What’s your New Years’ resolution? Work out more? Get better grades? Stay caught up on sleep? No matter what your goal, chances are at the core of that resolution there is a need for self-discipline and strong time-management. When we are weak in these things we tend to live “messy lives” where not much gets accomplished and we fail to live up to our full potential. Whether you recognize yourself as a time waster, or just know time-management is something you want to hone, the launch of a fresh year is a great time to set some direction when it comes to focusing your energy, de-cluttering your calendar and sharpening your mental focus. Why not adopt a few of these tips for optimal productivity in the new year?

Clean Work Space. You may argue that your messy dorm room has nothing to do with your work habits, and that you’re able to find everything you need in your disorganized piles. But Libby Sander, assistant professor of organizational behavior, has researched the effect our physical environments have on us. In Harvard Business Review she states that, “My research…has shown that our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and behavior, affecting our decision-making and relationships with others. Cluttered spaces can have negative effects on our stress and anxiety levels, as well as our ability to focus, our eating choices, and even our sleep.” In other words: choosing to make your bed every morning (a task that takes two minutes max) may actually have a bearing on how productive you are the rest of the day!

Scientists at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute have shown that having clutter in our living environment causes us to feel overwhelmed by “stuff” which then leads to procrastination and lack of productivity. They point out that visual reminders of disorganization drain our mental clarity and focus. Conversely, when work spaces are cleared of clutter, individuals show improved focus, information processing ability and productivity. A wise way to start the new year might be to simply clean out your closet or organize your desk. You will work more efficiently when everything has a space and is kept there. This means spending time every day straightening up. While this might sound hard, consider how much less time you will spend looking for things if you simply stay organized!

Close “Open Loops.” There is so much coming at us by way of information. If you’re anything like me, your brain has a hard time shutting off. In his book “Getting Things Done,” David Allen coins the phrase “open loops” to refer to ambiguous tasks, ideas or processes that are floating around in our mind, cluttering up brain space. He talks about the importance of “collecting” all of this mental stuff into a storage space outside of your mind. He refers to these spaces as “collection buckets.” Collection buckets can be electronic spaces (think of the “Notes” app on your phone) or a physical space such as a notebook. Generally we “collect” mental stuff by writing it all down in the form of lists. We do this in order to capture our nagging thoughts and get them out of our minds so we free up our mental energy for whatever task is at hand. Once a thought or idea is captured in a collection bucket, that loop is now closed and is no longer screaming for attention at that moment. Examples of “collection buckets” (ie: lists) could be: things I need to accomplish today, questions to ask my Psyche professor, books to check out or things I need to buy at Target. When important thoughts pop into your mind in the middle of studying or as you’re getting ready for bed–capture them in a collection bucket so the loop can close and your mind doesn’t keep spinning on that thought. As long as those thoughts are “safe” in a closed loop, you can revisit them later when you have the time and energy to focus on them. Similar to an uncluttered work space, an uncluttered brain allows you the freedom to get things done efficiently and effectively.

From Easy to Hard. David Allen also talks about processing and organizing our thoughts once they are collected. He discusses how the tasks on our “to do list” generally fall into three categories: 1) do now, 2) delegate to others or 3) defer for later. He suggests that when it comes to your “do now” list you start with your shortest and easiest tasks (in other words, anything that will take you two minutes or less, such as watering your plants, returning an email or making a phone call) and getting these checked off your list first. When it comes to harder tasks which require multiple steps, such as a class project, break it down into bite-sized steps and begin to cross things off your list step by step. Working your way from easiest to hardest tasks is a great way to get a lot done quickly. It’s always freeing to see your “to do list” getting shorter, and the momentum you pick up as you watch tasks getting accomplished can propel you towards your larger goals.

Well-Timed Energy. Last but not least, be aware of what time of day you’re at your best and feeling most energized. Are you a night person? A morning person? Or do you hit your peak performance in the middle-of-the day? Structure your time so that the tasks requiring your greatest concentration and effort align with the times when you’re most energized and alert. This will definitely lead to an overall increase in your productivity and help you accomplish more than you thought possible! Here’s to a new year of stellar time management!