What Everyone Needs to Know to Be More Productive

What Everyone Needs to Know to Be More Productive (hbr.org)
Author: Dana Rousmaniere

Does it seem like you don’t have enough hours in the day to get through everything you need to do? With so many competing demands on our time, we can all benefit from learning to ramp up our own personal productivity. HBR recently ran a series called Getting More Work Done. Below is a summary of the advice and best practices our experts contributed to the series:

First, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so start by figuring out your own personal productivity style. Try this assessment to figure out how to align your work strategies with your cognitive style. You may or may not already be doing this subconsciously, but it’s helpful to think through: Are you a planner? An arranger? A visualizer?

Next, get organized. You can’t get work done if your life is in disarray. Start with your immediate environment — your desk. Research shows that a messy workspace can undermine your persistence, making you less efficient, more frustrated and more weary. Then, get your schedule and calendar organized. We all have a slew of business, home, family, and personal issues screaming for our attention — but they’re not all equally important. Consider laying all of your competing priorities out using a kanban board to help you decide which to focus on when. Having a constant visual reminder of your priorities and tasks will help you keep things moving in the right direction — and perhaps more importantly, will help you literally see when something’s getting stuck.

If you work independently or in a remote or virtual environment, it’s even more important to keep yourself on task. Here’s a list of things to buy, download or do to make sure you have the right infrastructure in place to be at your most productive. And if you’re a manager who’s been reluctant to let people work from home because you fear that it will reduce their productivity, consider that research shows that high performers can be even more productive at home than in the office.

Once you’ve got your environment and priorities in order, start thinking about how you’re managing your time. First and foremost, take ownership of your time. Set clear rules and boundaries so you don’t end up taking on too much from others. For example, have your project list on hand when you go to meetings so that if a new project is proposed, you can evaluate its importance in relation to your other commitments and propose a discussion about priorities if there doesn’t seem to be enough time to tackle everything. Or if you manage staff members who tend to turn in work at the last minute with way too many errors, insist on earlier deadlines. That will allow you to send work back to them to make corrections instead of doing them yourself just because you’re on a tight deadline.

Next, practice saying this all-important word: “No.” There are plenty of ways to push back without alienating people. Be selective about which meetings and events you attend, which projects and tasks you take on — and even which clients you work with. (While you may be loath to turn away business, recognize that there are times when it just makes good sense to fire a problematic client.)

Make the most of your precious time. Consider that even some of the most prestigious networking events can be a complete waste of time. And there’s a lot that you can accomplish in the 30-minute gaps between meetings (finish that expense report, or outline your next presentation, for example), and during your commute (make hands-free phone calls, or listen to audio books or podcasts related to your work).

Finally, realize that you’re not going to be at your best every hour of the day, so try to schedule your most important work to align with periods of peak energy. Research shows that people are most alert within an hour or so of noon and 6pm. Schedule your least important tasks for when you’re less alert — very early in the morning, around 3pm, and late at night. And make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep — and taking naps when needed — to keep your energy levels up.

Some experts recommend focusing on one thing at a time rather than multitasking, which can leave too many things incomplete — giving you, and others, the feeling that you’re not making any progress at all. Just think about how good it feels to cross something off of your to-do list and move on. To maintain focus, you also need to learn to regulate your emotions. Research shows that meditating for just a few minutes a day, spending just one hour a week in nature, or jotting down a few reflective notes in the evening can have a noticeable impact on your well-being and your attention. Conversely, don’t underestimate the impact of “attention leaks” on your ability to concentrate — every device that beeps, blinks, or thrusts red numbers in your face is designed to capture your attention and create a sense of urgency. But how often are any of these interruptions truly urgent? Almost never. When you’re trying to get stuff done, turn them off. And to really increase the odds of achieving your goals, set them with your spouse or partner. Research shows that it’s easier to cross the finish line when we’re not trying to go it alone.

Even with the best-laid plans, there will be plenty of times when you’re simply lacking the motivation or energy to power through your work. For times like this, you can try to trick yourself into doing the tasks you dread. Set up a compelling rewards system. For example, schedule a lunch date with a friend to motivate yourself to get that report done by noon. Save mindless tasks to complete while watching your favorite TV show at home. Treat yourself to concert tickets or a massage after hitting a major milestone. No matter what you choose, you’ll know the rewards are working when your to-do list no longer includes tasks you’ve been avoiding for weeks.

Don’t berate yourself if you’re having trouble getting or staying motivated. Research shows that the way you speak to yourself matters — and if you do it in the second or third person, it can help even more. Saying something as simple as “You can do it” or “You’ve got this” can help you mentally adopt a fly on the wall perspective on your problems, psyching you up for some surprisingly good results.

As a manager, it’s not enough to keep yourself on task. You also have to keep your team productive. Remember that your employees are as easily distracted as you are – but you’re setting the tone and providing the cues that collectively shape people’s views of what’s important. It’s up to you to create a climate in which everyone can be and do their best.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, consider that to be more productive at work sometimes means stepping away from the office. You can often get more done by focusing less on work, and committing to less. So by all means, take a break, regroup, and come back with renewed energy and focus. You’ll create a virtuous cycle where you’re more productive at work so you’ll also be able to carve out more time for what really matters — your life.