4 Easy ways to free your mind and watch your productivity soar

Do you feel like you’re always working but not terribly productive?

Have you ever felt like an unorganized baboon making up an excuse to reschedule yet another obligation that you accidentally double-booked?

Does your brain feel cluttered? When you’re really trying to focus, does it spit out distractions like, “don’t forget to…” or “Yikes, it’s already Wednesday? <Insert mental freak out here>”?

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You’re not alone.

I’ve been there.

Self-shame descended upon me every time I rescheduled because inside I knew that nothing “came up” (even though I said something did). I just wasn’t together – my personal life as well as my business schedule felt like a random jumbling stream of events.

Not only that, but it was a huge waste of time – my own and my clients’ – contacting them and finding a new time to reschedule. (Pro tip: NEVER reschedule the same appointment twice. It’s a credibility killer.)

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But I’m not saying I became, or that you have to be, this minute-by-minute precision robot, because that would be no fun. I happen to love that my new, organized lifestyle is still pretty haphazard (for example, I haven’t brushed my teeth within the same hour any morning this week).

Yet I’ve watched my productivity skyrocket. I’ve even had time to enjoy lunch away from my desk, rather than scarfing it down, AND dive headfirst into a new video game!

I didn’t have to make any major lifestyle changes. I just had to set a few super-simple rules and stick to them.

Rule #1: Use a calendar. Religiously.

I have a wicked sharp memory, so I used to “just remember” everything. But I found that that’s a supreme waste of brain usage. Why was I filling up my brain with information that could be stored elsewhere instead of using it to be creative, explore new ideas, and learn new things?

So now I use my Google calendar for everything. EVERYTHING.

Project deadlines are in my calendar. Weekly client meetings are in my calendar. When my mom’s visiting, it’s in my calendar. My dog’s medication schedule is in my calendar. Volunteer obligations are in my calendar.

You get the idea.

Now I can set appointments on the fly (like a new client meeting or my next chiropractor visit) without guessing — often incorrectly — whether I’m free next Tuesday afternoon.

Bonus! I also sleep better at night because I’m not fretting over tomorrow’s schedule and whether I’ve forgotten something.

Rule #2: Streamline your inbox(es).

My email competes with internet surfing for the biggest time-waster of every week, and I bet yours does too.

Since we’re always using it to communicate with clients, bid on new projects, stay updated on our favorite blogs (ahem…Millo!) and get information regarding existing projects, it gets opened or stays open a LOT.

And since I comingle my work email with personal email (and I really, REALLY shouldn’t), it’s like an explosion of time-wasting opportunities constantly flooding my inbox. PS – Did you know Fab’s having a 50% off sale today?

Furthermore, I have a bit of an obsession with a known unread email. I can feel the bold font calling me to address it right now even though from the subject line I know it can wait.

Does this sound all too familiar?

Since my primary email is through Gmail, I make heavy use of the tabs that email marketers hate. (I just wish I could make my own custom tabs.)

I also rely heavily on filters to keep low-priority-but-still-interesting emails away from my eyes by skipping my inbox completely. This really helps you see how much unimportant email you get (and probably waste time addressing) each day.

And finally, once you see that you’re getting 15 petition emails per day on various subjects, you can unsubscribe thoughtfully instead of getting fed up and marking everything as spam.

It takes a few days of organizing and setting up filters to get your inbox 99% streamlined (you’ll always have maintenance here and there), but it’s like a breath of fresh air when you do. You free your mind from a ton of distractions from the outside world and allow your brain to concentrate on the work at hand.

Speaking of…

Rule #3: Make to-do lists.

(Yes, you’re seeing that right…lists with an s.)

Again, it’s all about freeing your mind for things that only your brain can do. Things like design a new logo, write new copy for your website, or have a great Lego-building session with your kids.

The first step is to do a brain dump of all the “to-dos” rattling around in your head. (This list is going to be long.) It doesn’t matter if the items are personal or business-related. You can sort them later if you want to. Just get ’em outta there!

I keep this first list on my phone, both because I can refer to it when running errands and because “to-dos” pop into my head all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. Seriously, I might be walking through Target and add to the list, or when inspiration wakes me up at 3am.

The second list is your specific down-and-dirty to-do list. These are things that are happening today, so it’s important everything on the list is actionable. (Ugh. Corporate word…sorry.)

Replace “work” or “work on X” with “Install plugins and test functionality on X website.”

Replace “admin stuff” with “Invoicing” and “Vector file organization.”

By giving yourself very specific tasks, you break down the following productivity-stunting mental barriers:

  • The overwhelming feeling of “where do I start? So much needs to be done.”
  • The motivation-killing “but it’s such a huge project! I need like a whole week set aside for this.”

Now, I don’t use a daily to-do list every day, but on those days when I’m not thrilled about getting started or I feel like there’s a mountain of work ahead of me, it’s a great motivator. Who doesn’t enjoy crossing items off their list?

And it’s even better when there’s nothing left to do: you see in front of you your accomplishments (and because you broke them down into smaller, specific chunks, there are more of them!) and feel okay about relaxing for the rest of the evening.

Rule #4: Check up on yourself

Find a tool that helps keep you accountable for your actions, and force yourself to look at it even when you know you’ve been bad.

I use the free version of Rescue Time, which tracks your computer usage (on more than one computer if you need) and sends you a weekly email regarding your productivity. You can set daily or weekly goals as well as categorize websites/applications in one of 5 different productivity scores from very productive to very distracting.

Whatever you use, actually use it. In no time you’ll learn what hours of the day and days of the week you’re most and least productive so you can capitalize on your best times and improve your worst ones.

And better yet, you can see what you’re wasting your time on — really? 5 hours this week on Facebook?! — so you can curb those bad habits and do something personally or professionally meaningful instead.

Take the 2-week challenge!

Try these 4 simple rules for 2 weeks and report back to us how you feel.

Is it easier to focus? Do you feel less stressed? Is your brain freer to be creative and enjoy freelancing (and life!) rather than being bogged down by the minutiae? Are you more productive in less time?

Or, maybe you’ve already employed these or similar tactics. Share in the comments below your tips for success!

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  1. Great article. This is the second or third time I’ve read about rescue time, I’m going to give it a try this week. Started using Trello last week and that was life changing! Thanks for providing such great content.

  2. Let me just say that I am completely guilty of wasting away entire days, not getting anything done. There’s too much distraction with owning your time, so I guess it’s unavoidable. I am personally not a fan of making to-do lists, as I seem to find myself spending more time writing my lists, instead of actually getting things done. What works for me most days, though, is cutting back on the time I spend checking my e-mails. Throughout my workday, I now check only 3 times – before I start working, after I have lunch, and at the end of the day. This way, I don’t find myself getting sucked into long, drawn-out email conversations that take up a lot of my energy and brain power. This isn’t enough though, as I still have long bouts of un-productivity so I think I will try out Rescue Time for myself too. (Though I’m starting to get scared about what it might tell me about my Facebook and You Tube usage, eek! Thanks for that suggestion.

    1. Rescue Time has been a real eye-opener for me. When I saw how much time (both personal and business time) I wasted on Facebook and realized that I didn’t feel like it was time well spent, I thought about all the things I could’ve done that I “didn’t have time for” that were much more fulfilling.

      Then I logged off Facebook and started doing them. And y’know, I started feeling refreshed and like I had actually enjoyed my time off instead of whittling it away on things I didn’t care much about. I was ready to do work and wanted to get started because I had had my fun.

      I’ve cut my Facebook usage by about 50%, and I’m loving it! I still enjoy checking Facebook, but it’s not a time-suck anymore.

      Good luck! Let me know how it goes for you.


  3. I haven’t yet done this myself (it’s on my to do list… 😉 ) but a friend has two separate logins on her computer: personal and business. When “at work” she uses the business account which only shows her work-related emails, has no distracting internet bookmarks, and has shortcuts to all her business-related files and software. The other has everything else.

    When she’s ready for a break, she logs out of Work and into Fun!

  4. I am a calendar freak, I use calendars and to-do lists since I was born!
    The first 3 points are a part of my everyday life, maybe this is why I almost never feel stressed. I can’t imagine how my life would be if I wasn’t organised.
    My philosophy is to keep my mind free of all the things that can’t be stored somewhere else, and are easy to find. (The bad thing is that the only phone numbers I remember are mine).
    The fourth point is something I would like to check.
    I’ve just signed up in Rescue Time and I am curious to see how many of the hours I spend in front of the pc are productive.

    1. Mania,

      Awesome – my stress, worry and anxiety levels have plummeted since employing #1-3! Great philosophy…I’m right with you.

      Thanks for sharing!


  5. I’m actually pretty good on the ‘be specific’ for each task, but REALLY need to be more consistent about putting everything on my calendar and starting a to-do list. I have a tendency to only write up a to-do list when I start getting overwhelmed.

    Thanks for the article and the specific ways to combat mind clutter and improve productivity!

  6. Great article, just what I needed since my productivity is on a all time low. I am forever wasting valuable time doing other people’s work and helping them out rather than concentrating on my projects. I am taking the 2 weeks challenge and hope to change my personal and professional lifestyle.

    {I have a bit of an obsession with a known unread email. I can feel the bold font calling me to address it right now even though from the subject line I know it can wait} LOL 😀 I’m guilty of this one – it’s like a sickness a Bold one!

    1. Ashwin,

      Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you! Sometimes a few little tweaks here and there make all the difference.

      Good luck!


  7. love my posts from gdb, love them, i was wondering if all of them are in a book? i would buy it adsolutley,
    thank you,

    1. Graeme,

      Thanks for the huge kudos! Maybe we can look into collecting Millo posts into a tome, or perhaps break them down into categories in more digestible chunks. Preston’s got the final say in this, so if there’s a large enough interest, he would be able to make it a reality.


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