5 Simple Habits for Productive and Peaceful Living

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Guest post by Laura McClellan:

A lifetime as a productivity geek who’s also a mom to five and a lawyer has taught me a few lessons and left me with a firm belief that there are very few productivity “rules” that apply to everyone. What I’m sharing today are the simple bedrock principles I follow in managing life as a mom, wife, lawyer, writer, and podcaster. While every woman’s situation is unique, I believe adopting these five habits can help each woman accomplish the things she cares about most and make a life that matters:

1.     Write things down.

Nothing will add more to your peace of mind, and therefore your ability to be creative and productive, than developing the habit of writing things down. By “things” I mean everything. Every task you need or want to do, every appointment you make (including the address or phone number associated with it), every event you want to remember, every book you want to read, every project you might want to undertake someday. If you can develop the habit of writing things down as soon as they come to you, it will free up your mind to do the creative or productive work that you need and want to do.

The tools you use to do this matter far less than the consistency with which you use them, and any tool can work if you actually use it. If you like technology, go digital for your calendar and your task manager. If you’re a pen and paper kind of girl, then find a planner or notebook that appeals to your aesthetic and use that. But whatever tools or system you use, use it regularly, consistently, and without fail.

Personally, I use OmniFocus as my primary project management tool, and a Bullet Journal for my day-to-day to-do list. OmniFocus is Mac/iOS only, so if you use Windows-based and/or Android tools, you might consider Todoist or Nozbe.

2.     Make good use of small pockets of time.

I would love to have long, uninterrupted blocks of time to spend on the projects I undertake (or even just to read the books on my very long to-be-read pile). Unfortunately, those long blocks of time seldom come (although thankfully they come more often now that my five children are grown). Today, as when my kids were all home, I try to make good use of small bits of time that are available to me. Surprisingly, you can get a lot done in two or three minutes, even more when you luck into a fifteen- or twenty-minute jackpot of time.

So this morning, for example, while the water heated for my tea, I washed the few dishes left in the sink from yesterday’s late-night snacks and left them to air dry. Later, while my lunch heats up, I’ll put the clean dishes away and perhaps wipe off the refrigerator door or toss some trash from the kitchen junk drawer.

While I’m brushing my teeth this evening, I might wipe down the bathroom sink with my free hand or clear the expired meds or makeup from one shelf in the medicine cabinet.

I keep my iPad mini, with the Kindle app on it, in my purse, so if I arrive early (or somebody else is late) for an appointment, I can read a few pages of a book I’ve been wanting to finish.

At work, when I have a couple minutes between finishing one task and the time my next conference call starts, I might jot a quick hand-written thank-you note to someone (I keep blank notecards and stamps in my desk for just that purpose), or perhaps reply to an email or two.

To be clear, this habit doesn’t mean I try to fill up every minute of every day. We all need a mental (and physical) break from time to time. Sometimes while I wait for the teapot to boil I’ll just stand there and stare off into space.

3.     Think before saying yes (and say no more often).

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned by painful experience is the importance of choosing intentionally what commitments I take on. Living productively requires living intentionally—choosing on purpose what things you will (and won’t) do. Living intentionally requires awareness—knowing what matters to you and using that as the basis for your decision-making.

Invest the time, thought, and honesty it takes to know what really matters most to you. (Not what you think ought to matter. Not what other people tell you matters.) What are the values and priorities that you hold most sacred? Write them down and review them regularly. These are what I call your guiding principles, the standard against which decisions and potential commitments should be measured.

When you’re asked to take on a project or commit to an appointment, count the cost. Time, energy, attention, and money are our most important resources, and each is finite. Time and energy spent doing one thing are not available to do other things, even good things. For every superwoman who can do it all—home school her children, lead a public ministry at her church, keep an immaculate home, maintain close friendships and a vital marriage, pursue a profitable business, and more—there are dozens of us who have to choose. When an opportunity presents itself to you, consider: How many good things will you give up to say yes to this new opportunity?

4.     Be realistic—think small(er).

In the past, I’ve been known to start the day with a mile-long to-do list and no realistic hope of actually finishing everything on that list. Doing that leaves me feeling stressed and overwhelmed throughout the day and discouraged by my failure to accomplish what I set out to do.

I’ve learned to slow down a bit and think more carefully about what goes on my to-do list (see number 3 above). As a result, I’ve created a two-step system for managing my projects and to-dos. Because I practice habit number 1 above, I capture every potential to-do in my task manager, OmniFocus. Everything goes in there, so I don’t waste any energy worrying that I’ll forget something. That OmniFocus list is comprehensive and long, so it could be overwhelming, but it’s not what I work from on a day-to-day basis.

Each evening, after checking my calendar for the next day, I quickly scan my OmniFocus project lists and pull no more than three to five tasks to add to my Bullet Journal list for the next day—fewer on the days I have several appointments, the higher number on days when I have more uncommitted time. Those three to five tasks will be my focus for that day. If I finish them all, and have time, I might check OmniFocus and grab another task or two, but I start the day with a list that I realistically can expect to power through in the time I have on that day.

This approach prevents the overwhelm of looking at a too-long to-do list, and gives me the satisfaction and momentum of actually crossing everything off by the end of the day.

5.     Extend grace to yourself.

I spent years of my life feeling inadequate by comparison to other women I knew, who all seemed far more accomplished and on top of things than I was. It was a lonely and discouraging way to live. Comparison is fatal to peace of mind and to productivity.

What I’ve learned is that many (most? all?) of us—even those amazing women I compared myself to—struggle with “getting it all done.” And the problem with comparing ourselves to others is we are comparing our insides to their outsides—the worst things we know about ourselves to the best things we see in their lives. We only see a small piece of other women’s lives, though—even women we think we know very well. And no matter how similar our circumstances might appear, their life is not ours, so there is no valid basis for comparing our accomplishments to theirs.

Be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit for the good things you do, and grace for your missteps. Leave “white space” in your schedule—time to rest, to think, and to savor the good things in your life. Our 21st-century culture often confuses busyness with productivity. But productivity isn’t about getting more stuff done; it’s about getting the right stuff done. Nobody but you can decide what the right stuff is for you, but you can’t have any clarity of thought about that if you leave no time in your schedule for careful thought and intentional choices. A life whose every minute is filled with activity almost certainly is a life lived reacting to circumstances rather than proactively created.


Laura McClellan has been married over 38 years to the same man (she says she was a child bride). She’s mom to five, grandmother to seven, and an attorney in a large national law firm. After hours she hosts The Productive Woman, a weekly podcast about productivity for busy women, and facilitates mastermind groups for women who want to support and encourage each other in their respective journeys to making a life that matters. Laura loves hearing from other women who are on that journey, so feel free to email her!