Trying to increase productivity when you perpetually feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day can be an uphill battle. Between work, family, friends and that funny thing called “free time” (if you have any), remaining productive can be pretty tough.
Being engaged and productive at work is crucial for job satisfaction, let alone keeping that job. If your productivity starts slipping, even if it’s not your fault, may still put your job in jeopardy. If you’re staying late, showing up early and yet you’re still behind or barely making the deadline, these tips will help you to manage your time more effectively and increase productivity.
Even if you’re a highly productive person, re-evaluating “business as usual” can help anyone to squeeze 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 increase productivity. 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.
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 increase 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.
1. 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 time 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 an average 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.
2. Remove Obstacles
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.
OBSTACLE – Inefficient Process:
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?
For example, 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. There are several cloud-based tools that allow for simple collaboration on these types of projects and eliminate the need to email new versions back and forth.
The point here is to evaluate inefficient processes and find new tools or strategies that will allow you to make better use of your time in accomplishing necessary tasks. Don’t remain committed to a process that turns out to be a time suck if you can change the process or the tool to make better use of your time.
OBSTACLE – Inefficient Person:
When someone isn’t pulling their weight, the load gets heavier 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 schedule time with you , rather than just dropping by your desk whenever they want. Lastly, practice using one of the best words 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.
OBSTACLE – Inefficient Tool
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?
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, and can actually be 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 – the work hard, play hard thing. 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 and eventually leads to a poorer work product.
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.
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.