Tools to Improve Productivity

Last week I shared a list of the tools I’ve adopted to boost creativity. This week, I’d like to share some techniques to helped improve productivity. You may notice my list is of the low tech variety. I don’t include any apps or digital tools here. I’ve tried many of them and yes, a lot of them have huge benefits and will save time. But over time, I’ve discovered the techniques that stick with me require no digital components whatsoever.

I should also mention that when it comes to productivity, being self employed and working from home already require a huge level of discipline to get stuff done. The benefits of a flexible schedule also have a flip side which is the danger of wasting away hours with “busy work” or getting sucked into some ridiculous internet rabbit hole for hours.

By setting boundaries, work schedules and daily practice, I have found that my productivity has improved each year. In fact, over time, I’ve grown to prefer focus time in my home studio. With the use of these techniques, my daily output has improved immensely from when I first started my business 3 years ago. I hope some of these ideas can help you too!

Pomodoro Technique


If you have digital ADD (attention deficit disorder), like I do, the pomodoro technique will revolutionize your work life. It’s very simple. Set a stopwatch to 25 minutes, select one task and work on it until the timer goes off. The trick is, you cannot do anything but that task. No sneaking a peek at email. No bathroom breaks or getting a coffee. You must sit your arse down (or stand at your standing desk) and focus on your task. When the timer goes off, you can take a 5 minute break, stretch, walk around get a coffee, whatever. Then when you are ready, set the timer for the next 25 minutes and away you go.

This is incredibly simple, but if you’ve never tried this technique, you will likely be surprised at how quickly your thoughts and ADD tendencies will try to lure you away from the task. But, with practice, you will gain better focus and be amazed at how much can get done in 25 minutes. This technique is also a great way to track time. Give yourself a check mark or star every time you finish your 25 minute block. Keep track of them to learn how long each task really takes to complete.

Whiteboard thoughts

If your ADD thoughts are really challenging you, you might consider adopting Sean McCabe’s whiteboard technique to keep you further on task. This is also very simple to adopt, no fancy tools needed. When you are deep in your focus time and find yourself bombarded with annoying thoughts such as “I need to check my email” or “oh, I forgot to reply to that guy on twitter” or “I need to write that invoice out before I forget”; this is time to pause, grab a whiteboard marker and write it on the board. In this example, I would write: email, twitter and invoice, then go back to focusing on my task at hand. This way the distraction is out of my head and when my focus time is up, I will allow myself to look into these items.

The idea here is to remove distractions and temptations from the mind when focusing on the one important task. I do this all the time and find it a huge help. Particularly when I’m deep in very difficult work that requires concentration such as complicated character animations or writing blog posts. These are the times I’m most tempted by bad interruption habits.

Sticky notes

Everyone loves the sticky note, especially us visual folks with messy desks. But here is a great idea for sticky notes that I adopted from Tim Ferriss. Each evening, as you plan out your next day grab a sticky note and pen and make a list of the most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Of course we always have “a million” things we must get done, right? But the reality is on average we can get 3 things done a day. It’s really important to keep your important stuff at the top of your mind and remove all the other noise. so, try this: only write down 3 or 4 things you need to complete tomorrow. A sticky note is great because they are small and you can’t get carried away by adding 20 things to the list.

sticky note

What’s important is up to you. It could be to complete a blog post, phone up a potential client, follow up on a project or complete the first 5 seconds of animation on a project. It might even include personal things like go to the 6am Crossfit class or attend my daughter’s Christmas recital. These are all important and must get done. It’s up to you to keep the important stuff a priority and I’ve found that the sticky note is a great tool for clarity and focus.

Health and Well Being

Although it’s constantly coming up in the media, it’s worth mentioning again how important your health and well being are when it comes to productivity. In a world where the mantra “sleep when you’re dead” is popular, along with regular 80 hour work weeks, I cannot write about productivity without bringing this up.

It’s no surprise that sleep deprivation can destroy your health on many levels. This is serious stuff and we must prioritize our sleep if we want to see results in other areas of life. I won’t go into detail about this, but for some excellent  information on sleep, check out Mark Sisson’s definive guide to sleep.

Of course daily exercise and a well rounded diet are all good things too. Making the effort to include whole foods as part of your regular diet is the best way to ensure health along with exercise and just getting up and moving around throughout the day. I had my dad build me a stand up desk when I started working from home and it is another great way to get me up and moving around.

Getting outside everyday is something not many people talk about, but sunlight exposure can make a huge difference in your physical and mental health. Last year, I became vitamin D deficient and let me tell you, I felt awful. It took several months to get these levels back up and along with supplements, getting outside everyday was something that I really had to prioritize. Feeling the sun on my face is a wonderful sensation and I really try not to take it for granted. For more info on the importance of sun exposure check out this well presented research.

Well, I hope this list of techniques are helpful as you approach your creative work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on productivity and some of the tools and techniques you use to keep focused. Send me an email or leave a comment. And don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter!