I was never someone who was organized or had a strict schedule. I used to wake up around the same time every day, but that's as far as I had usually planned. This was especially true during the pandemic when I was stuck at home with no plans. When I had college, I knew I had to leave for class and come back home in the evening to finish up any work I had. However, with online classes, and later on working from home too, my days were a lot more unstructured. While I never thought much about this, as I started taking on more tasks, I found myself overwhelmed with an ever-growing to-do list and seemingly lesser time to do all of them. This was when I started looking into ways to organize my tasks and increase my productivity.
From my experience, there is no golden hack that works for all when it comes to increasing your productivity. There are tens of things you could be doing, some will help you, but most will make your life unnecessarily complicated. At the root of it, I realized my lack of productivity stemmed from two main problems - a lack of organization about what I had to do, and a growing list of distractions that kept me from focusing on the task at hand. Here's how I'm currently tackling both these issues, to varying degrees of success.
The distractions problem was easier than I had anticipated to resolve. For a week, I tried to be conscious about where I was spending my time, without making any changes to my day. Unsurprisingly, my phone was a major culprit. I had way too many apps that were too easily accessible, so any minute of free time I had I would open YouTube shorts or browse Twitter. I didn't try to control my time on these apps but instead decided to go cold turkey. I uninstalled any app I thought was a distraction. Luckily, I wasn't much of an Instagram or FB user. Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, they were all gone too now. Initially, I thought deleting the apps was a stretch when I could have easily added a usage timer, giving myself excuses like I come across helpful apps and articles on Reddit, or I might be bored in the metro so YouTube would be nice to have. However, after more than a month without these apps on my phone, I can say I definitely don't miss them. I haven't cut out these apps completely though. I have them on my iPad, but I don't pick up that device whenever I have a minute, so I was definitely wasting a lot less time than before. My screen time went from above 5 hours on most days, to less than 1-2 hours. Minimalism in general seemed like a great approach to getting rid of distractions. I tried to keep my desk as clean as possible, and clear my phone and laptop of unnecessary apps or folders all around the home page or desktop. Focus Modes have been extremely helpful, with iOS Focus Modes or Android Digital Wellbeing Focus Mode as it keeps notifications away while I'm working.
My second, and bigger problem, was organization. When I had a major task at hand, I usually got to it immediately and tried to complete it as soon as I could. However, as I started my full-time job where I had to work on multiple things at a time, and I had to juggle my personal tasks too, it became tougher to get work done. Shifting between tasks constantly it felt like I was always working, even though I wasn't getting all my work done. What helped me realize I was doing things wrong was when I came across a quote from Nir Eyal's book Undistractable which said it's okay to take breaks and indulge in distractions, as long as you schedule these breaks beforehand and make sure they don't distract you during a fixed working time. I didn't have this fixed working time earlier, I was just winging whatever task I felt like doing, or seemed urgent. There was no plan on how long it should take me, or when I would do it. This is when I came across the activity of calendar blocking which has majorly helped me. It's a very simple idea, that takes only a calendar to get started. Some people like doing it in a day planner or journal, but I definitely prefer doing this on Google Calendar so it's synced between all my devices. All you need to do is block a certain period of time on your calendar and label it with what you're expected to do then. You can go further and colour code the blocks so it's easier to see things at a glance. I've created multiple calendars to categorize my tasks into Work, Study, Chores, and Personal Time. When you have a big task, it helps to break it down into subtasks and allot a time slot for each task. While it took me around a week to get into the habit of doing this every day and figuring out how to efficiently plan my day, the benefits I've seen have been undeniable. I no longer have to decide what to do, or take a lot of time on smaller tasks, as I have it all planned prior. The key to making this work is to not crowd your calendar, even if you seem like you have time during the day. Scheduling breaks is just as important as scheduling the rest of your tasks. Moreover, this calendar acts only as a guide on what to do. A task you've scheduled for an hour might take longer, and that's totally fine if you know the task is taking longer by itself and you're not distracted while working on it. This is why breaks are important too, as you can use it as buffer time in case something takes longer than expected.
Along with calendar blocking, I use a couple of other apps to stay organized. Small tasks go on a To Do list. I use Microsoft's To-Do, as it's free with all the major features I need like multiple lists, reminders, and notes, and has cross-platform support. Reminders like getting milk, or paying a bill go into the To-Do list, and it helps to set a reminder for when you think you can do this task, so it's not just lying there while you forget it. Bigger tasks like a work issue go in my Notion. I like keeping a separate To Do on Notion for bigger tasks as I use it to make my notes too. The Kanban view with cards for each task and notes/pages within each task make it extremely organized and I can refer back to my notes in the future if I need it. Finally, at the end of each day, I look at both my To Do lists and use Google Calendar to plan my next day.
So far, this system has worked out really well for me, without having to make any changes to my lifestyle. I haven't taken up a new skill or changed how I do things, I've just made them more organized. As for all things related to productivity, this might not be something that works for you. Everyone's productivity stems from different causes, and you need to see what works for you. There are tons of resources out there, and multiple viewpoints on what you could do to increase your productivity, but it all starts with you analyzing if you're being as productive as you could be, and what's keeping you behind.