Paul J. Mayer
Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.
This article is part of a four-part series that explores how to effectively manage your time and boost your levels of productivity. Below you will find links to all articles within this series:
- How to Manage Your Time
- How to Work Smarter, Not Harder
- Exploring the Productivity Process
- Boosting Your Levels of Productivity
You will also find a total of 20+ IQ Matrix maps exploring the various aspects of productivity by visiting our Knowledge Base.
Guidelines for Boosting Productivity
Within this first section let’s explore several quick tips, suggestions, and guidelines to help you boost your levels of productivity throughout the day. Some of these ideas might seem rather simplistic. In fact, many ideas are simply built upon common sense principles. You will probably read nothing new within this article. All of this stuff you probably already know. However, the key is to put that knowledge into action.
These ideas will work for you. You just need to discipline yourself to work them into your routine and schedule. Only then will you gain true value from turning knowledge into action.
Use a Calendar and Task List
One of the first and most overlooked ways to help boost your levels of productivity is to use a calendar and task list with purpose.
A task list will help you to outline your highest priorities that you must focus on throughout the day. Having your priorities written down in this way makes them more concrete and real. However, this is only half of the equation.
The other half of the equation is to use a calendar to not only schedule appointments and meetings but to use it for the purpose of scheduling time to undertake certain tasks and projects. Scheduling tasks into your calendar in this way instead of just listing them down on paper involves more commitment. It’s as though you are making an appointment with yourself to work on a specific task for a specified period of time. This will ensure that you stay focused on what needs to get done for the designated time period.
Time Box Your Tasks
To further explore what it means to schedule tasks into your calendar, let’s take a look at time boxing.
Timeboxing your tasks means that you are assigning a specific time slot during the day to work on designated tasks. Therefore instead of working on a task until it is completed, you are simply committing yourself to work on this task for a very specified period of time. We’ll talk about grouping similar tasks below, but you can most certainly bundle complimentary tasks together and assign them to specific time periods throughout the day.
For more information about timeboxing, please read 15 Time Boxing Strategies to Get Things Done.
Use a Checklist to Systematize Your Workflow
If you repeatedly do the same tasks week-to-week, then it’s worthwhile creating checklists. This is particularly helpful when working through more complex tasks that involve many different steps. Checklists are fantastic tools in such instances because they help you to think less and do more. The fewer micro-decisions you make throughout the day, the more energy and resources you can assign to the macro decisions that will have the biggest impact on your workflow.
Group Similar Tasks Together
You can dramatically boost your levels of productivity by grouping similar tasks together. For instance, you can assign a time to respond to all your emails and correspondence within a specific time slot. Or you can bundle your errands together and get them done within a specific time period. Ask yourself:
What tasks could I potentially bundle together?
What other tasks could I potentially do together with this particular task?
What tasks naturally complement one another?
Bundling tasks together in this way will, of course, take some practice, however, over time you will eventually find the right balance and develop workflow patterns that can help you get more done in less time throughout the day.
Take Care of the Big Rocks First
Your Big Rocks are your highest priority activities. They are the things that matter the most and will have the biggest impact on your day. These are the tasks that if left uncompleted at the end of the day will immediately put you on the back-foot the very next day. However, it’s important to understand that these are not necessarily urgent tasks. Urgent tasks might not be important, and important tasks might very well not be urgent. What’s important are the tasks that will provide you with the greatest long-term returns. These are the tasks you must be focusing on.
Yes of course, manage the urgent tasks that need your attention, but your priority is always to tackle the Big Rocks first and foremost before anything else. Ask yourself:
What are my most important tasks?
What highest priority activities must I focus on today?
What task will I work on first?
Gaining clarity about what’s most important at the start of the day will help you focus on the right things moving forward. And whenever you get distracted, just remind yourself of what’s most important to accomplish today to get yourself back on track.
Complete Toughest Task Next
Having identified the Big Rocks, it’s now time to tackle the toughest of those tasks first. Tough tasks will always linger in your mind, and putting them off may even become a burden as the day goes on.
If you’re currently working on a task and yet your mind is dreading a task that you have put off for later that day, then maybe you should immediately stop what you’re doing and complete that other task first. That way your mind will be clear and can focus purely on the task at hand.
There are of course exceptions to this rule as it may not be possible to complete some tasks without certain resources. In such instances be very wary of your thoughts and don’t allow them to linger on anything except for the task at hand. The more you allow your mind to drift into the future the more this will hurt your productivity in the present.
Complete 2-minute Tasks Immediately
As a general rule, if a task is likely to take less than 2 minutes to do, either complete it immediately to get it off your mind or group it together with other similar tasks for later. Ask yourself:
Will this take me less than 2 minutes?
If the answer is YES, then DO IT NOW or bundle it for later. Don’t get yourself into the habit of reading that email over and over again several times a day before you respond. Get the task done immediately to get it off your mind, or group it with other similar tasks and don’t think about it until the scheduled time.
Work on the Next Action Only
It’s, of course, important to have goals that direct your focus and attention throughout the day. However, it’s also important not to get caught up in those goals and instead focus on the task at hand.
Focusing on one task at a time until it has been completed is one of the keys to high levels of productivity. Ask yourself:
What must I do next?
What’s the next most important action I must take?
This is all about being decisive throughout the day. It’s about thoroughly understanding what the next step of the process is, and then taking that action without hesitation.
Many people are able to focus very well on the task at hand, however where they often get caught up is within that period between tasks. Hesitation breeds indecision, and indecision leads to procrastination or even perfectionism. It’s important to be mindful of this trap and to practice taking decisive action when moving from task-to-task.
Work with More Purpose
Working with purpose means clearly understanding why you are doing what you’re doing. It means working with intention as if on a mission working towards a very specific goal.
Every small or big task and activity you partake in matters. Everything needs to fit that bigger picture you have in mind. So whether you’re typing up an email response or preparing for a presentation, always understand that there is a purpose behind everything you do. And with purposeful action, you act more decisively and work with more urgency throughout the day.
Use a Timer to Create a Sense of Urgency
Working with urgency will often force you to think more creatively and critically about your workflow. This will lead to more decisive action and help you to get more done throughout the day. However, urgency isn’t always easy to create, unless of course, you have a timer.
While working on a task set a timer for a specific period of time. Then commit yourself to completing this task within that allotted time period. Whether you complete it or not doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that you are focused on getting the task done within the allotted time slot.
Having the timer in play forces you to start thinking about what needs to get done a little differently than you would have without that sense of urgency. And that’s really what matters because doing things in this way will force you to find ways to work smarter rather than harder. It will also encourage you to streamline your workflow and eliminate all the unnecessary activities or steps that would normally be part of the workflow for that task.
For more information on how to work with more urgency, please read Living with More Urgency.
One of the common sense ways to boost your levels of productivity is of course to eliminate distractions. Distractions could come in the form of people, technology, environmental sounds and movement, and even in the form of personal habits that kind of get in the way of how we work. Absolutely anything that disrupts your workflow is a distraction that hurts your productivity. Take some time to identify these distractions and develop a plan of action to either eliminate them or remove yourself from their presence. Ask yourself:
What distractions are interrupting my workflow?
How could I potentially eliminate these distractions?
How could I potentially remove myself from these distractions?
Sort Issues Over the Telephone
These days it’s just too easy to sidestep a quick resolution to an issue by simply sending a text message or email. However, these forms of communication are very slow and even though it might seem like a good idea to send a quick message to clarify something, it can often become a huge burden on your time in the long-run.
Consider instead resolving the issue or getting the clarity you need over the telephone. A quick 2 to 3-minute phone call could potentially save you 30 minutes of back and forth communication via email or text messages.
Use Technology to Automate Tasks
Technology can either be a friend or foe. In this instance, it can be a big time saver because it can help streamline the process of getting your work done. The biggest advantage is, of course, using technology to help automate tasks or to simplify your workflow. Of course, the technology you use (e.g. phones, computers, software, apps, gadgets, etc.) will depend on the work you are engaged in. As such, it’s important to take some time to find the right technology and tools that can help complement and improve your workflow.
Take Micro and Macro Breaks
Micro-breaks are very short breaks throughout the day lasting from anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes. A 30-second break may include getting off the computer and doing a few stretches. Longer breaks may include taking a quick walk around the home or office to help you clear your head and stay focused.
Most people find it very difficult to concentrate on any one task for longer than 15 minutes at a time. As such a 30 second microbreak every 15 minutes and a longer microbreak every hour will help fight off work fatigue. Yes, of course, you will be losing this time that you could otherwise assign to work activities. However, the energy you gain from taking micro-breaks throughout the day will allow you to work at peak levels of productivity for longer periods at a time as the day goes on. You will therefore at the end of the day be far more productive working in short uninterrupted spurts, then trying to work for several hours at a time.
Macro breaks, on the other hand, are much longer. They involve taking an afternoon or even a day off work to help you recharge, re-inspire, and re-energize your spirit. It’s important to take these breaks to avoid burnout. When there’s too much stress and overwhelm to deal with, we often work in very unproductive ways. This is the time to disengage and take some time to yourself to re-gather your thoughts and gather the energy you need to re-engage in your work once again.
Blur the Lines Between Work and Play
What if you could make work more fun and enjoyable? What if work became more of a game rather than a chore or obligation? This is possible if you begin blurring the lines between work and play.
Take some time to re-engage with your tasks and responsibilities in a different way. Instead of doing them in the usual boring way, put a little more life and creativity into everything you do. It could, for instance, be as simple as playing a little music in the background or challenging yourself to complete a task within an allotted time period. Whatever it is for you, it’s important to turn work into play any way you can. Ask yourself:
How could I potentially turn this into a game?
How could I turn this task into a challenge?
What could I add to this task that would make it more enjoyable and fun?
How could I possibly merge this task with a persona hobby of mine?
As you begin blurring the lines between work and play you will begin enjoying what you do, and with enjoyment often comes higher levels of productivity that will help you to get more done in less time.
Use these Productivity Shortcuts
Within this second section let’s take a look at several productivity shortcuts that are bound to save you ample time. In fact, these suggestions can help you potentially gain several extra hours throughout the week that you can use to get more of the important stuff done. Of course, this is not just about gaining time, but also about saving yourself future lost time.
One factor that’s often overlooked is when things go wrong unexpectedly. In fact, when it comes to productivity you must always keep Murphy’s Law at the forefront of your mind. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time. You must be prepared, or face the consequences with lost productivity.
Let’s now take a more detailed look at several productivity shortcuts.
Make Health Your Number One Priority
When we are feeling healthy and full of energy we naturally get more done in less time simply because we think more clearly and have the necessary strength to follow through with our actions. And yet health is something that we often take for granted. It’s something we may often disregard until the moment it is lost.
With health comes higher levels of willpower and it’s also easier to discipline ourselves to follow through with our actions. There are often fewer excuses and we can work with more purpose and intention throughout the day.
Health is something that we should never take for granted. With it, we can optimize our productivity levels throughout the week, but without it, everything becomes an endless struggle that drains motivation and leads to hours of lost productivity.
Use Your Commute Time Effectively
How many hours do you typically spend per week commuting to and from work, or to and from meetings and appointments? For most people, this adds up to possibly 5 hours per week if not more. Just imagine what you could potentially get done within that 5 hour period. Could you potentially utilize that time in more productive ways? Of course, you could.
If you drive a car to and from work then you could, for instance, listen to audio books that help you develop essential soft skills to improve your effectiveness and efficiency on the job. Or you could even learn a new language or listen back to the details of a meeting you recorded earlier. If on the other hand, you take public transport, then you have more flexibility to catch up with work on your laptop or watch videos that can help you learn more about a work-related activity or skill.
Utilizing your time in this way can literally save you an entire workday of “on the job activity”. However, the key, of course, is understanding your priorities and your highest value activities and then deciding how you might be able to use your commute time most effectively to make progress in these areas.
Plan to Arrive Early
Arriving early shows that you are in control of your time and schedule. It also means that you are considerate of other people’s time. In fact, productive people are never too busy to arrive a little earlier than planned. They understand that when commuting there might be delays, and so they plan ahead of time to arrive early. And if they need to wait for the other party to arrive, then they, of course, use their waiting time in productive ways…
Use Waiting Time Wisely
Whether you’re waiting for the other party to arrive, or waiting in the supermarket line, or waiting for that huge file to load on your slow work computer, you always have a choice. You can wait and do nothing, or you can wait and utilize your time more productively.
You could for instance use this time to check emails or read over reports, or listen to a podcast that can help you learn more about your business, career path or industry. Likewise carrying a notepad to capture tasks, thoughts, and ideas while waiting could be a very productive use of your time. However, you do need to be prepared for these downtime periods when you’re not officially working. Therefore plan in advance to bring a note-pad, to take your tablet, to prepare that podcast for listening, or that business report for reading. No matter what it is, just be prepared to make the most of your downtime. It could essentially help save you several hours per week of additional work time.
Pre-Order Your Lunch
Of course, if you can skip the waiting lines altogether, then that’s probably an even better option. You can, for instance, skip the lunchtime cues by pre-ordering your lunch in advance or getting it delivered straight to your work desk. That way you don’t have to wait and can spend those extra few minutes finishing off an email or report. Over the course of a year, you could potentially gain many extra hours of productive work time simply by pre-ordering your lunch in advance.
Keep Your Work-Space Clean and Organized
Have you ever spent way too long looking for something and as a result you ended up on the back foot (behind in your tasks) for the remainder of the day? Or have you ever needed to work a little too hard to reach for that stapler, or to file those papers away? These things might, of course, seem rather small and insignificant, however, those little trips you take around the office are stealing your precious time away.
A clean and well-organized work-space will save you ample time looking for stuff. Also having everything you need at arm’s reach will allow you to work more efficiently throughout the day.
A clean and well-organized work-space also builds a more pleasant working environment. And when things are pleasant you will naturally feel more motivated and inspired over the course of the work week.
Backup Your Work and Resources
Backing up your work may initially cost you a little time, but in the long-run, it could save hundreds of hours of lost time in the event that you need to write that report again, or create that presentation from scratch. It’s like taking out insurance for your time. Yes, it may take a little time to setup and manage, but it could very well be the best decision you make if things take a turn for the worse. Having said that, these days backups can be automated very easily and therefore don’t need to take a lot of time to set up or manage. There are really no excuses.
Plan in Advance for Possible Obstacles
Your day will often be filled with things that will test your patience and drain your energy and time. In order to work at the highest levels of productivity it’s important to anticipate the potential challenges you might face, and develop a plan of action on how you will deal with these people, events, and/or circumstances. Ask yourself:
What potential challenges might I face today that may hurt my productivity?
How will I deal with these challenges when they arise?
What else could potentially go wrong that I may need to face?
When things take a turn for the worse, that is when you must be flexible and adapt to the changing conditions and circumstances; and as a result, make the necessary adjustments to your workflow and schedule to accommodate these changes. It’s not what happens that matters, it’s rather what you do with what happens (how you respond) that counts. Of course being ready and prepared for these potential challenges in advance will help you make the right decisions about how you will best utilize your time when problems arise.
Turn Off Technology When Needing to Focus
Technology can be a blessing, but in many other instances, it can also be a burden and distraction. If you often find yourself unable to focus for long periods at a time because you just can’t resist jumping onto Facebook, or checking your emails, or reading up on the latest celebrity gossip, then that’s probably a good indication that technology is interrupting your workflow. In such instances just switch things off, or take yourself into another work environment where you can work without technological distractions. Making these changes can potentially gain you an extra hour of productivity each day.
Outsource Your Errands
Oftentimes errands are an unnecessary distraction that takes up way too much time than we can afford. However, they are often things that just need to get done. And if not you, then how else are they going to get done? Have you considered outsourcing your errands?
Outsourcing errands and tasks that are of low value but of high urgency can leave you more time to focus on the things that matter most. This by itself could save you hours of running around each week that you could use to finish off that presentation or write up that business report.
Use the Power of Teamwork
Doing everything yourself is never the most optimal use of your time. You have strengths, which is great, but you also have weaknesses in other areas. These weaknesses are letting you down and hurting your productivity. In such instances, it’s helpful to work in a team environment where you share responsibility. You focus on the areas that you are best at, and other people will focus on areas that you would normally struggle with. This way as a team you will optimize your work time and generate higher levels of productivity.
Work More Intelligently to Avoid Distractions
To work intelligently in this context means to work in ways that will maximize your time and efforts. For instance, distractions are a huge source of lost productivity throughout the day. The more distractions you succumb to, the less work you are likely to get done. Therefore, to work more intelligently requires working your way around these distractions. For instance, you could effectively avoid distractions by arriving to work early before anyone else. That way you can get the most important stuff done before everyone else arrives at the office. Or you could stay back late and work distraction-free into the late hours of the evening. Alternatively, you could avoid all the office-related distractions by working remotely.
Know When to Quit or Rest
Knowing when to quit for the day or when to move onto another task can potentially save you hours of less than productive time spent in less than optimal ways.
We all move through energy peaks and valleys throughout the day, and working on mentally involving tasks when we are feeling low on energy is just not a productive use of time. Instead, focus on less resource intensive tasks for low energy periods of the day. Just making this simple shift can dramatically boost your levels of productivity.
Understanding when it’s the best time to rest and recharge your batteries can ensure that you maintain consistent levels of productivity throughout the day. As such, whenever you feel as though your batteries need a recharge, ask yourself:
Am I still being productive, or am I simply running on fumes?
Would taking a break or moving onto a less resource intensive task serve me better?
Oftentimes a little rest can do wonders for your clarity of mind. And with a rejuvenated brain on your shoulders, you can tackle the task with more vigor, motivation, and energy the next morning.
Barriers to High Levels of Productivity
Within this final section let’s take a look at some barriers/challenges you might face that will often keep you from optimizing your time, energy and efforts throughout the day. Your productivity is dependent on your ability to avoid these pitfalls wherever possible. It, of course, won’t be easy to break out of old habits, but for the sake of your long-term productivity, these are absolutely areas you must stay very vigilant of as you work through your day.
To Avoid or Not to Avoid Multi-Tasking?
That is, of course, a good question. I used to be a big proponent of multi-tasking as long as complimentary tasks are brought together. However, if both tasks require your full attention, then multi-tasking rarely if ever works. You can’t, for instance, give 100 percent attention to two tasks. Unfortunately, we are not capable of dividing up our attention in this way. We can either pay attention to one task or to the other task, never to both at once. However, there is an exception to this rule.
You can effectively multi-task if working on something that requires little to no thought or attention. This is probably something you have done time and again and as a result, the actions involved in the task have become habitual and automatic. In such instances, you could conduct this task while listening to a podcast. Here you can give your attention to the content of the podcast while continuing to work on your task as it doesn’t require mental involvement. As such these two tasks/activities are complimentary. They don’t interfere with one another and as such multi-tasking is possible. However, if you have two tasks that require your thought and attention then multi-tasking will divide your efforts. You would be better off focusing on one task until it’s completed before moving onto the next.
The Cycles of Procrastination and Perfectionism
It’s easy to fall into the trap of procrastination and perfectionism. It’s something that happens quite often to many of us throughout the day.
Both of these habitual patterns of behavior are often triggered by certain events, circumstances, emotions and/or thoughts. The key is, therefore, to get familiar with your triggers. Come to understand how these behaviors arise. Once you have this clarity, you will then be able to catch yourself in the act and make different choices on the fly.
For instance, you might fall into a procrastination cycle whenever you begin feeling a little too stressed or overwhelmed. This will instantly trigger fear of failure that you won’t get things accomplished, and as a result, you start to disengage from what needs to get done and instead focus your time and efforts on things that are within your control. Control brings you comfort, but comfort is nothing more but the illusion of procrastination.
A World of Distraction
Today we are living in a technologically rich world. There are just so many gadgets and devices that we can work and play with. Then there are all these applications that can either make our lives easier or can just as easily distract us from the task at hand. And then there’s of course television, YouTube, and the endless wonders that can be found over the internet. The world is certainly at our fingertips, but for many, this is to our detriment.
Your day is probably an endless struggle of trying to fight over distractions in an attempt to get things done. But time and again we just get caught up checking our emails, conducting unnecessary research on Google, absorbing ourselves in the latest news and gossip from around the world, and so much more. Yes, all this makes us quite busy, but being busy is certainly not same as being productive. There is a difference, and it’s up to you to recognize when your productive efforts turn into nothing more than aimless busyness that gets you nowhere.
The Unnecessary Meeting
Another major source of distraction is unnecessary meetings. These meetings are of course for the purpose of getting on the same page with other people on our team so that we can get more work done in pursuit of our organizational goals. However, oftentimes these meetings are nothing more than a waste of time. They are unnecessary because they take too long and oftentimes don’t fulfill their intended purpose. In fact, they can often hurt your productivity.
Please don’t get me wrong. Meetings can be quite valuable. However, they do often need to be quick and to the point. Too many times something that could have been covered within 5 minutes gets extended over a period of 60 minutes. That’s 55 minutes of productive time that is forever lost. These are traps that plenty of organizations fall into. However, it’s a trap that you can potentially choose to avoid. Just say “no” to meetings that don’t add any real value. Or make an effort to ensure that the meetings stay on point and take no longer than required.
Your Brain is Your Greatest Saboteur
Finally, the biggest barrier to high levels of productivity sits within your brain. Yes, your brain is your greatest saboteur when you constantly dwell on problems, indulge in negative thoughts, over analyze things, stress over minor issues, make excuses, and more. Your brain will sabotage your productivity throughout the day in a multitude of ways. However, it really doesn’t need to be this way. You can take charge of the thoughts you tend to dwell upon. However, this won’t be easy. It will take energy and conscious effort to eradicate these self-defeating thinking habits. And you can certainly do it, but until you do, you will continue to be plagued by less than optimal results from your efforts.
For more information on how to eliminate these types of thoughts, please read Eliminating Unhelpful Thinking Styles.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
Did you gain value from this article? Would you like to keep these concepts at the forefront of your mind? If so, then you might like to download the accompanying mind map reference poster to your iPad, tablet or computer. The map presents you with a quick overview of this article. It’s designed specifically to help improve your memory and recall of this information so that you can better integrate these concepts into your daily thoughts, habits and actions. Your purchase will also go a long way towards supporting the further development of these maps.
Here are three recommended IQ Matrix mind map bundles that explore how to improve your productivity, how to develop key success habits, and how to achieve your career aspirations.
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 3 Ways to Squash Burnout and Boost Productivity @ Pick Crew
- 5 Ways to Boost Work Productivity @ Psychology Today
- 7 Surprising Ways Procrastination Can Boost Productivity @ Inc.
- 9 Tips for Boosting Productivity at Work @ Forbes
- 12 Ways to Boost Your Productivity @ World Economic Forum
- 50 Ways to Increase Your Productivity @ Lifehack
- 100 Best Foods for Boosting Productivity @ Huffington Post
- Can Napping at Work Boost Productivity @ ABC News
- How Single Tasking Boosts Your Productivity @ Fast Company
- How to Design an Office that Boosts Productivity @ The Next Web
- The 18 Minute Ritual that will Boost Your Productivity @ Entrepreneur
- Try a Midday Workout to Boost Productivity @ Greatist
- Want to Increase Your Productivity? Study Says: Look at this adorable kitten @ The Washington Post