The Ultimate Guide to Being More Productive

Two men at standing desks in office
Andy Ryan

If you want to improve your output to maximize your downtime, home life, work, and health, you need to do it one level at a time. We like to call it the productivity power-up. It’s easy and manageable. Consider it the Men’s Journal guide to getting sh*t done.

How to Make the Most of Your Leisure Time

Level 1: Binge Best-sellers During Your Commute 

You can’t read every great, new, thought-provoking nonfiction book on the NYT Best Sellers list. There aren’t enough free hours in the day. But with the audio app Blinkist, you can get the key ideas from top nonfiction books distilled in commute-friendly 15-minute chunks. That way, you can actually learn something on your drive and make up for the reading downtime you wish you had. This is also a great tip if you aimlessly scroll through Twitter and Instagram whilst commuting on trains and subways.

Level 2: Change Your Lightbulbs for Better Sleep  

You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t twiddle on your phone before trying to fall asleep. This owes to the fact that the blue hue of the screen screws with your body’s production of melatonin, the chemical that makes you sleepy. To go a step further, try using a red-spectrum light in your bedroom, as your bedside reading lamp, say. Research suggests these lights improve sleep quality.

Level 3: Unschedule Your Free Time 

Resist the urge to jam-pack your weekends or days off. According to an Ohio State study, setting a busy, strict schedule for your free time can undermine the joy of leisure activities and negate much of their benefits. Free-flowing downtime helps you unwind better—provided you don’t spend the time staring at your phone, since purposelessly scrolling eats up time without any restorative perks.

Level 4: Plan Your Vacations for the Entire Year  

More than half of Americans fail to use all their PTO. Which benefits no one. According to one study, vacations have a 94 percent return on investment, in terms of a worker’s energy and outlook. Plan your vacations far in advance and all at once for the year, to get them on the books so they’re harder to skip.

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How to Improve Your Productivity at Home

Level 1: Streamline Your Morning Routine  

A simple way to get more out of your morning—and to get out the door more quickly—is to use little pockets of downtime to knock out simple tasks. For example, instead of idly watching your coffee brew or your bagel toast, slap together a sandwich for lunch, or consolidate everything you need for the day next to the door, so you’re not scrambling to collect everything on your way out. You’ll save loads of time just by having your keys, wallet, and bag in one place.

Level 2: Create a Master Family Calendar  

Reduce back-and-forth overscheduling by creating a master family calendar. Include everything from dinner dates to soccer pickups, along with weekly household chores. Knocking out these chores incrementally during the week will also spare you from having to do them all over the weekend.

Level 3: Organize Your Toolshed  

If you’re tackling a weekend project, you can easily spend just as much time searching for your tools as working on the task at hand. To prevent this, spend a day organizing your workshop or garage, separating power tools from manual ones, hanging spare cords, and labeling drawers.

Level 4: Will Yourself to Rise Early   

The most useful, and straightforward, productivity advice can also be the most daunting: Get up early. Yes, you’ve heard it before, but by rising early, you can knock out important tasks before other demands arise. If you keep hitting snooze, set your alarm across the room, which will force you to get up.

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How to Power Up Productivity at Work

Level 1: Get Off Slack  

A Harvard Business School study suggests that constantly chatting with coworkers on platforms like Slack decreases work quality. To avoid a daily barrage of messages, set your account to “away” in the morning and schedule a 15-minute afternoon Slack break to get caught up.

Level 2: Switch Your Seat  

An expanding body of research has found that open floor plans are a hindrance to productivity and don’t bolster teamwork. In fact, a recent study showed that people in an open-seat office spent much of the day seeking out ways to block coworker noise and recover some privacy—often by not being at their desks working. If chatter proves distracting, ask your boss to change seats.

Level 3: Find a Back-Burner Project 

Office downtime costs companies some $100 billion a year, according to Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School. Amabile looked at more than 1,000 people in 29 professions and found that three out of four employees have dead time during the workweek because they can’t move ahead on projects, owing to issues beyond their control. Rather than sit idly, keep a list of low-priority projects that you can work on when the workflow pipeline gets clogged.

Level 4: Move Up Your Morning Drive   

A 10-mile commute into a major city on a Monday morning takes, on average, 15 minutes at 7 a.m. or 45 minutes at 8. Ask your boss to let you move your schedule forward to avoid the congestion, says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock. You could save as much as two hours a day.

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How to Optimize Your Health

Level 1: Make a 10-minute Commitment  

Research shows that people who run 51 minutes a week—or about seven minutes a day—significantly lower their mortality rate, meaning that hour-long gym sessions are as daunting as they are unnecessary, at least in terms of basic health benefits. Sure, if you’re training for a marathon, a 10-minute run won’t cut it. But a quick run is better than nothing, and a much easier habit to form.

Level 2: Check Off Some Super-Tiny Goals  

Once you get in the habit of exercising regularly—even if in short increments—set some easy, quantifiable goals, says productivity coach Liz Sumner. Achieving them will boost your confidence and keep you moving forward, while falling short of goals over and over can be demotivating.

Level 3: Use Audiobooks to Your Advantage  

As you ramp up the difficulty of your fitness goals, muster the willpower to listen to your favorite audiobook or podcast only while you hit the weights or exercise. Researchers at the Wharton School have found that gym attendance rises by 51 percent among people who reserve listening to their favorite audiobook for while working out.

Level 4: Put Firm Numbers on Daily Objectives  

Now that you have plenty of confidence and are exercising regularly, put hard numbers on daily fitness objectives. Committing these daily goals to paper will keep you focused and provide small benchmarks as you work toward a larger goal, whether it’s to drop 20 pounds or bench press 200.

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