Top 11 ways to stay productive in China

Top 11 ways to stay productive in China

Today I am looking out my office window and I can barely see the office across the street. The PM2.5 is over 350 and I haven’t been productive all week. I haven’t written anything new for CM and, although I did some client work, I have been feeling unproductive. With only three months until my wedding, more client requests, and a full-time job, it is not the time to stall out. This got me thinking about productivity and how to stay productive in China during heavy pollution and long work weeks. I have put together this list of 11 ways to stay productive in China.

11 ways to stay productive in China

No e-mail until you’ve eaten three frogs

According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, “Spend your morning on something that requires a high level of concentration that you don’t want to do, and you’ll get it done in short order. Make a habit of eating three frogs before you check your e-mail because e-mail is a major distraction that enables procrastination and wastes precious mental energy.” We all have tasks that we hate, it might be projects that are boring or difficult, and we often put these tasks off until the end of the day (or next day). This is a surefire way to be unproductive. What Bradberry is saying in this frog eating example is that we should do the boring/difficult tasks first thing in the morning because afterwards we can focus on other more enjoyable tasks. Once it is done… it is done.

Stay productive in China

No Social Media Before Lunch

If you are anything like me, you use your phone as an alarm clock. The first thing I look at in the morning is, usually, my phone. I usually have one or two WeChat messages and a few other social media notifications, which can easily throw off my whole morning if I spend too much time on them. Also, if I login to my computer at work or at home in the morning, it is easy to be distracted by social media. The best policy is to not login to social media until after lunch if you want to stay productive in China (or really anywhere). If your job requires you to be on social media, try to only focus on work and don’t get caught up in useless articles about cats or Trump.


Exercise (morning, day, or night)

There have been countless article and research papers written on the positive benefits that exercise has on productivity. With the high pollution in Beijing, I recommend exercising indoors. I usually workout at night before bed, but working out in the morning has positive effects for your work day. I feel it doesn’t matter when you workout, it will help you stay productive in China, just don’t be this guy:

Zuckerberg-runs-in-Beijing, stay productive in China

Mark wants the Chinese Government to love him so bad, he is risking his health and reputation. (Running in PM2.5 over 300 – 3/18/16)

Organize Your Day

One of the best things you can do to stay productive in China is to organize your day. If you organize your day around specific tasks and tackle big projects in the morning (eat those frogs), you are more likely to remain productive. Organizing your day the night before has been proven to improve productivity and help you obtain success.

Stay productive in China

Set Goals (day and week)

Going along with the tip above, while you organize your day for success, you should also set goals. When you set goals and have measurable outcomes, you will be more productive. If you do not set goals for each day and week, you will end up putting out fires throughout the day and never really accomplish anything important. We are always ‘busy’ in life and often times at the end of the day we can feel exhausted, but at the same time feel like we did nothing. The truth is on these days we have only put out fires and not accomplished any goals. If we want to stay productive in China, we have to set real goals and learn to say “No” when an ‘important’ fire distracts us for accomplishing real work.

Stay productive in China

Nobody said how big your goals need to be!

Drink Less Alcohol

Expat life can be fun… It can sometimes be too fun. Talk to just about any expat and you will hear tales of drunken debauchery. Something about living in another culture often leads normal expats to a life of drinking and partying. When I first came to China I partied because that is what many expats do. But over 2 years ago, I stopped drinking completely (for about 2 years) and now I will drink about once every 2-3 months.

When you give up alcohol you will have tons of free time, drinking actually takes up a lot of time. From pre-game to hangovers, drinking can take up your whole weekend. When you drink too much, you will have many problems from drama with friends to spending more money than you would like to spend, there are many reasons to cutback on drinking. One of the biggest reasons to cutback is increased productivity.

Stay productive in China

Standing/Walking and Afternoon Meetings

You can’t always put meetings off until the afternoon, but when you have the option take it. Research has shown that you are more productive in the morning when your brain is rested. Decision making is like a muscle that can get tired throughout the day, if you have meetings that don’t require decision making (informational meetings) schedule them in the afternoon. This will give you more time to be productive in the morning when your brain is rested. If you schedule meetings after lunch and your afternoon rest (if you work for a Chinese company), your brain will have time to recover after the mornings tasks.

Another way to make sure you are not wasting time in meetings is to conduct standing or walking meetings. These types of meetings tend to be shorter and more productive. According to Huffington Post, “Arianna Huffington does it. Mark Zuckerberg does it. Even President Obama does it. They all stand up, get out of their offices and walk. Walking meetings have been linked to increased productivity and boosts in morale, and have been credited as the catalyst for some major business deals.”

Stay productive in China

Use Technology to Improve Productivity

We have been using tech to better our lives since the first men carried clubs. It is no surprise that we use tech to stay productive in China. There are a number of apps from VPN’s to messaging (WeChat, QQ, etc.) that can be used in the office to help you stay on task. There are also language apps that can help you learn Mandarin.

Stay productive in China


Communication is paramount to staying productive. It is important to communicate with your co-workers, boss, and clients. As much as we need alone time to focus deeply on one task; we also need to communicate important aspects of projects to remain productive.

Stay productive in China

Listen to Music (headphones on)

Listening to music is a great way to stay productive in China (and sane). If you are in a fast pace industry like advertising or trading, than you are constantly being interrupted by coworkers. One way to deter coworkers from interrupting you and breaking your concentration is to wear headphones. Even if you are not listening to music you can wear headphones. This should deter simple interruptions that are not emergencies, giving you more time to focus on important work.

If you do like listening to music and don’t find it distracting there is a lot of research to support it increases productivity on mundane tasks. When I am asked to write a simple report or do research on a competitor, I find it useful to listen to music. My office can be loud at times and one way I stay productive in China is by tuning out my coworkers with sweet, sweet melodies.

Stay productive in China

Don’t multitask

According to Amy Ahlberg, “Heavy multitaskers have trouble keeping things separate in their minds and focusing only on what is relevant to the task at hand. They are constantly thinking about the task they just switched FROM, along with the task they just switched TO.” She is citing a study done by Stanford researchers in which they found that multitasking is not has great as we once thought. The biggest problem with multitasking is we never really focus fully on one project, which leads to lower quality work and less retention.

I can never stay productive in China because I am always jumping around from site to site. I think the internet has create more distractions for many office workers. For all its good, the internet has created many distractions from social media to Youtube (Youku in China) there are just too many sites and too much content!

Stay productive in China

My web browser at any given moment with 15+ tabs open! I usually ran around 20 tabs. Bonus points if you can guess what websites are open.

Final thoughts on staying productive in China

Remaining productive is really just a mindset. Some of the most productive people are slammed with work and appear to be completely disorganized, but that doesn’t stop them from finding enough time in the day to get all their work done. China is just like any other work environment and you can choose to be lazy or productive. Some times you just need to kick yourself in the butt and get your work done. I hope these tips help you get back to work and get productive!

Stay productive in China

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