Mark Ellis: “What Productivity Means to Me as an Independent Creator”
There’s absolutely nothing worse than ending the day with a bunch of items left on your to-do list.
You did everything right: an early night, a hearty breakfast, a dose of exercise and fresh air, and you spent every available hour working at your desk.
How on Earth have you failed so miserably at being productive?
This happens to all of us. It still happens to me, occasionally. But “occasionally” is the keyword there because, thanks to many years of running my own business from a multitude of locations, I’ve figured out the secret sauce for being ultra-productive.
And it’s much easier than you think.
Why Do We Struggle with Productivity?
There’s always something better and more interesting to get your teeth into, isn’t there?
Whether you’ve got to finish that sales report, edit your final video of the week, or make some headway on your next novel, there will be something else vying for your attention.
It doesn’t matter where you’re working, either. You could be at home with your laptop resting on the breakfast bar, in a traditional office, or digital nomad-ing around the world; you’re still human and susceptible to distractions.
This is exacerbated in a world where there are so many distractions.
Most of them seem to emanate from your phone, but they extend beyond the digital realm, too. Your window with that glorious view across the field, the kids who should have left for football practice 20 minutes ago — all of your attention is drawn in that direction rather than to your work.
This is why we all struggle with productivity. It’s damn hard to keep a fix on the stuff we should be doing when there’s so much going on in the world around us.
So what is the solution?
What Productivity Means to Me
I don’t have kids (yet), so I don’t have that particular distraction to worry about (yet). Similarly, the view from my window isn’t necessarily inspiring.
But I still have my own set of distractions to contend with, and that means I’ve had to get a real grip on what productivity means to me.
Before I became an independent worker, productivity meant completing any client meetings I had ahead of me that day and getting as far down my email inbox as possible.
In hindsight, that was missing the point entirely.
It left me feeling incredibly busy but with no sense of purpose. I wasn’t working towards any kind of goal; I was simply rushing to get as much stuff done as possible before 5:30 p.m.
Now, I take an entirely different approach to my day and the tasks ahead of me.
I arrange each day so that the tasks I decide to complete are those that deliver a tangible result or edge me a notch closer to a wider goal.
That’s what productivity is for me. It’s the ability to complete a bunch of either connected or unconnected tasks that all have their own merits and deliver a unique reward once completed.
On some days, that might be just one big task. Other days, it could be a multitude of smaller things that need to be checked off.
Everything else can always wait.
The Three Pillars of Productivity
Over the years, I’ve realized that every working day consists of three elements without which I simply couldn’t be productive.
The good news is that they’re attainable for us all. Even better, you’ve probably got all three at hand almost immediately.
The single biggest threat to your productivity is your mind. We’re our own worst enemies with this. It’s why you need to enter each day’s work thinking about the goals you want to achieve or the small wins you want to experience due to completing key tasks. This mindset is derived from my passion for creating and being creative.
There’s a reason I don’t stay in the same working environment for eight hours each day. To keep my mind fresh and my creativity chugging along, I need to switch it up.
You’ll be amazed by how much more productive you can become by regularly placing yourself in a different environment.
For me, I couldn’t be as productive as I am without a core set of tools and apps that keep me on task, including Mailbird and Todoist.
Equally, your toolkit could consist of nothing more than your brain, a notepad, and a pen. But whatever it is, just spend some time refining it, and always keep that toolkit by your side.
Walking You Through My Productive Day
I was asked recently on the Mind Your Business podcast what a typical day looked like for me.
I gave the typical, if slightly irritating, answer:
There’s no such thing as a typical day for me, really.
But there’s a good reason for this. My days feature consistent actions and common tasks, but they rarely take place at the exact same time.
This is because I only work when I feel ready and willing to do so.
I’ve spent many years working regular nine-to-five jobs, which hem you into that exact schedule. Without fail, I’d find myself procrastinating or even dreading getting started.
That’s no good, is it?
Isn’t it far better to maximize the periods where you feel like you can get loads of stuff done?
This is what I do now, and the key to achieving a productive day is working out what your non-negotiable tasks are.
For me, that’s usually writing my daily blog post, contributing in some form to the next video (be it writing the script, filming, editing, or publishing), and keeping on top of community management.
Those non-negotiable tasks can take place whenever you like. For me, I usually write in the morning, but if I find it more convenient to do so in the afternoon, that’s what I’ll do. This is particularly the case if I wake up and, for whatever reason, can’t face the blank page.
Why force yourself?
So, apologies that I can’t walk you through a typically productive day, but that’s for a very good reason; “typical” doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to productivity.
Five Actionable Tips for Being Ultra-Productive
Here are my five favorite, quick-fire tips to raise your productivity game.
1. Pick a to-do list manager and stick with it
The worst thing you can do is flit between different productivity tools (trust me; I’ve been there). Find one that works — be it digital or analog — and add it to your toolkit.
2. Make exercise non-negotiable
I visit the gym or go for a run every working day. Doing so ensures my brain isn’t starved of oxygen and releases those all-important endorphins, which trigger the positive thoughts needed to be as productive as possible.
3. Ask for help
You don’t need to do everything; if something feels laborious or below your pay grade, delegate. I used to be terrible at this, until I realized it helped me forge ahead faster than ever before.
4. Review your to-do list every morning
I regularly set myself too many tasks. That’s why, every morning, I’ll review and prune my to-do list to ensure I have that work-life balance in check. Try it; I can guarantee there’ll be several tasks on yours that really can wait.
5. Reward yourself
Whether it’s that Frappuccino you’ve been hankering after or a quick 30-minute blast on FIFA, make sure you reward your efforts. Set yourself a time to get a particular task done and a personal reward that lies at the end of it.
Be kind to yourself — when you’ve done the work.
I hope the tips above help. Being productive isn’t easy, nor is it something at which you’ll become a master.
As noted earlier, I still have unproductive days. We’re all human, after all. But if you keep my advice in mind and implement those three pillars of productivity into your daily routine, you’ll find yourself completing your to-do list more consistently than ever before.