No matter where you work or what type of work you do, everyone is looking for ways to be more productive. Instead of finding ways to make getting down to work simpler, it’s easy to get caught up in endless list-making, getting just one more cup of coffee, catching up on Netflix (don’t worry, we all do it) or playing around on your phone.
Sure, those things are all fun. But they’re also definitely not productive.
We’ve got some proven, reliable and time-tested methods to become (and stay) more productive.
- Avoid multitasking to save mental energy
- Pick your top priority tasks and forget everything else
- Group tasks by their importance and their urgency
- Create new habits that will increase your productivity automatically
- Organize your work to focus on key tasks first
- Use the right technology to boost your productivity
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Why people are obsessed with being productive
Research shows that it can take between 11 to 25 minutes for a person to return to their original task after an interruption. In this digital age, we’re constantly surrounded by stimuli and micro-requests that demand attention.
Staying focused at work and avoiding distraction is more difficult than ever — which explains why so many people are seeking out quieter environments that support the ability to concentrate, or just create a moment to get away from it all.
The search for better productivity has even led to some confused ideas about what productivity truly is. Contrary to the notion of “multi-tasking,” it’s not just trying to accomplish a multitude of tasks, using checklists and to-do lists, all at one time. Real productivity, the kind that focuses you in on what’s important and enable you to reach meaningful goals, is about doing less to accomplish more.
Sound too good to be true? Read about these productivity techniques.
1. Save brain power by avoiding multitasking
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says that when we try to handle multiple tasks at once the quality of our focus is diminished focus. You might get part of all of them kinda sorta done, but none of them will be taken care of as effectively as if you’d focused on just one at a time.
Long story short, multitasking kills our productivity.
“Attention residue” is a term coined by Professor Sophie Leroy of the University of Minnesota. She found, after researching various studies on multitasking productivity, that the more responsibilities people assumed, the more projects they tended to work on whether the initial projects were finished or not.
When a person switches from one task to another without having completed the former, then a “residue” of their attention remains stuck as they’re thinking about the original problem. That leaves less brain power left to focus on the next task, and creates a dangerous loop where nothing ever gets done to your full ability.
Multitasking is now widely acknowledged as having a negative impact on productivity. The solution, as Cal Newport sees it, is to work free from distraction for long periods of time and with full concentration on a single task.
The good news is that we can learn how to get into deep work by practicing with tools to help with the process.
Deciding what work to start first can be a challenge in and of itself. In the midst of all the chaos and noise that surrounds us, how do we make sense of, bring order to and prioritize our work to know what’s the one meaningful task we should focus on?
2. Pick the top five tasks you’ll work on that day
Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful business people, has earned a reputation as a keen and innovative investor. His success is due in part to the brilliant way he prioritizes his time. This productivity technique is called Warren Buffett’s method.
Here is his three-step strategy for choosing priorities:
- Write down your top 25 goals.
- Review your list and circle your top five goals.
- Now focus only on those five goals until you have achieved them.
This simple exercise keeps priorities to a minimum while eliminating distractions and wasted effort. However, letting go of goals that we care about, but which are unimportant, can be hard.
It’s easy to rationalize spending time on activities or tasks that, in fact, produce little pay-off. However, all of these non-essential activities take time, energy and mental space that we could have used on the essential ones. This is why we often find ourselves with 20 half-completed goals instead of five completed ones.
3. Know the difference between importance and urgency
Among many other achievements, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, is credited with having created NASA, DARPA (which led to the creation of the Internet), and the interstate highway system.
So just that.
It’s more than fair to say he was quite productive. A quote often attributed to Eisenhower reveals one of the secrets to his incredible productivity:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
So, how did he decide what is urgent and not important?
The technique is called Eisenhower decision matrix method, which classifies tasks into four categories:
- Urgent and important — tasks that need to be handled immediately
- Important but not urgent — tasks that you will schedule
- Urgent but not important — tasks you can delegate
- Not urgent or important — tasks you can eliminate
Using this as your guide, you can decide on:
- What you need to spend time on during the week
- What you need to spend time on during the day
- What you might think is important but you should maybe just let go of instead
If you advance into a role that has more responsibility and requires leadership, you’ll find yourself executing fewer tasks but more strategic planning. In fact, in many cases, doing some tasks yourself might start to make less sense, especially if you could be effectively delegating them to someone else.
In other words, you need to intentionally spend more time in quadrant 2.
Two key questions will help you figure out which quadrant to allocate your tasks to:
- What am I working toward?
- How are the primary goals I am working on helping me achieve my objectives?
Honest answers to these questions will help you decide where you need to invest your time and what you need to delegate or eliminate. Most people tend to default to what gets the most of their attention. That’s why they end up dealing with urgent tasks and not the important ones.
Because urgent tasks scream the loudest, and there are repercussions for not addressing them immediately. But if we spend too much time on urgent tasks, we tend to do little or nothing important that will help move the needle on our objectives.
An easy solution is to make important tasks urgent. How? Assign a deadline. You’ll need to be held accountable, and there must be a system of rewards and repercussions in place to keep you honest with yourself. Consider having others hold you accountable to these deadlines and also think about the consequences of not achieving them, on both yourself and your team.
The methods covered so far will help you make productive decisions and bring a more satisfying focus to your work. However, a common problem you might encounter is sticking to your decisions and new habits.
4. Create new habits to make yourself more productive
You can try different time management systems like the Pomodoro technique, GTD (Getting Things Done), Pareto principle, etc. But what you really need is the motivation to stick to your new habits.
The old business management saying “What gets measured can be improved” might help you stay inspired.
Once you have data and trends, you can spot areas that need to be improved. To improve your own performance, consider gamifying the process. Reward yourself when you achieve goals and set “punishments” — like skipping a trip to get coffee — for when you slack off.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld came up with the Seinfeld technique, otherwise known as “Don’t Break The Chain” or the “X-mark” technique.
It works like this:
- Decide which goals you are going to tackle first. Choose no more than three at a time.
- Set a minimum requirement for each goal. If you’re a designer, you might decide to create a new logo design every day.
- Decide how you’ll handle the inevitable moments where the chain might be broken, like if you get sick or go on vacation. These situations can’t be prevented and don’t require “punishment.”
- Place a calendar or a 7×10 grid with one goal clearly visible. Do the same for each of your goals.
- Invest in a red marker. A really nice permanent one.
Each day on the calendar or spot on the grid is an opportunity to practice your new habit. When you successfully keep up with your new behavior, you get to mark the day on the calendar or grid with a big, deeply satisfying red X.
After a few days, you’ll see that you’re creating a chain of Xs. The goal is to not break the chain.
Why is this so effective?
- It’s simple to start.
- You can monitor progress and results.
- It’s easy to stay on track. If you break the chain, you can start a new one.
- According to a study by Phillippa Lally at the University College London, it takes two months (66 days, on average) to form a new habit. Don’t give up before then!
5. Organize your work and focus on key tasks
Focusing on your real job is about harnessing your attention and focusing on the tasks you want to accomplish.
Here are six ways to do just that.
- Understand your focus pattern. A Harvard Business Review study shows that most people are most focused in the morning. Individuals vary, but understanding your focus pattern and what influences it, such as emotions or sleep, will help you plan your day.
- Prepare for the next day. Before going to bed, plan for tomorrow. Remove some of the easiest decisions: Identify what you will work on, what you will wear, what you will eat, which route you will take to get to work, etc. This will make it easier to avoid being sidetracked, and prevent wasting time and energy on unimportant things.
- Tackle the biggest tasks first. Putting off difficult tasks will only eat away at your energy. So, tackle the difficult or biggest tasks first. After all, research shows that we are sharpest in the mornings.
- Eliminate distractions. Emergencies will come up from time to time and you’ll have to deal with them. That’s life. However, many situations that others deem an emergency can be dealt with later. In these situations, it’s best not to respond to such requests — or, at least not immediately. Over time, people will bother you less with trivial matters.
- Take a break. Taking a break every so often will help to energize you. Eating healthy food, getting quality exercise, and staying hydrated also help.
- To sustain your focus and productivity, remind yourself why you are engaged in these activities and where they’re all leading: To increased success for you and your business.
Use technology to turn the tide
Technology is a double-edged sword. With all the notifications, chimes, and alerts, it can easily become distracting and interruptive. These alerts get our attention by providing a small dopamine release in our brains, causing us to be addicted to responding to them. It actually feels good to stop what you’re doing and swipe away a notification.
You can also use tech to turn the tide to regain your productivity and focus on the right work. Here’s how:
- Get your priorities right by using one of the two simple productivity strategies we discussed above.
- Then use tools and technology that will block distractions and temptations.
- Use Hubstaff time tracking to see how much time you spend on what. If it’s billable time, send invoices to your clients by a few clicks.
- Use Hubstaff Tasks to organize all of your tasks into a visual Kanban board and have an easy overview of your todo list.
What works for you?
They say a rising tide lifts all boats, so help the Hubstaff community learn and grow together by telling us what works for you. We’d love to read your comments below.
Check out our other posts on finding more flexibility and freedom in your work: How to Free Your Business from the Pack and How to Make a Time Management Plan and Stress Less.