11 ways to be more productive (without feeling like a machine)

11 ways to be more productive (without feeling like a machine)

Wake up before the sunrise, crack open a laptop, and crank out brilliant work non-stop into the evening like a productivity god/dess.

Yeah, right. More like refer to your list of tasks, but get more excited about something else. Then fight the resistance to start on your original to do list because it’s already lost its spark.

Or sit down to work and then be interrupted by urgent tasks and meetings. By the time you get some freedom to tackle what you wanted to accomplish, you’re tired. The last thing you want to do is dive into the murkiness of the creative journey and see if you can fish out anything worthwhile today.

Coming back from a recent weeklong trip around Italy, I found that it wasn’t easy to transition back into work. Exploring and experiencing new things was more fun. Work felt like a grind in comparison.

So, I searched through my notes of productivity tips that work best for me, inspired by creative leaders. They might be helpful for you too if you find yourself wanting to improve your productivity without stifling your creativity.


1. Have a place to capture inspiration daily

I’ve noticed a creativity and productivity spike during weeks when I carve out some time to write ideas in a notebook every day. It has to go beyond writing notes, to adding reflections and ideas for new content, designs, and strategies. Doing this activity helps shift thoughts from anxiety-inducing “what if I never have any ideas again?” to “I came up with 10 ideas before breakfast. What do I want to explore next or execute first?” The positive boost tends to stick throughout the day.


2. Track project notes and daily tasks in separate places

For me, it helps to keep project ideas and related tasks in a digital project management system. I then physically write down 3-5 tasks for each day the night before. On paper. Having two formats helps to separate the two mindsets. The computer equals “visionary” time, while the paper list equals “get to work” time. I also get more satisfaction from physically crossing something off the list when it’s complete. If I’m having trouble focusing on those daily tasks, usually closing out other tabs, putting my computer into airplane mode, or working on paper or a whiteboard helps to shut out everything else.


3. Start with the end

Work can easily expand if you walk into something with a general topic but no boundaries. Especially for creative types who find everything interesting. I’ve found that setting some boundaries around the end result, like the question to answer, the hypothesis to test, or the final artifact I want to create helps to focus the work on what will more likely end up in the final product. You can try something similar for meetings. Set a purpose and outcome for every meeting you host and encourage other people to do the same. If the outcome is an artifact, even better, that way you can get work done while you’re meeting and leave with a tangible result.


4. Embrace fluid planning

To stay sane and keep track of everything I want to accomplish, I have multiple lists of work. The Master List includes the big goals I want to accomplish, broken down into smaller actions. If I learn about a new task that could help reach that goal or come up with a way to achieve it faster, I edit the list. Each quarter I pick a theme to focus on, and each month I pull in tasks related to that theme. I assign some tasks for each week, and then slot them into days as the week progresses.

Pre-assigning everything out ahead of time doesn’t always work for me. Some days the inspiration is a firehose. Other times it’s a struggle just to get a few words of English on the page. By setting monthly and weekly goals, I have some flexibility around exactly which day and time of day tasks are accomplished. That way I can take advantage of the work that seems most interesting to me, matches my energy at the time, and fits with the current questions of clients and needs of the business. This is also effective for dealing with outside requests, because I can more easily switch up tasks if something unexpected comes up.


5. Set a timer, open the laptop, keep only one window open, and just move your hands until the timer goes off

These tips are helpful to just break the seal and take the first action. Sometimes thinking about the work and building it up in your head is worse than just getting those first bad lines out and editing later. Doing the work builds confidence. And the more often you practice getting into flow quickly, the easier it gets. For fun reminders that you’re not alone in the struggle, this “Wait But Why” series shares the perfect metaphors for procrastination and Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is a great pep talk for overcoming resistance.


6. Leverage context switching for good

I know that this is a strange thing to advocate for. It can take a long time to switch from one task to another and find flow again. However, after focusing on one task for a block of time, it can be easier to make further progress by switching to another task for a while and then coming back to it. Right now I have two documents open. When I get stuck editing one I switch to the other, read a quick related article, or reference notes. If I have a new idea or a sentence pops into my head, I add it immediately.

Sometimes following your mind around its random tangents can create more forward momentum than doggedly sticking with one task. The small notes and insights can gradually form into more interesting results. This tactic works best for me during creative projects with longer deadlines. The times when letting ideas marinate and finding new connections can lead to more creative solutions. However, if I need to get something concrete done quickly, shutting out all other distractions is more helpful. Also, this technique works when you need to accomplish both tasks to achieve your goals. Context switching between writing and Netflix is less effective.


7. Build a collection of templates

Whether the framework came from an expert or your prior self, someone has likely already tackled a similar problem to the one you’re facing. I find that assembling and creating templates helps to save time and reduce resistance. It provides a head start so you just need to fill in the gaps. And it’s way easier to fill in a Mad Libs than to write a story from scratch. When I get bored with a template I can mix it up with a new one that I find from a thought leader or create my own. Adding structure with worksheets, templates, and routines helps me focus more mental energy on what’s unique about that problem or solution I’m working on.

If you’re looking for some new templates related to gaining traction in complex systems, check out the free resource library available to Recharted Territory subscribers.


8. Curate a custom library for your work

I remember the first time I was introduced to the libraries of two labs at MIT: D-Lab and the Ideation Lab. Bookshelves were stuffed with reference guides and case studies that together perfectly represented the soul and mission of the lab, even though the products of that lab were completely unique. It was a place to gather context, answer questions, and find inspiration. It was also helpful for onboarding new team members.

Whether you have a collection of physical books, a Kindle library, or a To Read folder in Google Drive (I use all three), scanning the titles can remind you of your mission, help you get unstuck, offer different ways to describe similar concepts, and inspire your current work. Todd Henry talks about the value of creatives having a high-quality “diet” of stimuli in “The Accidental Creative.” High-quality stimuli are challenging, relevant, and diverse. The Recharted Territory library, for example, includes a mix of titles related to systems engineering, business, product development, and leadership. Plus some about crafting presentations, writing, marketing, and productivity. And some random tangents like travel guides and fiction books.


9. Inject play

Work hard, play hard. Why not play hard while working hard? For me, thinking about a mountain of “work” to grind through is the quickest way to start researching my next vacation. But reframing every task as a creative project or a puzzle to solve helps to make the work feel more fun. I’ve used this trick to overcome test anxiety and to break through creator’s block. Sometimes just varying the format helps to make it feel more like play, whether you change from digital to physical, audio, written words, visuals, verbal conversations, or physically moving or changing the environment.


10. Re-cast your internal monologue

This is one of those things that sounds strange when you describe it but makes a difference once you apply it. We tend to perceive the stream of thoughts we have each day as a reflection of reality or our core personality. So our current thought can influence how we feel and act. The least productive comments in this monologue tend to be related to fear. In her book “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how she deals with fear by imagining going on a road trip with both her fear and creativity. Fear is allowed to come along but is not allowed to make any decisions.

Rather than coming from one voice, instead, think of your internal monologue as coming from a group of advisors. They all have voices but you can choose whether to listen to them or act on their advice. Visualize each perspective as a different person. de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is a good place to start. Like a leader listening to team members, you can pay attention to what each one is saying, decide which news is worth acting on in that moment, and then move forward. So the voice that’s constantly worrying can give their update, but they can’t hijack the meeting or dictate the future of the company.


11. The Dreamer vs. The Researcher vs. The Architect vs. the Sculptor

Getting wrapped up in the result, how long it will take, and how other people will perceive it can prevent you from doing the work. I find it helpful to determine which persona a task needs and then trying to embody that persona. To approach the work from the perspective of a creator or a craftsperson enjoying the work itself, vs. how people will react to it.

The Dreamer has full permission to explore what could be. The Researcher grabs a clipboard to capture the current state and what’s been explored before. The Architect plays with elements and relationships to structure an outline for the solution. And the Sculptor starts with a hunk of raw materials and gradually molds it until she ends up with a physical artifact (an email, article, or design) that resembles something like the vision. This mindset hack is usually enough to make significant progress and create something that can be further critiqued and refined.


Sitting in front of a computer is not the same as exploring medieval towns and sampling different types of pasta. However, these tips have made my workday more enjoyable. What are your favorite productivity tips for getting things done while creating a dreamier work life? 

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