How to work more productively
Full of enthusiasm, bright ideas and good intentions, but somehow never seem to get sh*t done? This guide will change your life (or your uni work, at least).
Even if you go to every class and spend hours at the library each day, low productivity levels could render all that meaningless. Just being present doesn't qualify as getting work done.
Nailing productivity is probably the most vital skill you'll develop as a student. We're confident that if you manage to take some of these tips on board, you'll see a massive improvement in how you perform – both at uni and beyond.
Take some time to establish what improves your productivity as a student, and you could even find yourself on track for a first class degree.
13 ways to become more productive
These are the best productivity tips to help you manage your workload:
Create a work routine
One of the most significant ways to work more productively is to get into a routine of waking up, working and taking breaks at around the same time each day.
The student lifestyle of deadlines, nights out, and streaming marathons can mean it's tricky to get to sleep at a decent hour. But, it's always important to wake up at the same time each morning if you can, as this helps you start your day on the right foot.
Getting up early might leave you feeling a bit groggy at first. But once your body clock has had time to adjust, you should find that it gets easier to fall asleep at night. And if you're struggling, try Sleep Cycle, one of our essential apps for students. This features a smart alarm, which should wake you up when you're in a lighter sleep.
Also make sure you put away all gadgets with a screen at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. The blue light from these devices tricks your brain into thinking it's still day time, making it harder to fall asleep if you use them at night.
As well as regulating your sleep pattern, eating your meals and snacks around the same time each day will work wonders for both your digestive system and productivity levels. Stick to eating brain fuel foods that don't make you crash and feel rubbish an hour later.
And, if possible, factor in 15–30 minutes of exercise each day. Even a brisk walk around the block before starting work can help, or ditching the bus to walk to the library.
Check out our guide to keeping fit on a budget for more inspiration.
Set achievable work goals
Setting yourself a range of goals is the perfect way to motivate yourself. This works whether you're aiming for some first class grades, working within a monthly spending budget or even just trying to make it to every class that week.
The key is to set realistic and achievable goals. Set too many targets that are overly ambitious, and you'll get used to the idea that you won't reach them. Then, gradually, you'll stop trying to, which is totally unproductive.
Instead, focus on SMART goals. These are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.
Begin with an easily attainable 'trigger goal' (e.g. dragging yourself out of bed to go to the gym before your morning lecture). Trigger goals are the perfect push you need to feel more motivated, and the rest of your goals will feel more achievable when you've hit the ground running.
And what if you tend to set goals but struggle to stick to them? Try setting some small 'punishments' for not meeting goals. Although it doesn't work for everyone, it can be a great source of motivation.
For example, imagine you've planned to finish the first draft of an essay before Friday. If you don't manage it, the consequence could be that you're not allowed a night out on Friday.
Make detailed plans and stick to them
Planning everything, from your daily tasks to your monthly calendar events, will make your life far less chaotic.
Getting yourself a diary is the first step in the right direction. The second is actually using it.
Breaking down bigger tasks into bite-sized efforts and listing them in your diary each day will help you prioritise and avoid procrastination (e.g. Monday: essay research; Tuesday: essay plan and introduction; Wednesday: first draft completed, etc.).
This is another example of setting yourself achievable goals to get a sense of progress. It's great for your motivation to know that, as long as you follow your plan, you'll reach the bigger goal in a certain amount of time.
Don't forget to include things like exercising and socialising into your weekly plan too. Without downtime, you'll see your motivation drop.
Choose where you work carefully
This might seem like a no-brainer, but where you work can massively affect how productive you are.
Distractions like loud music or overcrowding can really get in the way of your ability to focus.
Likewise, heading to the library floor where you know lots of people is a no-no. If your friends are around, you'll have to rely on them being just as focused as you're planning to be. Otherwise, you could have people disturbing your workflow by asking questions, proposing breaks, or just generally pestering you.
The solution? Find your quiet zone. Somewhere that faces a wall or a desk with walls is perfect (if a bit grim).
We'd also recommend investing in some noise-cancelling headphones if you have the spare cash. These things are a godsend, which is exactly why we've featured a pair in our list of the best gadgets for students.
Finish a task before starting something new
It can be really annoying to have small things on your mind that you know you need to do at some point, but haven't quite found the time to complete yet.
Try prioritising your tasks and focus on getting important things finished before starting something else.
If there's a job that's likely to take a couple of minutes – like sending a text, doing some laundry, or paying your rent – do it straight away.
If it's likely to take any longer than a few minutes, pop it on a list. Making your way through these mini-tasks will really make you feel that you're getting stuff done.
Clearly, the key to getting things done is writing lists. In your diary, on post-it notes, on your smartphone – whatever suits you best.
Read articles related to your studies
Feeling inspired is essential if you're looking to become more motivated.
We'd recommend bookmarking a few key news sites that are relevant to your studies. Then, spend 15–20 minutes reading before you start writing.
Plus, set up some Google alerts for keywords in your area of interest, e.g. 'obesity in teenagers' or 'social media mental health'. Google will then email you whenever something new is published on this topic, so you can keep tabs on the latest discussions.
The tone and language used on news and academic sites will usually be of a high standard. So, getting into the habit of reading them can improve your grammar and vocabulary too.
Use this as a chance to learn the techniques writers use to keep things concise. This could help with your essay-writing style when you have a tight word limit.
Reading some industry-relevant articles will also get your creative juices flowing and can inform your writing. Think of it like going for a run: you'll never perform at your best if you don't warm-up beforehand.
Tackle the hardest tasks first
This might sound like we're contradicting what we said in number five, but hear us out.
Sure, it's helpful to do quick and easy tasks early – especially if you have time and they're important. But it's also counterproductive if you prioritise them over harder tasks which are actually pretty urgent.
We all know how it can go. You start off with a few of the easier tasks on your to-do list in order to ease yourself into the day, promising yourself you'll start on the more difficult stuff later.
But this process is a sure-fire guarantee that you'll have the mammoth task to deal with right before the deadline, or on a Friday when you're winding down.
Tackling the toughest and least enjoyable tasks first will make things so much easier, however painful it might seem at first. Once you get this huge initial obstacle out of the way you'll be so much more pumped to fly through the rest of your less painful tasks.
Work in time blocks
Working in smaller 'blocks' can help you become more productive, as you can assign smaller bite-sized tasks to each block.
This links back to the idea of setting yourself attainable goals. Before, you were saying, "I have the whole day to write this essay." But now you're saying, "I have until 1pm to finish my research and write a plan. Then I can start writing when I get back from lunch."
Research has shown that we're far more productive when we assign ourselves less time to do the work (within reason). This is why some companies (and some countries!) have introduced the six-hour working day. They realised that people work harder, are happier and use their time better when they're working for shorter periods.
So, set yourself some time goals. It should give you a healthy dose of pressure to get as much done as you can before you 'have to' stop – kind of like an exam.
Listen to the right music while studying (or none at all)
However you work, it's important to be honest with yourself regarding which sort of worker you are.
You might want to listen to some tunes while you write an essay. But, if you know deep down that you work better without music, turn it off.
However, if you do find that music can help, it's important to establish what sort works best for you.
You might not be a fan of classical music, but listening to some Mozart while studying can get you in the zone. In fact, research has shown that Mozart has all the right components to improve mental performance - scientists call it the 'Mozart effect'.
Or, you may find that music with a strong beat helps you stay motivated and alert. Try different genres to see which ones help you concentrate most.
Be wary of listening to music with lots of lyrics while writing. This can be quite distracting, as the next thing you know the lyrics might start worming their way into your someBODY once told me writing.
Take screen breaks
Taking breaks doesn't mean switching from writing an essay to checking Facebook 20 times a day. By 'break' we really mean break. Pull yourself away from your computer and do something totally unrelated for a few minutes.
Go for a walk. Do some exercise. Have a cup of tea and a chat with your flatmate - whatever it takes to help you switch off.
You might think that working solidly for five hours is a great achievement – and it kind of is. But remember that it's almost impossible to work to the best of your ability for that long, particularly if you make it a daily habit.
When you're knee-deep in uni work, it can be easy to forget that have limits (you're only human). But you need to give yourself time to relax throughout the day. Taking breaks will help you stay happy, healthy and avoid burning out.
It's not about how much time you spend studying, but how effectively you use that time. Quality over quantity.
Do some work while commuting to university
Do you have a long (or long-ish) journey to uni or work each day? If so, you can still use this time productively, and it doesn't have to feel like a waste of your precious minutes.
Your commute is the perfect time to think about ways to improve the assignments you're working on. Stick some relaxing music on and have a muse over what you've learned or read about that day. If anything comes to mind, write it down.
Taking notes on your phone using an app like Evernote is handy. Unlike some other apps, Evernote syncs with your computer, meaning any notes you take on the go are transferred. This way, you won't be hit with the "what was that great idea I had on the bus again?" moment when you next sit down to work.
Or you can use your commute as your downtime for the day. This in itself is productive too!
Back up your university work
You're probably sick of people telling you this. But, unfortunately, this error is far too common to leave out of our list. Please don't wait until it's too late to take this point seriously.
These productivity tips count for nothing if your computer dies along with your entire workload for the last two years. So why put yourself through it? We've been there, and it ain't pretty.
Fortunately, there are some easy ways to avoid going through this pain. You can either get yourself an external hard drive or get into the habit of using cloud-based office programs like Google Drive.
Avoid social media while studying
Social media can help some of us unwind. But it's worth being aware that it may not be the relaxation tool you think it is.
Studies have suggested that social media can do more harm than good during times of high stress. This is partly due to our tendency to compare ourselves with others.
We worry we're not working hard enough or feel put out that we're not going out getting drunk on a Wednesday like our classmates seem to be (seriously, how do they do it?).
Some students will go as far as disabling their social media accounts during exam time. But there are other less extreme options you can try.
For example, simply turning off notifications for apps like Instagram and WhatsApp will do wonders. Every time you get a message and look at your phone, you're pulled out of the zone, and it takes a few seconds to refocus. Think of all the time wasted when you're checking your phone every few minutes.
You could also try productivity tools like Rescue Time app, which show you how much time you're spending on distracting websites that aren't useful. Then use the Freedom app to temporarily disable websites that are getting in the way of your productivity.
It's definitely worth bearing in mind that the way to make this guide work is to try everything at least once, and figure out what works best for you.
Everyone works differently. While one tactic might make you type away enthusiastically at your keyboard, another might result in you staring into space thinking about what to make for your dinner.
Be honest with yourself about what's getting you the best results, and go with it – good luck!
Hoping to put your spare time to good use? Find out how to learn a foreign language quickly.