7 tips for increasing personal productivity

How many of us have gone to work and pledged to be ’more productive today than yesterday?’ Yet somehow, it always ends up the same – the end of the day rolls around and the task list is still overflowing. Why are we so unproductive?

Information overload and the glut of digital interfaces play a major part. The plethora of software, gadgets and other tools — which were supposed to make us more productive by allowing us to be constantly ‘on’ — has produced unexpected consequences. Most significantly, the constant deluge of email alerts, text messages and tweets put workers into a constant state of digital overload.

According to a new industry study, many employees are interrupted at least every fifteen minutes, and the majority waste at least an hour a day dealing with all types of distractions. And when each of those distractions happens, it can take twenty minutes to regain focus and get back to the work at hand. In an organization with 1,000 employees, wasted time comes with a bill of over £3.2 million every year in lost productivity.

Almost 60 percent of interruptions at work involve using communication and social tools, like email, social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, or switching between different applications. These tools do make people more productive — email alone has revolutionized how businesses operate. But while receiving the right email or IM can save you time, it can also cause problems.

Case in point: according to the survey, a third of employees have trouble getting their work done, and a quarter can’t think deeply or creatively about their work, guaranteeing that their employers aren’t getting the best work possible.

It’s not uncommon for people to tune out of meetings to deal with digital distractions, either. Despite the rudeness of doing so, 64 percent of employees studied report that they will ignore a meeting in which they are participating to answer email, answer a cell phone, update their social status, or send an instant message.

Reducing distractions, and finding times when you can avoid electronic distractions entirely to focus on the task at hand, has become a necessity. These six tips can help you to minimize distractions and work more productively.

1. Start with prioritisation

Whether you’re responsible for your own work or you get a task list handed down from management, it’s impossible to know if you’re off track when you don’t have priorities. The simple truth is that there is always enough work to fill the day, so you need to choose what you’re going to accomplish.

Choosing your priorities can be as simple as writing the next three things that you need to accomplish on a sticky note. Most of us do have to leave room in our plans to deal with new tasks as they come up, but it’s usually doable to choose three or so actions that you’re going to take today, before you get side tracked by anything else.

2. Set a schedule for your work

Most people have certain times of the day when it’s easier to complete certain tasks. You may have noticed that you can write easily first thing in the morning or brainstorm new ideas better in the afternoon. Pay attention to when you’re most effective at the work you need to do.

Protect that time. You can spend the hours when you don’t work quite as effectively on those tasks that constantly come up but aren’t actually a part of the project you’re working on — sending out emails, updating social networks, taking meetings and so on.

3. Remove distractions from your environment

It’s not a big deal if you get interrupted in the middle of sending out an email. But if you’re trying to design a new product, research a problem or do something else that requires deep, uninterrupted thought, distractions become a much bigger problem.

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is physically take your distractions out of the room you’re working in. Leave your cell phone in the car, shut the door, even disconnect your computer from the internet, if that’s what it takes. Working offsite is one of the best ways to remove distractions. You may be able to get more creative work done in a morning at the coffee shop than you do in a whole day at the office.

It’s not possible to spend all of your time disconnected like that, but even spending an hour away from the physical presence of distractions can let you get an incredible amount of work done. You can even set rules for when people are allowed to interrupt you if you’re concerned about missing out on something. It’s a rare emergency that can’t wait an hour, especially one that’s work-related.

4. Plan for time away from your desk

The number of people that can sit comfortably at a desk and work straight through an eight-hour workday are few and far between. For our own health and well-being, it’s crucial to get up and leave our desks at least a few times over the course of the day. The trick is planning those times, rather than leaving them up to how often you get distracted by something in another part of the office.

One of the best options is to plan a work out or other exercise into your day. Even talking a walk once a day can burn off some of that need to get up and move around. But you need to make a point of getting up and carrying through on your plans every day.

5. Delegate and collaborate where you can

When you work in a larger organisation, there are always people around with different skill sets — people who may be able to handle certain tasks on your to-do list more effectively than you can. It can be tempting to try to do everything yourself — after all, who knows better than you how exactly you want something done? — but either bringing in the right person for some aspect of the task or delegating it entirely can keep some minor issue from distracting you entirely.

6. Disconnect when you’re done

At the end of the day, most of us head home. But even outside of the office, we tend to be distracted: with the right phone, you may still be working on something you should have left at your desk. According to the survey, eighty-two percent of employees report that they stay connected when they leave the office in the evenings and fifty percent are still connected when they go to bed. That means that you’re just as distracted when you’re trying to spend time with friends or family as when you’re at work.

The only way to avoid such distractions is to leave your work in the office. Not all organisations are particularly accommodating to someone who wants to turn off his cell phone in the evening or take over steps to disconnect from work, but it comes down to where you should really be focusing when you’re at home.

7. Avoid the distractions you can

It is impossible to eliminate every possible distraction from your day and, to be frank, you likely don’t want to — business runs on email and the other communications that pop up during your day. But by investing time now to reduce those distractions during the times you need to focus will save you time in the long run. It takes between ten and twenty minutes to recover and refocus every time someone stops to ask you a question or your email alert buzzes.

Even an interruption lasting less than a minute can throw you off for a quarter of an hour. The only way to avoid wasting all that time is to reduce the number of distractions that actually get through to you during those times when you need to focus. You won’t get all of them, but every one that you do eliminate could mean twenty minutes of work time that you’ll get back.

The bottom line is there is a need to create boundaries for using time-saving digital technologies. Being ‘on’ during business trips or while out at customer visits is a godsend for busy people. But cutting back on the deluge of information by setting boundaries and shutting down while at home, on vacation, or at your child’s school play will allow you to focus better for the really important tasks.

David Lavenda is Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Harmon. For the past 20 years, David has served as an executive for a number of high-tech companies. After completing a undergraduate degree in Physics, advanced studies in Electrical Engineering, and an MBA in Marketing, David co-founded Business Layers, an identity management company, serving as VP Marketing and Product Strategy from its inception until the company's successful sale five years later. Additional stints as VP of Marketing and Product Strategy for several successful high-tech companies followed. David is a technology expert blogger for Fast Company. He is also pursuing advanced studies in STS (Science, Technology, and Society) - focusing on the research of online behaviors.

  • Thank you for these tips, David! We at Wrike have quite similar methods for saving time (by the way, we’ve recently visualized them in an infographic – http://www.wrike.com/blog_images/164400/infographic_time_management_Wrike.jpg?blogId=164400&fileName=infographic_time_management_Wrike.jpg)

    Efficient time management is something where I always learn, because work is moving so fast!