Busy As a Bee: My Top Ten Tricks for Improving Productivity

Do you ever feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day?

No matter how hard you work to get everything done, there is always more to do.

Here’s the bad news: you will never finish everything. Once you accept that, you will feel much happier. At least, I think you will– I haven’t quite gotten there myself.

When you’re as severely disabled as I am, you have to work pretty hard to get things done. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas that have worked for me.

Here are the top ten tips I have picked up for being more productive.

A bee

“Wait… you think I should be even MORE productive?”

10. Don’t Dwell on the Past

I don’t know about you, but I have some regrets.

Some of my regrets are about things left undone: blogs I abandoned, stories I never wrote, solutions I never came up with.

When it comes to productivity, I have learned that regret is not a terribly useful emotion.

Regretting the time you have wasted accomplishes only one thing: it wastes more time.

Don’t beat yourself up for not having been productive enough in the past. That’s a not a good use of your brainpower. Instead, train yourself to concentrate on being more productive from now on.

9. Write Everything Down

A cat that is writing

“TO DO: Catch mouse. Take nap. Play with yarn. Wash paws. Take another nap.”

So what can you actually do to be more productive? The first step in deciding what to do is to know what the possibilities are. It helps to write down everything you can think of that you have to, should, or want to do.

I don’t care how good your memory is– you can’t keep track of all of those things in your head.

There are a number of possible places to write everything down: calendars, day planners, to do lists. Take your pick.

The important thing is to have it all down on paper (real or digital).

There are a lot of apps that can help: Remember the Milk, Toodledo, Nirvana and Google Calendar are just a few of them. But remember:

8. No App Is Perfect

Android logo, possibly uttering its last words.

“I *PANT* can’t keep up! *PANT*”

I used Nirvana for a long time. I like how it organizes to do lists and allows you to group actions into projects.

However, it doesn’t have a calendar. How are you supposed to use it as an all-in-one life organizer if it doesn’t include a calendar?

Eventually, I switched to Google Calendar for everything. It even includes a rudimentary to do list function called Google Tasks.

I have a great calendar now, but my to do lists are overflowing with tasks that Nirvana could have handled much better.

The point is, no matter how much research you do, you will never find an app that manages your commitments in exactly the way you want it to. Not unless you can program it yourself.

7. No System Is Perfect

Every strategy for productivity has its pitfalls.

Keep everything in your head, and you are bound to forget something important. Put everything on a prioritized, color-coded list within a constantly re-optimized productivity system, and you risk spending more time organizing your tasks than actually getting them done.

I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum at different points in my life, but nowadays I’m somewhere in between.

The fact is, having a system at all means you’re ahead of the game. Exactly what that system is isn’t important, as long as it gets results for you.

6. Plan Ahead

It helps to think of your life as having cycles. Sometimes you are organized, and sometimes your life is chaotic.

You have to recognize that the way you are in this moment is not the way you will always be. If you find yourself flailing around to keep up with an endless onslaught of responsibilities, realize that, in the future, there will come a time when you feel more in control. Maybe not completely in control, but at least a little bit.

On the other hand, if you are feeling pretty on top of things, keep in mind that that sense of control can’t last forever.

So when things are going well, plan for the hard times ahead. Like a squirrel gathering acorns for the winter, prepare to be in it for the long haul.

Remember the Stark family motto from Game of Thrones: winter is coming. But maybe be a little less grim about it than Jon Snow here:

Jon Snow and his faithful direwolf, Ghost.

“Winter… *DRAMATIC PAUSE* is coming!”

5. Email Scheduling Is Your Friend

It’s hard to manage yourself, but it’s even harder to manage others.

We all have to manage other people. Even if we’re not in charge of a company, a department, or a team, we all need other people to do things for us.

My biggest management challenge is the people who provide my ventilator and all of its related batteries, tubes and accessories.

When it comes to your ability to breathe, no one can care about it more than you do. Trust me.


“Uh, guys? Kind of running out of air here?”

If I hear one more time about the one year life expectancy of a ventilator battery that actually shorts out after two months, I might run someone over with my wheelchair.

But I don’t do that. I keep my cool, for the most part. My wife helps me track down the people with the authority to bypass the system, and I email them.

The best time to send those emails is, of course, first thing Monday morning.

But when my local respiratory supply company branch opens at 9:00 a.m., I am in the middle of the lengthy process of getting ready to start my day.

The email still goes out at 9:oo a.m., even though I’m physically unable to hit “send” at that time. How?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you are probably sick of hearing me talk about Boomerang for Gmail. It’s by far my favorite browser extension. Although keeping your inbox clear and reminding you to keep on top of pending issues are its main functions, scheduling emails is the feature I use most.

4. Prepare for Tomorrow

Preparing for tomorrow doesn’t mean thinking about “the future.” It means actually preparing for the day after today.

If you have the option, schedule some emails to go out first thing in the morning. Consider laying out your clothes before you go to bed. Program the coffeemaker– do whatever you can to make tomorrow easier.

Most importantly, make sure your to do list for tomorrow sets reasonable expectations.

For example, I have a part-time job at at a nonprofit. Take a look at this to do list for my three-hour day tomorrow:

  • Write blog post
  • Check for outreach events to put on calendar
  • Make website page for brochures
  • Submit timesheet
  • Clear schedule change with my supervisor
  • Follow up with coworker about event flyer

This is more than I can do in a three-hour workday. The blog post alone could take up the whole time. I’d better fix this.

Let’s see: “submit timesheet” is the only item that absolutely cannot be moved to another day. And maybe I can just outline the blog post instead of writing the whole thing.

After a little adjustment, here is what my to do list looks like:

  • Outline blog post
  • Check for outreach events to put on calendar
  • Clear schedule change with my supervisor

Much more manageable, right?

It won’t take anywhere near three hours to finish this list. There will plenty of time left to deal with any crises or urgent requests, and I will get the satisfaction of having completed every task I set out to finish.

3. Give Yourself a Break

Setting realistic expectations for yourself is crucial to managing your productivity.

In my case, my disability causes me to feel sick pretty often. Since I type using morse code with my mouth on a sip-and-puff straw, it’s impossible for me to get much work done if I have even a tiny bit of congestion.

I know I’m going to have a lot of days when I can’t be productive, so I plan for them.

Those are the days when I catch up on my favorite TV shows. I watch some Youtube videos, read interesting articles, and just generally concentrate on relaxing and staying hydrated.

Having an occasional day of downtime is really helpful. Knowing I will get a day to relax now and then enables me to work harder the rest of the time.

You don’t need to be sick or severely disabled to do this. Just schedule an occasional few hours off.

cat in sunglasses

“Could you move over? You’re blocking my sun.”

If you can’t take official time off, try plan B: see if you can “work” without actually working for two or three hours.

Unfortunately, our society demands almost constant activity from its workers, regardless of the actual usefulness of said activity. You will probably need to keep up appearances.

If that’s too hard to do while you’re trying to watch a video or read, there’s always plan C:

Do it over the weekend. But it has to be “me time.” No errands (unless you find them relaxing), no laundry, no stress-inducing interactions. Just doing whatever you want for a few hours, with no one bothering you.

Even if you do this as little as once every two weeks, it will improve your motivation and just generally make you a happier person.

2. Develop an Action Orientation

skateboard trick

“Like this?”

While it is important to relax, it also necessary to get things done.

You need to have an attitude of always trying to take action, whenever doing so is appropriate. That is what I call having an action orientation.

Being action-oriented means always being ready, willing and even eager to take action to address a situation or problem.

You can even take action to prevent problems before they happen.

For example, I often unexpectedly have to find a substitute personal care assistant at the last minute.

I have some unique needs and precise requirements, so it is extremely difficult to do that.

That is why I actively seek and train “backup helpers.” By increasing the pool of people I can call to fill in, I can improve my odds of finding a substitute personal care assistant when I need one.

1. There’s Always Room for Improvement

I haven’t figured everything out yet, and I never will.

That’s okay. Life isn’t ever going to be perfect, but it can always get better.

Don’t get stuck in your ways. For years, I thought I had to take at least a ten-minute break every hour when working, just so I could drink enough water.

I get dehydrated easily, so it takes a lot of water to keep me going. Add to that the fact that I get all my nutrition from liquids (I can’t swallow anything else), and the result is that I have to drink almost a gallon of fluids every day.

Boy drinking whole water bottle.

“So… thirsty…”

When I didn’t take those ten-minute breaks, I got so caught up in whatever I was doing that I would forget to drink anything. That could lead to severe dehydration if I kept it up.

So I lost about an hour and a half every day to drink water. Sometimes, during my breaks, I even got carried away watching Netflix and ended up wasting most of the day.

But then I got an idea: a few weeks ago, I realized I could just set a timer to remind me to stop every few minutes and drink something.

I suddenly had a lot more productive time, time that had been wasted for too long because I truly believed I was being as efficient as I could possibly be.

You can always be happier and more productive. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it.


What are your favorite productivity tips? Leave a reply below and share them!

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