Ten Secrets to Being More Productive at Work

Don’t work harder, work smarter!
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Don’t work harder, work smarter!

Why is it that you can never get your inbox to that satisfying number of zero? Or that your to-do list gets longer by the second? It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the work you have to do. Sometimes it feels impossible to get anything done. Fear not. It is possible to increase your productivity and tackle your to-do list without falling into the patterns of an expert procrastinator. All it takes are a few adjustments to your work style to make the most effective and efficient use of your time, and you’ll be on your way to your most productive workweek yet.

01. Organize your workspace.

The first step toward efficiency is to evaluate your workspace. Does it look like a tornado recently touched down on your desk? Are there papers and old coffee cups everywhere with no clean surface in sight? The Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that clutter in your environment affects your ability to focus. Set a timer for thirty minutes, and conduct a quick spring cleaning session. Put files and papers in neat stacks for easy access. Archive any unneeded files in your inbox. Throw away any trash or unneeded paperwork. Add a few personal touches such as photos or a plant to make it feel like a place you actually want to sit and work in. Just remember that this project should be a quick fixer-upper; it shouldn’t be part of your procrastination routine. (Does anyone else always feel like cleaning when you have a deadline coming up?) Maintain your tidy space by spending ten minutes at the end of the day straightening up. You’ll always arrive the next morning to a neat and productivity-friendly environment.

02. Create a realistic to-do list.

It’s easy to have a take-on-the-world attitude when you walk into the office at 9 a.m., coffee supply in hand. But once impromptu meetings, special requests, and watercooler chat begin to hijack your day, time flies right by. You might find that you haven’t tackled a single item on your list before lunch. Part of the problem could be that you are biting off more than you can chew when you create your to-do list for the day. Inc. contributing editor Jeff Haden chooses three items for his to-do list each day. Start by identifying one big project, and then add two to three smaller ones that you intend to work on for that day. Factor in time for unplanned work and interruptions because they will happen. Sticking to a realistic workload will help you feel more confident about being able to actually cross off an item on your list.

03. A break is a good thing.

When you have a big project to work on, it can be tempting to pull the office version of the college all-nighter. Toiling feverishly for hours with no break and fueling yourself with caffeine worked before, but it’s no way to work. Instead, embrace the power of the well-timed break. Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that taking brief breaks helps you to sustain focus for the long run. The group of participants who worked for fifty minutes and took two brief breaks during that time had no drop in their performance when compared to the other groups who did not take breaks. Taking a breather to clear your mind and refocus is essential to increasing and maintaining your productivity when working on a project. Now you have a scientific reason for making that midday coffee run. Yes!

04. Identify and prioritize your goals.

At the end of the day, do you find yourself wondering where the time went? You felt busy all day, but you have nothing to show for it. What happened? You might be focusing on tasks that aren’t high priority or time sensitive instead of devoting your time to those tasks or projects that need to be done first. Author Greg McKeown recommends asking yourself, “What would I work on if I only had two hours to work today?” This will help you zero in on your true priorities. Identifying your priorities at the beginning of the week and at the beginning of each day will help you to maintain focus on what really needs to get done now. Pick the projects that you need to complete by the end of the week, and give these top priority. Also schedule time for any routine tasks that you have to complete that day. Then think ahead to projects that have due dates coming up in the next few weeks. Work on these if you have a spare hour or two in your day. That way you’ll always be working on what’s most important, and you’ll have a good sense of everything on your plate so that you aren’t stressing about what you might be forgetting.

05. Give yourself a pep talk.

When you are in the midst of a large project, it can feel like there is no end in sight. You might even feel a little panicky and anxious about whether you will be able to complete it on time. This is the perfect time for you to give yourself a little pep talk. Positive self-talk has been shown to aid in boosting productivity, according to sport psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis. Embrace the power of positive thinking, and remind yourself that you can complete this project with flying colors. Think back to the other projects you’ve successfully completed. Remind yourself how good it felt to put the finishing touches on another report or presentation. When you feel optimistic about your chances of successfully finishing your current task, you are more likely to be motivated to keep going.

06. Embrace the power of delegation.

When faced with an upcoming deadline, all of your attention and energy go toward making sure you meet that deadline, leaving you little time for other tasks. Multitasking isn’t actually more productive. If possible, consider delegating those essential tasks. Can a colleague sit in for you at the weekly staff meeting? Perhaps a teammate can help you return phone calls or answer emails. Will your significant other or roommate temporarily take on more of your share of household chores to give you extra time to meet that big deadline? Delegating will allow you to free up as much time as possible to work on your priority project. The less you have on your mind, the easier it will be for you to be focused and, in turn, more productive.

07. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

The key to being more productive is to make the most efficient use of your time. To cut down on the time you spend working on a project, consider the options you have for streamlining the process. You are likely not the first person to tackle that task. Why not poll the universe, and see what’s out there? Chances are, someone can help make your life a little easier and your work more efficient. Maybe there is a template or outline you can use so that you don’t have to start from scratch. Ask your boss or coworker to pass along some time-saving tips. Make use of the resources available to you to cut down on the time you spend on your project. Then reward yourself with a mini break.

08. Watch out for ‘time thieves.’

Beware those tiny tasks that steal your time. Productivity coach Kirstin O’Donovan calls these “time thieves.” Common time thieves include gratuitous meetings; answering emails as they come in; checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat . . . need I go on? The best way to combat these sneaky stealers is to budget time into your day devoted only to these tasks instead of mindlessly engaging in them throughout the day. For example, set aside a half hour three times each day to answer emails (e.g., 9 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m.). Set aside limited time to check your social media as well. I mean, do you really need to see how many people liked your photo of breakfast right now? If you need help staying accountable with social media, consider an app such as Moment, which helps you track your use of these time thieves throughout the day.

09. Just get started.

When you sit down to get started on your tasks for the day, you might feel overwhelmed before you’ve even begun. This is the kind of anxiety that leads to procrastination. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set out to write a new article and found myself falling down a rabbit hole of cute puppy videos, hashtags, and my Facebook newsfeed instead. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Psychologists call it the Zeigarnik Effect. The trick to making sure that you start and finish a project is just to start, no matter how small that first step is. That’s it. According to the Zeigarnik Effect, the mere act of starting a project signals to your brain that you’ve started working toward a goal but haven’t finished it yet. Your brain will then periodically remind you that you have an unfinished project. This effect is what gives you that unsettled feeling that there’s still something left to do. The mind is a powerful thing! So put yours to work. The rest will literally follow.

10. Keep it simple.

There is a wealth of information on productivity, but all the advice, tools, and systems can easily become overbearing. You might find yourself bombarded with a complex set of to-do lists, color-coded reminders, and so many productivity-boosting apps that you don’t know what to do with. Suddenly, you are spending more time managing your project managing tools rather than actually getting things done. So err on the side of caution, and keep it as simple as works for you. Write basic lists and reminders with pen and paper. Don’t get wrapped up in the latest and greatest techniques for boosting productivity unless it is something that truly works for you.

Increasing your efficiency and tackling your to-do list each day doesn’t have to be a daunting task. With a few tweaks to the way you approach thinking about and planning your projects, you’ll be the one everyone looks at thinking, “How does she do it?” It’s up to you whether you want to let them in on your productivity secrets.