10 Steps to Improve Productivity
Tips to help improve your productivity while reducing your stress.
You just never know what's going to get people riled up. One of my posts last week, "Let's Recognize Smoking as the Workplace Enemy It Is," sent a lot of people into a frenzy. I learned that expressing a viewpoint that the pro-smoking crowd doesn't like will get you labeled as a hater and lumped into a category of people that includes Nazis and proponents of forced sterilization. I'm not making that up.
One of the views I expressed that caused the big uproar is that people who smoke waste too much time huddling outside smoking cigarettes, and I raised the issues of lost productivity and the unfairness to people who don't smoke, and who therefore don't waste time huddling outside smoking cigarettes. Among the more reasonable views that were expressed by readers in response to that was that people waste time in the workplace with any number of trivial pursuits, like playing on social media sites, so coming down so hard on people who take smoke breaks was out of line. After all, the reasoning goes, people who take smoke breaks may well be more hardworking and diligent than their coworkers who don't take smoke breaks, and may well be more productive.
Fair enough. So let me extend an olive branch to those I riled up, and make it very clear that taking smoke breaks is hardly the biggest productivity inhibitor that organizations are dealing with. Far more time is wasted, for example, as a consequence of our collective inability to manage our time. We say there aren't enough hours in a day to get everything done that we need to get done, but from what I've seen - and I've been around a while - more often than not, the day has plenty of hours. We just need to figure out how to use them more efficiently.
The fact is, a huge chunk of the time we waste is the result of spending too much time on things that don't require it; we would waste far less time if we would just learn to recognize when whatever we're doing is finished. I wish I could take credit for recognizing that myself, but I can't. I got it from Jason Womack, a workplace performance expert, executive coach and author of the book, "Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More."
In a post earlier this year, "Nine Tips to Help You Overcome Workplace Overload," I shared some of Womack's other time-management advice. Here are five more tips that focus on learning to know when you're done with a project or task:
- Stop majoring in the minors. Many of us spend a lot of time on those projects and tasks that are easy for us. Then, we convince ourselves that we just didn't have enough time to get to the harder stuff. But when it comes to knowing when you're done and freeing up time during your day, completing these easy tasks quickly and efficiently is essential. Before you start your work day, think about what your high-leverage activities are and what your low-leverage activities are. Force yourself to move through the low-leverage activities as quickly as possible. With these tasks - for example, writing an email to a colleague - perfection isn't necessary, and there's no need to waste time wringing your hands over every word. When you can accomplish these minor tasks more efficiently, you'll have the time you need to do those major tasks justice.
- Don't overwrite emails. Much of your time - probably too much - each day gets eaten up by email. Make a conscious effort to keep your emails as short and sweet as possible. Get to the point quickly and use action verbs in subject lines so that both you and the recipient know what needs to happen before the email is even opened. And while long emails waste the time it takes you to write them, keep in mind that the person receiving the email doesn't want to have to spend so much time reading it, either. Chances are your boss doesn't want or need a three-paragraph rundown of how your client meeting went. He just wants to know if the client is happy and continuing business with you.
- Quit over-staying at meetings and on conference calls. Often meetings and conference calls will take as long as you've allotted for them. Set an hour for a meeting and you're sure to go the full hour. Pay close attention to how much of your meeting is actually spent focused on the important stuff. If you spend 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning or end of the meeting discussing your coworker's golf game, then next time reduce the amount of time allotted for the meeting. And always know the objectives of the meeting or call before you begin. That way you can get to them right away.
- Set your own deadlines and stick to them. It's very easy to get distracted or sidetracked by things you think you should do or things others think you should do. Having a self-imposed deadline will help you ignore those distractions. If a colleague calls you about a non-urgent task, you can let him know you've got a 3:00 p.m. deadline that you have to meet. There's no need for him to know that it's self-imposed. And then as 3:00 p.m. draws near, start wrapping up that particular task.
- Know when it's time to ask for help. Have you ever been stumped by a certain project or task? Did you walk away from it for a while and then come back to it, hoping you'd suddenly know what to do? Sometimes knowing when you're done is knowing when you, specifically, can't take a project any further. You simply might not have the right expertise to completely finish a certain project. And that's OK. Wasting time on something you're never going to be able to figure out is much worse than asking for help.