A virtually infinite number of productivity books have been published, each with their own frameworks, strategies, and sometimes magical formulas to be more productive and more creative. Very few of these books combine productivity, creativity, and mental health. How do you get started if you want to achieve more, but don’t want to burn out in the process?
Performing a mindful productivity audit is a way to assess your current systems so you can perform better in your work while taking care of your mind. It’s purposely short so you can regularly ask yourself these questions and notice the impact of any changes you made after your last audit.
The mindful productivity audit covers crucial areas of mindful productivity, such as time management, metacognition, and mental energy. It also includes links to relevant articles so you can dig deeper should a question feel particularly aligned with your current challenges.
To make the most of your audit, block at least one hour of quiet time, and grab a notebook or open your note-taking app. Try to be as honest as possible with yourself. Because everyone is different, the audit won’t give you easy answers to fix what’s broken in your personal productivity systems, but it’s a great start to ask yourself the right questions.
The ten questions in the mindful productivity audit are:
- What is the first thing I do in the morning?
- How do I manage my calendar?
- How much time do I dedicate to deep work during a typical day?
- How many breaks do I take during a typical day?
- How do I cultivate my curiosity?
- Do I have time for self-reflection during the week?
- Is my physical workspace setting me up for success?
- Is my digital workspace setting me up for success?
- How do I know the work day is over?
- What is the last thing I do in the evening?
Scroll down to learn more about each question, as well as guidance and suggested articles to inspire your next steps. Members can also download this article as a PDF to read offline.Download article
1. What is the first thing I do in the morning?
The first hour of your day is the most important. It greatly impacts your mindset by setting the tone for the rest of the day. To answer this question, review your morning routine. Be as detailed as possible: getting up, brushing your teeth… All the way to the moment you sit at your desk and open your laptop for the first time in the day.
For many people, a morning routine is automatic—an almost zombie-like time during the day where they perform tasks on autopilot until their first cup of coffee kicks in and start feeling a bit more awake. It doesn’t have to be our default behaviour.
Contrary to what you may read sometimes, there is no perfect morning routine. But a routine you have consciously designed around your goals is always going to be better than one based on deeply ingrained habits you haven’t taken the time to think about.
Once you have reviewed your current morning routine, think about what could be improved. What helpful activity could you insert between getting up and opening your laptop? Any bad habits you want to better manage? Is there anything you could do to feel more refreshed and awake before you start working?
2. How do I manage my calendar?
A calendar should be a useful tool to manage our time. However, quite often, we feel like our calendar controls us, and not the other way around. To answer this question, open your calendar application, and review a typical week. Here are some helpful sub-questions:
- How many events are there in a typical week?
- How many events were created by me, versus invitations I received from other people?
- Could any of these meetings have been replaced by an email, a shared document, or another format?
Meetings are tiring and often create harmful context switching. Be particularly careful to notice any patterns of passive face time, where you are attending meetings just to show your face and make a good impression on your team.
Once you have reviewed your calendar, you can start exploring ways to improve your time management systems. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but you may be interested in learning about asynchronous communication, the planning fallacy, and how to break free from the yes autopilot. It can also be helpful to block some time at the beginning of the week and in the morning to review your calendar and make any necessary adjustments to increase your productivity and your mental well-being.
3. How much time do I dedicate to deep work during a typical day?
Research studies suggest that a knowledge worker should really only strive for four hours of deep creative work per day—the kind of focused, highly productive and output-driven work that’s mentally demanding but highly rewarding. How many hours do you currently dedicate to deep work? Look at your calendar again and count the number of hours in a typical day.
You will find that you either try to cram too many hours of creative work in a day (which is fairly common), or too few (which can happen when we have lots of meetings and administrative busy work). If you have too many, try to be more realistic, and unblock some portions of time that you dedicated to creative work. These will be better spent doing light work or recharging your mental energy by taking breaks, reading inspirational content, or connecting with colleagues. If you have too few, look at how you can rearrange your time commitments so you can make space for up to four hours of creative work per day.
If you’re worried you will end up being less productive, don’t be. Many highly successful thinkers, inventors, and creators only worked for a few hours a day. “Four hours of creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” said Henri Poincaré, confirming the findings from scientific research. He published about thirty books and five hundred papers in his lifetime. Not bad in terms of productivity!
4. How many breaks do I take during a typical day?
Taking breaks is important to restore your motivation, prevent decision fatigue, consolidate your memories, increase your creativity, and improve your overall well-being. Being busy all the time may give us the illusion of productivity: we feel like we’re getting work done, but we’re not using our time wisely.
While there is a lot of variance in research studies, it seems that we need to take short breaks (5 to 10 minutes) every hour or so, and longer breaks (at least 30 minutes) every two to four hours. You can use these breaks for moving your body, doing a short meditation or deep breathing session, letting your mind wander, chatting with peers, going outside to get some sunlight, exercise, or even for doodling and listening to some music in order to relax.
Look at your calendar, and make sure you have a combination of short and longer breaks during the day. You can be flexible and decide on the spot what you feel like doing during your break—keeping a list of ideas can help—or you can plan some specific activities in advance.
5. How do I cultivate my curiosity?
When we have lots of work, it can be easy to fall into the trap of productivity, where we focus on our output without nourishing our mind with enough high-quality input. But to get quality creative output, we need quality creative input. Do you currently make space to cultivate your curiosity, explore new ideas, and expand your knowledge?
There are many ways to cultivate your curiosity, such as reading books, blogs, and newsletters, listening to podcasts, taking online courses, joining learning communities, attending educational events, taking notes after interesting conversations, and more. Self-education and lifelong learning are crucial to leverage the end of credentialism and to stay relevant in today’s fast-paced world.
The quality and quantity of your creative input are key aspects you should pay attention to. If you find yourself endlessly scrolling on social media or drowning under too many newsletters, it can be helpful to go on an information diet. Curate your inbox with high-quality content, consume more offline content, and schedule your content consumption to break addictive patterns. While social media can be wonderful to make new connections and serendipitously discovering content, it’s far from the most ideal place to cultivate your curiosity.
Make a list of all of the ways you currently cultivate your curiosity, and ask yourself: are there enough opportunities to experiment, learn, and grow? Too many or too scattered? How aligned are these learning opportunities with my goals? Are there learning opportunities I’m putting off for fear of failure? Do I have enough space for playful, undirected exploration?
6. Do I have space for self-reflection during the week?
You are not a robot, nor should you act like one. Instead of blindly repeating the same processes over and over with little regard for how they impact your performance and your mental well-being, it’s good practice to ensure you have time and space to reflect and incrementally improve on the way you work.
A weekly review is one of the most powerful ways to direct your life with intention. The formats vary, but a weekly review usually includes questions to assess what is going well, what is challenging, and what your focus should be during the following week. Another way to reflect is journaling, which is less structured and goal-oriented, but offers added mental health benefits.
Whichever approach you choose, one of the most important decisions you can make to commit to self-reflection is to pick a consistent day, time, and place. Don’t add to your cognitive load by repeatedly asking yourself when and where you should sit down to write your weekly review. Some people like to block time on Sunday evening when things are quiet, others on Monday morning before starting their work week. You can experiment to find the right schedule.
7. Is my physical workspace setting me up for success?
Mindful productivity may seem like it’s all about the mind, but the body is also one of your most precious assets. This is particularly relevant when you are working from home and don’t have the same support systems as you would in the office. Crouching on the kitchen table or working from your sofa? You may want to assess how your physical workspace is affecting your productivity, creativity, and mental health.
Sit down where you usually work, and ask yourself: Is the chair comfortable? What is my posture when I am sitting? Is my screen at eye level? Do I get enough light? Do I have easy access to cold or hot water to stay hydrated throughout the day? How enjoyable does my workspace feel in general?
The biggest improvement you can often make is to have a dedicated space for working. That’s of course not possible for everyone to have a separate home office, but even if you don’t have lots of room, you can for instance decide on a specific corner of your bedroom, and invest in an affordable laptop stand to bring your screen at eye level. Or you can even use a pile of books under your laptop.
Even if you sit at a tiny table, a makeshift laptop stand, a mug or bottle of water, and a few plants can do wonders to create a dedicated workspace. Finally, getting enough light is important for your mental health. If you cannot set your workspace near a window, make sure to take breaks during the day to go for a walk.
8. Is my digital workspace setting me up for success?
Knowledge workers spend a lot of time in front of a screen. While we tend to make lots of efforts to keep our house clean and declutter it from time to time, it’s not such a natural routine when it comes to our digital life. We let old screenshots accumulate on our desktop, we keep random files “just in case”, and we forget to uninstall apps we don’t use anymore.
Being proactive when it comes to our digital workspace can reduce our cognitive load, and positively impact our creativity, productivity, and mental health. Open your laptop, and perform an audit of your digital workspace.
- What does your desktop currently look like?
- What apps are currently installed? Which ones do I regularly use?
- What tools do I use to manage my knowledge?
If you find yourself with too many apps, try to see if some use cases can be consolidated. If you have lots of different useless files on your computer, do a little clean up spree. Finally, take some time to explore potential tools for thought. For instance, choosing the right note-taking app can markedly improve your productivity and your creativity.
9. How do I know the work day is over?
Entrepreneurs, knowledge workers, creators and people working for home share a common challenge: determining when to stop working. As the work is never truly done, it can be tempting to keep on working until we feel too tired to keep going. Especially with remote work, where there is nobody to turn off the lights and kick you out of the office, you may find yourself working longer hours without realising it.
Creating habits, routines and rituals to frame your work day with healthy boundaries is essential for sustainable performance. Assess how you currently decide when to stop working. Maybe you already have a process in place, but if you don’t, it may be worth creating one.
A common approach is a hard stop at a specific time. If you have other commitments such as kids to pick up at school, there may be a natural time to stop working. If you can’t find one, just decide on a time that feels reasonable. Another approach is to give yourself a certain number of work hours per day, which is more flexible as you can decide to start later and stop later, or the opposite.
Finally, you can shift your focus from time to actual productivity, by creating an adequate list of tasks at the beginning of the day. Once the tasks are done, you are done—even if it means stopping to work at lunch time.
10. What is the last thing I do in the evening?
The last hour of the day is also important. Winding down before you go to bed will help you sleep better, manage unnecessary stress, and prepare your mind for the next day. You are probably aware it’s better to avoid screen time just before going to bed. What are some other best practices to make the most of your evenings?
First, spend some time writing down everything you usually do in the last hour of a typical day. Do you unwind by watching a TV show, do you read a book, do you listen to a podcast, do you spend time with your family? How many of these activities involve a screen, how many are offline? How many help you relax? When do you drink your last cup of coffee? Any bad habits you have in the evening?
As with your morning routine, be honest with yourself. It’s okay to spend a few evenings watching a movie, but maybe you want to consider mixing it with reading a book, journaling, or listening to relaxing music. Another great policy to implement is to ban devices from the bedroom.
That’s it! Ten questions to perform a mindful productivity audit and improve your well-being at work. It shouldn’t take more than an hour, even though you can spend more time to dig deeper into these questions and the underlying patterns that influence the way you work.