Becoming more productive at work: It’s easier than you think

Spoken | August 9, 2016

productivity.jpgHave you ever been frustrated that you can’t seem to accomplish enough in a day? You get bogged down in unimportant tasks, while others seem to be able to move mountains with very little effort.

It turns out that some of the world’s most productive people share a few common traits and daily habits, which we pilfered and tested for you:

  1. They are in the habit of taking the time to set the agenda for their day. You would think that the first thing they do is to go through and answer emails and return phone calls, but we consistently found that was NOT the case. In fact, the worst thing you can do first thing in the morning is to check email. Instead, we found that the most productive people tend to take the first half hour or so of their day and determine what their priorities are for the day ahead. Once they’ve taken the time to do this (followed by #2 below), then they go through their emails and phone calls. Emails and phone calls are arranged according to priority and either answered or delegated accordingly.  By setting their own agenda first, productive people guard themselves against a day that is spent reacting to other people’s priorities and instead move through their own to-do list and accomplish their priorities. I had difficult with this, but I tried it for a week: I spent the first half-hour of my day setting my priorities. Then I did my most important task, sometimes two. By the end of the week, I wasn’t checking my email until noon! And it turns out that I was far more productive. Knowing what you need to work on when you start your day beats checking email, hands down.
  2. They are in the habit of getting the more difficult tasks done first. Or, in the words of Mark Twain, they “eat a frog.” Mark Twain once remarked that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing you do the rest of the day will be as bad in comparison. As unpleasat as that may sound, the idea of getting the most hated or daunting tasks done first is a key to productivity. I have to admit that I don’t like this idea. But this month, I’ve tried the following technique: make a list of all your tasks for the day. Then rate each one according to impact and effort, each on a scale of 1-10. Then you select the highest impact, highest difficulty tasks first. In other words–I’ve been eating a frog first thing every day for the last two weeks. But you know what? My productivity has skyrocketed! Eating a frog before answering email is amazingly efficient (and that is a sentence I never thought I’d write!). Human nature likes to put off the tasks we dislike, but productive humans habitually do the opposite.
  3. multitasking.jpgThey tend to NOT be multitaskers. We’re all familiar with the term “multitasking” because we hear it so often and it does seem to be a highly esteemed skill in today’s world. However, the ability to multitask is really not all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, studies have shown that multitasking actually lowers your IQ, lowers your work quality and efficiency and is a poor substitute for taking the time to prioritize your day. In fact, it can take longer to accomplish any task when trying to do more than one thing at a time, so then the quality of every task suffers. Stay focused on one task at a time moving onto the next once that’s been completed. Highly productive people tend to be highly focused people.
  4. They tend to take notes. Yes, highly productive people have a habit of writing things down. Have you noticed how much time you can waste by trying to remember details? Or worse, you may have messed up a project because you couldn’t remember everything that needed to be done. Taking the time to write things down, either in a notebook or on an app, keeps you from having to commit everything to memory (which is impossible) and can save you a lot of time and headache in the long run. Get in the habit of writing things down and keeping detailed notes; it will make your life and your work much more productive.
  5. They don’t waste time on the non-essentials. To be a bit more exact, highly productive people spend the majority of their time on the tasks that will have the most impact. This goes back to the Pareto principle that says 20% of effort generates 80% of the results. Here’s a good example, when Microsoft took the time to fix 20% of its software problem, they saw the incidence of crashes and errors drop by 80%. Identify what, in your day takes up much of your time but eats away at your productivity. Once you figure this out, you can better eliminate those things and focus on what will make you more productive.


When you think about it, these are really fairly simple things that really just require a change in habit. If you’d like to see yourself become more productive, take one of these tips and spend three weeks purposefully implementing it. Once you’ve established this new habit, move on to the next tip. You’ll find, by the end of the year, you’ve developed new habits that will make you highly productive during the course of your work day.

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