Some people are just good at getting things done.
You know who they are. These people balance numerous commitments — schoolwork, demanding jobs, volunteering, family time, a social life — and they do so with grace. Meanwhile, you can barely keep track of all your assignments, let alone maintaining a healthy relationship.
These highly productive people seem like super-humans to the rest of us plebs. But, in reality, they are just like everybody else. The difference is they have habits that form the foundations of their success. Their days are also flexibly structured and involve patterns of behaviour that are repeated day-in and day-out.
As one of Canada’s leading universities, UBC is home to its fair share of successful and productive people. The Ubyssey spoke to four of them — two presidents, a professor and a PhD student — to find out how they balance it all and maintain their sanity.
President Santa Ono oversees the administration of a university with over 60,000 students and a budget comparable to the GDP of a small island nation. Professor Jennifer Gardy is a faculty member, researcher, science communicator and children’s book author. AMS President Alan Ehrenholz is responsible for representing the approximately 55,780 of us, while also completing his degree in engineering. And Taq Bhandal is a published PhD student, research assistant and active volunteer for a non-profit women’s health organization.
Each one of these people is productive and successful in their own way. By productive, we don’t just mean getting a lot done in a short amount of time, although most of them certainly do that. What we mean is they get results and produce work that has impact. They are organized, disciplined and diligent. Most importantly, they are productive while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
So what are the keys to their success? What are the habits of highly productive people?
Habit #1: Wake up early
Research has shown that the early bird really does get the worm. Morning people are more creative, more proactive and less likely to procrastinate. Waking up early allows you to get an early start to the day and to get in some precious “me time” before starting work.
All of the people The Ubyssey spoke to wake up at a consistent time that is early in the morning. Ono is up before 5:30 a.m. Similarly, Gardy rises around 5:45 a.m. to take her puppy out for a morning pee. Even after squeezing in another hour of sleep, she is up again by 7 a.m. and ready to take on the day.
Ehrenholz likes to wake up by six a.m. but sometimes pushes that until seven, depending on the time he got to bed the night before.
Bhandal is the latest-riser of the group, starting her day around 8:30 a.m. This is because she works from home and has more leeway with when she needs to get her work done.
Regardless of the exact wake up time, none have the luxury of sleeping in.
Habit #2: Have morning routines
On top of rising early, each of the four people The Ubyssey spoke to has a morning routine.
Upon waking up, Ono stretches and does breathing exercises. The morning is one of the only times during the day he has to himself, so he uses it to catch up on the latest headlines, check out what’s been going on in the Twitterverse and review his packed schedule for the coming day. He may even have an early morning conference call and is usually at the office by 8:30 a.m. for his first appointment.
Gardy uses the morning to get a head-start on the day, drinking coffee and eating toast while starting on her first batch of emails.
After having breakfast, Bhandal writes for three hours every weekday — without fail.
“I don’t like to procrastinate,” she said. “I really learned my lesson in undergrad with procrastinating and studying for exams.”
Ehrenholz is a “coffee-and-bagel person,” rushing from home to work with a regular stop at the Blue Chip Cafe. When he arrives at his corner office on the third floor of the Nest, he will do some stretching or even a bit of yoga to focus and get ready for the day.
While there is flexibility to everyone’s days, these morning routines provide structure and consistency.
Habit #3: Keep a calendar and stick to it
The common organizational tool among our sample of productive people is a calendar. All four keep calendars and, more importantly, they adhere to them religiously.
“Google Calendar and Outlook Calendar kind of run my life,” said Ehrenholz. “If it gets in there, I’m generally going to it. If it doesn’t get in there for whatever reason, I am generally not going to it.”
It also helps to have outside support when it comes to managing your schedule, as the AMS and UBC presidents do.
“I am really supported quite a bit by individuals that organize my life and really make sure that I end meetings on time and start the next meeting on time, and that I leave in time to travel from point A to point B,” said Ono. “It wouldn’t be humanly possible for me to do it on my own.”
Gardy also swears by her calendar. In fact, she keeps several: one for her professional appointments, one for her personal life, a shared calendar with her husband and a travel calendar she shares with her family. She is vigilant about putting things into the relevant calendar as they come up.
“The second you accept an invitation or take on something that has a deadline associated with it, put it into your calendar,” she said. And she’s not just talking about the event or deadline itself, but also all of the associated tasks or things required to get ready for the event.
Bhandal also keeps a calendar, although she opts for the physical rather than the digital version. Hers is a whiteboard calendar from the UBC Bookstore, which offers a four-month view that she updates regularly.
“It’s really helpful for me to see a visual representation,” said Bhandal. “I get to put all my deadlines in and then every two weeks I’ll fill it in with daily tasks that I need to get done.”
Habit #4: Limit distractions
The rise of digital technologies has increased the potential for distractions: smartphones, texting, emails, social media or frankly the ENTIRE INTERNET. All of these things are at our fingertips at all times, meaning a procrastination break is always just a tap or a click away. That’s why it’s important to try and limit these distractions during the times you want to get things done.
One strategy is to check social media and emails at set times, rather than continuously throughout the day. Gardy does this by refusing to answer emails as they arrive in her inbox, unless they are super-urgent. Instead, she does her emailing in batches — first thing in the morning upon arriving at the office and in the afternoon.
“If you’re constantly checking your email, you’re never going to get anything done,” she said.
Another option is to avoid mindless scrolling on social media.
Bhandal limits her social media usage mostly to Instagram, which she makes a concerted effort not to constantly check. She does not have a Twitter account and has severely cut down her Facebook usage, deleting the app from her smartphone entirely.
Habit #5: Take steps to replenish mental energy
Our brains are a muscle just like any other. They need stimulation. But they also need rest. Productive people make sure to take steps to give their minds sufficient amounts of both.
This can be done by taking regular breaks. Instead of loading up on coffee when the afternoon lull hits, Ehrenholz will instead get up and do some stretches or go for a short walk around the Nest. Doing so helps him recharge so that he can get back to whatever he is working on.
It can also be done by exercising. Gardy likes to do Pilates or Lagree classes; Ehrenholz plays sports five to six times per week, and Bhandal likes to do self-initiated workouts by following YouTube fitness videos.
There are plenty of ways to give your mind a break. Different people will have different ways of relaxing, de-stressing and replenishing their mental energy. The point is not that there is a one-size-fits-all solution, but to find the activities that do it for you and to make time for them regularly.
Habit #6: Maintaining a work-life balance
When you have a lot of demands on your time, it can be easy to become a workaholic. But just because you’re putting in an insane amount of hours of work each week doesn’t, it means that the work you’re doing is of a high quality or meaningful.
Indeed, research shows that working less can actually help you do better work.
Both Bhandal and Ehrenholz spoke of experiencing a sense of burnout at some point in the past, a common occurrence among university students who push themselves too hard.
Now, they are consciously trying to restore balance to their live. Ehrenholz does this by trying to leave work at a sensible time each day and making sure to leave his work at the office. He also plays sports most nights to help him take his mind off work.
“If I’m driving or I’m on the bus, I can still think about the AMS and I do still think about the AMS,” said Ehrenholz. “But if I’m on a sports field, I am not thinking about the AMS, I am thinking about whatever I’m doing. That really helps me stay fresh and stay revitalized.”
Bhandal has turned to meditation, mindfulness and journaling to help her down the path towards work-life balance.
“Meditating and reading more about spirituality is helping me find a better balance between capitalist productivity and also the reproduction of the self and my own soul,” Bhandal said.
Work needs to be something that you turn off at 5 or 6 p.m. and doesn’t turn on during the weekend, according to Professor Gardy. She believes that taking time off pays major dividends in your work life.
“If you don’t give yourself that downtime, your brain doesn’t have the chance to do what it does best: synthesize things in the background and present you with this amazing answer,” said Gardy.
When she’s off work, she enjoys cooking, snuggling with her pets and hiking the North Shore.
Find your passion, love your work
Out of all the conversations we had, the most common theme to emerge was to try and make sure that you find your passion and do what you love.
Ono argued that the key to his success — the thing that gets him up in the morning — is that he is passionate about what he does.
“The secret really is do what you’re passionate about and then it won’t feel like work,” he said. “It will feel like having fun. I have a lot of fun in what I do.”
Gardy agrees with Ono that students should seek out their interests and follow their passions, wherever it leads them.
“When your day is fun, you will be successful and the productivity it just flows naturally from the fact that you love what you do,” she said.
If only it were that easy.