After Hours

10+ ways to be more productive

If you often reach the end of the day and wonder why you got so little done, it may be time evaluate your working style. Alan Norton offers 11 productivity boosters that can help get your days back on track.

We would all like to get more accomplished during the course of the workday. During my career, I needed to end each day feeling that I had been productive and had accomplished something of importance. Except for the occasional lost day, I fulfilled those needs. Here is how I did it.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Use the right tools

Tools separate us from all but a few animals. And for good or for bad, that's why we humans are so good at changing our environment. Tools are essential for modifying and managing the information landscape. And the proper use of the right tools can arguably have the most significant positive impact on our productivity at work.

Whether it's hardware, software, or the chair you sit in, using the best tool for the job can make a huge difference in the amount of work you get done. It's not always easy to determine which tool is best. Know your options and research which tool best meets your needs. New tools are being developed all the time. Keep up to date to determine whether more effective tools are available.

2: Properly manage your time and your tasks

Simple time management can help you make more effective use of your time. Know what you intend to accomplish before starting each day. You may want to write these tasks down, but I learned to do simple daily planning without any special tools. I found it easier to break my day into morning and afternoon and reevaluate my working plan at lunchtime. Longer term tasks and goals should be written down for reference by you, your team, and your management. The project plan is often used in IT but other tools exist that may better fit your needs.

Order and prioritize your tasks in a meaningful way. How you prioritize depends on how you work, who you work for, or who pays you:

  • Bosses' wishes
  • Due date
  • Project plan
  • Highest paid
  • Queuing
  • Squeaky wheel

Pain avoidance (squeaky wheel) is probably not the best method of prioritization, but let's be realistic: It happens. There are tools designed specifically to help you prioritize your tasks. Whatever method you use to manage and prioritize your tasks, it should be flexible enough to allow you to choose an alternate task. The project plan may call for you to build the database on week three but when week three rolls around, you might prefer to work on another task. The plan should allow for task substitution where possible.

3: Learn to say no

It's a lot easier to juggle five balls than eight. You may not be able to say no to the boss, but when possible, pare back your to-do list. If the list gets too long, consider segregating it into current and future tasks. Having too many items on your plate can be discouraging, and a motivated person is more productive than a discouraged one.

Learn to say no to interruptions. You wouldn't interrupt your child while in school. Except for emergencies and the occasional honey-do item, you should encourage others to avoid interrupting you when you're hard at work.

4: Focus on one task at a time

It is a common misconception that the conscious mind can process more than one task at a time. It's just not possible if the tasks require conscious selection and action. The best multi-taskers may quickly switch from one task to another, but they still can focus on only one task at a time. Experiments have shown that productivity drops when multi-tasking.

It may be in vogue to listen to an MP3 player, text your peers, and work all at the same time, but your work will suffer if attention is placed on that other activity, even if only for a moment. I believe it is possible to listen to music in the background and actually be more productive. However, listening to and comprehending any talk, including the news, commercials, and talk radio is counterproductive.

5: Know when you are not productive

We all seem to have those times during the day when we just aren't totally with it. Recognize when you are unproductive. Is it mornings? Late afternoons? After lunch? Use these times to do repetitive, simple-to-accomplish tasks. I was unproductive in the mornings, so I would read and answer my email, return phone calls, and schedule conference calls. I would walk to other buildings to make face-to-face contact with my customers and keep current with what was happening. It got my blood moving and the exercise made me more productive later in the day.

We are not machines. Productivity begins to suffer when focusing on one task for too long. When you begin to feel tired or unable to focus, stop working. Take a break or take an early lunch.

Lower productivity can be long-term as well as short-term. Recognize the warning signs of burn-out. Take a vacation, sabbatical or schedule some downtime when you see the first signs of physical or mental exhaustion.

6: Take advantage of nonproductive time

Any work that can be accomplished when traveling or during other lost nonproductive hours means that you can focus on more important tasks when back in the office. I often organized receipts and filled out my expense report when flying back from a work trip. Waiting in line and walking to lunch are great times to accomplish tasks that require careful consideration and thought. You may be tempted to multi-task while driving, but that is a bad idea.

7: Sleep on it

It's counterintuitive, but when you're stuck trying to solve a particularly difficult problem, set it aside until tomorrow. The answer to a difficult problem has often come to me in that quiet time between lying down to sleep and dozing off. If it didn't, starting the next day with a fresh perspective often helped solve the problem.

In addition, getting the right amount of sleep will help you be more productive. This is different for each person, but is typically between seven and nine hours each night.

8: Leverage past work

I call this the copy-and-paste method of increasing productivity. If you are a programmer, reuse proven code. If you have a presentation to give, there may be existing graphics, text, or slides that can be recycled from a previous PowerPoint. Use standards and templates when appropriate to save time. Consider developing a library of work that can be maintained and mined for reuse by your department or company. Sharing this library will make everyone more productive.

9: Look before you leap

Sometimes, I used to get up and go for a walk right in the middle of the workday. Thankfully, no one ever stopped me to question what I was doing, but I often wondered what others were thinking. And thinking is exactly what I was doing. Taking the time up front to develop a plan of attack away from interruptions can save hours of wasted effort.

10: Know the business and your business

IT often supports many types of businesses. From manufacturing to nonprofit, knowing how the business you support works will make you more productive. I was fortunate to work with managers at Hughes Aircraft Company, who invested a lot of their time to take me on tours of the plant and explain their business to me. I also spent a lot of time on my own, watching and learning how the cogs of the machine interfaced and turned. Book learnin' and a degree laid the foundation, but I didn't really understand how business worked until I was thrust into the big machine.

Your job might be a developer redesigning parts of "the machine" to make it work more efficiently. You might be responsible for greasing and repairing the giant cogs and gears. Whatever your job, you need to know it inside and out. If your skills aren't up to snuff, ask yourself what you can do to improve them.

11: Telecommute

I was often able to accomplish twice the amount of work at home as compared to working in an office. It's not that hard to see why, when you consider all the distractions and interruptions in the workplace. There is a big caveat though. The telecommuter has to be the right kind of person with the right tools in the right environment. A separate office is best so you can close the door at the end of your workday and separate your personal life from your work.

The payoff

Increased productivity helps the team and company, but what's in it for you?

  • You can check off items from your never-ending to-do list more quickly.
  • You are more likely to have a greater sense of accomplishment.
  • You are more likely to complete that important task or critical project on time.
  • You are more likely to get the more important and more interesting tasks.
  • Your bottom line can be affected in a significant and positive way when performance appraisal time rolls around.

Additional resources

Author's note

I want to thank Osiyo53@... for his comments about interruptions, which I borrowed for the Learn to say no item.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

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