Have you ever had a busy day filled with little tasks that added up to practically nothing, walking away at the end of the day, you realize you just worked for 8 hours straight and have nothing to show for it? You’re not alone. We all have days like this. Sometimes, the key to being productive has nothing to do with how long you work, but rather how you organize your time. The following are 5 ways that I improve my productivity on a daily basis. If they don’t apply to you or your career directly, think about modifying them or pulling out key points to become more productive yourself.
Work when other people don’t
Most companies these days offer some sort of “Flex Hours”. As long as you’re putting in your total number of work hours, it doesn’t matter when you work them. My coworkers arrive at the office anywhere from 7AM to 11AM. We all work 8-hour days, but we each fit our work hours to suit our individual lifestyles. That being said, the “Core Hours” when most people are in the office are roughly 10AM to 4PM. These are the least productive hours.
The Core Hours are the times during the day when you are most likely to have your work disrupted by emails, meetings, phone calls and general office banter. It’s difficult to sit down and accomplish a full task before being interrupted.
The best way to deal with this is to work earlier or later in the day, with a big chunk of time lumped together where you can focus your attention on the task at hand without disruption. I will argue that the best time to put this chunk of time is early in the day, rather than later, but I understand that some people just aren’t early risers. I personally start work at 7:30 or 8AM every day.
Another option is to come in and work on the weekend when no one is around. If this works for you and your employer, you may find these times to be your most productive.
Ignore the world until after one task
I used to be the type of person that would wake up in the morning, pour a bowl of cereal, and flip open my laptop and catch up on everything that I’ve missed in the last 8 hours. I would often start answering work emails in my pijamas at the kitchen table. I eventually realized that this behaviour was not only affecting my mood first thing in the morning, but it was also affecting my productivity once I arrived at the office. It’s difficult to ignore emails and conversations once you’ve already read them in your inbox. This often leads to completing small tasks for other people or responding to emails that just eat up time.
The solution is to avoid the outside world until you’ve completed one task for the day. Instead of waking up, and immediately checking my email, I now eat cereal or shower and decide on a single task that I will accomplish when I get to the office. I consciously decide on a relatively substantial task. This task should be something that I could complete in as little as one hour, but perhaps it will take the entire morning. Once I’ve decided on the task, I make that my goal before turning on any sort of communication with the outside world. This means at home as well as after arriving at the office. Do not open your email client. Do not turn on your Instant Messenger. Avoid talking to coworkers if you can.
If you’re an early worker, like me, this change in your lifestyle will have absolutely no effect on your ability to communicate with your coworkers. Remember that most of them won’t arrive until the Core Hours of the day, so if you can accomplish a major task before tending to their requests, you will find that you’re getting more of your own work done every day.
When I started doing this, I realized that I was completing tasks that would normally take me all morning in about 1 hour, and tasks that would normally take me all day, I would have done by lunch. This is one of the best ways to be productive at your job, but it’s not easy. Refusing to check your email, IM, facebook feed takes will-power.
Only check your email between tasks
Along the same lines as not checking your email before completing one task, you should not let email interrupt your work. I’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates about this in the past, but I think the easiest solution for this is to set your email client to check for new emails no more than once every hour. I know that this will sound absolutely insane to someone who has a blackberry strapped to their hip, but you have to trust me.
Most people I know will argue, “My work counts on me to respond to emails in a timely manner.” If it’s your boss telling you this, just let him know why you’ve set your email client to only check once an hour. You’re trying to be more productive at your job. If it’s a coworker, just let them know that if they need to get a hold of you for a quick question, that talking in person, on the phone or by instant message is the quickest way to get in touch with you.
Now I should be clear that I’m not saying to only check your emails once an hour. I’m saying that your email client should not bother you more frequently than once an hour when you are concentrating on something more important. There is a difference here. If you complete a given task in 30 minutes, then feel free to hit “Send/Receive” on your email client and catch up on everything that’s been happening around you. The important thing is that you did it between tasks, when your brain can switch tasks into email mode. This also helps because usually in this time, you’ll receive several emails in the same thread, so you’re only disturbed once, rather than each time a new email arrives.
If you’re still afraid, then try it for one day. It’s going to be scary, I know. If you get really scared, then hit the “Send/Receive” button more frequently at first. Eventually you’ll fall into a project or task and realize you weren’t disturbed for an entire hour (imagine that). You’ll never go back.
Go into Away mode on IM
Instant messaging is an amazing tool. I still remember eons ago when a friend told me about ICQ. “When you come online, I’ll be able to see that you’re online from my computer and then send you a message.” I was convinced he was mistaken. “That’s impossible.”
Since then, instant messaging has exploded and now it’s no big deal to be chatting with a friend around the world in real time. IM is also an amazing tool for the office. I can ask quick questions to coworkers on the other side of the office without getting up, interrupting others, or (most importantly) taking off my headphones. There’s only one problem: Humans are social beings. We like to chat. It’s easy to get caught up in conversations that waste a lot of time and interrupt productivity.
The easiest solution for this is to simply switch your status to “Away”. This simple change should hopefully eliminate any unwanted conversations instantly. Some people will just assume you’re actually away from your computer, so they won’t send you a message. This is only temporary though, since everyone will soon learn that you like to be in “Away” mode and they’ll still message you regardless. This still works to your advantage though, because if they cannot see you at your computer, you can just ignore messages that you don’t want to respond to as though you were actually away.
If you find the instant messaging is still too distracting, consider turning it off completely. However, I find I’m less productive if people come talk to me in person or on the phone. At least with IM, I can finish my train of thought before answering a question.
Don’t listen to talking
I discovered this one fairly early on in my career as a software developer. Do not listen to any sort of talk radio, comedy, audio book or spoken news while trying to work. Our brains are not designed to do two conscious things at once. We’re are inherently very bad at multitasking. If you are trying to concentrate on something at work, it’s very difficult to devote 100% of your brain to the task when it’s being prodded for attention by talking in your ears.
That being said, I have no problem working and listening to music at the same time. Listening to music, for me, does not distract from the task at hand. In fact, it can can be used to drown out talking and distracting noises from the people around you. You may find, however, that instrumental music is better than music with catchy lyrics or tunes that you want to sing along to.
If you are lucky enough have a mindless job, where you can work without using a lot of brain power, then perhaps talk radio or audiobooks are a fine choice for you. I used to work as a lift attendant at a ski hill. Sitting in the shack, watching chairs go by would have a been a great spot to sit and learn a language or something. That being said, I probably would not be writing this article on productivity if that was still my job.
That’s it. Five ways you can become more productive at your job. I didn’t mention anything like avoiding facebook, YouTube, Twitter or other social networking interruptions, because those should be pretty obvious. If you’re having trouble focusing because there are just too many distractions on the world wide web, consider using a tool like RescueTime to track your time on your work computer. Just having this tool installed makes you conscious of how you’re spending your time. Good luck, and get back to work.