Guest post by Claire Kellems, author of My Life In Order.
Staying productive at work is the pinnacle of productivity in my mind. For me, work is where I have the least control due to competing priorities, a large volume of tasks, high expectations of others, and constant distractions.
How is it possible to overcome these obstacles to get the most done in the least amount of time while focusing on the important, not overlooking the urgent, and remembering that even the mundane still needs to be completed?
There have been countless books written on the topic of productivity, but many of the ideas are more theoretical than practical. If I lived in a vacuum, I’d be a productivity machine, but I live in the real world where Murphy’s Law prevails and the amount of responsibility far outweighs the hours in the day.
After much trial and error, I’ve found a few tricks to remaining productive at work―in real life―that I want to share.
1. Don’t go to work!
I don’t mean quit or play hooky―I mean work from somewhere other than your regular office. This is my number one productivity booster! A change of scenery helps me to be more creative and more focused. If I go to the library, for instance, I can more easily specify exactly what I’ll work on while I’m there than if I were in my office surrounded by reminders of all the undone things on my plate.
Being away from your office also gives you the freedom to ignore new, incoming triggers like emails and voicemails or “drive-by” meetings. When you aren’t focused on controlling the new inputs, you can focus on what you really want to get done.
Some ideas of where you can work are home, library, coffee shop, a vacant office or conference room in your building, or a co-working space.
2. Underestimate what you can accomplish
This sounds counterintuitive because we have been told since childhood to believe in ourselves, try our hardest, and reach for the stars. I’m telling you to do all that, but only on a very few things a day. Some experts call these your most important things or tasks (MITs) for the day.
Ideally, at the end of your workday, write down your MITs for the following day. Limit yourself to 3-5 tasks that you MUST complete. Then, to avoid the panic that I feel setting in for those of you who are saying, “But I have SO many more than 3-5 things that I need to do every day”, write down the WBNTDs (Would be Nice To Do’s).
Remember that MITs don’t have to be big, important tasks; they can be items anywhere between signing up for a webinar to outlining a presentation to making a phone call to deciding on a solution to a problem. Additionally, these Must Do’s should be small, bite-sized tasks that you can actually accomplish in one day.
If you underestimate what you can accomplish (by overestimating how long you think items will take you to complete) you will gain momentum as you feel yourself actually getting stuff done!
When choosing the amount of Must Do’s for your day, be sure to factor in appointments, meetings, drive time, and length of time each task will require. I struggle to accurately estimate how long it takes me to do things, so I’ve learned to give myself at least 50% more time than I think it will take. With that mindset, the worst that can happen is I finish early and get to move on to the WBNTDs.
3.Use the 2-minute rule, but use it right!
For those of you familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, you are likely already practicing this, but let me reiterate how this works and remind you of the pitfalls. Clearing out your email inbox is a great opportunity to use the 2-minute rule, and also a very risky way to do so!
The basics of the rule are that if you can do a task in 2 minutes or less, just do it, but if the task takes longer than 2 minutes, put it on a task list for later and schedule time to work on it.
Every morning, when you open up your inbox at work, you probably have many new, unread messages to sift through. It’s easy to just read them, leave them in your inbox and come back later when you have time (insert laugh, because really, will you ever have time??).
Instead, if you can quickly reply to the email, do so; if you can quickly do the task the email is requesting of you, do so; but if you need to think about your response or the task is much longer than 2 minutes, create a task for yourself to take care of it at a later time. If you use a task manager like Nozbe, you have the option to simply forward that email to your task manager to create that task.
Now here’s the risk of using the 2-minute rule on email: you may receive so many emails on a daily basis that even if all of them took only 2 minutes to respond to or complete the associated task, you’d spend a large portion of your day working out of your inbox. And if we’re being honest with one another, it’s really hard to estimate if an email response is going to take more than 2 minutes.
Once you get started and realize it’s already been 5 minutes, you’re usually so invested, that you just continue until you’re done. You can quickly lose your whole day to email if you aren’t careful.
Try giving yourself an upper limit on how long you’ll spend in your inbox. I suggest no more than an hour to get your inbox cleared out on a daily basis. Once it’s cleaned out, it’s much easier to keep up with incoming messages going forward.
4. Say no to meetings
Meetings are often unnecessary time-suckers. If you are invited to a meeting and aren’t absolutely certain that you should attend, ask the meeting organizer some questions to determine if the meeting is required or could be accomplished via email or a brief phone call.
If the meeting is necessary, determine if your presence is appropriate. Are you contributing or leading the discussion or are you there just in case you have something to add or just in case the outcome may affect your department? If you’re a “just in case” invitee, consider sending a teammate who you trust to speak on your behalf or take good notes for you. You can always ask if the meeting will be recorded as well.
On the flip side, don’t be the one sending meeting requests just for fun. Make sure the meetings you are planning are necessary, and if they are, be conscious of who really needs to be included.
Don’t fall into the “meetings must be an hour long” trap. Schedule only the time needed, and remember, many meetings could be shortened with prior planning, an agenda, and an understanding with the attendees that they are to have thought through the items to be discussed prior to the meeting.
If you have a Must Do task that is not going to get done because you have been invited to a meeting, don’t be afraid to ask the meeting requester if they are willing to reschedule. Don’t abuse this, but most people are understanding as they have their own Must Do’s every day, too.
5. Use your door!
If you are fortunate enough to have an office with a door―use it! A closed door communicates that something private is happening or that you need a quiet environment to focus. Be clear with your team with what your closed door means, and when it is appropriate for them to open that door – and when it’s not.
You can either put a sign on your door that says something like, “Working Hard, Feel Free to Knock” or “Need to Focus, Please Only Knock if it’s an Emergency”; or send your team an email explaining why your door is closed and when you expect to be available; or have a conversation with those you work with regularly so they know what it means when your door is closed and what types of things you want them to knock on the door about and what types of things you’d prefer they just email or text you about instead.
Consider having a closed door time on a daily or at least weekly basis so you can count on some quiet, focused time. You could even start a specific task list for items to complete during your closed door time.
For more tips on remaining productive at work check out these posts:
- 8 Ways to Stay Focused at Work
- Email Organization Part 1
- 5 Simple Steps to Manage Your Time
- Book Review: 10 Steps to Ultimate Productivity
- Productivity the Nozbe Way
- Cheating at Productivity