You’ve reached the end of your work day but you don’t feel a warm happy sense of accomplishment. Instead, you’re in the cold grip of despair: where did the time go and why is my “to-do” list undone? It happens to all of us from time-to-time. It’s not surprising –– being productive seems to get harder and harder. First there was an endless sea of emails. Then there was social media and our constantly chirping smartphones. That’s why a 2019 study showed that not only are 99% of workers distracted, almost half say it affects their ability to focus. Boomers are more likely to complain about a noisy office; Gen Z and millennials claim to prefer a little bit of noise. However, a different study revealed that Millennials and Gen Z are the most likely age group to describe themselves as distracted at work. Although they too cite workplace noise as their number one distraction, some 69% listed their smartphone as the second biggest reason they can’t focus.
So, workplace distractions were a major problem before the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden shift to remote work meant many of us had to juggle our demanding boss with demanding children along with interminable ZOOM meetings and tech fails before finally finishing projects long after sunset. If you’re worried that you’ll never get caught up, here’s some tips on how to increase work efficiency.
Take Care of Yourself
For some reason this rarely makes lists focused on improving workplace productivity. I think that’s a mistake –– which is why for me it’s number one. Think about it. Would you want to rely on a car that needed new brakes, oil, and a transmission? Well if you’re not getting seven hours of sleep a night, it’s not just your body that pays the price. Your brain will not be as prepared for higher order tasks –– which means you’ll make more mistakes. You’ll also eventually pay the price at work if you’re not getting enough exercise and are eating poorly. Likely you’ll feel fatigued more often and may even have a greater risk for anxiety or depression.
So make taking care of yourself a priority. Instead of answering emails at eight p.m., go for a run or do some yoga. Start packing nutritious snacks if you are in-office or get a healthy meal delivery service if you’re working from home.
Tackle the Tough Stuff First
Most of us put off our most challenging or unpleasant tasks. Unfortunately, saving them for the end of the day doesn’t just mean you likely won’t finish them. It also means you’ll probably be worrying about them before you go to sleep. So, tackle those hard tasks when you feel your freshest. For many of us, that’s first thing in the morning when we start work. If your brightest time is in the early afternoon, that’s okay. Knowing yourself and scheduling the most challenging work when you are at your best is one great hack for how to increase work efficiency.
Carve Out Some Admin Time
First, disable every notification that you can. Ideally, keep your phone out of sight –– in your briefcase, purse, or a desk drawer. That’s because most people who complain about not getting work done spend a fair amount of time checking social media or responding to emails. So stop replying the moment you get a text or email. Instead, set aside an hour or so a day for strictly admin tasks. If you get a fair amount of anxiety-provoking emails, don’t make it the last thing you do at work but definitely don’t let it be the first. Going through your emails when you arrive may help you feel like you are accomplishing things but it is a false feeling. You want to be proactive, not reactive.
I get that this seems counterintuitive. After all, you want to get more work done. Won’t taking breaks cause you to do less? Well, science suggests we can only focus for around 90 minutes at a time. This is especially the case when you are working at a computer. So taking breaks can actually improve your productivity. In the beginning, you may need to set a timer and have a reminder alarm enabled. When it goes off, get up and stretch. Let your eyes relax. Don’t just grab some stale office coffee. Walk up and down the stairs. Stroll around the area –– perhaps to a local shop for a cup of caffeine. Before you return, do some breathing exercises. Meditate.
According to Gloria Mark, a professor in the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, “People who score high on Neuroticism and Impulsivity, and who are more susceptible to stress, have significantly shorter attention duration when working on the computer… they replay thoughts and events over and over in their minds. This interferes with their ability to focus.”
To see where you fall on the attention span scale, spend one week working in 90-minute blocks, followed by a 15-minute break. See how you feel. If you’re tired or not as productive as you’d hoped, cut your block to 80 minutes. If you feel energized, you can add a little time –– emphasis on little. The key, as it is with most things, is listening to your body.
Multitasking is a myth propagated by people who want to seem busy. It’s really a method of doing a poor job on several things at once. Instead, try doing a great job on one task –– the task at hand. The modern workplace hasn’t existed long enough to alter evolution. Humans are designed to be focused on one thing –– whether that’s hunting for antelope or hunting for a more nimble supplier. So, stop dividing your attention. Focus on one task, get it done and move onto the next.
Polish that To-Do List
If you aren’t in the habit of making lists, give it a try. Many feel it reduces anxiety. Writing down at the end of the day what you hope to accomplish tomorrow can actually keep you from obsessing about it. If you are already making lists, see if you can pare them down to more actionable items. In other words, large projects usually require many smaller tasks before they are complete. So start writing each task down. Being able to draw a line through an item –– no matter how small –– is incredibly fulfilling.
Being productive is being aware. Take the time to notice what’s holding you back, fix the problem, and move forward. Before you know it, coworkers will be asking you for advice about how to increase work efficiency.
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