I’ve always had a healthy obsession with productivity.
Ever since I graduated, I was a serial entrepreneur. With each new business, the amount of work has steadily increased. In 2001, at the age of 21, I started my first company, providing IT services in Kazakhstan. In 2002, I launched an international telecommunications business in France, providing cheap long-distance call services around the world. In 2015, I built a meditation app and failed (here’s that story of how I spent $50k on a meditation app). In the same year, I became a father of twins and my life turned upside down 🙃. Before the twins were born, I was totally free in choosing my work and rest hours; I could easily find time for workouts, meditation retreats, and other hobbies. With the twins arriving, my flexibility radically changed.
We as humans often struggle to stay productive, even without other obligations and family chores to take care of outside work. But when kids arrive (especially two at a time 😊 ), you really start squeezing your efficiency resources to fall into the 20% of Pareto’s efforts equation. If you are not familiar with the Pareto principle, it says that 80% of the work gets done within just 20% of the time and effort. Well, with kids around, you only get 20% of your time to get 100% of work done!
With the experience of starting a few businesses behind me, and having kids and family chores to take care of, I have learned something about productivity.
I know there have been dozens of articles and talks on the topic of productivity, but I’d like to share a few things that helped me stay on track despite messy schedules, endless family trips, and constant distractions at home. (I only work from the office a few months per year; the rest of my time I prefer to find inspirational places around the world, and of course, I go with my family.)
Disclaimer: my approach may not (and should not) appeal to all. Please be selective, and feel free to adopt only those tips that work for you. To me, if you find any of the tricks interesting and apply them to your daily routine to become more productive, it’s already a great deal.
The Zero Inbox Rule
I know, I know. There’s no way my inbox always has zero emails, but most of the time it’s no more than two or three emails. But, a few times a week I get to see this gem:
(Okay, I cheated here, a little. I went ahead and replied to a few lingering emails in my inbox to achieve this screenshot—but people cheat all the time on Instagram and Facebook these days for a great snapshot, so whatever.)
Keeping the inbox count close to zero for me is important as it removes the clutter and it just creates that kind of clean zen space in my mind, compared to when you see your inbox full of emails even though they are all viewed and replied (and the lurking thought of what would happen if you missed replying one of them).
You might say: “Levon, you must only be getting only a few emails per day, otherwise, I don’t know how is this possible”. Well, I counted 73 e-mails received yesterday total. In one day.
To be honest, most of the emails don’t require any action from me; they are either transactional with some confirmation, or newsletters that need my small replies and comments. We don’t use emails for team communication at all—all of the inside discussions are done in Slack. (If you are still relying on emails/Skype/Whatsapp/telegram for your work communications you should switch to Slack immediately!)
Now let’s talk email clients . My personal favorite (pictured above) is Spark for Mac. I think it’s the best email app out there and it’s easy to configure swiping actions for emails. (Good news for Android lovers — Spark for Android has just been released!) When I hover over the message and swipe right on my trackpad or mouse, the email gets archived; I swipe left and it’s deleted. A few swipes first thing in the morning cleans up most of the emails I received during the night. Then I spend another 15 to 30 minutes answering the remaining emails or taking action that’s implied by them. Once the email thread is done, I archive it. The remaining emails are kind of an addition to my to-do list. Sometimes I like to take time to ponder about the answer or to take a decision associated with the email.
Also, I always unsubscribe from newsletters that I never subscribed to, or the emails I received after I sign up to any service. I am not going to read it anyway; it only clutters my inbox and slows my productivity down. I turned off all the Facebook notifications sent by email and in-app (except the direct messages and comments) because facebook has become increasingly aggressive in the agony of trying to bring their users back to the platform and keep them engaged. It’s just too annoying and distracting for somebody with a tight and hectic schedule.
My Zero Inbox Rule also applies to Asana Project Management tool that we (at Zeroqode) use for managing all work related projects and tasks. Whenever there is any update on a task you follow, it appears in the inbox.
(See, I don’t always cheat and there are still some pending updates I need to go through—they keep coming all day long, so I just reply when I can.)
Now that I went through all the updates, it’s back to its original state.
By the way, Asana is a super efficient project management tool to organize your team work, so you never forget what you and your teammates have to do and when. It allows you to see the bigger picture as well as zoom in on details when necessary. When I was starting Zeroqode, I researched a lot of project management tools including Jira, Basecamp, Wryke, etc. Some of them are great, indeed, but for me, none of them came close to Asana in terms of convenience and efficiency. And it has a free tier which we still use!
Free Your Mind From Things That You Need To Remember
The moment there is a piece of valuable information I need to remember, I immediately put it down in writing. This gives me peace of mind. I know everything is taken care of and I don’t need to worry whether I remembered everything or if something may have slipped out of my mind. The constant worrying and checking internally on the list of things-to-do affects your efficiency. It uses up your proverbial RAM resources (aka your processing power) and distracts you from being focused. When I write things down, I know I will see a notification about it right when it’s needed. Until then, I don’t need to worry about it at all.
If it’s something I need to do, I add it as a task in my to-do app Todoist (thanks to my partner Vlad for the tip). I believe it’s the most popular to-do application these days. It costs $29 per year and it’s worth every penny, in my opinion.
As you can see from the screenshot above, my to-dos for today are completed, which is why I’m writing this article, even though this is a task from my tomorrow’s to-do list. And this is actually my next tiny piece of advice: keep your to-do list short.
Keeping your to-do list short and realistic allows you to complete most of the planned tasks faster and more effectively. It helps prevent you from becoming discouraged by the list, and in turn, letting you and your team down. Once all today’s tasks are completed, get to the ones from tomorrow if you feel enthusiastic enough.
If it’s simply information like bank account details, locations, travel notes, or anything else, I add it as a note in Evernote.
Change Your PC to a Mac
I know, I’m going to be cursed at a lot for this one. Honestly, I was a Windows user until a year ago (so, almost all my life) and my co-founder Vlad was trolling me about Windows laptops being slow and crashing all the time (hello, blue screens). I would fight back with legitimate arguments, but at some point I got curious : what if it really will make my work easier? I was worried of course about the compatibility of the apps I used to have on my Windows PC, but I still decided to try. And know what? I don’t think I will ever go back (adieus, blue screens). It’s made my life so much easier. Starting the laptop, switching between apps, and just using the computer is so much faster and simpler. The apps are so much more beautiful and intuitive. I know this is a never ending holy-war between Windows and Mac lovers, but you won’t know the difference until you try. Of course, a Mac is more expensive, but given how much time it saves me and how much more I enjoy it, I think it’s totally worthwhile.
Keep A Minimalistic Screen
When I get to see other people’s desktops, I start feeling claustrophobic from the amount of tabs or app icons they have open at the same time. How can you possible keep your focus and zen in the myriad of things going on there?
In my dock, I only keep apps that I use daily:
Same with my desktop screen, although I rarely open from it on my Mac compared to Windows.
If there are websites that I use a lot, I simply pin the tab in my Chrome browser (sorry folks, not Safari, not Mozilla... it’s gotta be Chrome).
Links I still use a lot but less frequently go in the Bookmarks bar.
I still need to learn to use shortcuts more often, but they really save you time as compared to pointing and clicking. Get rid of your mouse if you have not already. When I was getting rid of mine, I clung to it, and didn’t want to give it up for a long time. However, your trackpad (if it’s big enough and if it’s on a Mac) will serve the same purpose with more efficiency. All you need to do is invest some time in learning how to use it effectively.
Always Use A Computer Instead Of A Mobile Phone
It takes more time and more effort to do something on mobile phone compared to a computer. Browsing the internet, answering emails or Whatsapp messaging, or almost anything else is much easier and faster on a computer. So, if you still don’t have Whatsapp on your computer you should get it now and use it instead of your phone while you are at it. You might be tempted to answer your emails or Slack messages from your phone when you have a few spare minutes waiting in the queue or elsewhere, but if it’s not urgent, just relax and rest. You’ll do those things much faster when you are back at your desk again.
If you feel tempted to answer them because your phone is buzzing, check out my next piece of advice.
Switch Off Your Phone Notifications
Recently, we were working on rebranding and launching our newly acquired educational platform, Zeroqode Lab (read more about how we acquired Zeroqode Lab here). In the middle of it, all of a sudden, I got overwhelmed with the amount of work I had to navigate through. Since I currently live in Bali and the team is in Moldova with six hours difference, my working hours quickly became 8:30am to 11:00pm (that’s 14.5 hour days). One of the things I did to help cut down on feeling overwhelmed was turning off email and Slack notifications on my phone. They are still off, even though it’s gotten easier recently; I find it makes me feel a lot less stressed regardless of the workload.
Workout As Much As You Can
This one is a known fact nowadays: physical workouts increase productivity, creativity, level of happiness, and have a lot of other benefits. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the benefits of working out more. Just trust me, do it and you will see the benefits for yourself. “But Levon, I hate jogging.” Then be creative with your workouts, just like you’re creative with your actual work. Find a workout that fits you, and stick with it.
Do Yoga And Meditate
Yoga and meditation have a plethora of benefits to your physical and emotional wellbeing. Meditation is super important in getting some clarity in your personal life or work life. There are tons of apps with voice-guided meditations on the market. Two of the most popular ones are Headspace and Calm.
Regulate Your Workload
If you are constantly overworking and finding yourself on the brink of an emotional or physical breakdown, no techniques or tips on productivity will ever help you. There is no self-help book, no top-twenty-tip-list, no motivational poster, in the world that can help you more than being honest with your workload. At some point, you will simply collapse if you take on too much. If you relate to the above, I have some advice you urgently need to follow. Every time I come close to an overload, my survival mechanisms kick in and nothing is more important for me at such a moment than restoring my work-life balance. Here is how I do it:
- I ask myself if all the things I am currently working on are actually important, or whether some of them can be postponed.
- If everything is a priority and has to be done immediately, then I find a way to delegate part of my work to someone capable (kudos to my teammates).
- If everyone else is busy, I hire another team member.
- If you can’t afford to hire someone, then question your business model. Is it a sustainable one?
A note I should make here: most of the time, I work more than 40 hours a week because I love what I do. However, when I have to work that many hours everyday when I don’t feel like it, then I get emotionally and physically exhausted. I feel like I’m losing my freedom. That’s when I go into survival mode and do what I mentioned above.
Do What You Love Or Change What You Do
This one is very simple. If you are finding explanations why you are doing something you don’t love, you are fooling yourself. Get out of it as soon as you can. NO. MORE. EXCUSES. Be bold, trust yourself, and trust in life’s truth that everything will work out in the best possible way, if only you decide to do what you love.
Let’s face it: everyone postpones tasks when they don’t want to do it, and I’m guilty of this too. Let’s not make a big deal about it, unless it’s a chronic issue. If it affects most of your tasks and you simply can’t make yourself address them, doing active meditations or very intense workouts should would boost your metabolism and your energy levels. If you put things off because you don’t like what you do, see the previous paragraph.
But let’s consider a situation when it’s not a big deal, but you still have things to-do. Say they become important, and you simply don’t feel like starting to work on them and postpone them for the next day or even next week.
I’ve stumbled upon a tip some time ago to help curb this. The idea is simple, but it works: if you don’t feel like working on a particular task... don’t. But here’s the catch: don’t do anything else either. No TV, no social media, no playing games, nothing. Simply sit there doing nothing and staring at the task you don’t feel like doing. Next, just think of the task, and the steps required to complete it. Simply observe the task; don’t get sucked into the anxiety of it all. Do it for as long as needed and I can 100% guarantee (ok, let’s make it 95%) you’ll feel you are ready to nail it at some point.
Use Negatively Charged Energy
I remember when the kids were still very small, my wife and I would fight a lot, and I’d leave for work very angry. But, hell, that anger would help me get so much shit done in much less time. (Thank you honey, and I love you, even when we fight. 😊)
Tune Into The State Of Flow
You probably know this state. It’s when you totally lose yourself in what you do, and don’t pay attention to anything around you. This is one of the most productive states; try to get into it for at least a few hours a day. Pay attention to the factors that help you get into this state, and learn to do it over and over when needed.
If you get distracted a lot in the office, leave it for a few hours and work in a coffee shop nearby. Sometimes, a change of pace and flow is all you need to get productive again.
Curate Your Social Networks
I like to scroll through my Instagram feed about once a day. I’m not following too many people, so it only takes a few minutes really.
If I’m up for some more mindless surfing, I might read my Facebook feed (remember, I switched off most of the notifications on FB). But if you use Facebook, make sure to unfollow all the people that post irritating/irrelevant/negative content—why allow them to mess with your emotional state? I’m not suggesting to unfriend people—it’s practical and easy to reach someone from your contact list when needed—but unfollowing is a harmless and an effective way to keep your feed clean. Also, unfollow people you barely know. If you just met a guy on the plane and connected on Facebook, why would you want to know what kind of food his dog eats, right? Another good idea is to prioritize the content so the posts that are more important for you appear above all others in the feed (you can do this by clicking on a friend’s profile or the page that you are subscribed to). If you invest some of your time to go over all the posts and either unfollow them or prioritize them, your time spent on Facebook will be much better spent.
Work In Places That Inspire You
Finally, if you are allowed to work remotely, find a restaurant or co-working space where you dig the interiors and find yourself very cozy and uplifted. Or you could find a spot in nature, like a lake or river, mountains, or a beachfront restaurant. Due to lots of traveling, my favorite is working out of five-star hotel lobbies. It’s not that expensive to pay for a cup of tea or coffee, but you’ll be surrounded with a luxurious and relaxing atmosphere (sometimes even accompanied by live music, if that’s your jam).
I hope at least one of these sixteen tips caused a light bulb to flick on in your brain. The tasks are never ending, and especially if you have kiddos running around begging for attention. While not every single tip will fit your lifestyle, I hope this article pushes you to be productive and inspires you to take some practical steps in bringing your workload into order. As IndieHackers and bootstrappers, our lives are cluttered enough as it is; taking steps to find your center and ground yourself in productivity is a crucial step to achieving both business and personal success.