Dealing with Devices: A Guide to Become More Productive
Updated: Jul 13
Ronnie Chieng has a joke in his standup special on Netflix: “Every night is a competition...we need to put as many screens as possible between our face and the wall!”
Thanks to the advances in technology, nearly everyone has more than one device at their disposal. iPads, laptops, and smartphones allow us to work and communicate faster than ever before. We are constantly connected, which should be making us more productive. But research shows that multitasking and leaving multiple devices open actually hinders productivity.
As a freelancer, I spent most of my first few years out of university getting the hang of balancing multiple gigs and three email accounts. I was always a hard worker, so I figured this would not be a problem for me. However, I noticed that though I was getting the hang of budgeting my time and getting my tasks done, I was producing lower quality work. I was a little sleep deprived, moody, and had neglected my social and physical health.
During the summer of 2019, I took a semi-sabbatical (I cut back on work, I didn’t stop!) and decided to invest in figuring out a workflow that best benefitted me. And after a few weeks of working out the kinks, I became a more efficient, better worker for my employers and students.
Here are some steps to figuring out your own work/life balance!
1. CHECK YOUR MESSAGES AT SET INTERVALS
I got this habit from a friend who works as a marketing analyst. This was my first, most impactful step toward a more productive, healthier lifestyle.
Get in the habit of checking your email at a set time while sitting at your desk. Don’t answer messages until you are seated and ready. So many of us get email and WhatsApp on our phones, and when we are constantly messaging, we are constantly in the mental space of work, even when grocery shopping or exercising. The idea is to more firmly divide the spaces in your mind: work and play.
Messaging is a good way to get used to creating a division, and a wonderful first step. Find a space in your house with a desk, where when you sit, you email. Don’t answer any messages until you are in that space. You can still check messages on your phone! But don’t answer any until you are at that desk, unless they are time sensitive.
2. DEFINE YOUR WORKSPACE
I used to write and edit films in coffee shops and this worked for me for a while. However, as I took my sabbatical last summer to figure out my habits, I started to spend more time with friends and family in coffee shops, and saw them less as workspaces and more as socializing spaces.
Once I drew the line in my brain that coffee shops were social spaces, I divided my space. I used the desk in my room at home as my workspace. I cleared it of all papers, books, etc. and just put my laptop charger, my planner, and my hard drive on it. This became, and still is, my workspace. When I sit in it, I work. All my lessons and writing work take place at this desk.
PRO TIP: Only use one device or app at a time. This allows you to be focused on singular tasks. When writing a curriculum, my email app is off and my phone is another room. Multitasking reduces productivity by 40%. Do one task to completion, then open another device or app.
3. TAKE A PHYSICAL (DEVICE-LESS) BREAK
This is a pretty self-explanatory one. But go for a walk around your yard, neighborhood, or even to another part of your house without a screen present. Don’t have it in your pocket. You’ll feel much lighter without it. Take 10 minutes to just be with yourself and your breath. According to one Harvard study, 20-30 minutes of quiet headspace increases the gray matter in your brain, allowing the pre-frontal cortex to take over and help you work faster, pay attention to detail, focus your attention for a longer period of time, and deal with stress effectively,
Did you know that in France, there is a law prohibiting employers to email their workers after the workday? There’s a legal precedent: staying connected is bad for the brain!
4. MAKE TO DO LISTS FUN
A few weeks ago I was coaching a 10 year old student how to stay organized; after her school went online due to COVID-19 she had trouble getting her homework done and her grades slipped. I realized how much she enjoyed colors, stickers, and writing. I encouraged her to have a fun notebook for her tasks and to color code her subjects. Each time she finished a task, she got to color it. The results were amazing. She now finishes 90-100% of her weekly assignments.
It’s no secret that to do lists are the key to success. Spend some time in the evening really consolidating all your work. I have a friend who is an actor, restaurant co-owner, fitness instructor, and parent who sticks to the mantra “if you don’t write it down it won’t get done.” He spends Sunday afternoons relaxing with his kids and writing his entire to do list for the week. Then, after summing them all up, he breaks each task down by day.
My addendum to his advice? Have fun with it. If you like sports, get a notebook that looks like a sports board, or watch a cool video after you complete something particularly difficult. If you like a particular scented candle (as one of my friends who works in computer software does), light it when you’re crafting a to do list. Give yourself a reward for every 2 tasks completed (not 1! Make sure you’re getting 2-3 done before you get a reward).
PRO TIP: Scheduling a time to do something (i.e 10:00 is when I write my essay) has proven to be more effective than keeping track of things and checking them off as you go.
5. “YOU TIME” IS PART OF YOUR LIFE, NOT A TASK
I used to place time for myself, whether it was lounging watching Netflix (my favorite) or yoga or getting dinner with a friend, as part of my checklist and schedule. I had scheduled “friend” time and “Caitlin time.” I realized that this wasn’t working for me because it blurred the lines between work and play.
Any task that is for me, I don’t put on my checklist. A lot of my colleagues don’t do this, and that works for them. They prefer to know when they are getting their time off and schedule it in so they don’t forget to do it.
I prefer to intuitively remember that “Thursday evening I don’t have a student after 5pm” meaning I can watch a tv show or go for a run. That way, my personal time isn’t a checklist item and I mentally “relax” when I think about doing the activity. I enjoy my exercise, Netflix, and friend time much more than I used to because it isn’t a task in my brain; it changes each day.
The habit that works for me is to structure my work time rigorously, and to do the complete opposite with my free time: it’s unstructured and based on whatever I feel like doing that day.
6. STAY ORGANIC AND FLEXIBLE
Routine is good, but remember that not all weeks are the same. Sure, because of the pandemic, it can sometimes feel that way! As a freelancer I’m used to watching my schedule change day by day as deadlines are moved, students reschedule, and feedback from employers gets delayed. This used to stress me out and make me want to retreat to less fulfilling 9-5 jobs with more ordered structure.
Instead, I learned to move my task list with what the week brought. If I notice that Friday and Saturday I am going to have to work all day, I move my rewarding “me time” to a Tuesday so I have something to look forward to as I move through the weekend. Each week, I try to pack all my rigorous work into 5-6 days so that I get one day to catch up and recharge for the following 6 days.
7. DEAL WITH BURNOUT BEFORE IT STARTS
I’m not always successful, but when I feel the burnout setting in after a few days of stress, I slow down, focus on completing my essential, urgent, time-sensitive tasks, and leave the rest for the next day. The world doesn’t end if you miss one small deadline by a few hours to go for a walk, eat, or get a good night’s sleep. When stress and burnout start to set in, treat it like a house fire: get the essentials out of the way, then put the fire out before you rebuild.
In short, I realized building habits was far better than maximizing my productivity and checklist organization. Whether you’re a student, CEO, or intern, taking ownership over your time and creating habits that work for you allows you to grow, improve, and focus on the details to enhance your productivity. Dividing work and play with a strong boundary that works best for you is of the utmost importance.
And guess what? I’m now the proud owner of five email accounts and three Google Drives. And, most importantly, a good night’s sleep.
Caitlin Ouano is an academic coach for AscendNow. She has been a tutor and freelance writer and film editor for the past seven years.