How to Be More Productive at Work: The Epic Guide

There’s a race on, where you work. You’re a part of it.

It’s a race to be productive, which certainly sounds tiring. Productivity, though, isn’t about exhausting yourself.

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?

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 include:

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

Use your willpower mindfully. Use the time wasters which you truly 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. Understand how you work

Do you know how you work?

Taking note of the circumstances in which you do your best and most efficient 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?

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. A famous 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.

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

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

Basically, 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, 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.

Deadlines are your friends. Learn to enjoy their company, and if necessary, create your own deadlines!

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

Some meetings are valid and necessary, but others truly 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.

How can an employee avoid wasting time in meetings?

  • Only attend mandatory meetings. Email will do just fine for touching base.
  • Always come prepared for whatever you are required to do to participate.
  • Try to keep the meeting on topic and on time. Avoid joining in when conversation goes off the rails.
  • Be honest in the next job review if meetings are becoming a problem and inhibiting productivity.

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.

5. Keep your inbox clean

How many times a day do you pore through your inbox?

On average, workers check their email 15 times per day. However, when limited to checking email three times per day, researchers found that stress levels notably diminished. Along with less stress, participants reported feeling more productive on their most important work, and experienced an overall greater sense of accomplishment.

6. Same goes with your desk…

Managers who have messy desks or offices often claim that it’s a sign of being productive.  But nothing could be further from the truth!

When there is disorganization, there’s time being wasted on looking for missing items.  To avoid this, a good rule of thumb is to keep your desk clear of everything except for the things you need for the task you’re working on at any given moment.  If you’re finished with a project or if things need to be put on hold, don’t stack them up on your desk or on the floor around your chair.  Whatever you’re not working on at the moment should be stored in a filing cabinet or other storage area until it’s actually needed.

7. Give yourself a break

Your brain gets tired. Your body gets tired.

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

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.

However, there are simpler, less structured approaches. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

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.

10. 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 much caffeine can:

  • Make you sleepy
  • Cause anxiety
  • Disrupt your digestive system
  • Lead to addiction

Try healthy substitutes for caffeine and sugar. One thing that’s always readily available and free is water, which as we all know is crucial for our body’s optimal functioning. Bring a water bottle, and empty and refill periodically if you need a reason to move around.

11. Use technology 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.

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

If scheduling your employees takes up a portion of your time, use employee scheduling software to do the work for you. 

Get serious about implementing project management tools to keep you and your team on track and to document all the work you’ve done.

12. Create a different internal narrative

Stress, and the inability to manage it, is a huge cause of 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?”

versus

“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. 

13. Make to-do lists

Creating to-do lists helps you feel more organized and prioritize tasks. To make a to-do list, 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.

14. Delegate non-essential tasks

Do what you do best and let somebody else do the rest.  If you’re really good at lead generation but accounting isn’t really your strong suit—outsource it.  You can find great local service providers or, if you’re comfortable with it, you can look online for individuals who have the skills you need.

From composing press releases to gathering up market data, if somebody else can do it quicker, better, or cheaper than you, why not let them?

15. Take advantage of travel

With cloud computing and mobile technology solutions so readily available, it’s easier now than ever before to make effective use of your travel time. Rather than thinking of those long flights or train trips as wasted, turn that seat into a private, concentrated workspace—uninterrupted by the normal world.

Here are some additional tips to stay productive while traveling.

16. Track your time

You’d be surprised how much time just slips between your fingers.  Checking email, staring out the window, and chitchatting with the wait staff all eat up valuable minutes. Those minutes stretch into hours and before you know it the day is blown.

Use your calendar to keep an accurate—potentially brutally honest—record of how much time you spend doing what. A couple of days spent tracking your minutes, and you should have a good feel for where you can save those precious seconds.

17. Get some sleep

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

Not enough sleep (and a poor diet) 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.

18. Above all else, stop multitasking!

It’s a fact. No one can multitask. Here’s why:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The mental exhaustion you likely feel after a lot of multitasking isn’t a sign of productivity. You get more work done when focusing on one thing at a time.

A big part of being productive is self-evaluation.

If you’re prone to distraction, procrastination, or second-guessing yourself, don’t worry. With better planning, better tools, and self-care, we can all save valuable time and learn to be truly productive at work. 

How to Be More Productive at Work: The Epic Guide