If you are like me, there are many days when I look up from my desk, see that it’s 4pm, and wonder where the day has gone. There are days when I feel that I have been productive, swimming along and checking things off of my to-do list, and I feel great. There are other days when I feel that I’m stuck in mud, everything taking longer than it should and my brain not cooperating to come up with brilliant words and ideas, and by the end of the day I feel spent and demotivated. I like being in action and feeling accomplished. It’s great to complete a big project or a lingering small task, and sometimes I have to push myself to stay “in the zone” and get things done. Whether I’m fully in action or struggling to complete tasks, I want to make the most of my workday. Three tips I have learned about being focused and productive that work best for me are:
- Take breaks – it may seem counterintuitive, but getting up and away from the task at hand at regular intervals recharges you and helps you to come back with a clear head and often a new perspective on what may have been stumping you earlier. The folks at The Energy Project, a firm that has done ground-breaking research on high performance, recommend working in 90-minute intervals, in line with our bodies’ ultradian rhythm, and being aware of the signs that you need a break. When my thoughts begin to wander and my neck and shoulders stiffen, I know it’s time to step away and stretch, get a cup of tea, or go for a walk.
- Question yourself – there are times when the very thing we need to be doing is the thing we are most avoiding – the proposal that seems particularly challenging to write, the report that needs extensive editing, the conversation you need to have that you have been putting off. I catch myself doing busy work (the quick things that make me feel productive) or the things I enjoy doing (reading articles/blogs) when I really should be tackling more important, higher priority things. By regularly questioning how you are spending your time, you challenge and support yourself to be even more productive. Peter Bregman at Harvard recommends setting an hourly timer to ask ourselves “Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now?” Stephen Covey shared the Urgent-Important Matrix which helps you to focus more fully on the “important and not urgent” tasks that are crucial to long-term success.
- Be disciplined – Organization and good work habits make a huge difference in productivity. Searching for that file or letter in a pile of paper wastes a lot of time and energy. Cleaning up the clutter and disorganization in your workspace may take effort now, but will pay off in found hours in the future. Developing good work habits, such as checking email at set intervals rather than every few minutes and blocking off chunks of time to give your undivided attention to a project, will also free you up and make each work hour more effective.
We are not robots, so we can’t churn out work endlessly nonstop. And even robots need time for maintenance. By implementing a few ideas for greater productivity we can get better at creating great work while also feeling great at the end of the day.
What techniques do you use to stay productive during the day?
Let us know.
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Your “Question yourself,” point is absolutely essential. Inherent in that idea is the necessity to say no, to be as intentional about what you won’t do as what you will do. Saying no and reprioritizing have been critical for me as I make time for writing in addition to a demanding day job.
Thank you Janet. We need to know what we’ll say no to and won’t do in order to have time and energy (and clarity) on what we will do and what we’ll say yes to.