3 Ways To Increase Productivity At Work (Hint: You May Be Surprised)
Ah, work productivity. The subject of countless blogs, bestsellers, motivational speeches, and kitten-based posters. Everything that can be said about productivity has already been said, a million different ways, using an infinite number of cliches and axioms. There is nothing new under the sun, right? The sad thing is, you can’t even talk about work productivity cliches without using cliches. It’s impossible, like pushing water uphill with a rake. D’oh! I mean, you might as well squeeze blood from a turnip. Arg! Forget it. Talking about productivity without using tired similes is as useless as herding cats. It can’t be done.
And yet, here we are, talking about it anyway. It may not seem like there’s anything worth saying at this point, but in the immortal words of Alexandar the Great, “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” And in the even more immortal words of Gob Bluth (preserved on Netflix for all eternity, world without end, amen), “my brother wasn’t optimistic it could be done, but I didn’t take ‘wasn’t optimistic it could be done’ for an answer!”
I’m going to talk about work productivity. I’m going to rely on cliches to do it. And somehow, I’m going to wring something fresh out of it. I told you in the title of this article that you might be surprised by the tips contained within. I lied. Mea culpa. (But shame on you for falling for clickbait.) Here’s the plain truth: you won’t be surprised. But if you can sift through the piles of obvious chestnuts, my hope is that you may find something useful.
Consider all caution thrown to the wind. We’re diving in, head first. And, as I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.
Table of Contents
1) Come Up With a Good System For Managing Email
Email. Is it one of the greatest innovations of our time, or the scourge of the modern workplace? It all depends on how you look at it (how’s that for a cliche?). Email can be an extremely useful tool when used properly. But if you’re not careful, it can take over your life, like so much kudzu on a plantation wall. A recent survey by The Alternative Board (TAB) found that, while most business owners spend huge swaths of their time reading, sorting, and responding to emails, only 9% of those surveyed felt like it was an important use of their time. In other words, for many people, email has become the pinnacle of busy work.
They dedicate their lives to this Terrible Trivium, moving pebbles from one pile to another, always working, never really accomplishing anything.
Managing email—apart from being mentally exhausting—is hard on your body. It’s bad for your eyesight. It’s murder on your wrists and forearms. Sitting, oh-so sedentarily at a computer screen for any length of time will result in headaches, nervous fatigue, and even increased weight. But unfortunately, unless you want to be known as an eccentric, it’s not practical, or reasonable, to take yourself off the email grid.
So how is one to deal with this necessary evil? Actually, it’s not as hard as one might think. Recently, I noticed that one of the women who works for me had experienced a significant stall in work productivity. The problem? She had been trying to deal with emails as they came in, a practice which left her perpetually tied to her inbox, unable to spend any meaningful time on more important projects. After brainstorming a while, we figured out a good way to solve her problem. Instead of answering emails as they appeared, a Sisyphean task if I ever saw one, she began to commit a certain amount of time each day solely to tackle email responses. Now, apart from that dedicated hour or so each morning, she simply ignores her inbox. For seven hours of her work day, those email correspondents are dead to her. And while it’s not exactly a case of “good riddance to bad rubbish,” it is a situation where absence makes the heart grow fonder. By allowing herself to concentrate on her email—and nothing else—for a small amount of time, she can give better, more clearly worded responses. And she can treat the rest of her day with more focused attention.
This isn’t an original solution, of course. Dedicating a specific amount of time to accomplishing one task is Work Productivity 101. But while everyone understands that the concept is sound, very few people actually believe that fact enough to alter their lifestyle. It takes an act of will to free yourself from email-related bondage. Jodie Shaw, the CMO of The Alternative Board, says that a little careful planning can go a long way. According to Shaw:
“Planning is the best way to reduce hours spent on necessary, yet time-consuming tasks such as email and meetings,” adds Shaw. “Set aside a defined block of time each day for responding to your email and create a thorough agenda/timeline for meetings. These tactics will help cut out the extra minutes that add up to extra hours each day.”
Plan out a strategy to deal with your email. And then…follow that plan. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t trust yourself to stay away from your inbox during non-email-sanctioned hours, get yourself a sponsor. Ask a coworker or your boss to support you in your endeavor. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. You have to do more than just agree that managing email during a finite window is a smart idea—if you really want to change your work life in a meaningful way, you need to add an element of accountability. It may be embarrassing to ask for help, but when you become more productive, everyone involved in the business wins.
2) Dump the Sticky Notes and Get Yourself Some Project Management Software, STAT
There’s a common misperception out there that project management software is just for people who, well, manage projects. But while these tools have a definite place in traditional office environments, they have a wide variety of uses in other industries as well. Anyone who has to manage a diverse workload—from restaurant owners to plumbers to freelance writers—can benefit in tangible ways from project management software.
Okay, cliche time! I’m sure you’ve heard that many hands make light work. Hands, in this case, don’t have to come in human form. The ultimate key to productivity is using all the help you can get, in whatever form that help takes. Your played-out organization techniques can get a boost from modern, software-based project management tools. That oversized desktop calendar you’re using right now? Throw it away. (Or use it to save your desk from coffee rings.) Instead, get yourself a cloud-based, task management service. I promise you’ll be surprised at how well things fall into place.
Project management programs, even very simple ones—like Basecamp or Trello—can operate almost like personal assistants. They keep track of your calendar; remind you when you need to be places (and where you need to go); arrange your day in digestible chunks. And you don’t have to buy them flowers, come Secretary’s Day! These tools are inexpensive, and in some cases, absolutely free for one user.
People tend to fall down the most when they’re trying to juggle multiple to-dos in their heads. And while Post-It Notes and hastily scribbled reminders have their place, these days it’s so much easier to run your life with software. Project management apps provide a way for you to quickly record and monitor task progress, track time spent on activities, deal with email requests, manage contact information (addresses, phone numbers, etc.) store files and documents for future reference, and—in some cases—communicate with your co-workers more effectively.
That TAB survey I mentioned earlier found that the average business owner reports having “only 1.5 hours of uninterrupted, high productive time each day.” With project management software—particularly a tool like Time Doctor, which can track your work in real time and show you where you’re spending the bulk of your working day—you have a fighting chance of raising that number, at least by an hour or two. The less time you spend shuffling around your desk, looking for that napkin with your coworker’s phone number on it, or futilely combing through your email for that one PDF you need, the more time you have to actually work.
Not every project management system is the same, of course. What works for a software development team won’t fit the bill for a food truck owner, and vice versa. Read our comprehensive project management reviews to find specific solutions that could help organize your work day, or check out this comparison chart for a good bird’s eye view of the market in general.
3) Stop Multitasking!
Let’s be clear right off the bat. Scientific research shows that multitasking is a bad idea. No, that’s a misleading statement. In actual fact, research shows that multitasking is impossible. The human brain cannot perform numerous tasks simultaneously. The best it can do is quickly shift from one activity to another, a practice which is a) exhausting and b) pretty ineffectual. According to the American Psychological Association, “[d]oing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.” If you think you can eat lunch, check Twitter, and return emails while simultaneously paying attention to a meeting, you are delusional. Oh, your sandwich will get eaten. Your tweets will get read. But there’s no way you’re going to recall all the salient points of that meeting. Can’t be done. And the fact that we all keep trying, day in and day out, to ‘have it all’ is just plain hubris.
Sadly, American society has been conditioned to worship at the altar of busyness. We’ve all bought into the lie at one time or another: the busier we are, the more chainsaws we are juggling at any given time, the more important our life is. Which may be why many of us feel continually stressed out by our workload—and why an overwhelming 84% of us spend more than 40 hours at work each week. That’s not normal, by the way. A French citizen would call that cruel and unusual punishment. And you know what? They would be absolutely right. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Americans may work a ton of hours, but we’re not necessarily getting anything done. And multitasking is largely to blame.
If you truly want to increase productivity, you’ll need to do some serious deprogramming. Begin each day by looking in the mirror and saying “multitasking doesn’t work” twenty times. Brush your teeth. Floss. Then say it twenty more times. Your roommates or partner will think you’re crazy, and you will be. Crazy like a fox! In all seriousness, it will be a hard paradigm to dump. We’re in love with the concept of multitasking. It gives us the feeling that we can have it all. But let me be blunt: we’re all walking sacks of meat. By which I mean, we have physical limitations. We don’t expect to be omnipresent—to physically occupy all spaces at once—so why are we so convinced we can do it all?
The moment you stop multitasking, you’ll start being more productive. The good news is that you don’t need to down a shot of Adderol to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Mindfulness isn’t just new-agey philosophy; it’s a legitimate way to succeed in the workplace. Simply slow down and focus on what you’re doing, whether that is returning an email, writing a report, or eating a dang sandwich. Pay attention to the moment; give yourself over to it.
This may be very difficult at first, but if you apply some basic mindfulness techniques, you’ll find that it gets easier with time. The best way to begin your multitasking cleanse is to employ your five senses. The next time you’re returning emails or writing up a project outline, stop and center yourself. Think about what you’re looking at; what the room smells like; how the lighting affects you; what noises you are hearing in the background. If you become distracted or find yourself once again trying to tackle more than one thing, accept that knowledge—without judgment—and gently bring yourself back to the task at hand. When you treat a job with intentionality, you will be surprised at how quickly (and how well) it gets done.
I promised you three, heavily cliched tips to help you increase productivity at work, and by George, I’ve delivered on that promise. You’ve now heard, for the umpteenth time, that it’s a good idea to designate a time for dealing with email, invest in technology that can organize your life for you, and discontinue the unhealthy practice of multitasking. But my fondest hope is that you’ve learned something fresh as well.
To go the distance and apply the principles above, you need to take concrete steps—and that may well be new information. Typical business culture is heavy on jargon, but light on action. You know how to talk the talk—now it’s time to walk the walk. First, speak with a friend and get yourself a sponsor to help you break your inbox addiction. Second, do some homework and then put your money where your mouth is; actually subscribe in a project management tool. Lastly, don’t just stop multitasking—replace your frenzied attempts to do and be everything with a deliberate, mindful focus on being in the moment.
Now is the time to increase productivity at work! A stitch in time saves nine, so get on with it already! Remember, a rolling stone gathers no moss.