Productivity Tips, Tricks, and Tools

An oldie but a goodie: this post was originally published on July 14th, 2016.

For us medical librarians, this time of year is when we start gearing up for a new class of medical students to take the College of Medicine by storm. With new classes and orientations around the corner (and general lethargy being less socially acceptable in the fall than in the warm, languid summer months), upping our productivity is the name of the game. Here are some productivity tips, tricks, and tools that we find helpful, and  may help you knock out a new project or build a new habit as well!


Unfortunately, growing extra arms isn’t a viable option for improving your workflow.

Take Breaks

How’s that for a great first tip?! The fact is, nobody can stay focused nonstop all of the time. (If you say that you can, (1) why are you reading this article, and (2) unless you are a well-disguised cyborg, no, you can’t.) Trying to remain focused and productive for long chunks of time will lead to an extended period of pseudo-productivity and mental fatigue. It’s better to schedule breaks throughout your day and use your non-break time to get focused work done. This way, your mind can stay refreshed, and you have your little breaks to look forward to.

One helpful method is the Pomodoro Technique for time management. According to this technique, you set a timer to work for only 25 minutes, and then you take a short five minute break to refresh and step back. After several work periods, you take a longer (20-30 minute) break. If you can get up and walk around or even head outside for some sunlight during these breaks, all the better!

Ruthlessly Block Out Distractions

I imagine that we’ve all been through the experience of going down a rabbit hole on the internet: one minute you’re doing legitimate research for a project, and the next thing you know, you’re looking at your sister’s ex’s aunt’s photos from her vacation in Prague. How did that happen?! The slippery slope of distraction, my friends. For those of us (me included), without an iron will to keep ourselves out of social media and news sites, thankfully there are tools that can help us. A couple of my favorites include Rescue Time, an application that runs in the background of your computer and measures how you spend your time, and StayFocused, a Chrome extension that you can use to block distracting websites for a period of time.

Real world distractions can be just as bad as online ones, but they can also be overcome. A set of soundproof headphones can go a long way in a busy office environment. If you find yourself getting distracted by your smartphone, take the plunge and actually turn it off (gasp!), or at least make use of the “do not disturb” setting. A strategically placed “do not disturb” or (my favorite) “genius at work!” sign on your office door can also help preemptively discourage intrusive distractions during your focused time.


Set Specific and Measurable Goals

If your goals are vague, it will be difficult for you to know when you’ve reached them. It is much easier be productive if you know the specific steps you need to take to meet your goals. For example, as part of my job, I help manage the HSL’s social media. If I come in one morning and write on my to-do list “work on social media,” it is difficult for me to know when I can check that off. Rather, if I write, “compose and schedule five posts each for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook,” it is easier for me to focus on what I have to do, get it done, and know that I’ve accomplished what I needed to do for that day.

Prepare, prepare, prepare!

As my mom always said, “A little time today can save much more time tomorrow.” In general, preparing for your day, your week, or a specific task will streamline and reduce time spent on the process. As a textbook Type A personality, I believe in the sanctity of proper preparation. This can take many forms; for example, preparing your work space with your task in mind. According to a recent study in Harvard Business Review, a clean desk helps you stick with a task more than one and a half times longer. Plus, being prepared with all of the tools, documents, and snacks you need for the task at hand will help keep you from needing to constantly look for or get up to grab things that you need. In another example, you can streamline your mornings by choosing your outfit, packing your gym bag, and packing your lunch the night before. As a rule of thumb, it’s much more difficult to over-prepare than to under-prepare.

Try Out Different Tools to Stay Organized

There are any number of tools, both technological and old-school, out there to keep you organized and increase your productivity. The key is to experiment with these tools until you find what helps you most. I personally love using to-do lists, planners, and calendars to employ time-blocking. Time blocking is simple but effective: I make a to-do list for my day (or week or month or for the life of a project, whatever), and then I prioritize the items on that list. Rather than stopping there, I then estimate how much time I want to allot to each item, and actually block that amount of time into my schedule.

Although I make use of traditional paper-and-pencil (and sticky note and highlighter) planners and to-do lists, I also enjoy using technology to stay organized. Google Calendar is a great tool. You can color-code and rearrange your appointments to your heart’s content, and you can even create multiple calendars to suit your various needs. Anydo is a great app for making to-do lists. Another favorite is Strides, used for tracking habits and progress toward various goals. For even more apps, check out this list by Lifehack of the top 50 productivity apps.

Know Yourself

Of course, any productivity trick or tool that doesn’t align with your goals or lifestyle just isn’t going to work for you, even in your coworkers or friends or even Oprah is raving about it. Please keep in mind that this list is just a jumping-off point of potential ideas that have worked well for a 20-something overachiever, and that it may take some exploration and creativity to find what makes you productive.

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