Even in the world of technology, it is often how we work as much as the tools we use that impacts our personal productivity. Here is a collection of small tips and mindsets designed to speed up your workflow and improve your productivity by reducing stress and helping you use your time more efficiently.
- When asking someone to set up a meeting for you, be sure to include in the request the times when you are available. That will save you the time — and them the trouble — of a follow-up query on availability, or the time it takes to collect that information on a guesswork basis using a polling tool.
- When you have a project that needs input from another person, make asking for that input your priority before you start on your own part of the project. That way the input is more likely to come back to you in a timely way, and you can plug it directly into your ongoing work, instead of having to stop and wait for an answer to arrive.
- When your brain gets foggy and you’re having trouble concentrating on a task, get up and take a walk. Get your blood flowing, take a drink of water and talk to your colleagues if they’re similarly unengaged. The key to personal productivity isn’t trying to squeeze more work out of every minute of the day. Instead, it’s about maximizing your productivity during the time you’re focused on a task. You can get more done in an hour of clearheaded and focused work than eight hours spent foggy headed staring at a computer screen or project.
- There is a tendency to leave potentially useful information in your email inbox, where it gets buried over time in the accumulated mass. Email search tools are just not that good, and many people invest more time searching than it would take to reobtain or recreate the information from scratch. Not to mention the impact that a fruitless and frustrating search has on your creative mindset. This tip also touches on a broader productivity issue — the need to effectively manage your email inbox using rules, filters, folders and labels to presort and store your email so that what you need will be easier to track down. The time you take to organize your information will pay off later when you need to find something in a hurry.
- The “One Touch” rule applies to email and messages as well as paper. Try to only touch each electronic communication only once. The time wasted reacquainting yourself with an email’s content on multiple viewings accumulates and can impair a productive mindset. If the communication requests action and you’re able to act, then act and delete. If you’re not able to act, move it to your to-do list and delete. If it contains useful information that you may need later, file it or put it in a folder. If its not useful, delete it. The “One Touch” rule will keep your inbox more manageable, saving you time, plus you’ll feel better and more productive knowing that there are no projects or inputs lost in your inbox that could come back to bite you. A corollary to the “One Touch” rule is the “Two Minute” rule. If its something you can knock out in two minutes, get it done and get it out of your inbox and checked off of your to-do list.
- “Eat the Frog.” This is a riff on story-teller Mark Twain’s admonition that if you start the day by eating a frog, nothing worse can happen the rest of your day. In work terms, that translates into putting your most critical task first on your to-do list instead of procrastinating. Get the thing that is going to generate the most stress and strain done first and get it out of your way. That will take a load off your shoulders and let you fly through the rest of the “easier” projects.
- A world of instant communication is also a world of constant distraction. Social media has its place but can be a productivity killer in the workplace. There is a reason why increasingly cell phones and tablets are being kept out of the meeting room; its hard to engage and collaborate when team members are face down and focused on their devices. Set a good example by keeping the device in your pocket and focusing your attention on the speaker or on your collaborator. You’ll be more likely to make useful contributions and help the group avoid the bad and time-wasting assumptions that result when distraction is mistaken for consensus.
- Single-tasking versus multi-tasking. Most people like to think they are effective “multi-taskers,” but in truth we all get stressed and waste time when trying to manage multiple projects and deadlines simultaneously. By contrast, the single-tasking approach can frustrate collaboration, since your collaborators are waiting for your inputs or to make time to collaborate on their project. The key is to try to do both, but not necessarily at the same time. Multi-task your workflow and single task your project focus. Work like a juggler…keep all your projects in motion, but only one project in your hands (and occupying your mind) at a given point in time. You can keep the balls in the air by delegating and by not procrastinating when the ball lands back in your hands. Obviously, if you have too many balls in the air and they all came down at the same time, you’re likely to drop something. So be careful not to have too many projects ongoing at the same time. Just like the aspiring juggler, you start with a couple of projects in motion, and as you get comfortable that you can juggle them, you add more until you reach the natural limit of your abilities.
- The to-do list is a powerful productivity tool that lets you park future work so that it doesn’t distract from your current focus. Ticking off or striking completed items from your to-do list is empowering, and gives you a real sense of accomplishment that encourages you to tackle the next task. Even small “two-minute” items can be added, since that creates a record of how much you’ve actually accomplished, reinforcing that productive mind-set. There are many approaches, tools and techniques for keeping a to-do list, and you should find one that works for you. A tool or technique that lets you prioritize the work (high, medium, low), indicates deadlines or target dates, and that lets you break down big “to-dos” into discrete tasks can be helpful. You may even want to have to separate lists broken down for each project. As an alternative to the traditional list, you can consider using your electronic calendar to record your “to-do” items with specific dates so that your work flow actually “flows” over time. Just make sure you leave yourself enough time when calendaring to get the work done. For complex tasks, project management software may be a more effective tool to use in conjunction with your to-do list.
- The value of under promising and over delivering: Translated, that means setting reasonable expectations for completion of a project that anticipates the inevitable interruptions and delays that affect most workflows, plus an additional margin of error. That reduces the deadline stress that undermines creativity, and increases the probability of delighting the customer when things go well and you’re able to deliver earlier than promised. To be effective, your time and planning estimates have to seem reasonable to your customer, client or boss, who may be asking others for similar estimates. Avoid the temptation to over-promise if/when you are not confident you can deliver. Once you establish a reputation for over-delivering, you will be given the benefit of the doubt by your loyal customers or clients, and the trust of your boss. A work environment where both your clients and your supervisor are happy and deadline stress is manageable is often a happier and more productive one.
Julian Mercer is a management professional, consultant, teacher and occasional author with over 30 years of experience working in the technology sector.