We’d all like to be more productive at work.
But in an interconnected world of blinking red notification alerts, buzzing mobile devices, and instant access to the all of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, even a moment of productivity at work feels like a great achievement. And it is! The trick is making that fleeting sliver of productivity last a little longer and occur more frequently.
And, as these things generally go, that’s easier said than done. So, I’ve mustered up the limited amounts of productivity I have available to author this short guide on how to be more productive at work. Let’s get started, shall we?
Hold on, just checking my email… one sec… alright, let’s get started.
Step one: Create the right conditions for being productive
Being productive is not something that can be turned on and off, I find. It’s impacted by how your day plays out: every minute detail can influence you one way or the other—and each has the capacity to distract. It’s your job to mitigate that.
The first thing you’ll want to do is figure out the conditions under which you’re most productive at work. Which means spending time discovering, usually through trial and error, what makes you your most productive self.
You’ll need to understand when you’re most productive given your habits, energy levels, life constraints (family members, pets, other commitments) and personality.
For example, are you an early riser who gets a lot done between 5 - 8am, but slows down over the course of the day? Or are you more productive after lunch than before? Do you prefer to sit or stand while you work? Do you prefer cold or warm temperatures in the office? Do you wear headphones? What do you listen to? Is it a podcast or music? What genre of music?
These considerations might seem trivial at first, but being productive at work largely depends on understanding why you’re productive. Or at least trying to come up with a theory for why that ham and rye sandwich, or listening to a specific Pearl Jam album, makes you more (or less) productive.
For me personally, I’m most productive when I’m wearing noise-cancelling headphones and listening to music without lyrics. It’s just what I’ve learned works best for me.
Here are some other aspects to consider when figuring out, and then creating, your optimal conditions for productivity:
- What way of working is most physically comfortable for you? Physical comfort is hugely important for staying productive. Do you prefer a standing or sitting desk (or maybe you alternate between the two)? Multiple monitors?
- What type of environment best suits your work style? Are you most productive working in a cubicle, an open office, at home, or in a coffee shop? Do you prefer to be surrounded by drab grey walls or plants and desk decor?
- Do your coworkers make you more or less productive? This can be difficult to control, of course. But there are ways to limit unwanted intrusions. For instance, you can use headphones or leave your desk to find a quiet corner.
- The tools you use. You can use tools to manage your workflow, like Trello. On the other hand, if you’re finding the urge to check Twitter or Instagram too strong, you can literally block yourself from using those apps. Is your office’s messaging app too distracting? Turn off your notifications if necessary.
Step two: Set parameters around your work
Once you’ve set up the conditions necessary to be more productive, it’s time to think about the ways in which you tackle projects and manage your time. Do you like to work in short creative bursts or do you settle into projects and work continuously until their end?
Figure out what works best for you and manage your time accordingly with clearly defined parameters around your most productive hours. Be sure to communicate this to your manager and mark it in your shared calendar.
Here are a few tips to help:
1. Set deadlines for yourself
For a lot of people, procrastination sets in when they know they have more time to complete a given task. They put it off because there’s more time available, so why not make use of that time working on something else instead?
One way to nip this type of thinking in the bud is to impose deadlines on yourself. Need to finish a project two weeks down the road but you have enough free time to put a significant dent in it now? Creating a secondary deadline for yourself means you’re allotting time in advance for other things that may come up.
2. Decline meetings that interrupt your most productive hours
Meetings can be the bane of your productivity, especially when they’re irrelevant or redundant. To make meetings more efficient, you can set an agenda beforehand and stick to it.
For those meetings that you probably shouldn’t have been invited to in the first place, there’s another strategy available: avoid them.
If possible, block off time in your calendar during your most productive hours to signal to your team that you’re unavailable to meet. (Be sure to discuss this with your manager first!) Don’t be afraid to decline a meeting, either. Learning to say no to unnecessary or unproductive meetings will go a long way towards improving your time management and setting up boundaries, which are the keys to staying productive.
3. Designate times to check email, read messages, and take breaks
Managing your time effectively means scheduling time for activities that might otherwise interrupt your workflow. These include checking your email, reading chat messages, and taking breaks. This will depend on your work situation, but if you’re able to go long periods without checking your notifications you can always turn them off. Or you can concentrate solely on a task for 25 minutes and then take a break to check your notifications.
Step three: Learn and adapt
You’ll soon discover that, in order to be more productive at work, your schedule and conditions for optimal productivity may have to change. Any aspect of your employee experience can impact your ability to stay productive for longer periods of time. This could be in the form of a new manager, the introduction of more (or fewer) meetings, the addition of a noisy cubicle mate, or really any other factor.
So, the last step is to stay flexible and continue to keep track of what makes you more productive, and then do more of that. Anticipate new interruptions and set up buffers to keep them in check. Always be questioning the way you work and the process you’ve developed to stay productive. There are always going to be better ways to work smarter… you just have to stay open to discovering them.
Most importantly, don’t get too bent out of shape when you have an unproductive day every now and again. Days like that happen and dwelling on them could potentially make you anxious. Embracing unproductive days helps you learn and adapt—and hey, maybe you just needed a down day to recharge.
Being more productive at work is all about regulating your capacity to become distracted or disinterested in the task at hand. That’s what honing your focus really means. So, follow these three steps, hone your focus, and be that much more productive (and happy) at work!