Productivity Tips: 31 Tricks That Might Just Get You Out of the Office on Time

October 18, 2016 Marcus Varner

Who doesn’t want to get more done in less time?

After all, productivity is inextricably tied to your personal success and the success of your organization.

Of course, I’m sure there are some people—okay, let’s face it, many people—who don’t care about productivity, but they’re not the kind of people who read these types of articles. For the rest of us, for all the people who find that all the hours in the day aren’t enough to get done all the tasks on their to-do list, any trick to milk out of the day one more completed task is gold. If this describes you, this article is for you.

Drawing on the wealth of work management information tips on our blog and on the advice and studies of other experts, we’ve amassed a list of 31 productivity tips so powerful, you just might leave the office on time:

1. Get a good night’s sleep

Turning yourself into a fine-tuned office productivity machine starts with giving that machine the proper maintenance and fuel.

In an effort to tie up all the loose ends you couldn’t get to during the 9-5, you’ve probably done an extra shift after everyone else had gone to bed. You might’ve given yourself a big pat on the back for this dedicated display of busy-ness. And you’re not the only one.

Business celebrities, in an effort to drive home just how insanely hardworking they are, brag about how they clean out their inboxes while catching up on their favorite business journals and getting in their third workout of the day before hitting the hay at 2am, only to spring back to life at 5am. Surely, a little sleep is an acceptable sacrifice to move up the productivity ladder.

Except that a lack of sleep is not correlated with an increase in productivity.

News flash! You’re a human being, which means your mind and body start to malfunction when you don’t get enough sleep. Your brain needs at least 8 hours of sleep to properly process and organize everything you experienced and took in during the day. Your body needs as many hours of sleep to heal spent muscles and joints.

Start taking away sleep hours and you can imagine what kind of shape this puts you in to tee up and knock out the daily challenges of your job. One Cambridge study found that workers who logged six or less hours of sleep per night were significantly less productive than those who got 7 to 8 hours.

2. Eat healthy food

Your ability to think clearly and your stamina at work are directly tied to the stuff you put into your body. Ron Friedman of the Harvard Business Review explains:

“Not all foods are processed by our bodies at the same rate. Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy. Most of us know much of this intuitively, yet we don’t always make smart decisions about our diet.”

3. Drink water

When was the last time you took a water break? Experts estimate that as many as 80% of U.S. adults are dehydrated at any given point in the day. And how does this lack of water affect our output?

One study found that dehydrated workers saw a 12% decrease in their productivity.

Another study discovered that, in workers with even moderate dehydration (i.e., 2% of their body weight), “visual motor tracking, short-term memory, attention and arithmetic efficiency were all impaired.” This same study found “a 23% reduction in reaction time when subjects were 4% dehydrated.”

None of which sounds good when you’re trying to get as much done as possible. Luckily, water is usually free and most offices are required to provide some sort of water cooler, drinking fountain sink, hose out back, etc., for their employees’ hydration needs. So get yourself a giant water jug, regularly suck that thing dry throughout the day, and enjoy your optimized memory, attention span, math skills, and reaction time.

4. Insist on receiving all of your requests in one place

Now let’s get to the organizational component of productivity, and let’s start with how work gets to you. When done wrong—think drive-by requests in the restroom, cryptic voicemail messages or rogue sticky notes on your monitor—this can kill your productivity. Instead of allowing you to get right into executing on the request, you’re stuck trying to bring it all together and make sense of it.

One way to eliminate this productivity drag, recommends Natalie Ward, content marketing manager at Workfront, is to establish a single portal for all requests:

“One way this could be done—since 63 percent of marketers still receive most work requests by email—is to create an alias email account, like workrequest@companyname.com. In addition, create a standard work request form that is customizable and is easily accessible. There will be an instant reduction in distractions from all the random requests and you will be able to find your entire to-do list in one place.”

For teams looking for something more robust, options range from homegrown ticketing systems (used by many IT teams) to full-blown work management solutions like Workfront. The latter will cost more, but will allow you to receive, plan, and execute on requests all in the same tool. (You can click here to see how Workfront channels all requests into one place)

5. Beware of the “under-the-table” requests

We all want to be the person who can take on the odd request and just knock it out without skipping a beat. It makes us popular with our peers and labels as the “person-who-can-get-it-done”—sort of the office version of Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt or the A-Team.

Except that you do skip a beat. That little favor inevitably pushes out other stuff you were planning on getting done. Either you end up burning the midnight oil to get caught up (see #1 for why this is bad) or your stuff ends up late and you look incompetent. And you can’t explain it to your boss because the whole thing was on the down-low.

In an earlier post, I recommended that workers resist under-the-table requests and draw a line in the sand:

“No more ‘quick favors’. No more drive-by requests. Think of tasks the way you think of financial transactions—nothing is allowed to happen off the books. Every single task must be documented and accounted for.”

6. Set up clear priorities

Being productive is more than just getting stuff done; it’s about getting the most valuable stuff done. This means prioritizing that endless list of tasks so that the most value-generating items rise to the top. Choosing how to prioritize those tasks can be tricky, however.

“Want to know how to prioritize your own work?” asks Heather Hurst, Workfront’s director of corporate marketing. “Watch how your company prioritizes its own work. The foundational piece to prioritization is getting behind a single rallying cry. If you have clearly defined business objectives, it is much easier to decide which tasks will rise to the top of the list.”

Hurst also points out that there are other criteria to consider when prioritizing. In addition to measuring how well a task is aligned to your company’s business objectives, your priorities should also take into account the rank of the requestor, for political reasons, and the urgency of the request (i.e., when it is needed).

7. Connect your tasks to your goals

This was hinted at in #6, but it deserves its own tip, if only because so many of us struggle with it. In fact, the prevalence of non-goal-related tasks is endemic in today’s workplace.

In his post earlier this year, marketing guru Chris Brogan said frankly:

“We work a lot. We work more than ever before. We’re logging many more hours, processing mountains more email and other communications. We’re just DOING lots and lots more than ever before. But we’re less happy, less certain that we’re accomplishing our goals, and less sure of what we need.”

The solution, Brogan says, is getting disciplined about tying everything you do to your high-level goals. If they don’t connect, he says, you might want to rethink your to-do list:

“What you’re doing today impacts what you’ll accomplish this week. Bucket up all the todays into a month, and then stack twelve of these up, and what you did TODAY reflects on your full year.”

8. Say no

Nancy Reagan was onto something with her anti-drugs campaign of the ‘80s. Inevitably, with all of this prioritizing and connecting of tasks to goals, some work requests won’t make the cut. A request might just not be valuable enough or its requester not high enough on the totem pole to make it into your work queue for the day. And this can mean having to deliver the bad news to requesters.

“Of course, no one likes to have conflict in the workplace, especially when it comes to higher-ups, or perhaps worse, clients and customers,” says Hurst. “The last thing you want is to damage a business relationship. However, it's easy to forget that can also happen if you say ‘yes' to everything. Sometimes pushing back is necessary for the benefit of the company—and your team's sanity.”

Remember, there’s nothing productive about taking on work that is a waste of your time or has not been properly thought-out. And you don’t get productivity points for being everyone’s doormat. For the sake of your productivity and your company, you’re going to have to get used to saying ‘no’ sometimes.

9. Stop multitasking

What was stylish in the early 2000’s has now been exposed as a fraud: multitasking is myth—and a harmful one at that.

A 2009 Stanford study found that:

“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

The same has been confirmed by countless other studies and experts, echoing what so many of us suspected, that multitasking actually results in doing a bunch of things at half-attention. Then you have to go back and spend more time to fix all the mistakes you made. And then there’s all the time lost in transition from one scatterbrained thought to the next.

Brandon Turner, real estate investor and VP at BiggerPockets.com, echoes this thought:

Multitasking rarely works, despite what nearly everyone says. When you multitask, you simply accomplish each task less effectively. Your brain tries to switch back and forth between different tasks, and a significant part of your day is lost.”

So put multitasking in that big heap of fads that didn’t last, right next to the Thighmaster, and start learning to focus your attention on one task at a time. You’ll see both your total output and the quality of your output go way up.

10. Establish “no-interruption” time

In the newest State of Enterprise Work Report, workers were asked what would do the most to improve their productivity. Their top answer: blocks of uninterrupted time to work.

Not that this is groundbreaking. It fits solidly in no-brainer territory. But no matter how much we want uninterrupted work time, we too often find that our work environment and co-workers aren’t going to give it to us.

Are there ways we can make them more aware of our desire to be alone with our work?

“You may not have an office, but you have the ability to show everyone around you’re busy,” recommends Jason Falls, social marketing expert. “Put on a set of headphones—even if you don’t listen to anything—to visibly queue your colleagues you’re focused and shouldn’t be bothered. If someone approaches you, politely ask them to come back at the end of your work meeting with yourself. They’ll get used to letting you do your work.”

But what about your work environment?

11. Create a productivity-optimized workspace

If you’ve been in the workplace for long, you’ve hopefully discovered your productivity sweet spot, those ideal work conditions where you can focus your attention like a laser beam and fly through tasks like a bullet train. My productivity sweet spot, for instance, involves a set of Beats, my movie soundtracks playlist, an obscure corner of our office, an undecorated cubicle invisible to passing traffic, an extra monitor, and no phone.

This might be the exact opposite of yours, but the point is to know what your sweet spot looks like, to understand how each component affects your productivity, and to duplicate/optimize your workspace accordingly.

12. Ditch the open workspace

Speaking of fads that need to be retired, open workspaces seem to not work for anyone.  Yes, they’ve become synonymous with startup culture in general, a visual symbol of the greater collaboration and innovation that startups wish to stand for and the contempt they hold for the cubicle walls of corporations. But there’s just one problem with open offices: while they do provide some improvements in collaboration, they also destroy productivity.

One study discovered that workers in open offices were mostly frustrated by the effect of constant distractions on their performance. Half of them took issue with the inherent lack of sound privacy; 30% with the lack of visual privacy.

Lindsey Kaufman at the Washington Post delivered this harsh verdict on the open office trend:

“While employees feel like they’re part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.”

13. Work from home

To escape the distractions of workplace, many workers are turning to their living room couch. In the past, this would’ve put workers out of sight, out of mind. But new technology—think video conferencing, IM, and cloud-based work management platforms—is making it easier for workers to stay in the loop and stay relevant without being in the office.

And workers are increasingly making working from home part of their strategy for higher productivity. A recent Stanford study found that 10% of U.S. employees have adopted the practice and that this arrangement increased their performance levels by 13%.

This type of remote working is certainly catching on and paying off for many U.S. workers. One oDesk survey discovered that, of the 74% of professionals who had “cut ties with the physical office,” 92% reported being happier, 79% were more productive, and 59% saw an increase in income.

No wonder then that in our recent State of Enterprise Work Report, 52% of enterprise workers said most workers would be remote within the next few years.

If working from home is an option at your workplace, give it a try and see if the separation it provides from office distractions doesn’t give your productivity a boost.

14. Or from the library or the coffee shop

If you have noisy kids or roommates at home, working from home might not sound much better than trying to working in a packed office. Fortunately, coffee shops, libraries, and other wifi-connected public places provide suitable replacement workspaces.

15. Think outside the 9-5

What time are we living in, the 1950s? Seriously, it’s time that workers and companies alike recognized that you just might be more productive outside of the now outdated 9-5 hours of business. While it’s true that some businesses are sort of stuck there, for more and more companies, allowing workers to have a flexible work schedule might just be not only possible, but significantly more productive.

Our State of Enterprise Work Report asked respondents to name what times they were most and least productive throughout the day. Their responses looked like this:

It’s hard not to miss that the most productive times for most workers happen before most offices are even open and then pick up after 5pm. Our recommendation: if your workplace allows you a flexible work schedule, crank out the majority of your work before 9am take a break during the lower productivity times at midday, and and then charge your work one more time after dinner.

16. Organize your work stuff in one place

A 2014 survey revealed that 60% of marketers have six to 15 or more software programs open on the computers at any given time. One reason for this is, we tend to receive and store work information across several tools. We might receive a request via email, IM team members to see if they can work on it, put request updates in a shared spreadsheet, and then upload the finished product to Dropbox when it’s all done.

While this might just seem like the nature of the office beast, toggling and conveying information manually between all these tools can cause big mistakes and delays. Perhaps, more importantly, it becomes a time-consuming task in and of itself.

Instead of letting the number of tools you use continue to grow, look for opportunities to reduce your tools and, in so doing, cut down on all that toggling and manual updating. Ann Handley of MarketingProfs agrees:

Use a central calendaring and project-management tool to keep yourself on track...Make sure that that whatever system you use syncs everything (your calendar, meetings, travel, To Do, and tasks) in one place. A bonus is being able to track your time and manage resources.”

17. Take time to communicate at the beginning

Too many times, we get a project request and, in our over-exuberance to be productive, we charge right in without getting on the same page with our requesters. And this can come back to take a big bite out of our productivity later on, explains Ward:

“On average, 30-35% of project time in marketing is spent on rework, including revisiting decisions, waiting for approvals, redoing work, and correcting errors. Make it a point to start your work with clear and collaborative communication among your team, clients, and execs. Work together to create a clear communication plan. Everyone needs to know how to share details about a project and clear deadlines to work toward.”

Ward also recommends that this kickoff conversation include timelines for updates, deadlines for drafts, and an outline of the approval process and deadlines.

18. Invest in templates

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to work on a project. With a little forethought and a dash of retrospect, you can build templates for your most recurring types of work. Earlier this year, for instance, we built this creative brief template for our users:

Yes, templates like these can be huge time-savers, but they also bring in the added benefit of helping you make sure you’re consistently covering all of your bases and applying best practices.

19. Schedule everything

It’s all the little things you don’t track that tend to kill your best-laid plans. For this reason, the experts agree that productivity-seeking workers should make it a point to schedule slots of time for every single activity they perform during the day.

Falls recommends that you even schedule time to review your calendar:

“Yes, you read that right. Enter a calendar item at the beginning and/or end of every day to review your calendar entries. While this may seem like an unnecessary or redundant step to take, remember, you're dealing with you—someone who can't stay organized or on-task. Forcing yourself to follow a schedule that includes reviewing your schedule is going to help you break the mold and actually know your schedule.”

20. Aggregate your admin time

Email. Phone calls. Excessive meetings. Other administrative tasks. They’re all killing your productivity, sucking away precious time away from those primary job duties you hired to perform, as seen in this graph from the State of Enterprise Work Report:

In other words, the proliferation of admin tasks in intruding on your real work. To keep these productivity-destroying forces at bay, marketing author and consultant Mark Schaefer suggests that you take stand:

“During the day, I never answer my phone unless it is a scheduled call I am expecting. If people don’t leave a message, I just saved myself time and aggravation. During the lunch hour and in the evening, I will spend an hour or so on email, social media content, and phone calls … [I]f you are a slave to all of the messaging coming at you, productivity will slide.”

21. Do the hard thing second

Many productivity promoters out there insist that you should do the hardest things first on any given day, but Handley respectfully disagrees. In her post from earlier this year, “The World-Class Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done,” she explains:

“Ease into your weekday by doing one easy work thing first, then immediately launch into the Hard Thing (the thing that requires the think). Key here is actually putting that Hard Thing second, though—not third or fourth or fiftieth. Taking this approach creates some momentum and sets you on the path toward accomplishment. Which is what you want, because the Overlord of Momentum is the mortal enemy of that scoundrel Robber-Baron, Procrastination.”

22. Take breaks

You might be tempted to equate productivity with constant activity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost all productivity experts stress the need for breaks. Some even recommend that workers consciously break their work into 20-minute segments separated by five minute break periods. Others say a simple walk during lunch will do the trick. But the consensus is clear: workers need regular breaks from work to perform at maximum productivity.

“Use train time, bus time or queuing time for thinking or unwinding, rather than using it for yet another ten minutes of information overload,” says Forbes writer Francis Booth. “You’ll feel less frantic if you take these opportunities for time out as they’re offered.”

23. Use a meeting agenda

Meetings, done wrong, can be huge time killers. Conversations that really only require two people are played out for 10 people to watch. Tangents, Laffy Taffy-worthy jokes, and side conversations further waste the time and patience of productivity-minded participants.

For sure, if you’re going to be more productive, you’ve got to cut down on meetings and rein in the ones you can’t get out of. Your best bet here is a meeting agenda.

The editors of The Daily Muse suggest, “Send everyone an agenda for each meeting, and, if the conversation goes off topic, don't be afraid to rein it in.”

24. Limit meeting time

Somewhere along the way, the one-hour meeting became the corporate standard. A topic that should’ve taken only 20 minutes to cover is stretched to 60, just because it was scheduled for an hour. (Maybe old desk calendars couldn’t break things down to half-hour or 15-minute increments.) Whatever the reason, you would do well to push back on the tradition of the one-hour meeting.

Bruna Martinuzzi, president and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., agrees:

“People generally don't need as much time as they ask for...Meetings are time vampires. Be ruthless in managing this endemic productivity drain so you can focus on high value tasks.”

Don’t be afraid to question how long a meeting really needs to take. 30? 20? 5? Get real about meeting times and you’ll find yourself with new time in your day to get real work done.

25. Limit phone notifications    

Yes, co-worker interruptions are so often the cause of un-productivity, but they’re not the only ones. Another likely culprit is sitting right in your pocket. Beeps, jingles, and buzzes from smartphone notifications can be just as annoying and derailing as that guy from Accounting who always wants to rehash with you the weekend in sports.

Along these lines, the editors at The Daily Muse recommend:

“For ultimate focus, make sure none of your devices are set to ping you when new messages come in. Even something as small as a buzz from your phone can be enough to wreck a productive flow.”

26. Track your time

This one boils to this simple principle: you don’t really know how long a task takes until you measure it.

For example, you might guess-timate that it takes 30 minutes to draft up that landing page copy your boss is asking for, only to find, upon tracking your actual time, that it takes more like three hours, after all is said and done. If you rely solely on guess-timates, you constantly find your productivity aspirations thwarted, constantly achieving less in a day than you thought you would.

“A creative team that doesn't track time is a creative team that has little visibility into its productivity and efficiency,” cautions Sam Petersen, content manager at Workfront. Of course, the same could be said of any other kind of work team, as well.

Tracking your time, on the other hand, has another side benefit...

27. Set up data-driven deadlines

In productivity, you don’t get points for promising to do stuff. You get points for getting stuff done, usually when you say you will. You can’t pull this off consistently without some data gathering on your past performance. Time tracking is certainly part of this, as is accurate documentation of your workflow for the different types of requests you typically fulfill.

If your work is dependent on the work of others, you will also need their data to factor in how long their tasks will take in order to produce a reliable deadline for you. Getting this data is worth whatever time it takes.

“When your team is already running at max capacity, adding more to their load will drag productivity and quality down, especially if you're trying to solve a project or client emergency,” Hurst explains.

28. Tame that review and approval phase

If you’re in a job where you need to get your work approved by someone else before it can move forward, you’ve probably learned to dread this phase. In this phase, more than any other, work can get turned around, lost in limbo, stopped dead in its tracks, or sent all the way back to the drawing board.

In a survey of content marketers last year, Workfront asked them how many days approvals setback projects:

In short, the review and approval phase can eat your productivity alive if you don’t tame it. So how do you do this?

You can start by applying some structure to the phase. Establish with stakeholders the exact numbers of review cycles you will go through and the dates by which those cycles will be completed. And then hold those stakeholders accountable to those dates. Some software solutions (like our very own digital proofing tool automates much of this process so it’s not as time intensive.

29. Automate wherever you can

You might not realize it, but manual work probably makes up a big portion of your work. And a great deal of this work doesn’t need to be manual, not with the host of tools out there that can automate much of that work for you.

Take, for instance, the common task of composing and sending out an email to update all of your team members on a given project. Let’s say this task—between checking up on the different parts of the project with different team members to writing the email to hitting ‘send’—takes about an hour total.

What you might not realize is that a work management tool like Workfront (shameless plug!) automatically sends notifications out to all teams members when tasks on a project are completed. Just like that, you get an hour back in your day to work on other things that can’t be automated.

Look for tools that can automate—or opportunities to automate your processes in your existing tools—and you’ll find yourself getting lots of time back.

30. Get objective about productivity

Did you know that most workers think they are more productive than their co-workers, direct reports, managers, and company leaders? That’s what we discovered in the most recent State of Enterprise Work Report when we asked workers to rate their own productivity and that of the people with whom they work:

Now, there are two possibilities here: either 1) all of the people surveyed were just uncommonly productive or 2) most of us suffer from a little ego trip when it comes to our own productivity. Most likely, we lack a certain degree of objectivity on the matter. And this takes me back to data, measuring, and tracking.

When gathered correctly, the numbers don’t lie. They can reveal strengths and weaknesses we didn’t know we had. They can highlight opportunities for improvement that would’ve otherwise flown under the radar.

Bottom line: If we’re really serious about improving our productivity we’ve got to get down to the actual numbers of how much we produce in a given time frame, how long it takes, and where we tend to falter.

31. Be ready for cultural pushback

Your co-workers and your office might not be ready for the productivity epiphany you surely experienced while reading this. They might actively fight your efforts to be more productive.

On one hand, productivity needs a champion in every office. But also realize that productivity can’t be forced. So don’t get yourself fired for fomenting revolution. Instead, focus on making incremental changes that will increase your and your team’s productivity over time.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Over the last 9 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront. His focus is always on breaking through the clutter while engaging audiences with brands' most foundational messaging. He currently oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content at Workfront.

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