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...

26 comments
The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Don't waste valuable time reading loads of 10+ ways blog posts, no?

kevaburg
kevaburg

We have had this conversation on TR several times and the general consensus I felt was that although Telecomuting has definate advantages, the ability to seperate personal and professional in ones own house is too difficult. Kids running around, the dog barking, partner asking for "one small favour" and the train of thought is lost. For me personally, I have found that scheduling in work as and when it came into my head helped me manage my time far more efficiently than saying "I really must get that done". Even really small things like posting a letter would have a slot in my Outlook at a time when I knew I would be at my least productive. Now, absolutely everything I need to do is "written" down in one place leaving me free to concentrate on the work that I do without any unnecessary "I'm sure there is something I have to do"s.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Your workload will increase.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

I disagree on #4 and with your definition of multi-task. It's not necessarily doing two things at once, even though at-home moms do it all the time, but more accomplishing multiple tasks in a short period of time where you would normally do just one. I can multi-task with the pedal to the floor and have no issues at all. It's pretty much required in the world of IT. EMD

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"Don't procrastinate" and "Don't obsess about perfection, good enough and on time is better than perfect in never-never-land" But they might be sub-points of one of these others.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

If so, please list them here. Don't forget the human factor. Increased productivity should not be at the expense of important human needs. I will be popping in now and then to answer any questions and to add my voice when I have something to add to the discussion.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I didn't have the interruptions that you mentioned so I could be more productive but agree that separating your personal life from the job when telecommuting is key. My mistake was using the family room instead of a separate office for my work at home job. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Ha ha! I hadn't really looked at it that way. A manager isn't doing his or her job if you are so productive that you run out of items on your to-do list. :-)

bobijub
bobijub

i doubt you can multitask conscious ..... but maybe you are able to switch quicker or much more efficiently than the average. moms RUN (and that's where the bigbigbig differences are) several task paralelly, but they do not do several things (not even physical) at the same time. when they cook and wash and clean at the same time, they do not pack the dishwasher with one hand whilst slicin' onions with the other hand and cleaning the floor with one foot. (the other foot may be still needed for standing on (if not hanged on a rope at the hip)). they pack the white box with dirties, then start it, they slice this and chop that and expose them to some kind of a heat, and the next physical activity can begin whith one of the already running tasks, and so on and so on.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Interestingly enough, the term multi-tasking is borrowed from the computer industry according to Wikipedia. True multi-tasking is performing two or more tasks at the same time and the evidence so far says that the brain cannot do true multi-tasking. I see your point though. It is all about how you define multi-tasking and I agree, you often have two or more tasks that you must work on at any given time in the day. You do, however, become less productive overall when switching quickly between tasks.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

or is it "staggered tasks"? Staggered tasks are tasks with downtime layered to eliminate net downtime... intertwining them or with small tasks nested in the downtimes. That's just scheduling, not multitasking. I don't recommend trying to think about two things at once, or to do one thing while thinking of another. Some people can pull it off, but there's no evidence that they wouldn't perform both tasks better doing them one at a time.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Visualizing the scheduling, seeing the tasks as seperate and how and when you need to switch from which subprocess of the one into which subprocess of the other... it helps. Getting interrupted in the middle of a task is always annoying, our circles are disturbed - hopefully not as fatally as in archimedes' case. There's no planning for that, but maybe keeping track of the segmentability of tasks can help. Then you don't have to remember the whole task from A-Z and where you'd gotten to, instead you remember that you were on what corresponds to Bol-Dok of your twenty-volume encyclopedia. But that's just me maybe.

bergenfx
bergenfx

But it then makes me wonder if your exclusive qualification means there is any such things as true multi-tasking. It seems even something like talking on the phone while driving is really switching attention from one back to the other. The bursts could be so short that it looks like multi-tasking, but it is just a lot of layering and context switching. As for me, I feel good if I can be accomplishing multiple things "at the same time," but there is something to be said for meditative focus ... mindfulness.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

We disagree on the definition of multi-tasking but, that's okay, as it promotes brain activity. I am one step down from ADHD & OCD. I cannot do one thing as it drives me crazy. If I'm waiting on a server to connect remotely I play solitaire as the brain hates the wait. I can load software on a computer, update a web page on our intranet and be reading up on .Net stuff at the same time. I call that multi-tasking but you may not. How about thinking about my gardening to do list while I'm editing database code? If not, then please give me some examples. EMD

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

is a way of writing a script in the consciousness, then compiling it for the subconscious. It's a way of cutting the consciousness lag out, without losing the benefits of checks and balances. So, I guess it will work in just about any activity.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Hi Ansu. Visualization is often discussed as a way to do better in sports, why not other tasks? The Wikipedia article I read mentions that the brain might be trained to multi-task better, especially before age 17. But the brain still works less efficiently and with more errors than working on only one task at a time.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

"Do you code in a low-level consciousness state, ever?" That's a tough one. I experienced that when playing pinball. I get very focused when coding but it's mostly on a conscious level. Perhaps if I were an expert programmer I would 'get in the zone' more often. Maybe 'auto-pilot coding' is what separates the average programmers from the crack programmers?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Looking in the mirror is especially revealing. I tend to freeze my pedal and wheel use when looking in the mirror; which is not always useful. Consequently I wait for that freezing to be safe before trying to overtake a driver ahead. Another thing to consider; how does the conscious mind and the subconscious figure in? When I'm driving on autopilot, thinking about something else, daydreaming... do I drive less well? No, instead I find that my conscious mind is actually more prone to errors of judgement than going on autopilot. How about when you code? Do you get "flow experience" then? Do you code in a low-level consciousness state, ever? Or is that more of a consciousness-only endeavour?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

When you are learning to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission you have to consciously think about what you are doing. That's why new drivers are more prone to accidents. After some practice you don't have to think about shifting; it gets 'wired in'. The same goes for accelerating and braking. Looking in the mirror is a separate task and takes your attention away from the road ahead of you - even if only for a moment. I find that if I turn on a radio talk show and try to code at the same time I focus on coding and lose track of what is being said on the radio. But then I have trained myself to focus on one task at a time. It is an interesting discussion.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Does the radio poll or present an interrupt to make you hear each beat or syllable? Is turning the wheel a different task than pressing on pedals?

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

When you're driving: you're steering, changing gears, pressing on the accelerator/brake, looking in the mirrors/in front of you, listening to music. Not one at a time but all at once. I think there's been a push to change the definition of multi-tasking recently. We will probably still disagree on this item but it's been a good conversation! EMD

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

"Most states over here have new laws on the books prohibiting cell phone use while driving ... exceppppt it is okay if it is a hands free device. They haven't quite figured out that it's not holding the phone to the ear that is causing problems, but the driver's failure to wake-up the lookAtTheDamnRoad process." You nailed it. It doesn't surprise you that the law makers haven't figured this out yet, does it? Hey, they did their job; they passed a law perceived by the public to fix the problem. ;-) I like your process names!

bergenfx
bergenfx

Actually, it was the *BEEEEEP* that was the IRQ. The truck could have been the system crash. I think the problem is that the checkFront, checkPeripherals, checkRear processes take their little slices and go back to sleep as they are told in a timely manner. It's that talkOnPhone process that masks all interrupts and won't relinquish in a timely fashion. Most states over here have new laws on the books prohibiting cell phone use while driving ... exceppppt it is okay if it is a hands free device. They haven't quite figured out that it's not holding the phone to the ear that is causing problems, but the driver's failure to wake-up the lookAtTheDamnRoad process. Yeah, daydreaming is nature's way of an abstract form of multi-tasking ... using excess cycles productively (in a non-conventional sense). Daydreaming seems to know how to play well together with more cognitive processes.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Talking on the phone and driving: "bla bla bla... mmm-hmm... LOL... *BEEEEEEP* *Sverwe* *Scrrrreeeeeech*... whew, yeah, what were you saying?" - in this scenario the truck coming in from the right was the IRQ from the driving-task. I sometimes drive long distances on auto-pilot, but that doesn't mean I can do something interactive meanwhile. I can daydream, but not talk on the phone, otherwise I get stuff like the above. A person perform two activities simultaneously, but then they should always be of different level; one bodily activity can be combined with one mental one. But talking is never just mental - it has too many hooks into motorical areas. Staggering tasks means planning ahead. It involves switching back and forth. If one is just doing two things half-assed, unplanned, then maybe that's multi-tasking, but that's usually just doing two things poorly, time saved is dubious too, but sometimes it's ok I guess. What I'd call multitasking is conflating the tasks, modifying them into a form in which they can be combined. Multitasking the term was coined for computers. Human brains are not computers. So, you can use multitasking metaphorically for human activity, but in it's true sense it's usually not a meaningful use. Sitting on top of the lid of the box that holds the angry excise-Men while trying to figure out a good explanation for "everything"... that's meaningfully multitasking - but then, we're talking about a holistic human, body and mind, and how the whole human can be applied to it's own benefit. :D If one is taking the train to work, knitting and planning the perfect crime at the same time, then potentially that's three things at once, but only two of those are simultaneous activities, getting into the train was one, but it's not anymore by the time you're in your seat. :p

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

of ADHD minus the H but with a dose of impulsive compulsive (TR addiction, anyone?), I can say that I relate. But I can't think of two things at the same time... and in your example I'd become too engrossed in solitaire and not notice when the server connect is ready. Thinking about gardening while coding is, in my book, doing daydreaming in one part of the brain while another is engaged in something else... you should look at Toni Bowers recent blog on walking while working; In my opinion, daydreaming is the brains default mode, engaging in it keeps it running well.

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