If it ever seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day, you’re right. Between work, family, friends and that funny thing called “free time” you used to have, remaining productive can be an uphill battle.
Remaining productive and engaged at work are the biggest factors in anyone enjoying their job, let alone keeping that job. If your productivity starts slipping, it may not be your fault, but it still might be your backside that is on the line.
If you’re staying late, showing up early and you’re still behind or barely making the deadline, these tips will help you to manage your time more effectively and increase your productivity. Even if you’re a highly productive person, re-evaluating “business as usual” can help anyone to squeeze some more out of their workday.
Making these adjustments, however, requires that you have a very good idea of how your time is spent over the course of a typical work week. If you can accurately inventory your work day by task and the time it takes to perform each task, it will be easier to identify the time stealing culprits from the lineup.
What is Productivity?
Though you may be tempted to write this question off or declare that you are already the most productive human on earth, consider that even the most productive person can, technically, always be a little more productive. Productivity is defined as:
The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
Productivity is the same whether you’re peeling potatoes or writing code, a measurement of your output in relation to your input: time and effort.
In short, productivity is what separates the amateurs from the pros.
Productivity is also a huge source of stress. It doesn’t matter if you’ve peeled 5 million potatoes or if you’ve been coding since the days of green text monitors, a “productive” work day, one that stands out as even more productive than usual, still takes considerable effort.
By far, however, the biggest stress associated with productivity comes from being behind at work. Falling behind is understandable, even inevitable from time to time, but remaining behind for long enough means you’ll be out of a job, no matter what that job is.
If you were to fall behind as a key code writer, it could mean delaying a product’s release date. If you were to fall behind as CEO of the company, then the survival of that company can come into question.
How to Improve Productivity
One of the best ways to improve your productivity is to spend some time evaluating “business as usual,” for obstacles to your productivity. No matter how behind or ahead you are, mapping the ways in which you spend your time will help you to reach greater levels of productivity.
In order to improve your productivity next week, you’re going to spend this week accounting for where your hours are actually going. In our busy modern lives, every minute counts, so the more specific you can be with this exercise, the more you’ll get out of it.
Identify Obstacles and Time-Sinks
OK, so today is the first day of the rest of your highly productive life. That being said, don’t do anything out of the ordinary today. Have the most Monday Monday or the most Tuesday Tuesday you can stand to, but don’t just go through the motions.
Starting with the moment you get out of bed, note the starting and stopping time of each activity, task and straight-up-goof-off that comprises your day. The more specific, the better. Even if you end up with an immense list for each day, erring on the side of excess information will only help in this exercise.
Fudging the numbers on this is not advised, and neither is working 200% harder than usual. You want a clear idea of how your time is spent on a semi-off day, a day in which you experience a normal level of distraction and do a normal amount of work.
Once you’ve mapped a full work week, identifying the time hogs will be matter of picking the biggest and most pointless boxes.
- Are some tasks taking longer than they should?
- Are some of your co-workers or reporting employees taking your time, time and time again?
- Are some of your time saving tools adding hours to your work week?
Once you’ve recorded your productivity for a week, take a moment to mark the tasks and activities that you believe could be done more efficiently.
Now, mark the time slots that represent wasted time. Whether you consider time watching TV is up to you, but what you’re really looking for here are chunks of your work day that are eaten up by clunky tech, difficult people, pointless meetings and other maddening workplace occurrences.
Now that you’ve identified the obstacles that are taking up your time, the next step is removing those obstacles.
- Are you spending half an hour agonizing over the wording of emails?
- Is a reporting employee coming to you in need of help multiple times per-day?
- Does a tool or app that you use eat up the time it’s supposed to save?
Once you identify your biggest obstacles to productivity, the next step is figuring out how you’re going to remove these obstacles from your work day.
Let’s use the questions above as examples.
This is an example of why this exercise is so great. Once you’ve done the math on how much time it takes you to write emails in a day, identify the reason for this. Is the process inefficient because of your approach to it, or is the process itself inefficient for producing the desired results?
One process that can be especially drawn out is the creative process. If you have “creative differences” with a co-worker or are just working on a long project, you can end up with quite a handful of versions of the semi-final product. A great tool for collaborating is Evernote, a cloud based text editor with simple, beautiful formatting that is intuitive and user friendly. Instead of choosing between QuarterlyPresentationFinalFinalDraft.doc and QuarterlyPresentationFINALFinalFinalDraft.doc, you’re already on the same page with your co-presenter, working in real time to make some last minute changes before they join you by conference call.
If you’re too committed to a process that isn’t working for you, it’s going to keep taking up your time. And you know what they say time is, let alone the hard costs associated with the process. By evaluating the various processes that make up “business as usual,” you can see which process and process inefficiencies are hindering your productivity.
When someone isn’t pulling their weight, it doesn’t mean that the load gets lighter for everyone else. Inefficient people can drag down anyone who is kind or foolish enough to lend a hand. If an inefficient person in your office, who believes that you’re something of their personal tutor/ life-coach, establish boundaries or be doomed to an eternity of pestering.
If you want to send a crystal clear message, you can show them how many hours per-week you’ve been losing due to their liberal use of your time. If you want a more diplomatic approach, simply ask them to ask if they can ask for some of your time and practice some liberal use of the best word ever invented: NO.
If this person’s inefficiency begins to boarder on incompetence, then that’s another story. The key is to be sure. Check in with the struggling employee and ask them if they see any major blocks to their productivity or if there are any personal hardships that are effecting their work. It could be that your slowest worker ends up pointing out a flaw in the process itself. It could also be that their productivity levels aren’t high enough for the job they need to do.
Again, the key is to know, and you can’t know if you never ask. Don’t just grunt and pull in the slack when someone isn’t pulling their weight. By talking with the unproductive person, you’ll uncover whether the root problem is incompetence, inefficiency or something that you probably shouldn’t ask too much about.
Technology can be one of the best ways to increase your productivity, but only if you’re using the right tool for the job. Using an app that isn’t aligned with your needs can be just as inefficient as an app that lags or loses your work. A tool misalignment can mean re-doing work, sometimes a lot of it. If you’re questioning the effectiveness of a tool, refer to this simple standard:
- What is the tool supposed to do for you?
- What is it actually doing?
One of the best tools that you can use to streamline the project management process is Trello, a task and project management app that uses a pin board system to visually organize the status of your work flow. Because of the clear visual layout and team-centric design, you’ll never lose another minute communicating the status of a project or digging through your hard drive for a piece of collateral.
Tools can be useful, but the results of hammering in a screw into the wall are rarely pretty. Whether it’s a program that is being misused or it’s just the wrong program, evaluating the purpose and function of your most commonly used tech tools will help you to get more from them.
The Secret for Long-Term Productivity
No matter how busy you are, you should always recognize the need to recover from the stresses and strains of the work week. Stress accumulates over time, if unmanaged, and is actually one of the biggest productivity killers out there. According to a study of workers in the US and the UK,
“Over half of those employees claiming to be experiencing high stress levels reported they were disengaged. By contrast, only one in ten employees claiming low stress levels reported they were disengaged and half of this group claimed to be highly engaged.”
Let’s get something straight. The world is a stressful place and the culture in many companies is that stress is a natural part of work and a good motivator. Work hard, play hard, etc. You might surprise yourself with how much you can get by burning the candle at both ends, but you also shouldn’t be surprised when this work style leaves you feeling burnt out.
By relying on stress to motivate your productivity, you are hard wiring your brain to stress you out all the time. Over time, cortisol, the stress chemical, harms your ability to learn and changes the structure of your brain so that it is more likely to react to stressful situations by bringing you to full “fight or flight,” levels of panic.
Stress is a natural part of work, but doesn’t have to be the thing that gets you though the day. Put out the fire you’ve been sitting on and relax into the knowledge that alert, relaxed work is always going to get you further than a series of frantic sprints.
The secret to long-term productivity is relaxation, so relax! Making the effort to break the stress cycle will train your brain in the other direction, conditioning you for cool thinking under pressure. Though you may have many obstacles in the way of your ideal level of productivity, mapping these obstacles has already taken you on the first step to getting more from your time. If you can relax while you work, it will be much easier on you than relying on pure adrenaline to bring you over the finish line. There will still be situations that call for every ounce of crazy energy you have, but avoiding unnecessary stressors will help you to be more clear-headed and decisive when the time comes for action.
Increasing your productivity gets harder the better you get at something, the lessons you have left to learn growing further and fewer in between. Mastering anything requires years of practice, but it doesn’t have to be more stressful than life makes it. These people all shining examples of extremely high productivity, and they all seem pretty relaxed, but that’s because they’re all performing each task for about the millionth time.
Look to the long term with your productivity goals. By identifying the obstacles to your productivity and dealing with them, it will help you to get more output form your work week with a reduced cost on your mind and body. If you can dial down the stress and systematically evaluate the way that you get your work done, you can be more productive than you ever where in your adrenaline junkie days. Planning your productivity will always help your productivity, which usually helps to dial down the stress. After all there’s nothing more relaxing or satisfying than knowing you’ve made a big step forward with your work day.