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Student Insights

10 of the best… productivity hacks

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 04 Jan 2024

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Looking to stress less and achieve more in 2024? These 10 ideas could be the key to your most productive year yet.

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1 Start with a morning meditation

Hundreds of studies have shown the benefits of regular meditation for reducing stress and improving focus, and first thing in the morning is a great time to do it. Not only are there fewer distractions, but you’ll go into the day feeling more motivated and productive. Like any successful habit, the trick is to make it part of your routine – after your first tea or coffee of the day, perhaps, or just before breakfast. Start small and build up – apps such as Headspace and Calm offer hundreds of guided meditations from as little as a minute or two.

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2 Timebox your day

A to-do list is all very well, but it doesn’t tell you when to tackle a particular task, or how long to spend doing it. This is where ‘timeboxing’ can help – scheduling tasks in your calendar as you would meetings. As well as helping you to prioritise and be more realistic about what you can achieve, it’s useful if others have access to your diary. It’s easy enough to do yourself with your existing calendar, but there are timeboxing apps like Sunsama, which sync with Outlook and Google and add functions like tracking and team collaboration. Once you have your schedule, stick to it – when the allotted time for a task is up, move on. It’s great practice for time management in exams, too.

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3 Try the Pomodoro Technique

A proven time-management method pioneered in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique breaks periods of work into timed intervals, usually 25 minutes, followed by a short five-minute break. After four sessions, or Pomodoros, you take a longer 15- to 30-minute break. The technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer its creator Francesco Cirillo used to time his sessions. Today, there are plenty of apps that do the same thing. If you’d rather not use your phone, try a physical timer like the Ticktime Pomodoro Timer.

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4 Grow a Forest

If you find it hard to resist picking up your phone when you should be focusing on work, try an app that helps you stay on track. Freedom and OFFTIME aim to remove digital distractions and limit your screen time, enabling you to block certain apps (or all your devices) for a set period. The ever-popular Forest, meanwhile, combines digital disconnection and the Pomodoro Technique in a beautiful game-style app. When you’re ready to focus, set the timer, plant a seed and put your phone down so your tree can grow – leave the app and it will die. Any trees that survive earn virtual coins that can buy real-world trees with charity Trees for the Future.

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5 Take digital notes

Heading into a meeting or tuition class? Take a smart notebook with you. More sophisticated, tablet-style options, like the reMarkable 2, replicate the paper-and-pen experience well and can convert your handwritten notes into editable text. Or you could try the Rocketbook, a reusable digital notebook that scans your pages before you wipe them clean. Both save files seamlessly into the cloud, syncing with sharing services like Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. Not only can it be liberating to leave your laptop behind and only carry one notebook around, but writing notes by hand has been proven to be a more effective learning method than typing.

podcasts Just One Thing – with Michael Mosley, ZOE Science & Nutrition and Feel Better, Live More orange background

6 Go for a lunchtime walk

It may seem counterintuitive to spend less time working when you’re busy, but regular breaks have been shown to improve focus and productivity, reduce stress and boost physical and emotional wellbeing. Combine a lunch break with a walk outside and it’s an even bigger win, adding fresh air, vitamin D and exercise into the mix. It’s also a great opportunity to catch up on a podcast. For insights and advice on improving your health and wellbeing, try Just One Thing – with Michael Mosley, ZOE Science & Nutrition and Feel Better, Live More.

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7 Listen to some music

Research suggests that music can help improve productivity and cognitive function while you work, particularly on repetitive tasks. Some studies have found that instrumental music is better than lyrics, which can be distracting, and that you should start the day with a slower tempo and build up – but it all comes down to personal preference, so find what works for you. If you find it hard to concentrate with music playing, save your favourite tracks for breaks or before you start work, which can help boost motivation. And if you’re in a noisy office but don’t want to listen to music, try a white noise app. Whatever you listen to, it’s worth investing in a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, like this Bose over-ear design.

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8 Lock your phone away

When you sit down to study in the evening, remove as many distractions as possible. If you struggle to stay focused during revision sessions, make sure you silence social media notifications or try one of the unplugging apps above. And if that still doesn’t work, leave your phone in another room or lock it away in a cage or safe. This iDiskk lock box works with most Android and Apple phones and has a built-in battery to charge your device at the same time. You can set the timer up to (an ambitious) 100 hours, but it has a screen window so you can still answer important calls.

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9 Relax with a good book

When it comes to productivity, downtime is just as important as the ‘up’ hours you spend working or studying, helping to restore motivation and protect your mental and physical health. Schedule time to do the things you enjoy, whether that’s playing a game, pursuing a hobby or spending time with friends. For an easy, entertaining read on improving your productivity, try the bestselling How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott, one of the UK’s leading productivity experts. If you like his style, there’s plenty more of his work to discover, including courses, a podcast archive, YouTube videos, and even a new AI chatbot designed to answer all your productivity questions.

tablet smart phone screens Sleep Stories on Calm, or Sleep Magic; Dodow, which projects a calming blue light on the ceiling; Moonbird, a pulsing device you hold in your hand; orange background

10 Get a good night’s sleep

Along with nutrition and exercise, sleep is one of the three pillars of wellbeing. To help improve your sleep and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day, get into the habit of going to bed at the same time each evening. It’s good practice to leave your phone out of the bedroom, but you might want to make an exception for a bedtime podcast that helps you drift off – try the Sleep Stories on Calm, or Sleep Magic. If you struggle to fall asleep at night, there are also gadgets that can help, which work by regulating your breathing – try Dodow, which projects a calming blue light on the ceiling, and Moonbird, a pulsing device you hold in your hand.

Combine these productivity hacks with tips on exam resilience from charity caba.

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