Productivity Hacks: Do First Things First

When you are your own boss, staying productive is in your hands. This is a double edged sword, sometimes resulting in unfocused or incomplete work, and other times resulting in an inability to disconnect from work and relax. I’ve had years to try all kinds of systems (with the exception of a new wristband product that I heard actually produces an electric shock – don’t need that!) to stay organized and focused, and here are just a few tips that work for me:

1. Organize and prioritize


It’s important to have systems in place to organize your projects and the lists of items that go with them, and prioritize so the most important things get done. For organizing your projects, I suggest using an app such as Things for Mac or Omnifocus. If you function well with a basic list, there are numerous options available. Regardless of what you use, I suggest it be something that integrates and synchronizes with both your desktop and your smartphone. Ideas and to-do’s strike at odd times so it’s critical to have a singular catchall to get everything into one place.

For additional organizing and creating a catchall for sketches, scans, and web clips, I highly recommend Evernote. You can tag each note with multiple tags which will allows you to cross-reference later.  It’s a great way to get all those little pieces of paper, sketches buried in notebooks, and other random information organized and searchable.

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Once you have your to-do list, you’ll see that there are several categories of items; some urgent, some critical to forwarding your projects, and some lower priority. Looking at the list all at once can be overwhelming and lead to a paralysis of action, so don’t spend too much time staring at it! Pick no more than 3 important items for the day, write them down, and only focus on them. My method is to do a ‘brain dump’ on Sunday/Monday morning and then write down the 3 things for each day of that week. I spread out the time-consuming items so I’m not trying to tackle 3 biggies on one day. For example, today I focused on: 1. write blog post for Maker’s Row, 2. complete dimensioned drawings for built-in and submit to carpenter, 3. finalize edit on module two for online design course.

Writing down your big 3 will prevent you from getting distracted with busy work or non essentials. As productivity expert Stephen Covey says, “Do first things first”. He uses a great analogy of fitting rocks into a container, suggesting that you put the biggest rocks in first, and fit the smaller rocks around them.

2. Use timers and reminders to stay focused


Another great way to focus and avoid distractions is to use timers. I know this may sound unusual, but we are competitive beings by nature, and sometimes just the subliminal idea of ‘beating the clock’ can spur us to a greater level of focus and intensity. I sometimes give myself 15 minutes to complete a task just to see if I can do it. E.ggtimer is an easy online timer that will beep when the time has elapsed. Using your calendar to produce reminders (or the reminder app for Mac) can also free up a bit of that mental space to concentrate. The more that you can automate the better.

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3. Avoid distractions


4. Chunk tasks

The most efficient way to get things done is by group. In my case, that means setting a timer (I charge by the hour) and focussing only on tasks related to one client. At other times, it makes more sense to do tasks by category, for example responding to emails, placing orders by computer, phone calls, outside errands. The less you switch tasks, the more efficient you will be.

5. Get out of the house!


Yes, you must leave your house. Even if it’s 10 degrees out. Get a cup of coffee, take a walk, go to the gym, or schedule an outside appointment. I find that some of my best strategizing takes place on the subway to or from a meeting. Why? Maybe it’s being away from the computer, being unplugged, being around others, or it could just be the gentle rocking motion – who knows. In any case, it’s important to stay aware that we don’t thrive by staying indoors 24/7 — even if we can get away with it.

6. Know when to unplug

A designer sketching behind his desk at home

It can be really hard to stop working especially if you’re a first time entrepreneur, but it’s really important to create some guidelines. If you find yourself putting work above everything else, the imbalance will eventually catch up with you, even though you can easily convince yourself that work is the most important thing in that moment. Make sure you are giving yourself time for exercise, family, outdoor activities, and most importantly, relaxation.

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Jennifer’s currently developing online design education courses at

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