If only there were more hours in the day. Imagine the progress we could make with a just a bit more time, even just a couple of uninterrupted hours here and there. In the day to day battle of staying on top of our workloads even an extra hour, fewer distractions or some smart productivity hacks could make all the difference.
With time at such a premium, it might surprise you to learn that the average office worker is productive for less than three hours per day. That means for the majority of our time at work, we are largely unproductive. If that seems impossible, think of all the time spent doing nothing of much value; sitting through unproductive meetings, returning to never-ending email conversations, colleagues grabbing 5 minutes of your time, admin, searching for documents…
Then there are the less obvious time vacuums. The time spent procrastinating over your to-do list. Quick detours into social media checking or twitter scrolling that turn into 30 minute rabbit holes. And then there's multi-tasking, where we switch between different tasks every few minutes and feel like we’re smashing multiple tasks at once, but in fact do each slower and make more mistakes.
Add these things up, plus breaks for tea and office conversation, that sub-three hour productivity stat starts seem plausible.
The reason these behaviours are so familiar are that they are the norm of modern day work. We’re all slaves to meetings, emails, distractions and multitasking. As with any attempt at behaviour change, these things can’t all be addressed with one simple tactic. Becoming less prone to distraction, better at focusing and smarter at single-tasking are all skills to be developed. Like all new behaviours, they need practice, time and effort to become our new normal. Turning three hours of productivity into six is not a short term goal.
There are, however, some simple changes that will make a real difference to your productivity (and, as a result, improve your sense of accomplishment and reduce stress levels). Here are our three favourite productivity hacks that you can apply tomorrow and see instant benefits:
1. Scrap the to do list
Your to do list is a record of everything you need to get done, so is pretty important if you’re going to avoid missing a deadline or forgetting an important task. But it’s also list of everything you’ve not managed to do yet. The items on it compete for your time and prioritisation. Most days end with plenty left on the list, with no obvious solution as to when they’re going to get done.
So replace your list of things to do with a plan of when they’ll happen. Use your calendar to schedule each task on your to do list, just like you’d normally schedule meetings. Need two hours to get a proposal written? Find a two hour gap and book that time out. Or two one-hour slots across the week. Straight away, everything on your to do list now has a time for it to get done.
Things will sometimes need to change. Thursday morning might be suddenly taken up with a last minute appointment. If so, reschedule your tasks as you would ordinarily reschedule meetings. Keeping all your to-do list items in your calendar gives you a plan to get them all done, and by booking time out to do them you avoid procrastination. To anyone else looking at your calendar the gaps between meetings no longer looks like empty time that is fair game, but is instead filled with blocks of productive time dedicated to doing your actual work.
2. Step away from your inbox
It’s one thing to box off time to get tasks done, but if you’re regularly interrupted progress will be slow and the quality of thought will be more shallow. The worst culprit when it comes to interruption and breaking our focus is email. We stop to look at email an average of 288 times a day – if you had a work colleague who interrupted you that many times, you’d quickly ask them to leave you alone!
Even if you commit to not checking in on emails for a period of time, the mere message alerts, icons and bleeps that tell you a message is waiting for you are shown to lower your working IQ. A small part of your attention is stolen away – ‘5 emails waiting, I hope there’s nothing urgent. I wonder if that client has replied to my question. I’ll just do another 20 minutes then I’ll have a look’. All of these thoughts take brain power and focus away form the task at hand, and are likely to reduce the time spent before diverting to email checking and replying.
The only escape is to close your email down completely. Leave it until you’ve done your task or at least done the time you’ve set aside, then allow time for catching up on messages. If this sounds unrealistic given the requirements of instant response and client service, use an out of office response that explains you’re focusing on key tasks and are away from your inbox, but can be contacted via phone if the message is urgent. This step means that you remain permanently contactable and easily reached, but in reality the 288 email checks will reduce to maybe 10 calls, probably fewer. Fewer interruptions, fewer breaks in concentration, greater productivity.
3. Do the most important thing first
If this sounds obvious, think of the usual experience of starting a day at work. As soon as the laptop is on and you’re ready to go, the first thing we all usually do is open up our inbox. We’re then drawn into whatever messages we’ve received overnight. We’re also at the mercy of colleagues who want to grab 5 minutes of our time. Away from distractions, a first look at our to-do lists will often lead to the temptation to do the quickest or easiest thing first in order to tick something off, even if this isn’t the most important or urgent.
Too often, the most important thing we could do today is relegated to the afternoon when we’re losing energy, or done in fits and starts, or put off until tomorrow.
Doing the most important thing first means you achieve the biggest win of the day before anything else. This might mean locking yourself away until 10am, or even working from home for part of the morning (bonus outcome: avoid the stress of the rush hour and don’t waste your best hours sitting in traffic!). It might mean putting off meetings until 11am, or skipping the 9:30 brew round. But starting the day by achieving something significant means you’re likely to be in a better place by lunchtime than you might otherwise have been at 5pm. If you ever feel you’ve been busy without anything to show for it, this technique will help you achieve more every day.
So there are our three instant productivity hacks; replace your to-do list with your calendar, schedule time away from email and do the most important thing first. None of these are revolutionary. None are particularly hard to master. But all can significantly improve your productivity, and with it the quality of your work, your stress levels and enjoyment of work.
We’d love to hear your thoughts, questions or ideas, so please get I touch if you’d like to talk more about how we can all improve our productivity in big ways and small. In the meantime, have a productive day!