12 Ways to be productive and have more time for fun stuff

06 Jan 2020
By Unite Students, Staff writer at The Common Room

It’s easy to confuse being busy with being productive. You might be working like a dog, but how much are you actually getting done?

Find a way to get stuff done and you’ll have more free time to do the things you love. So what are the secrets to being productive?

The trick is to prioritise.

Here’s a 12-item productivity toolkit to get you started.

1) Weekly planner

Best done on a Sunday night, so you start the week knowing exactly what’s coming up. Uni assignments, part-time work, exercise, socials, calls home - write it all down.

Use your phone’s calendar, use a fancy app, or use plain old pen and paper - whatever works best for you. Just get it all out of your head and onto a planner.

2) Daily to-do list

The trick is to prioritise.

Get into the habit of doing this before bed each night. You’ll lay down with a clear mind and you should sleep all the better for it.

Be realistic. You might have 20 things to do but you can’t do them all tomorrow. The trick is to prioritise, which brings us nicely to…

3) The Eisenhower Matrix

Draw a big square and divide it into two columns. Above the left-hand column, write URGENT. Above the right-hand column, NOT URGENT.

Next, draw a horizontal line through the middle of the square to make a grid. To the left of the top row, write IMPORTANT. Write NOT IMPORTANT next to bottom row. Now you’ve got:

  1. Urgent AND important
  2. Not urgent BUT important
  3. Urgent BUT not important
  4. Not urgent AND not important

Plot the tasks from your to-do list on the grid and - hey presto - you’ve got a plan of action. Focus on the number 1s and 2s first. Then, as your time-management skills improve, you’ll find you have fewer tasks to do urgently.

Prefer things digital? Download the free Ike To-Do List app for Android. Or use the free Eisenhower Matrix web app.

4) Breakfast

Whether it’s the most important meal of the day or not is up for debate. But if you want to be productive, a good breakfast within an hour of waking up will really help.

Wholemeal toast, eggs, a green smoothie, porridge, natural yoghurt, fruit, a glass of water. Some combination of these things will set you on the right path.

5) Water

A big glass of water first thing in the morning will rehydrate you after sleep and get your metabolism going for the day.

But it’s important to drink water throughout the day too. Two litres of the stuff, to be precise. Dehydration makes you sluggish and sloppy, not the ideal feelings for study.

Related: Hydration: Are you drinking enough water?

6) Airplane mode

When you sit down to work, try to remove the potential for distraction. Since most of those come from your phone, switch it off or put it on airplane mode.

Need some motivation? Get Forest, the app that helps you stay focused and be present by planting trees when you ignore your phone. Real trees.

7) Gum

There’s some evidence to suggest chewing can boost your attention, relieve stress, and make you feel more alert. So it’s worth trying some gum in your next study session.

Don’t overdo it though. Two or three pieces a day is plenty. And if you’re worried about artificial bad stuff, look for a sugar-free, aspartame-free brand.

8) Noisli

I take any opportunity I can to recommend this app. Noisli is the background noise generator that helps you block out those unpredictable, distracting noises.

Leaves rustling in the wind, a crackling fire, waves breaking on the shore. Use the free online version of Noisli when you study and see if it helps you focus.

Related: 6 Smart productivity apps for students

9) Timer

One of the biggest killers of productivity is tiredness. There’s only so long you can concentrate before you get tired and lose focus. Know the feeling?

With the Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. After four 25-minute bursts, you take a 30-minute break. Repeat as needed.

Download the free Brain Focus Productivity Timer app for Android.

Download the free Brain Focus Productivity Timer app for iOS.

Old school? Get the original tomato-shaped kitchen timer that inspired the idea. Watch out though, it ticks.

10) Trainers

When it’s time for a break, get outside and take a walk. The fresh air and the movement can help you retain what you’ve learned and boost your creativity later on.

If you’re into fitness and exercise, think about making it a part of your morning routine. Work out after breakfast to get a wave of accomplishment you can surf all day - or do it at lunch to come back feeling refreshed.

11) Lunchbox

This goes hand-in-hand with the trainers - it’s about getting outside when it’s time to take a break. Make a decent lunch, pack it up, and take it somewhere else to eat.

Related: Exams: Foods that help you focus and study revealed

12) Fun plans

When you’re done, switch it all off and put it away. Then go enjoy yourself. Work out, see a movie, meet up with friends. Whatever your definition of a reward is, do it.

Relaxation and fun are not luxuries, they’re an essential part of good productivity. That’s why offices are full of ping pong and foosball tables nowadays.

How would you spend an extra 15 minutes today?

Aside from getting your work done, the biggest benefit of better productivity is having more time for the things you love. What would you do with more spare time?

We asked our student writers what they’d do with an extra 15 minutes.

I would most likely spend it talking to my family. Although we do talk, it isn't as much as I think it could be. If I were to do this, I think it would be grounding in the uni life and remind me that they're still there.


I guess I would sit at the Bankside and listen to music and just stare at the moving water.


I would spend it doing something entirely for myself. Lately, I found myself reading only academic literature for my studies so the best use for this 15 minutes would be to spend them lost in a book, forgetting for a while for all the responsibilities and relax.


I would try my best to go for a peaceful walk. This will allow me to clear my head and prioritise the tasks that I need to do next and which ones I can leave until a later date.


I would like to spend it drawing. It's something that I've struggled to find motivation for recently and I would like to use the opportunity to rekindle my love for it.


I would read another chapter of a book... A good book is an escape, somewhere you can go to just forget about the stresses of the world and get immersed in another life.


If I were to get an extra 15 minutes in a day, I think I would practice yoga and mindfulness to help me wake up in the right way.


Read next: How to stop procrastinating and get your work done

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Staff writer at The Common Room