into one really basic action: put your screen(s) away. Your brain needs downtime, time when it's not busy receiving and processing a million bits of information per minute. Attention and memory are "our brain's two most precious resources," says neurologist Richard Cytowic.

When we squander them on barely conscious social browsing, game playing, and phone tapping, we suffer needlessly. Lack of stimulus-free time leads to depleted neural resources, decision fatigue, and reduced energy, while regular downtime helps your brain create connections and solve problems, improves your concentration, and, ultimately, raises your productivity. There are many ways to help yourself do less screen-staring; probably the worst way is to mentally determine to "check my phone less" and then depend on willpower to make it so. Good luck, Chuck; it's not gonna happen. The phone habit is ingrained, deep and wide, and a private decision plus a waning supply of willpower is not going to break it.

Digital devices and screens are great, helpful tools. Too much is just too much. When you don't have downtime, you're just more likely to be anxious, distracted, and unable to let your brain rest or develop any kind of high-level perspective on your life. Television can be a big distraction, too, and can negatively affect your sleep; set the same 1-2 hour pre-bed limitation, and unwind with a book, puzzle, art, conversation, journaling, or other hobby before bed.    

Finally, you'll have to learn, once again, how to be bored. It's okay to stand in line without a phone in your hand. It's actually not bad for you to sit quietly on a bench, or take a walk, or have a conversation, or stare out the window, without devisus interruptus on the scene. Rediscover the things you like to do, whatever they are, and give yourself guilt-free, undistracted time to do them. Your brain will be busy in the background, doing its thing, while you do yours.

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