It’s the typical tale of woe. You come to work, bust your butt all day, and suddenly it’s 5 P.M. (or 6 P.M. or 8 P.M.), and you haven’t gotten a single thing done. Well, not anything that you intended to do, anyway. This happens daily, until you find yourself working 80-hour weeks just to fulfill your basic job description.

This article covers steps one and two in a five-step process for making your day more productive. You’ll learn to recognize how you use your time and pick up some advice on breaking time-stealing habits.

The five steps
I’ve created this process out of my work experience in the performance improvement industry and from advice I’ve received from successful people throughout my career. In general, you should spend at least a week working with each step and continuously review the entire process as your work habits change. I’m interested to hear how these methods work for you, so please feel free to offer your feedback in the discussion below, or send us an e-mail.

Here are the five steps I’ll cover in this series:

  • “Step One: Be aware of your day,” included in this article, lays the groundwork for becoming more productive.
  • “Step Two: Break bad habits,” also included in this article, identifies ways to overcome bad habits that are notorious for filling up your time.
  • “Step Three: Manage your time,” presented in the next article in this series, describes several ways you can organize your time to optimize your efforts.
  • “Step Four: Take shortcuts” offers advice for reducing your expended effort without compromising results.
  • “Step Five: Make distinctions” introduces Pareto’s Principle and describes how to apply it to optimize your productivity.

We’ve wasted enough time! Now let’s start saving it.

Step One: Be aware of your day
Does your day ever “get away from you”? If so, it may be because you don’t notice where your time is spent. For a week or two, enter everything you do during the day in a journal, as you do it. Be sure to include things like start and end times, locations, and participants.

At the end of your study, look over your journal. Hopefully, you’ll notice some trends that you can immediately benefit from, such as avoiding “hostage talkers” or noticing what time of day you get the most work done.

Now take your journal and make a list of the activities you performed that must be done every day, or every week. Make a second list of things that are “gravy,” but still important to work. Finally, identify everything that could be considered a waste of time. Even if this third list includes requirements like company-wide meetings, be sure you itemize things properly—you’ll be using these lists each step of the way.

Finally, add activities to the first two lists that you didn’t have time to complete over the duration of your journal. Hopefully there aren’t too many, but you might be surprised at the responsibilities you’re neglecting. Now you’re armed and ready to begin taking action.

Step Two: Break bad habits
You can gain a lot of productivity through simple behavior modification. Fortunately, you can easily identify bad habits by looking back at your journal. Actually breaking them is the hard part, which is why I recommend spending at least a week on this step. Don’t forget to stay aware of your day, or you’ll be right back where you started.

Below I’ve listed some ways to combat common bad habits that are notorious for stealing time. You may be shocked at how prevalent these activities are in your daily routine.

Stay in your chair
Look at the locations listed in your journal. Are you walking all over the place to handle things that could be solved with phone calls? Are you bouncing from person to person to repeatedly review the same thing?

Try taking care of things that require “local travel” all in one trip. Consolidate repeated activities by requesting a meeting. If you’re a socialite, these directives may be harder to master than you think, but you’ll gain tremendous time benefits by cutting down on your “commuting” and by reducing the number of times you interrupt your work to walk around.

Be helpful by giving directions
Look at the second list you created, which includes extraneous work-related items. How many of them involve helping to complete someone else’s tasks? When a coworker comes to you with a question and you don’t have the answer, suggest whom to contact instead of pursuing it any further. If the answer can be found through research, tell them where to find it instead of giving the answer itself. Tracking down the answer to someone else’s question will only reinforce undesirable behavior in the person who asked it. Of course, if that person is your boss, you’ll probably want to reply with both the answer and how to find it.

Teach a man to fish
This habit usually comes from items on the second and third lists. If someone has come to you because they can’t do something but probably should be able to, the correct response is to teach them how, but not actually do it for them.

Of course, this means they’re going to be back in your cube a few dozen times before they get it right, but if you stick with it and make them do the work, it’ll pay off in the long run. It may take you much longer to teach them, but eventually they’ll either: (a) start asking someone else, or (b) actually learn, and not need to ask you anymore.

This method might compromise your productivity for a week, but the next week you’ll be glad you did it.

Keep your desk (and desktop) clean
Document sourcing is a huge waste of time, and a cluttered desk is a distraction. Chances are, finding files and e-mails didn’t make it into your journal, but it’s a hidden time thief that requires some work to overcome.

You might feel the need to defend yourself and say, “I know where everything is.” That’s great, but how long does it take you to get to it? If it’s more than a couple of seconds, it’s too long. Also, if you don’t use a filing system, you’ll frequently have to go back to the source for another copy.

The same holds true for e-mail. File it as soon as you read it. Better yet, use a filter to file it before you read it—most programs will highlight folders containing new mail.

For people like me, being unorganized is a bad habit that seems impossible to break, but you can do it with a little resolve—and a big trash can.

Stay motivated and focused
When you work on something, work on that one thing. People pride themselves on being able to multitask, but all that really means is they’re giving two things less than half of their attention. Stick to one task and get it done, and then move on to the next. You’ll complete your work much faster.

Along those same lines, try to complete a task without interruption. There’s no reason you should have to reorient yourself every time you send an e-mail or write five lines of code. You’re better off arriving late to a meeting than giving any activity more time than it deserves.

Get your day back
Learning how to apply these techniques can greatly improve your productivity and let you go home at a decent time without sacrificing the quality of your work. Be aware of time thieves and get rid of bad habits, and you’ll get more done in less time. Be sure to stay tuned for the next article in this series, in which we’ll cover even more ways to squeeze productivity from every second of your workday.

What are your bad habits?

Do you have bad habits that cost you precious time? What are they? How did/are you planning to stop doing them? Join the discussion below or send us an e-mail.