How to Be More Productive at Work: The Epic Guide


how to be more productive at work

There’s a race on, where you work.

You’re a part of it.

And no, it’s not the rat race. It’s a race to be productive, but that sounds just as tiring as anything. Productivity, though, isn’t about exhausting yourself. It shouldn’t be tiring.

In fact, if you find yourself exhausted at the end of the work day, chances are pretty good that it isn’t because you were productive, but because you weren’t. Being unproductive is actually pretty tiring. When you’re productive, the time flies and you emerge from work without mental exhaustion or a sense of frustration over the futility of what you didn’t get done.

If you identify more with exhaustion and frustration, it’s time to rethink what you believe productivity is, and how you’re running the race.

Here’s how to be more productive at work:

1. Know what you’re wasting your time on.

What’s your biggest time suck? What do you waste the most time on?

The reason I ask is that if you’re not aware of how you waste time, all the productivity tips in the world aren’t going to help you. You have to know what’s stealing your time from you in order to make a change.

Big time wasters?

  • Social media.
  • Online videos.
  • Office chat systems (e.g. Slack, HipChat) and the animated GIFS therein.
  • Mobile phones and their notifications and calls.
  • Noisy distractions in the office that you are willing to notice.
  • Meetings, formal and informal.
  • Multitasking (we’ll talk about this one later in this post).

Time wasters are the little rewards we give ourselves to get out of doing challenging or unpleasant tasks, but they end up biting us in the backside. We still have to do the work, but now we have less time to do it. Our stress goes up.

Denying yourself the little daily pleasures can be like a diet. If you tell yourself you can’t have chocolate, suddenly that will be all you can think about. Telling yourself that you can’t look at Facebook ever again while at work may make the problem even worse, or make you dread going to work. This has to do with the idea that we all have limited willpower, and if we constantly ask too much of it every day, we’re exhausted and set up to fail.

So go ahead and treat yourself under controlled conditions.

Use your willpower mindfully. Use those time wasters, which you so clearly enjoy doing, as a reward. For example, tell yourself that if you finish project A by 11 am, you can go on Facebook for five minutes.

Make your time wasters work for you, not against you.

2. Work with deadlines, even if you have to make them up.

Deadlines are not your enemy, even though they can sure feel like it.

At their most basic, they are simply telling you how much time you have to work on something. A project can have a big deadline, and be made up of many small task-oriented deadlines. Procrastinators eye that deadline warily, gambling and inwardly wagering on how long they can wait before starting and still get the job done.

That’s a seriously antagonistic approach to deadlines which, again, aren’t the enemy. Think of deadlines as:

  • Goals. For the achiever in you, goals are what you live for. View deadlines as goals, or another check on your to-do list. Finishing can be the reward, or you can set up other rewards (like five minutes of Facebook) when you meet the goal.
  • Motivation. Find a reason to get things done when there are no other reasons. Instead of relying on what you feel like doing (do you really feel like doing work much of the time?), you are motivated by the deadline.
  • Reality. This is the price of the real world. Your paycheck arrives on a deadline. So must your work.
  • Freeing. You know the project will not last forever. This is a freeing thought for onerous projects you don’t want to be saddled with for eternity.

Learn to love deadlines so much that, if you are given work or projects that don’t have deadlines, you actually make up your own arbitrary deadlines.

Deadlines are your friends. Learn to enjoy their company.

3. Skip all meetings you aren’t forced to attend

Employees are in a tight spot; they can’t always control who wastes their time. Meetings are particularly troublesome in this area. Some meetings are valid and necessary, but others are pointless.

Meetings tend to fall into a few categories:

  • Updates on progress or projects.
  • Clarification of rules or procedures.
  • Discussion of issues or problems.
  • Training.
  • Touching base.

That last one? Touching base? That’s a guaranteed time waster. And, depending on the leadership skills of the person in charge of the meeting, the others can be time wasters, too.

What’s an employee to do?

  • Only attend mandatory meetings.
  • Always come prepared for whatever you are required to do to participate.
  • Refuse to encourage or join in when conversation goes off the rails.
  • Try to keep the meeting on topic and target (or bring it back to that) when participating in discussion, and note the time if you have something else you need to do.
  • Be honest in the next job review if meetings are becoming a problem and keeping you from being productive.

If you’re the boss and you have a proclivity for meetings, rethink your approach. And if you absolutely cannot see a way to avoid a meeting, seriously control conversation to keep it on topic, and make it a standing meeting. That’ll keep the time short.

4. Give yourself a break.

Your brain gets tired. Your body gets tired.

Whether you’re work is a physical task or you’re sitting at a desk (and sometimes the latter is more exhausting, oddly), maintaining absolute focus on one thing over several hours means your brain consumes huge amounts of energy. And you get tired.

You probably want a clear and easy plan to know when you should take breaks. Some studies suggest there’s an optimum formula: work for 52 minutes, break for 17. Others suggest working for 90 minutes, then taking a break.

I’m not going to tell you a formula. You are probably under some restrictions based on the rules of where you work. If you are only allowed formal breaks at certain times, consider “informal” breaks.

  • Stretches and small exercise in your office, your cubicle.
  • Going to get some water to drink.
  • Going to use the restroom.
  • Turn your screen off, close your eyes, and breathe deeply for a few minutes.
  • Put your head in your hands and massage your temples.
  • Use noise cancelling headphones for a few minutes.

You shouldn’t use breaks as an excuse not to work, of course. Rather, they are a tool to help you work better and more productively.

So. When should you take a break from your work?

  • When you feel mentally exhausted.
  • Why you feel physically exhausted.
  • When you feel sleepy or you’re zoning out.
  • When your mind starts wandering.
  • When you find yourself turning to time wasters.
  • When you are stuck on a problem and can’t come up with a solution.
  • When you notice errors cropping up in your work.
  • When you notice your productivity is slowing down.

What do you do on your break?

Move around (or sit down). Get the blood moving (or rest your feet). Look away from electronic screens (phone included). Change your scenery. Talk to coworkers (or find some privacy).

In other words, do what you weren’t doing.

It’s called a break for a reason. You’re breaking the previous behavior. You’re forcing your brain to reset. You’re renewing your mental and physical energy.

And if you’re one of those people who skip their breaks during the day, stop. Take your breaks.

5. Prepare for tomorrow so you don’t waste your morning.

End each day by getting ready for the next. The morning hours are generally the time when your mind is the least sluggish and at its creative best. Yet what do you find yourself wasting that time with?

Making the day’s to-do list. Responding to yesterday’s emails. Having staff meetings.

In other words, stuff you don’t need too much brain power to do.

When you end each day by getting ready for the next, you stop wasting the high-functioning morning hours. Ideally, the last 20-30 minutes of the work day should be filled with:

  • Clearing out the day’s email and messages.
  • Determining what is left on projects you didn’t finish, and where you need to start.
  • Writing down clear and specific tasks and directions for where to start the next morning.
  • Tidying up your work area so all of your tools and materials are ready to go.

Managers should hold meetings in the afternoon, but reserve at least a half hour at the end of the day so employees can get prepared for the next morning.

And let’s not forget about Mondays.

I’m not suggesting you give up to much of your Sundays to prepare for Mondays. But Monday is bad enough; it hurts worse when you’re behind before you even get there.

Fridays are your Monday prep day, and are the most important prep day of all. How your Monday goes can determine how the rest of the week goes. On Friday, you should:

  • Do the annoying tasks that you don’t want to do. They’ll only be worse on Monday.
  • Write down clear notes on what you were working on, what you need to do next, and even how to do it. You forget a lot after two days. Mondays don’t need to be like starting a cold engine if you keep it primed with notes from Friday.
  • Do an overall list for what you need to accomplish in the next week. It helps you understand not just tasks, but where you’re headed when you come back to work on Monday.
  • Clear out your email inbox and all other messages. Respond or delete. No exceptions. Monday should be a clean slate.

Make your Fridays count. Don’t think of it as your coasting day, but a serious prep day. You can start your next week on a high note if you do it right on Friday.

6. Move your body around.

Sitting in one place and barely moving is a good way to fall asleep.

Moving your body around and maintaining physical activity through the day does several things that aid in mental health and increase productivity:

  • It keeps you from physical tiredness, which can lead to mental tiredness.
  • It keeps your brain active.
  • It reduces stress.
  • It reduces negative emotions.
  • It helps you focus.
  • It increases your confidence.
  • It gives you more energy.

That’s a list of qualities that make for good workers. And yet, look around where you work. How many people are hunched over their desks or leaning against a counter, their body mostly unmoving, their muscles inactive?

Not everyone has a standing desk, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay immobile during the work day. Set a timer on your phone or watch. Put a reminder in your calendar software. Move around every time you take a break and then some.

Then stand up. Stretch. Do small resistance exercises. Put your shoulders back and sit up straight. Walk around the office or the block. Go up and down the stairwell.

7. Watch the caffeine and sugar abuse.

People drink a lot of coffee or eat junk food in the office because they either need the buzz, a break in monotony, or it’s the only reason they can think of to get up and walk somewhere.

Too bad sugar and caffeine can:

In other words, along with other long-term health issues, caffeine and sugar (a.k.a. coffee and donuts) are making you sleepy and confused during the work day. Not a recipe for productivity.

Perhaps you get coffee every time you get up to move around, because you can’t think of another way to walk around without looking silly. If you can’t bring yourself to move around without a “reason”, then:

  • Go get uncaffeinated low sugar beverages (e.g. water, herbal tea)
  • Go to the break room and wash your cup instead of filling it with coffee.
  • Daily collect paper that needs shredding or placement in the recycling bin from your coworkers.
  • Get ice for your water bottle from the break room.

In other words, don’t latch onto a good habit of getting up and moving around only if you use that time to drink more coffee or soda or to get junk food. Water should be readily available. Bring a water bottle, and empty and refill periodically if you need a reason to move around.

One more thing: a heavy lunch with lots of calories and unhealthy foods will make you sleepy the rest of the day.

8. Use technology and external cues to your advantage.

If you still struggle with wasting time or being distracted, use apps and external cues to help you out. Admit you need help with focus.

Find apps that restrict your access to websites and social media.

Use gadgets, such as an Apple watch or personal fitness device, to remind you to get up and move around.

Keep your work area clear of clutter if that clutter distracts or adds to your stress. If your work areas is such a mess that you have to search to find things, that’s a time waster right there. Clutter also has an impact on your sense of the space (as well as your co-workers who might have to see it, too). Keep things organized and clean.

9. Create a different internal narrative.

Stress, and the inability to manage it, is a huge factor for lack of productivity.

Some stress you can’t control, but a lot of it you’re probably creating for yourself. What do you tell yourself when you’re faced with a ton of work? Are you thinking from a negative standpoint?

Which of the following thoughts do you think will reduce stress, and which will increase it?

“I have so much to do! How do they expect a person to handle this?”

“I need to complete this and that. What do I need to do first, and how do I get started?”

You can’t control how much work you have to do. You can control how you think about it.

10. Learn to triage your tasks.

Not everything has to be done now, and some things that keep getting put low on the list don’t ever have to be done.

Basically, this is about managing your to-do list, knowing what is most important, what is least important, and what, over time, can be removed completely. You’ll ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What must be done immediately? These might not be the biggest tasks. Some might be small things that have to happen before large projects get started.
  2. What must be done next?
  3. Of the items in #2, what order do they have to occur in? They all might be equally important, but some things are built on other tasks. Don’t put the cart ahead of the horse.
  4. What doesn’t have to be done anytime soon?

If you see minor tasks being carried over week after week (#4), determine if they can be removed permanently after a month. If you’ve been putting it off this long, are they really important? And if they are, but you never get to them, it’s an indication you need help or have too much on your plate.

11. Understand how you work.

Do you know how you work?

I’m not talking about how your boss wants you to work, or how the office procedures dictate you work. I’m asking about how you actually work. For example, do you work best:

  • Late at night or early in the morning?
  • Around lots of people or very few?
  • With lots of noise and activity, or silence?
  • Under pressure and tight deadlines, or with plenty of planning and lead time?
  • In large groups and group projects, or alone and on your own?
  • Using brainstorming, or coming up with your own ideas?
  • With specific task lists or with broad objectives that you figure out the solution to?
  • With clear marching orders or less detailed instructions?

While it’s tempting to continually read blog posts that list the work habits of highly successful people, it should mainly be for curiosity’s sake and nothing more. Any article that claims to reveal a specific productivity formula (e.g. “read X amount of books, get up at 5 a.m., run a mile a day…”) that lead to for-sure success is going to be a distraction.

You aren’t that person. You work differently. Your life and situations are different.

At best, you’ll learn of new ideas to consider, but above all they have to fit in with how you naturally work. At worst, you’ll feel guilty or ashamed of your natural working style and it’ll hamper your ability to be productive as you try to fit yourself into someone else’s mold.

If you’re a night owl and do your best work then, taking the advice of a successful early bird is going to be a disaster. Mr. Big Time CEO might insist the secret to success is reading a book every week, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

Don’t be ashamed of how you work. Simply understand it and use that to your productive advantage when it is possible.

12. Choosing the best task management tools.

Pretty design and popularity doesn’t make a task management tool your perfect choice. We’ve just talked about understanding how you work. Once you know that, then, and only then, are you ready to pick a task management tool. Do not choose a tool until you know how you work.

There are so many great tools out there, and they tend to use a specific type of approach, including:

  • Post-it note style.
  • Simple to-do lists.
  • Team project management.
  • Calendar-based tasks.
  • Visually appealing.
  • Text-based lists.

Do you think in lists or in post-it notes? Do you like to see things on a calendar or in a different format? Do you like complex sub-tasks or simple tasks? It depends on how you work.

Granted, you may not get a choice. Your workplace may have a set tool to use. You may either have to adapt, or find an app that integrates with that tool.

13. Get some sleep.

This one is short and simple, but surprisingly ignored: get plenty of sleep. A lack of sleep induces brain fog in you when you are awake.

Not enough sleep (and a poor diet can also have the same effect) makes it difficult for your brain to function during your waking hours. You suffer from impaired decision-making ability, forgetfulness, inability to focus, lack of creative thinking and problem solving, and a general sense of confusion and irritability.

In other words, nothing that will help your productivity.

This is tough for night owls to hear, but…get to bed. Go to sleep. Stop working late. You can pick it up tomorrow. If you have a job where your employer doesn’t allow for flexible working hours, you cannot stay up late and wake up early too many days in a row and not expect problems.

14. Above all else, stop multitasking!

You cannot multitask. No one can. I don’t care if you think you’re great at it. You’re lying to yourself.

NO ONE CAN MULTITASK.

First, multitasking is a physiological impossibility. Your brain can’t multitask; it can only quickly interrupt itself and try to shift focus back and forth. This actually leads to more stress and, after awhile, actual brain damage.

Secondly, multitasking encourages you to cut corners and even cheat a bit. The more complex your tasks, the more likely you are to make errors as you jump back and forth between tasks. In other words, your work quality suffers.

Thirdly, multitasking reduces your creativity. Because you aren’t focusing on one thing, your brain isn’t able to make creative connections based on memory or free-thinking. In a sense, your brain wants to brainstorm ideas all of the time, but if you’re constantly jumping between unrelated tasks, it never gets a chance.

And lastly, multitasking makes it difficult to spot time wasters. They appear simply as another task that you can handle with all of the others. Their true nature is hidden in the feeling that you’re doing work.

Multitasking destroys productivity (by as much as 40%!) more than anything else, because we fool ourselves into think the interruptions, the time wasting, and being chained to our desk doing multiple things are all something we can not only handle, but are actually a form of high-level productivity. Multitasking feels busy, so it feels productive.

After a lot of multitasking you probably feel mentally exhausted which you interpret as a sign of work and productivity. If you were to actually take stock of what work you accomplished trying to do everything at once instead of doing one thing at a time, you’d be surprised. You get more work done when focusing on one thing at a time.

A big part of being productive is self-evaluation.

Too many people don’t stop to think about themselves as far as what their strengths and weaknesses are, or why they do what they do. If you believe your productivity struggles are because of outside forces that you can’t control, then you aren’t doing self-evaluation and you won’t solve the productivity problem specific to you.

How to Be More Productive at Work: The Epic Guide