Perhaps you find yourself continually challenged to meet escalating expectations and "do more with less." Or maybe you aspire to a life centered around a three-day or 25-hour work week. Or, you may just feel like you’re slogging through each day, accomplishing less than what’s possible and desirable.
If you’re like most Americans, you want to be more productive. In fact, research conducted by Crucial.com suggests 80% of us want to be more effective -- and even identified the dynamic of "efficiency envy" in one of three subjects who admitted that efficient people make them jealous. Productivity advice abounds in the form of books, courses, podcasts and more.
But, let’s face it: Long-held habits are hard to change, especially given the stress and speed of business. What’s necessary are straightforward, doable strategies that simplify your day and transform potential into productive outputs. Strategies like:
Buy into your biorhythm
Much of the advice about productivity centers on when to do what. Whether it’s eating "frogs and veggies" first to make the rest of the day easier, stepping away at noon no matter what or leaving mindless tasks for late in the day, these are generic suggestions that may or may not meet an individual’s unique needs.
Instead, carefully evaluate your personal energy system. When are you clearest, quickest, most curious, less energized? Lean into your biorhythm and leverage your own personal highs and lows to construct a schedule that aligns activities with the energy you’re capable of deploying at any given time.
Decision-making is central to many workplace roles. It’s also a highly demanding activity that requires considerable mental energy and can compromise productivity. As a result, it’s critical to preserve cognitive resources for the decisions that directly drive outcomes and results. This means reducing the volume of less valuable or impactful decision making. (Think Steve Jobs’ uniform, where no unnecessary mental processes were deployed on wardrobe choices.)
Beyond pre-planning what to wear, consider pre-planning your day the night before. Spend a few minutes to flesh out your calendar beyond pre-arranged meetings to include the actual work you’ll do, hour by hour. Schedule in specific time to address email, respond to phone calls and even work through projects and stress over problems. Then, don’t think about it again. Trust your previous night’s self and obediently follow your plan. You’ll be amazed at the mental resources that are freed up for higher value work.
Multitasking has been proven to be a fantasy. The brain is incapable of doing two things at one time; it’s simply switching very quickly among tasks. And when the tasks are cognitive in nature, multitasking actually results in outputs reflective of a lower IQ. But, in today’s technology-flooded, distraction-inducing environment, focusing on just one thing at a time can be among our greatest challenges. A few easy behaviors that might help include:
- Setting a timer for 25 minutes, making a deal with yourself that you’ll stay on task just for that period of time. Then, take a break.
- Silence all notifications. The pings and dings are seductive distractions that fool us into feeling like we’re accomplishing something.
- Hide your inbox. An onslaught of new messages can trigger a threat response. Living out of our inboxes can trick us into feeling virtuous and highly customer-focused. But, in reality, we’re simply enjoying the short-term gratification of checking something easy or urgent off the list at the expense of addressing more important issues.
Catch your breath
An oxygen break may be even more effective than coffee to improve your productivity. Pausing each hour for just a minute or two to take five or six deep, cleansing breaths nourishes the brain, energizes the body, settles the nervous system and offers a reset for the next phase of work to be done.
Perhaps our school teachers had it right when they placed students in specific spots around the classroom. Recent research suggests that seating productive workers near others who tend toward quality versus quantity can boost organizational performance by as much as 15%. So, considering who you associate with and making a simple move toward high-performing hard workers might be your best productivity strategy.
Reflect, recognize, refine
And finally, conclude each day with intentional reflection. Create a ‘done’ list before crafting tomorrow’s ‘do’ list. This offers multiple benefits. It allows you to evaluate your results, determine what’s working and what’s not, and recalibrate your efforts. But, equally importantly, it provides a chance to celebrate what’s been accomplished.
And even if you haven’t yet reached the finish line, you can soak up the effects of your progress, which Theresa Amabile of Harvard has found to unlock motivation, engagement and satisfaction at work.
Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. Magazines top 100 leadership speakers, Julie is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” a respected speaker on a variety of topics, and a regular contributor to many business publications.