Work productivity – The guide on how to improve it

Work productivity

We all want to be productive all the time and with as low effort as possible. In the last article, we talked about how a structure for sleep, mealtimes, and work start and finish times set the scene for being productive without feeling stressed. Today, let’s dive into tips on what to do during your working hours to increase your work productivity.

Want better work productivity? Then focus on what’s most important

In this day and age, many of us have so much to do at work that we will never get to a point where we say “Oh, I’ve finished all my work tasks. I can now go home for the day”. There is always something more for us to do. Therefore, being able to prioritize among work tasks is one of the most important skills you can have. If you are not good at it yet you have to make sure to practice this skill. Whichever version you try, it’s always about selecting the few work tasks that you can fit into your day or week, or month that are the most important to get done.

The three drawers’ method

The time-tested three drawers’ method is a fantastic tool. Basically, it is very helpful to quickly sort your work tasks into three metaphorical drawers. Anything that can wait goes in the bottom drawer. Things that are rather important but not time-sensitive go in the middle drawer. Then you put important and time-sensitive tasks in the top drawer. Then you always start working on tasks from your top drawer and only move to the middle drawer when or if the top drawer is empty. If you are helped by to-do lists (fancy digital ones or on a notepad), you can easily sort your to-do list into these three “drawers”.

Using the 80/20 rule for work productivity

The Pareto principle, proposed in the 19th century, states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of the consequences and results come from 20% of causes and efforts. The Pareto principle has been translated to be used on work tasks. You look for what 20% of your effort would give you 80% of the result you are looking for (implying that you’d need to spend 80% more effort to reach the remaining 20%). It’s about spending less time on getting most of the value done (instead of all). So, ask yourself, what 20% of your work drives 80% of your outcomes?

The time boxing method

From the world of agile product planning, we learned to timebox by allocating a certain amount of time to completing a task. One of the main ideas is that you adjust your scope to the allocated time, instead of keeping improving or expanding on your work task until it feels just right or another (for most tasks) arbitrary goal. Say you are to draft a new idea for a product development cycle. Say you get a 30-minute timebox to do it - you would solve it differently compared to having no timebox. You can choose to timebox yourself. Do this by planning out your day as a set of timeboxes or just by timeboxing a few tasks.

Improve work productivity by reducing distractions

Another known way to increase your productivity is by reducing that which steals your focus away. It will both be things outside of you - and things that are just about you!

Diminish distractions to become more productive

It’s great advice to plan our most difficult and demanding tasks when we usually have our best cognitive capacities. That way you reduce the chances of some of your internal distractions occurring, such as those that come from poorer focus or hunger or fatigue. For most of us, our peak focus time is late morning or early afternoon.
When it comes to external reductions, do what you can to reduce them. You can do this by turning off notifications and closing apps that you notice draw from your focus. Put your phone away and out of sight. And if you don't have the motivation to do this all the time, make sure you protect your day's most difficult and demanding task. You can achieve this by removing distractions from the worktime you allocate to it.

Schedule distracting routine tasks such as checking mail

We often think that it is expected of us to keep an eye on our phone, our mail, our LinkedIn, Basecamp, Slack, or any other such communication channel. How many times a day is that? It has been shown that we are more efficient when we schedule checking mail and other channels to one, two, or a few times a day. So when would you like to check your messages? Once at the beginning of your day and once just after lunch. Pick what you think would suit you and challenge yourself to keep it for a week or so. Lastly, evaluate if it works as well for you as it does for others!

Regular breaks mean better work productivity

During work, taking breaks will help you maintain focus throughout the day. Sprinkle your day with tiny micro-breaks and movement breaks (if you have a still sitting job), in addition to taking a few slightly longer pauses. Remind yourself that these breaks do not reduce your speed or productivity - they much more likely increase it.

Right now, weave your fingers together in front of you, look at your hands as you lift them above your head, un-weave, and bring your arms slowly down to your sides. Lift your shoulders towards your ears. One more time - lift your shoulders and let go. Turn your head gently from right to left. Then tilt your head gently from side to side. Lastly, tilt your head a few times back and forwards. Shake your shoulders gently. Done. You have just taken a brief microbreak that is great if you work at a desk.

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About the Author

MSc in Psychology from Uppsala University, PhD from University of Oxford in workplace stress. Author of five books. Previously researcher at Karolinska Institutet, and Head of Clinic, deputy CEO and director of the board at Stressmottagningen.

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