How to Increase Productivity at Work

Imagine closing each workday with a satisfied sigh, knowing that you had been so productive that you accomplished everything on your list. And knowing, too, that you were at the top of your creative game—getting your tasks done both efficiently and well. See yourself whistling as you walk away from work?

You can be the star in this movie about productivity, rather than the alternate version where you end the day tired and slumped behind a desk stacked with unfinished projects. If you don’t like the way your usual workday goes, there is a way to change it.

Most of us aren’t as productive as we would like for two reasons: We have bad habits that interfere with our workplace productivity and we’re reactive rather than proactive, putting out fires instead of making progress toward our goals.

The solution is simple, though not always easy. We can replace our bad habits and reactive patterns with good habits that will make us proactive, and take charge of our own workdays. Follow these tips on how to increase productivity and become your best, most productive self at work.

Do Your Heavy Lifting When You're at Your Best

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There’s endless advice out there for people not to do mental sludge tasks like answering email or routine chores in the morning, but to start out instead doing whatever tasks are most creatively demanding—which is great if you’re a morning person. If you’re more of a night owl, like me, obviously this isn’t going to work well for you.

Productivity expert Tony Wong advises, “Use your morning to focus on yourself… Start your day out right by ignoring your emails in the morning and getting in a good breakfast, reading the news, meditating, or working out. This will ensure you’ve got the necessary fuel for a productive day.” The point is, do your most demanding tasks in your personal peak productivity time, whenever that is.

Stop Multitasking

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It's a productivity killer. Research shows that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks. Even more startling, in a University of London study, IQ dropped 15 points for some multitasking men.

Need more evidence? A study out of the University of Sussex in the UK indicates that multitasking may actually be physically harming your brain. The study found that participants addicted to using multiple devices simultaneously had a lower gray-matter density in a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to emotional control and decision-making, empathy, and the brain's response to rewards.

So stop trying to do everything at once. Instead, dramatically increase productivity by giving your full attention to one task at a time. When your eyes and hands start drifting toward something else, think about how important it is to keep all your little gray cells.

Prepare a To-Do List Each Night

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To-do lists are invaluable productivity aids. They get you organized, provide you with focus and reward you with feelings of satisfaction when you’re able to check off things that you’ve accomplished.

Making (or updating) a to-do list each night means that you won’t waste time at the start of the workday looking for your task. You might even try talking through your list with someone. Leo Wildrich, co-founder of Buffer, explains the power of this technique in "What Multitasking Does To Our Brains":

The to-do list I jotted down didn't change, but it felt as if I had done half the work of it all in my head already. The next day, all I had to do is look at the task and get it done.

Cut Down Your To-Do List

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How many items are on your typical to-do list? Eight? Twenty-eight? However many, you’ll feel good when you finish each of them and cross them off. But you’ll never join the ranks of the productivity superstars unless you cross off some of them before you even bother to do them—because higher productivity demands focus.

In "The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs," Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, relates how Jobs’ insistence that Apple produce just four computers saved the company. He also relates how Jobs used to-do lists to engender focus:

After he righted the company, Jobs began taking his 'top 100' people on a retreat each year. On the last day, he would stand in front of a whiteboard… and ask, 'What are the 10 things we should be doing next?' People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down—and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of 10. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, 'We can only do three.'

Getting focused means narrowing your options. So each night when you’re reviewing your to-do list, ask yourself two questions;

  1. What are the important tasks on this list?
  2. How many of these important tasks can I realistically accomplish or make significant progress on tomorrow?

Delegate Properly

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Delegation is to productivity as a nail gun is to driving nails. Once you’ve started using it, you’ll be amazed at just how much faster and easier your job is. If you do it right, that is. For many managers and business people, delegating is like a polar bear swim; they plunge in enthusiastically but jump out just as fast.

Why? The most common complaint is that delegating work gives the manager or leader even more to do; now they have to supervise someone else’s work on top of doing their own. But If you assign a task to someone and then supervise them closely while they’re doing it, you’re micromanaging, not delegating.

When you delegate properly, you have more time to spend on your own work. The key is to assign the right task to the right person—a person you know has the skills to do the job and that you can trust to get it done—and then leave them to it. It takes some getting used to, but you'll be surprised how productive you can be when you really let go.

Eliminate Distractions

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Nilofer Merchant, HBR Writer and founder of Rubicon Consulting, shares some valuable advice that her boss gave her early in her career:

Feed the Eagles. There are only a few things that matter. Know what they are. And place your energy into them. They aren’t always right in front of you so you need to look up and out more. Starve the Turkeys—lots of things are right in front of you … pecking around, making noise, and demanding attention. Because they are right in front of you, it’s easy to pay attention to them most and first. Ignore them. They will actually do fine without you.”

We've already looked at the importance of focus. But the flip side is that you need to identify and ignore those turkeys too. And for many of us, those turkeys demanding attention are social media and email.

To be productive, you need to shut down their noise and shoo them away. Turn off your email and phone notifications if you need full concentration. Are you a Facebook or Twitter addict? Use social media as a carrot. Allow yourself X number of minutes browsing after you accomplish a major task. Then shut it off and get back to work.

Plan Phone Calls

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Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own personal secretary so you could say, “Hold my calls!” while you were working on something? Well guess what? You can manage your phone calls yourself and the payoff will be huge gains in productivity.

First, unless you are expecting a critical call, turn off your phone when you’re about to work on a project that needs your full attention. Then, set aside a structured time to make all your outgoing calls so you spend less time trying to reach people and more time in productive conversations.

If you’re working on something that doesn’t need your full attention, feel free to leave your phone on and answer calls; it saves you from having a batch of phone calls to return at some point during your day. But know when the phone will be a distraction, and get it out of the way.

Break up Work Periods With Exercise

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Studies have shown that physical activity enhances brain function. And while you might assume (rightly) that that enhanced brainpower will give you improved concentration, more creativity, and faster learning, you might not realize that exercise increases your brain’s affective skills, too, meaning that you’ll find it easier to get along with others.

If you want the most bang for the buck, exercise during work hours. A Leeds Metropolitan University study found that 65% of workers who used their company gym at lunchtime were more productive and had better personal interactions with their colleagues than those who didn’t use the gym at lunch.

In sum, it’s time to take these words from Ron Freidman to heart and get into a regular exercise routine:

Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.

Be Optimistic

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Happy people are more productive.

In a Maastricht University study of optimism and performance in call centers, results showed that optimists in the tested group made more sales and achieved more bonuses. More specifically, it was only dispositional optimists who showed greater success. The study authors define dispositional optimism as generally expecting good outcomes over bad ones in life.

If you’re not a naturally optimistic person, this is the disposition you want to cultivate—and the good news is that you can. In his studies, happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor asked tax managers at KMPG to perform one of five activities a day for three weeks. He found that the experimental group with highest scores in optimism and life satisfaction—both right after the experiment concluded and four months later—was the one tasked with engaging positively with people in their social support network.

The most direct route to happiness, Achor found in his research, was providing social support to others:

Social support providers—people who picked up slack for others, invited coworkers to lunch, and organized office activities—were not only 10 times more likely to be engaged at work than those who kept to themselves; they were 40% more likely to get a promotion.

Get Enough Sleep

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Seventy percent of Americans admitted to sleeping on the job in a survey done by William A. Anthony, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of Boston University's Center for Psychological Rehabilitation. Why? Because they need to, Anthony says. Early-morning commutes, long work hours, and too many responsibilities at home mean that increasing numbers of people aren’t getting the shuteye they need.

We all know that sleep deprivation has negative effects on our performance. Lack of sleep decreases our concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning. And because the pre-frontal cortex is particularly vulnerable to a lack of sleep, tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought will be the most impaired. Surprisingly, it only takes one night of sleep deprivation to create big deficits in our abilities.

So how much sleep do you need? Seven to nine hours a night if you’re an adult age 26 to 64, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you’re not getting that much, then taking a nap during the day could be beneficial to your productivity.

One Last Tip

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But certainly not least: Take care of yourself.

Getting enough sleep and making exercise part of your routine are just two of the things you need to do every day to be at your best and most productive.

You probably know the rest:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Get rid of your bad habits, whether they be smoking or hanging around toxic people.
  • And be nice to yourself as well as to other people. Take time for yourself and do whatever (healthy) thing recharges and refreshes you.

The healthier you are, the more productive you’ll be. And the more productive you are with your work, the more time you’ll have to spend however you like.