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Does work feel like a mountain of dirt that, no matter how much you keep shoveling, it just keeps piling up higher and higher? Even though you’re VERY busy answering calls and emails, typing reports, attending meetings, and doing everything necessary at your job, does it feel like nothing important is ever getting done? Does your To-Do list feel longer than an epic fantasy novel with upcoming sequels and side stories? If you want to learn how to boost your productivity at work in order to accomplish more, earn more free time, and reduce stress, then read the seven steps we have below.
Before we begin, bring out a pen and paper. To make the most out of what you will learn, you need to do a couple of exercises in the first three steps.
How to Boost Your Productivity in 7 Easy Steps
“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” – Thomas A. Edison
Plan your Priorities
Most of us have heard about the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule which states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our activities. You’ve probably also learned that you should set your schedule to work on those most important tasks. The question now is, when was the last time you took a bird’s eye view on all your tasks and REVIEWED your work and priorities? You might just find out that the “important” tasks you’re handling right now are merely “urgent,” and that the other tasks you’ve been putting off (like new systems that can streamline the work process) can bring far more value than anything else you should be doing.
For this step, take the pen and paper and list down all the tasks you need to accomplish today, this week, this year, and longer. That includes reports you need to do this week, planning that family outing, learning how to save and invest, making that bank deposit, and more.
When you’ve listed down everything you need to do, figure out which of these four categories do they belong to:
- Do – These are the things only you can accomplish, like developing your team’s goals, going to the gym to work on your health, or attending your children’s graduation.
- Delay – These are the things that have a specific time requirement, like a client meeting next week or a family vacation next month.
- Discard – When you review your tasks and to do lists, you might find a lot of these hanging around in there. These include little projects or tasks that, after some thinking, are mere time and resource wasters and don’t need to be done at all. Cross these out and forget about them completely so you can focus on the things that actually need to get completed.
- Delegate – Some tasks will still need to get done, like delivering packages to clients. You don’t, however, expect the CEO who runs the company to personally deliver all of those packages when he needs to spend his time on more valuable tasks like planning the company’s future. Delegate the tasks and responsibilities that are unimportant for your duties or things that can be done better by someone else to those who are skilled enough to do them.*
*If you find that none of your team members are skilled enough, try training them to accomplish things even when you’re not around. Empowering team members is one of the things that good leaders and managers need to do after all.
By the way, don’t stop with just the tasks at work. List down your life goals as well as the things you need to do for your future, like planning for your children’s college education, your retirement, that dream vacation, that hobby you always wanted to pursue, and more!
Set NEXT ACTIONS
One major idea I learned from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” is that it’s not enough to plan the tasks you need to do, but you must also plan the individual STEPS needed to finish them. For example, if the task you need to accomplish is to create a new project or event for next month, then the “next actions” would be to brainstorm goals or ideas and write them down on a piece of paper, send an email to your team and ask them for rough plans, or something similar. Then the next action after that would be to type proposal outlines and send them to your boss or delegate the project to a specialized team, and so on and so forth.
Since you’ve already rearranged your priorities from step 1, choose one or two of your major tasks for this exercise (you’ll need to this for all of them later on). Start thinking and planning the next action you need to take in order to move the project further into completion. You can either:
- Do it right then and there. David Allen suggests that you do this for tasks that need 2 minutes or less to finish, like printing a report you have saved or forwarding an email to a coworker who needs the info.
- Set a schedule or reminder as to when you need to do it.
- Discard the project or Delegate the specific task to someone else. This will free you up to work on other, more important tasks.
(Note: You might want to check out my other article: “Project Planning Basics: Get Great Results from a Little Mental Effort”)
DO IT NOW!
This was a lesson I’ve learned from Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone’s “Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude.” What is the secret of getting things done? Action. How do you force yourself to act, even when you don’t feel like it? By mentally commanding yourself to “DO IT NOW!”
One of the most difficult things to overcome is the inertia that leads to procrastination. If you’re just sitting there and putting off the things you need to do, work starts accumulating until it snowballs into a big, discouraging mess. That makes it more difficult to act especially when you’re not motivated. In order for you to overcome that feeling, just tell yourself to DO IT NOW! Just get up, and start working! You’d be surprised how well this works.
Just start typing that report. Pick up that phone and make the call. Open the email, read it, and send your reply. Pick up that pen and paper and start writing an outline. You’ll find that when you start and find your “flow,” it then becomes difficult to stop until you finish the task.
From the next actions that you wrote in number 2, tell yourself to DO IT NOW!
Minimize Distractions and Achieve Flow
Ever hear the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun?” When you’re playing a game or a sport you enjoy, you give it full focus and the minutes and hours all seem to pass by quickly. If you haven’t noticed, you also likely get that feeling when you work on tasks you are good at and enjoy doing. When you achieve that mental state called ”Flow,” you give full focus to a task and thus you get more done at a faster rate than what you normally would. Distractions like that sudden facebook notification or text message, however, kill that state and it can take you several precious seconds or minutes to get back into it.
Avoid trying to multitask. As you might have read elsewhere, multitasking is actually counterproductive as it’s really just switching from one task to another and the effort of switching wastes precious time and mental energy (you can read more about it here on CNN’s article). When working on something, do it wholeheartedly and with full focus. Switch off all distractions, and yes, that includes the funny website you have open on your web browser.
Take frequent breaks
This is one lesson I first learned from Tom Rath’s “Are You Fully Charged.” According to DeskTime, a company who developed an application that monitors employee productivity, the most productive employees are those who take breaks effectively.
“The most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes.” – Julia Gifford of DeskTime
I remember doing this myself: From 8am-10am I finish the project plans and proposals, then I take a walk to buy some nutritious snack from the nearby mall, and when I return, I finish the rest of the day or week’s amount of work before lunch. I also take a lot of 5-minute breaks to brew loose-leaf green tea every hour. The end result is that my afternoons are almost completely free, and that gives me time to plan the projects for the next month . I started that schedule because early on I learned that burning myself out just to finish a project means that the last third of it will look rushed or half-baked. Starting strong and finishing weak is terrible, especially when you’re aiming for quality.
When you feel yourself getting stressed or tired and the flow you’ve achieved is starting to wane, get up and take a break. Go have a cup of water or go make some coffee. Take a walk outside and breathe. When you feel your mind clear up after around 15 minutes, only then should you return to the task at hand.
Get enough sleep
At my previous employer’s office, a LOT of employees (myself included) often need to cover double shifts and night shifts in case of emergencies, like when the team member of the next shift is out sick. Thanks to that, we have terrible sleep patterns, but we do put in a lot of time at work. Many think that “more time at work (and less sleep) = more productivity,” but a quick google search about sleep deprivation shows that the opposite actually occurs. Aside from degrading your immune system which leads to more sick days and increased healthcare costs, lack of sleep dramatically decreases your cognitive/brain functions and that can lead to poorer performance at work.
Cut down a bit on your late night TV/internet time and try to get around 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night.
A Tip for Night Shift Employees: Whenever I work night shifts, I take 15-minute naps in the bathroom or in the pantry (luckily, they’re very clean). That amount of time is ideal for a power nap, and I felt its benefits first hand. Try it yourself! Just remember to bring an alarm clock with you (my phone’s clock has that function), as well as something to cover your eyes.
By the way, remember how I mentioned that we were required to double-shift in terms of emergencies? I got around that by giving my team members the skills and knowledge necessary to handle any emergency. That’s why they never need to call me at 3am whenever some strange issue occurs.
Eat well and Drink plenty of Water
Here’s a simple and “obvious” fact that people neglect to consider:
You need your brain to work effectively in order to do your job well. In order for your brain to function properly, it needs to have the right FUEL. You need to eat well to think well.
Do not skip breakfast as your brain won’t have any energy, and you can’t make plans and decisions properly when your stomach constantly grumbles for food.
Avoid unhealthy junk food like candy bars, soft drinks and energy drinks as, although they give temporary boosts for a half hour or so, you’ll feel a crash afterwards and your productivity will decline sharply. Eat some nuts (and berries) instead as they provide a stable amount of energy for a few hours. My favorite snacks (the ones I buy during the 15-minute breaks) are cashews, almonds, trail mix, raisins, etc.
Drink plenty of water too as mild dehydration can affect our mood, decrease our ability to concentrate, and make us feel tired faster.
- Plan your priorities. Focus on valuable tasks.
- Set “Next Actions.”
- Whenever you have something to do, DO IT NOW!
- Minimize Distractions and aim to achieve Flow.
- Take frequent breaks.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat well and drink enough water.