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11 Productivity Tips Incredibly Busy People Always Use

Everyone gets the same amount of hours in the day—it’s just about how we use them. Here’s how to make the most of yours.

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They plan out their to-do’s ahead of time

The No. 1 golden rule of busy people: prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Melanie Nelson, a project manager and author of Taming the Work Week, recommends sitting down at the beginning of the week and making a list of everything you need to get done. From there, you can block out time each day to reach those goals. Not only will you power through more tasks throughout the week, but you can also “really be present for the other things in your life—not just physically there, but with your mind still occupied with work,” Nelson says. Here are more effortless ways to be more productive.

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They use their time wisely

When it comes to getting more done in your day, “electing to be mindful about where your time goes is the first step,” says Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to hit the ground running at 6 a.m. sharp. But it does require listening to your natural work rhythms, giving yourself time limits, and avoiding distractions. “Everyone has the same about of time, so it’s a matter of what you do with it and your mindset about it,” Vanderkam says. Here’s how to be more productive in your first hour of work.

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They keep a calendar

Using a calendar is one of the best ways to track both short-term and long-term goals, experts say. Some people pen deadlines into a paper planner, while others prefer mapping out the day on their phones or laptops. But no matter which method you choose, keep in mind that “no app or program is going to be the magic solution,” Nelson says. “You get better at organizing your life by taking the time to understand what isn’t working, and then solving that problem.” You’ll want to steal these habits of people who never get stressed, too.

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They work on long-term goals

While it might be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details, don’t lose sight of the big picture. “Successful people find regular time to make progress on the big-picture goals they are trying to accomplish,” according to Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change. Whether you want to write a book or learn a new language, dedicating a few hours to that goal every weekend can pay off. Successful people do these eight things each weekend, too.

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They take breaks

Go ahead and take that 11 a.m. coffee break (and the 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. ones, too). Research published in the journal Cognition found that even brief breaks can replenish your mental energy, concentration, and motivation. “Everybody goes through peaks and valleys of energy through the day,” Vanderkam says. “If you don’t take breaks throughout the day, you will get terribly distracted through the low-energy time.” Taking a quick stroll or calling a loved one can leave you feeling fully charged and ready to tackle the day’s tasks.

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They know when to say “no”

If your to-do list looks like a logistical nightmare, it might be time to turn down a request or two. Keep a manageable workload by delegating tasks to others when you start to feel overwhelmed. And the next time someone asks you for a favor, try one of these polite ways of saying “no” to annoying things in your life.

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They take care of themselves

No matter how busy you are, don’t forget to schedule some “me” time. Common self-care practices, such as getting plenty of sleep and visiting friends and family, aren’t just good for your health and mood; they can boost your productivity, too. A Harvard study found that lack of sleep leads to 11.3 days of lost productivity each year—the equivalent of $2,280. Busy moms will appreciate these self-care moves, too.

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They separate work from play

Trust us, a busy calendar shouldn’t keep you from having fun. Rather, “it is important to learn to work when you’re at work and to not work when you’re not at work,” Markman says. Knock out your big projects during the work hours, and then leave your laptop at the office and decompress in the evening. “The work will wait for you, and you’ll be better mentally prepared for the work when you return to it,” Markman says. Watch out for these subtle signs you’re a workaholic.

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They know their own strengths and weaknesses

Can’t say no? Chugging coffee by 3 p.m.? Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses will help you be more effective at managing your time—and make you more productive on the whole. For example, night owls feel the most energized and focused in the evenings, so they might save their toughest workload for 8 or 9 p.m. Nelson also recommends taking a walk at lunchtime if you struggle with low energy in the afternoons.

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They focus on one thing at a time

Multi-tasking is not just a bad habit; it can take a toll on your productivity, too. Vanderkam said it best: “If you’re trying to do things that are different at the same time, it’s hard to give your full attention to both.” Try focusing your full attention on one task for 52 minutes, and then taking a break for 17 minutes. A 2014 study found that people who followed this method were the most productive workers in the office. You should also try these tricks for setting up the most productive workspace.

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They avoid having idle time

Believe it or not, having too little to do is almost as dangerous as having too much to do. Why? When you’re faced with a chunk of time when you have nothing planned, your motivation can plummet. Plus, “it’s easy to get distracted by whatever comes in, and you wind up being reactive,” Vanderkam says. To make the most of every hour of your day, keep a book or pair of weights within reach at all times. Watch out for these to-do list mistakes, too.