By Jacqueline Fiore Nov 6, 2020
Most of us are burdened with work files, back to back meetings and crazy work schedules. It is important to optimize your time to ensure maximum productivity at work.
You have probably heard before – we all have the same 24 hours in a day. Why are some of us constantly running to catch up while others are poised, calm, and ready for anything that comes their way? These individuals generally have an extraordinarily strong brand within the workplace and are well trusted to handle large projects. Are you striving to be viewed this way, but can’t seem to get out from under a pile of work, a pile of emails, or to have time out of meetings to get the real work done? Read on for tips that can help build your productivity brand.
There is no secret, magic trick, or the best way to achieve this type of productivity. This is simply a result of setting goals, understanding your values, and prioritizing activities accordingly. Like money, time is an investment. A regular review of how you spend your time, including your calendar, to-do list, and unstructured time coupled with thoughtful, purposeful planning of the time ahead of you with your goals and values in mind will go a long way.
Have you heard this advice before, but don’t know where to start? Here is a 2-step approach:
Put time on your calendar for your values, goal writing, and planning - make it a recurring appointment. Some do this quarterly, some monthly - some even do a short daily activity around this in addition to the monthly or quarterly time. An example of this is the popular 6 most important things list, (also called the Ivy Lee method) where at the end of each day you write down the 6 most important things to do the next day that align to your goals and values. You know best what will work with your schedule and fit well with your habits and routines - schedule what you think will work best and make tweaks as needed.
During this time, write down your values and goals you are striving for. Put this in a place where you will see it daily, where it is readily accessible. If you already have these written, review them and make any edits you might have - updates, additions, or checking a major milestone goal off the list (and setting a new one, if you choose). Next, bump your actual activities up against this list. Are your current activities going to get you where you want to go? If not, what needs to change? This is the time to plan those changes.
Build the habit of regularly checking in on or thinking about this list whenever you add something to your to-do list or accept a meeting on your calendar. The planning time should be a time to check yourself, make sure you are on track, and adjust if not.
I won’t pretend that productivity is quite as easy as 2 steps, as I know there is a multitude of derailers out there that can prohibit you from even making it to step one at times. Here are some further tips and tricks:
Plan it when you are the least likely to be interrupted and if at all possible, also in a location where you are less likely to be interrupted.
Put extra space in your calendar. This might mean blocking 15 minutes between meetings or blocking an hour for lunch. While this can feel frustrating because you are unable to fit as much “stuff” into your calendar in a given time period - you will thank yourself later when you have 15 minutes to send emails you promised to in that meeting or when you are not showing up to your afternoon meetings “hangry” because you only had time to grab a granola bar instead of a proper lunch. Remember, if you can’t fit everything in you want to, prioritization is the key.
Before accepting meeting invites, or scheduling meetings yourself, take a minute to think about the necessity of the meeting. What would happen if you did not have it? Could you still accomplish what you need? What’s the risk of not having the meeting? Does it outweigh the value of your time? Too often we feel the weight of the obligation to attend meetings, but we don’t feel the weight of not having the time to accomplish what’s truly important to us until we are in a time crunch or look back at dreams unrealized.
Of course, there are meetings that truly are valuable, and worth the time it takes to attend. In these cases don’t leave productivity to chance - make the time count. Ensure there is an agenda for the meeting and stay on track during the meeting respect everyone’s time. If important decisions need to be made during the meeting or if you are gathering information regarding a project, send information about your needs and questions ahead of the meeting. This way, attendees can come well prepared and not take up valuable time reviewing documents or receiving a download of information they could have read already.
Too much time is wasted on procrastination and reluctance in making decisions. Do you have emails in your inbox that are there simply so you don’t forget to decide what to do about them? Make a decision, plan for it, and get rid of the inbox clutter. No email or piece of paper should pass through your hands twice. Dedicate time to email, mail, and other items that come across your workspace that need action, and act. If the action will take a couple of minutes or less, do it right away. If it will take more time, plan it on your calendar or task list right away and remove the email from your inbox. Reading emails over and over while you are trying to do other work not only takes time, but it is distracting.
Compartmentalization refers to focusing on one task at a time and having periods of work followed by periods of rest. Studies have shown that productivity increases for well-rested individuals.
Trying to work constantly and not allowing for time to rest and rejuvenate will often lead to burnout and a scramble to accomplish all items on an overcommitted schedule. Consider both long-term and short-term rest periods. This can mean regular vacations throughout the year, relaxing and participating in activities that give you energy on your days off, and taking breaks throughout the day. Consider using the Pomodoro technique if you are looking for a way to focus and compartmentalize your day. This consists of 25-minute chunks of focused work followed by 5-minute breaks (this is a Pomodoro). After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (about 15 - 20 minutes). Many people have been quite surprised at the amount of productivity they can achieve after taking a small amount of time to rest and rejuvenate between sprints of work.
Tidiness goes a long way when you are trying to stay productive, and this relates to many things: your inbox, files (both digital and physical), workspace, schedule, task list, and the list goes on. If you have ever spent time looking through any mess for something you need, you know what I mean. Taking an extra few seconds to put things in place and being thoughtful about how you organize can go a long way. Having a good system for files, tasks, and general organization can keep you focused on what is most important rather than wasting time searching.
We have already touched upon time for rest and rejuvenation. If you work in front of a screen, I recommend that your rejuvenation period does not involve screens. Also, don’t allow your technology to keep you from being able to unplug from work. This might mean putting your phone in another room, stepping away from your computer, or simply adjusting settings so that you are not disturbed for the rest period. That being said, technology can do amazing things for us when it comes to productivity. From task organizers to productivity trackers, powerful search tools, team collaboration tools, these items are encouraged - but use them with the understanding that there is a time and place for these tools (and it isn’t during resting periods).
Part of building the productivity brand is following up on commitments and doing what you say you will. Letting something slip through the cracks can be a detriment to your brand, especially if others are counting on you. It is important to know when you should not make the commitment in the first place and that you don’t when you shouldn’t. Altruistic behaviours are wonderful and make all of us feel great. We should do them - when they are in alignment with our values and when we can schedule a time to do them effectively (not just because someone asked us to). When you have a request from someone, consider not only if you can do it, but also if you should do it. Look back to your goals and values as a guide if you need help deciding.
Do you somehow run out of the day, the week, or the month and you don’t know where the time went? Do you try to maintain a schedule or a task list and the schedule gets ignored or the task list only grows larger and never shrinks, leaving you to feel overwhelmed and exasperated?
You may need to start with an analysis of how you are spending time. You can do this easily by using a notebook for a week and track - literally - every minute of your time and how you spend it. This might seem daunting and like it will only take more time, but there is value in this task and knowing where your time is going so you can make better decisions about spending it wisely. If you are concerned about managing this on your own, you might consider a productivity coach.
I hope you gained some nuggets in this article to apply to improve your productivity. If you are thinking, “I didn’t,” but are struggling with time management - I suggest considering if you are in the right role and whether the work you are doing and how you spend your time day-to-day is meaningful to you. If not, spending regular working hours at your job or in your life roles might be causing burnout. When you sit down to create your goals and values, consider thinking about how you would prefer to spend your time and what gives you energy. How can you make that your career and what you spend your time on?