Lets face it.. We are all being told to be more productive with our work! The trouble is that the voices laying down the law are usually short on practical instruction. Or, their suggestions offer a piecemeal approach. “Organize your day”. Wow!
In my case, I work from a home office and have the luxury of having better control over my daily distractions. However, many of my friends work with colleagues in open plan offices and their issues in managing their productivity face a whole range of different challenges.
It is for those people that I thought I would document my thoughts on ‘best practices’ for productivity. Let me be clear from the start that not all practices, in my experience, carry the same weight in terms of assisting our productivity at work.
I believe that some are absolutely critical and need to be mastered, if you want to really ‘move the needle’ and see your productivity improve.
To that effect, I will ask you to take particular note of the first 4 points in this guide. These are the BIG ONES. Get these four right and you can give yourself a well-deserved High Five! Get them wrong, and nothing else in this guide is really going to help you. So, lets get started.
1. Manage Your Social Media Activity
Too many people are managed by their Social Media activity rather than the other way around. This includes mobile phone notifications and calls; instant messaging and chat. The list of new apps grows every year.
If you really need these distractions during the working day, then do a deal with yourself. Set aside 10 mins in the morning and 10 mins in the afternoon to check in with your accounts…. Then turn them off again. Without careful management, social media can and will suck hours out of your day. It’s really up to you to lay down the rules.
2. Rules for Meetings
Firstly. Skip the unimportant meetings… and there are usually a lot of them. I make no apology for this one. Showing commitment to your employer and your job does not mean blindly accepting every meeting that is thrown your way. From my experience, many meetings accomplish almost nothing tangible for most attendees. If your attendance is ‘optional’ then don’t attend.
Have you noticed that if a meeting is scheduled for one hour, then the hour seems to get filled with ‘stuff’; whether important or not.. Unnecessary meetings can easily take your focus away from more important tasks and projects. Have you noticed people multi-tasking in meetings? Checking emails or sending texts? Isn’t that telling us something? They either should not be attending that meeting, or it is too long.
Working from home, many of my meetings are conference calls. I always apply a 20 minute rule to all the meetings I attend.
If there are items on the agenda that don’t concern me, then I ask that they be dealt with first before I dial in to the meeting.
My philosophy is that there are at most usually 3-4 key issues being discussed in the meeting. More often than not, these can be discussed, resolved and action items noted in the minutes all within a 20 minute time frame.
Research has shown that attention spans tend to last at best 15-20 minutes. After that amount of time, fatigue slowly starts to build up and our attention span wanes.
Here are two other rules worth considering for meetings that you must attend.
• Check in your cell phones at the door of the meeting room and collect them again when the meeting is over. This stops those attendees who feel compelled to keep glancing at their phones for updates…
• Don’t bring laptops to meetings. If you need to take notes, then bring a pad and pen and make hand written notes… low tech still works ok!
3. Create To-Do Lists and Prioritize Everything
A To-Do List is not a post-it note on your computer terminal. The to-do list ideally needs to fit on an A4 page and contain a clear list of prioritized tasks. The important questions to ask yourself when making the list are;
A. What needs my immediate attention? Regardless of the size of the task, what has to happen in the short term ie: in a day, or by the end this week.
B. What tasks are next, and so forth down the list? The list needs to be dynamic and some items may move up (or down) in priority.
C. Be realistic. What doesn’t have to be done, and can stay off the list for now?
An immediate benefit of this process is that it will help you to manage your stress levels. Stress too often occurs when our minds are simply unsure of what we should be doing right NOW.
This uncertainty creates anxiety and we start to feel overwhelmed by all the tasks we need to complete. Prioritizing and to-do lists are a simple and effective way to guide our efforts and improve our productivity.
4. Delegate (Outsource) Non-Essential Tasks
Put another way, you should clearly understand what it is that you do best and want needs your attention. The best managers know this and are not afraid to give over responsibility to others with the capability of doing a task that does not need your supervision.
On the flip side, poor managers are those who feel they need to do everything themselves. Usually the consequence is that nothing is done well. The root cause is a lack of trust of others. Often staff will sense this and will feel devalued, leading to a host of problems including higher staff turnover.
Interestingly, delegating tasks and then micromanaging the process has the same result. Again, the issue is a lack of Trust.
So, the bottom line is this. If someone else can do it better, quicker of more efficiently than you, then outsource it.
5. Apply Deadlines to Your Work
This is really an extension of the practice of creating lists and prioritizing your tasks. These are deadlines that you create and apply to yourself.
Essentially, you are giving yourself a set amount of time to work on something. The idea being that deadlines help you to overcome procrastination; the thought that you have more time than you really have!
Think of a deadline as a goal. They can even be a series of small goals. Reach the goal, congratulate yourself and move on to the next. Breaking up a task into bite-sized steps is a great way to keep your momentum going and your motivation firing.
6. Multi-tasking is NOT the Solution
Multi-tasking is where you switch your focus between tasks in order to move all along simultaneously. Why? The quality of your work will likely suffer AND you are probably going to raise your stress levels. Multi-tasking is neither smart nor clever. It’s more an act of desperation!
Try to give all your attention to one task at a time. You will be amazed at how much more creative you will become when you immerse yourself in a task. This is precisely what we are doing when we practice mindfulness!
Finally, multitasking is mentally exhausting. Take this as a sign that you are probably not being very productive. When you are truly being productive, then the opposite is true. You feel energized and on top of things.
7. Take Short Breaks
Remember earlier in this article I mentioned attention spans? Well its important to know when you need to take a quick break. Everyone is different. Some will need to get up and walk around after 20-25 minutes of concentration. For others, it may be every hour or so.
The important point is that the purpose is to move around; go outside if you can; but generally give yourself enough time to re-energize and refocus on the task at hand.
These sort of small breaks are not an excuse to be distracted by something new. They are meant to be more mental breaks.
Practicing mindfulness exercises are perfect for this time. 10 minutes should be enough for most people. I promise that if you do this it will keep you from feeling tired and you will work better and be more productive.
8. Sleep, Rest and Exercise
You would be amazed at the ‘push-back’ I get from some people on this!
What should be common sense for most people is sometimes seen as a ‘threat’ to those of us who are highly competitive, driven individuals.
I know because I was one of those who thought that getting more sleep, rest and exercise meant that I was ‘stealing time’ from my work and therefore I would be less productive.
The reality is that the opposite is true. Not having enough sleep reduces your capacity to reason and think clearly. Combine this with poor eating habits and no exercise and you become a candidate for serious health problems.
Achieving peak productivity means having our mental and physical self in balance. If you need to work late into the night, then either you are not being productive during the working day, or your employer is overloading you for his or her own immediate needs.
If that’s the case, then only you can decide whether a trade off with your health is worth it.
The bottom line to achieving our best productivity is this. We need to plan our work better; be smart about managing our time and our available resources, while all the time keeping the bigger picture in mind and taking care of our physical and emotional well being.
If you enjoyed this article on being productive in your work, please check out my other article on: 6 Personal Development Goals for Work.