High productivity is an intangible aspiration of the modern workplace. The trouble is, prioritizing tasks can be difficult when everything seems to be a priority. Distractions can be overwhelming. You connect with someone on a Zoom call, a few minutes turns into half an hour, one email response turns to a Reply All frenzy, and last-minute requests consume your day. No wonder you finish your work without feeling like you accomplished anything.
The most productive people have a clear understanding of what needs to get done and when. They are able to put aside distractions—and they don’t confuse being busy with being successful.
How can you manage the noise around you and focus on the tasks that are your most worthy pursuits? I suggest you embrace six habits.
- Goal: Inbox Zero
A tidy inbox is my first productivity secret. As soon as I complete a task, I delete all related emails. The reverse is also true: an open e-mail is a trigger for me to accomplish an item on my to-do list. By using this kind of a system, I'm able to file and organize work as it comes in. I find this calming. It keeps me on top of something I don’t have control over: other people clicking Send.
Now, I realize some email systems don’t allow for searching within Deleted folders. In this case, it comes down to a filtering system. Instead of deleting emails you have read, you might file them into another folder for searching later. Or think of other ways you can keep your inbox an actual inbox vs. a landfill.
When I have important thinking work, I take this process a step further. I turn the Internet off—no email and no notifications—so I can get into a deep flow state where I am able to think through big problems, write, and plan.
- Balance Strategic Versus Operational Goals
In my new role as the head of the Blanchard Innovation Lab, the type of work I do has shifted. I now concentrate less on the day-to-day needs of our core business and more on looking up and out, which requires a completely different focus and discipline.
Succeeding in this kind of role requires me to say “no” to tasks I would have easily said “yes” to in my previous role. My new responsibilities force me to become comfortable with not being connected to all elements of the business all the time. Future-forward work can feel like an indulgence, but I have to remind myself that this isn't true. It’s high-stakes work with lots of planning and systems design so people involved can contribute in a meaningful way. It’s true strategy work—and a lot of spreadsheets.
3. Honor Your Time
Highly productive people are good at qualifying. For example, when a request comes in to work on an important project, you can respond in one of two ways.
- You can say “Yes, I'm on it. When do you need it?” The problem with this response is that it gives away your power. You've lost your agency because the other person now can dictate what the schedule is. (Of course, this is sometimes unavoidable.)
- Or you can use a different response: “Yes, I can help you. I can get it to you by next Tuesday. I’ll block off some time on Monday for you.” The subtext here is that you are becoming a better negotiator of your time and you are honoring it. That's extremely important and often overlooked.
Time is a limited resource. You must take control of yours in active ways as well as passive ways, such as blocking time in your calendar.
4. Take Advantage of Your Schedule
One of the gifts of the pandemic for knowledge workers is the ability to take control of our schedules and dictate how we work with others. As our schedules become more transparent, we learn not to judge others—or ourselves—for working different hours or days. When we are clear about our expectations of ourselves and others, everyone benefits.
Identify what time of day and what days you do your best—or your worst—work. In my case, I know I'm not very productive or motivated on Friday afternoons, but I tend to get energized on Sunday nights. I don’t take calls or respond to emails on Tuesday mornings because I am taking care of the kids. I block off Wednesday afternoons because I'm heading out to spend time on the golf course or the ice hockey rink. But I might send out a slew of emails late on Wednesday night when everyone is sleeping and I’m revved up after time out with friends. When I send out those emails, I try to delay the receipt so individuals don’t get an alert in the middle of the night.
5. Relish the Small Accomplishments
I'm a doer and I love accomplishing things, so I really enjoy checking tasks off my to-do list. Balancing small projects with big ones gives me a feeling of achievement. A great time to do the small tasks is when I need a rest from something that is demanding.
You can do this on paper, an app on your phone, or a workplace productivity suite (I use Tasks in Outlook). List both large tasks (e.g., create a construct for how we manage intake of content) and tiny ones (e.g., identify the participants for an upcoming design session). Both need to happen, and both make you feel joyful when you check them off. The only difference is that each takes a different level of effort.
6. Value Silence
I'm an extrovert. I gain energy from other people. I'm a chatty person (ask anyone who has sat next to me on an airplane), but I also love silence.
When I take my dog on a walk, I savor the quiet. This time allows insights to bubble up to the surface in my mind. Then I go back to the office and I produce. Research shows that the brain needs silence even though it’s not celebrated in our culture. Just a few minutes can bring benefits.
I hope some of these suggestions work as well for you as they have for me. Let us know what tricks you've discovered to become more productive!
About the AuthorMore Content by Britney Cole