how I maximize productivity

by | Jun 14, 2021 | a slice of life, Balance | 21 comments

I am often asked how I do everything that I do, so I’m going to attempt to answer that in this post and to offer some of the ways I maximize productivity.  The reason why I say I’m going to attempt to answer that question is that I really don’t believe there is one set formula.  Systems that work well for one person aren’t sustainable for another.  I also don’t know that I really have a set system.  Some of it is just how I operate.  Some of it is learned behavior.  Some is discipline.  We each have our own unique blend of traits and it’s important to be aware of them and not try to cram ourselves into a mold in which we won’t fit.  So, take what clicks for you and leave what doesn’t…

milk paint dresser makeover | miss mustard seed

milk painted dresser makeover

maximize productivity tip one | most things don’t need to be done all at one time

Let me start off by saying that I am not a baby step kind of person.  I like diving in.  I like pushing through a project to get it done quickly.  I can be impatient and impulsive when it comes to wanting to get something finished.  That means I’ve gotten a lot of projects done over the years, but it also means that I have regretted a lot of the projects that were completed in haste with the wrong tools, wrong materials, and without any sort of a reasonable plan.  The other thing working against me is that I am terrible at estimating the time it will take to complete something.  I’m sure a project will just take a couple of hours and it turns into an all-day event.  This means I end up rushing, especially when I’m running woefully over the time I’ve allowed myself to do something.  And that starts to disrupt the household.  Everyone is hungry, dinner is overdue, Sebastian is nosing my elbow for a walk…  It’s time to stop and I have a hard time doing that.

The good thing is, I’m teachable and I’m willing to learn from my own mistakes.  I have gotten so much better at approaching large projects with a more reasonable mindset – mainly, most things don’t need to be done all at once.

If you have a large project in front of you or even one that’s not-so-large but if it has you hung up anyway, try breaking it down into pieces.  It sounds counterintuitive, but it really does maximize productivity.  Let’s use painting a room for example.  Instead of adding “paint bedroom” to your to-do list, try breaking it up into smaller tasks.

  1. Remove pictures
  2. Fill holes
  3. Sand imperfections and patches
  4. Move furniture away from the walls
  5. Tape trim
  6. Apply first coat of paint
  7. Apply a second coat of paint

You get the idea.  You can even break it down further than that and just work on one wall at a time.  Yes, it might take you a week to paint a room, but it’s more likely to get done if you work on it one step at a time.

I approach almost all of my projects like this now.  It doesn’t mean I don’t ever get hung up on something, but it means I make meaningful progress.  For slipcovers, I’ll cut the pieces one day, sew the piping another, work on cushion covers another, etc. until it’s done.  For my book, I committed to writing about 500-1000 words each day and I can’t believe how easy it was when I worked on it in bite-sized chunks.  I ended up overshooting my word goal (set by my publisher) by several thousand words because it just kept flowing out.  I even wrote a bonus chapter for renters that will be available as a preorder bonus.  (You can preorder Feels Like Home HERE, by the way!)

maximizing productivity | painting studio floors | miss mustard seed

painting the checkerboard floor in the studio

maximize productivity tip two | timers are magic

One of the best things about having a smartphone in my life is always having a timer and an alarm clock right next to me.  I set timers and alarms all the time.  I have alarms for meetings, project due dates, when it’s time to get the boys from school, and even when it’s time to stop for lunch.  If I don’t set alarms, I’ll lose track of time or forget about appointments, my children, or eating!

I’ll also set timers.  Sometimes the timers as a boundary, so I don’t fritter away the day working on a pet project and other times I’ll set timers as motivation.  If there’s something I don’t feel like doing, I’ll commit to focusing on it for 30 minutes.  I would say I’m almost always impressed with how much I’m able to get done in 30 minutes.  I’m using this method now with cleaning out the basement playroom with the boys.  They are more willing to work on it when they know it’ll just be for a little while and we’re already making great progress.

Sometimes the boundary/motivation isn’t a timer, but a specific measurable goal.  I use that trick with weeding the garden beds.  I’ll weed and clean up organic debris until I fill a five-gallon bucket.  By the time the bucket is full, I’m cramming weed in to try to get just a little more done.  It takes a task, like weeding the yard, that can seem overwhelming and endless, into a definable task with a clear end.  (HERE is a post about that.)

five tips to maximize productivity | miss mustard seed

maximize productivity tip three | identify the big three

I used to keep a running to-do list of everything I needed and wanted to do.  It is a good thing to have, but it’s not a good thing to work off of each day.  The reason – it’s overwhelming.  If you have a three-page to-do list, how can you feel good about stopping at the end of the day?  I felt perpetually behind.  I mean, look at all of the things I didn’t get done!  It was hard to celebrate my daily accomplishments and know when to stop working for the day.  I would often work late into the night, feeling like I needed to cover more ground.

I finally heard about setting just three things to work on each day.  The big three.  If you’re like me, having just three things on your list sounds a little silly.  I can do three things before breakfast!  But, what I found is that if I picked three things to work on from my ever-growing running to-do list, I would give those my best time and would then feel like I had free time.  That didn’t mean I stopped working, but it meant I could work on other things.  Those things might be off of my to-do list, but they also might be frivolous creative endeavors that are productive in an entirely different way.  And, if I want to, I can stop working early.  I can use that time to run errands or read or take an art class or go on a walk.  Not only do I maximize productivity when I set a priority list of just three things, but I feel more accomplished and enjoy my rest time even more.  I rarely work late unless I’m really inspired and can’t help myself!  (If you need task-oriented planning sheets, you can find the ones I use HERE.)

five ways to maximize productivity | miss mustard seed

maximize productivity tip four | make the job fun

Mary Poppins definitely said it with the best style, “Aaaaand, snap!  The job’s a game!”  Making work fun really does make it more appealing and will maximize productivity!  I think this will look different for every individual and for every undesirable task.  I’ll listen to a great podcast or audiobook when I go on my walk.  I’ll put on music I like to sing with when I’m cleaning, working on home projects, or I’m in the garden.  I’ll read a book while dinner is cooking.  Sometimes I’ll reward myself with creative time after working on something that’s not very fun.  And yes, there are cases when you have to just buckle down and get something done, but if you can make it fun, make it fun!

I have also instituted the Annoying Project Day in recent years.  I’ll start a list of projects I’m dreading and then I’ll take a day to just work on those.  It seems like that would be an awful day, but I think naming it as the Annoying Project Day makes it sort of funny to me and I approach it with a lighthearted spirit.

five ways to maximize productivity | miss mustard seed

maximize productivity tip five | rest is a part of work

Again, it sounds counterintuitive to say you need to rest more if you want to maximize productivity, but it really is a thing.  It’s been said for years and years by very smart people in many many ways, but that message has definitely be drowned out by the message of hustle and the badge of busyness.  In the early years of my business, I worked tirelessly.  I was excited about my work and it was easy to work way too much.  I didn’t see rest as a valuable part of the equation.  I’m still a hard worker, but I make sure I balance it with rest.  And rest looks a little different for everyone.  For some, rest is a nap or watching TV.  For me, rest is drawing, painting, knitting, reading, and sleeping in a little later than usual.  It’s giving myself unhurried time that doesn’t have to be intentionally productive.  Those times almost always end up unintentionally feeding my productivity.  It’s so interesting how that works.

Schools tend to drop recess around middle school, but I think we all still need some recesses throughout our day.  Our minds are sharper, our focus is clearer, and our work is better when we feel like we have the energy to offer the task at hand.

The last thing I want to say is that productivity isn’t the end-all, be-all.  Don’t leave this post feeling like you’re not doing enough.  My aim in writing these tips is to share what’s worked for me and what helps me balance work and rest while getting a lot accomplished.  And I hope it encourages you.

If you want some good reading on the subject of productivity, here are some books I really like.  And, just to be clear, I am out on any book that tells me I just need to work harder and do more and that making money is the highest goal in life.  I’m not interested.  If the book is encouraging me to continue to learn, grow, be a more prolific creative, and work smarter, then I’m in.



  1. JC

    This is so good and encouraging! Thank you! I can go in cycles it seems of productivity to running in circles and getting little accomplished! I would LOVE to be more consistent…with productivity, that is ;). Great pointers to apply!

  2. Rebekah

    Love these thoughts! As a fellow 100%-er I definitely relate. The annoying project day (sales tax! bookkeeping!) is genius. 🙂 I look forward to trying it!

  3. Cheri

    “I like diving in. I like pushing through a project to get it done quickly. I can be impatient and impulsive when it comes to wanting to get something finished. ” THIS IS ME! Work on a project until can’t move, or until it’s done. I like to see the finished product as quickly as possible. The top 3 has been helpful to me over the last year — I just take 3 items from my long to-do list and add them to the 3. Every once in a while I toss in the annoying project day! Good tips!

    • Lisa P

      I am a lot less organized than you are, and I think your tips really inspiring and do-able! Thank you for sharing them.

      • Susan Prillman

        Great suggestions! I would add that when I feel unproductive, I take a few minutes to analyze honestly what is preventing me from getting to those things I really want to accomplish. Once I know what they are, i can do something about them and refocus on the goal.

  4. Barbara Ann King

    What good advice! Thanks for your helpful hints on what works for you and how I can plow into the Annoying Project Day without procrastinating.

  5. Bea

    Marian, your tips are very realistic and helpful. Breaking down a project into small steps really works for me. I’ve been making a daily list for many years and I find that it’s gratifying to finish tasks and cross them off my list. Thanks for your very complete list of tips.

  6. Susan Willingham

    Thanks for the reminders that I’ve always known to work, but have let myself forget. I’m working through grief of losing my sister March 23rd a to sudden diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer which was unbeknownst to her and me. Partially due to COVID. There’s so much to do, details, her house, her classroom, etc. and I’ve been forced into remembering it cannot all be accomplished in a day or even a week. Thank God I’ve had some support, but I’m “it”.
    So, again, thank you! It’ll all get done.

    • Eileen

      My deepest sympathies to you and yours.

  7. Betty Bashaw

    Thank you for your encouragement!

  8. Julie | Home On The Hill

    Great post – I found some of these ideas really helpful. 🙂 Running my own web/graphic design agency, along with our farm, looking after the needs of my 89 year old mum who lives with us, household chores & the 3 dogs often sees me with very little time for MY art/craft/upcycling projects & writing blog posts!

    You reminded me that I’m more productive if I’m structured, I think the timer idea and the big 3 will work for me & my mindset. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Denise

    Marian, you are my hero. I like lists too but I have the tendency to either tackle something full tilt or start it and then lose interest. And I hate to see half done projects. Thank you for breaking down your process, especially being OK with a big project that can only be reasonably done in stages. I’ll definitely use some of your tips. I look forward to reading your posts every day no matter what the topic.

  10. Sandra

    Great post and tips; thank you for being an encourager. I’m at least a generation ahead of you, perhaps 1.5, and, as I’ve aged, I’ve slowed down. I still do what I’ve always done but not as quickly and my to-do list seems to grow, not whittle away. I’ve had to make peace with that slowing down, with the need to rest more frequently, with not getting as much done daily.
    I’ve learned to give myself grace.

    • Cat Z.

      I’m right there with you Sandra. A little older, retired now, and although I still have lists of projects to do around the house I’ve also learned to give myself grace. It is a wonderful season of life to have the luxury of slowing down a little!

  11. Karen B.

    Such great tips. We share some of the same traits but if age has taught me anything it is to slow down. I work on that still. For a high-energy, overly determined person, that the biggest challenge. You are amazing.

  12. Doda

    Very good advice. Thank you .

  13. SueA

    My rest days are completely unstructured. No “must get dones today”. I love those days. They are usually unplugged, too. But I can do anything I want, whenever I want to do it! And I usually pop out of bed early and hum around–happy and excited.

  14. Fiona

    I loved reading about how you achieve so much! And I’m horrified that “schools tend to drop recess around middle school”!! Here in Australia recess and lunch are part of the school day for everyone, and afternoon tea happens when you get home from school 😉 Short rests are so important – I agree! Thanks for the reminder to break the job down into steps to get a better idea of how long things actually take … maybe I need to do this to get out the door in time each morning …

    • Marian Parsons

      I agree! In high school, they have study halls (free periods) and physical education classes, but they do away with the dedicated time to go outside and play. I agree that it is a shame.

  15. Kathy A

    I really enjoyed your post. I never thought of my “to do” list as keeping me busy into the evening. It is there for tomorrow–or the day after that. It took me a while to get the hang of being retired! “Shoulds” come first (cooking, cleaning, laundry), but I intersperse them with “wannas”, usually something creative (gardening, crafting, thifting, sewing, etc.). I am much better tempered if I have some creative time!

    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, I’ve gotten much better at taking things in smaller steps and in stopping when I’ve worked enough for the day. I sometimes work in the evenings, though, if everyone else is occupied.


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Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…


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