Working harder to boost your productivity will only get you so far if you’re not also working smarter. It’s not only about putting in more hours or increasing overtime. Making that the focus of your strategy is likelier to fast-track you to burn out than it is to produce the results you want.
If you’re serious about being able to do more things in less time, you need to re-examine your workflow to tease out the different barriers to your productivity and start systematically eliminating them one by one. Once you’ve covered all your bases, productivity will naturally follow suit.
Unsurprisingly, the top productivity killers across the board are also the ones that most people think can’t be helped.
Just because it’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Here are the six most common impediments to workplace productivity, and how you can eliminate them.
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Even if you don’t work in an open office, you probably get people popping by your cubicle a few times a day for a quick check-in or just a casual chat that could honestly wait till later.
Open office plans amplify the problem by normalising background noise and constant interruption.
Whoever first conceptualised the open office must have intended for it to encourage collaboration within and between teams, but recent research shows that it does the exact opposite.
Not only do people in open offices resort more to digital communication instead of face-to-face interaction, they’re also less productive because of how distracting the environment is.
Before open offices came into the spotlight, Steve Jobs had already tested them out at Pixar–and nixed them. The reason? People weren’t productive.
Pixar’s offices today are a hybrid of private spaces and open areas, with 5-6 individual offices clustered around a breakout area for collaboration.
Redesigning the entire office will take a lot more time and power than you currently have. The next best thing is to introduce do-not-disturb signals that let your co-workers know not to interrupt you unless absolutely necessary.
It’s as simple as putting up a “do not disturb” sign on your desk or having a polite but firm go-to phrase that lets people know that you need full concentration on the task at hand.
Unstructured and haphazard meetings often end up taking more than necessary to wrap up. Even then, they sometimes end without a proper conclusion, which only exasperates everyone and creates enmity if there’s one person in particular who’s responsible for the inefficiency.
If you put together all the extra time wasted on meetings that lasted far longer than they should have, how many more tasks could you have fit into your day?
To this effect, some companies have instituted “no-meeting” days, which have proven to be successful in raising productivity. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, though, particularly if the nature of your work necessitates constant interfacing.
Never call for a meeting without having a specific agenda and intended outcome for it. Forcing the discussion to go in a particular direction this way hedges against digressions that often snowball into huge time-wasters.
Not everybody has to attend every single meeting. Depending on the objective of the meeting, be selective about who needs to attend. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for example, famously has a “two pizza rule” for meetings. If two pizzas aren’t enough to feed everyone, then there are too many attendees for the meeting to be productive.
Between office communicators, text messages, and emails, your digital devices alone can swallow up a massive chunk of your time before you even realise it.
Being able to clear out your inbox at the end of every day might make you feel productive and accomplished, but in reality, it’s likelier to be a superficial and unreliable indicator of how efficiently you’re using your time.
Cal Newport, a computer scientist and NYT bestselling author, writes that knowledge workers, in particular, tend to fall back on “busyness as proxy for productivity.” They engage more in activities that make them look busy (like checking their emails excessively) because they lack “clear indicators of what it means to be productive.”
If your KPIs aren’t clear enough, fix it by discussing a better metric with your superiors. Then be sure to regularly re-visit your weekly and monthly goals so that you have clarity about what productivity looks like for you in your situation. Re-aligning yourself this way ensures you spend less time “looking” busy and more time getting things done.
Limit your email usage to specific times over the course of the day. You might, for example, set aside 15 minutes at the start, middle and end of every day for emails.
Being as wired and plugged in as we are all the time has made multi-tasking a common practice not just at work, but in every aspect of our lives.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s also a surefire way to be less productive.
Research has shown that each time you switch from one task to another, your brain takes a while to re-calibrate itself. Do the math: with the amount of task-switching you probably engage in daily, how much time do you lose every day?
Learn to direct all your attention to the task immediately in front of you. Move on to the next task only when you’ve completed the one before it. If you have a bigger task that requires days or weeks’ worth of work and you can’t afford to stop working on other tasks during that time, break it down to smaller mini-tasks that you can systematically strike off your list every day.
Doing one thing at a time won’t increase your productivity if you’re spending more time on less urgent tasks than necessary. To hedge against this, make sure you start each workday with a prepared task list arranged in order of urgency. It’ll give you a clearer idea of how to allocate your time accordingly and cut out time wastage since you don’t need to think about what’s next after finishing each task.
The last productivity killer on this list is also probably the sneakiest one. Thanks to a phenomenon which The New Yorker called “the cult of overwork” in a 2014 article, we are burning out and tiring ourselves fasting than ever before.
Turning up to work when you’re burnt out isn’t just going to put a dampener on the mood in the office. It’s also detrimental to your ability to focus since you’re too exhausted. The lack of enthusiasm about your job isn’t going to do any favours for self-motivation, either.
When you’re burnt out, you end up working at a slower pace than usual, producing less output than you can.
Everyone responds differently to stress and pressure, and that applies to job burnout as well. Knowing how you react to it specifically helps you to be alert so you can recognise the warnings signs (this’ll help) before you fall into full-fledged burnout mode.
If you’re already in the thick of it, the best thing you can do for yourself is to step back and re-group. What’s causing your burnout? Is it overwork, or is it feeling undervalued at work? Is it because you have a problem delegating tasks, or is it because you’re a perfectionist (or both?) If you know the root of the problem, you’ll know how to cure it.