This week, I thought I’d answer some questions about workplace productivity. Whether you’re just starting out or have been settled into a job for a few years, the knowledge of how you work best will make you a stronger, more effective employee at every stage of the game. But there’s no “one size fits all” answer when it comes to efficiency. Think of it like an athlete approaches training – everyone has to find the method that works best for themselves. With that in mind, here are a few things that have worked for me.
I’d like to up my productivity in the workplace. Tackle the important things instead of just the urgent. How can I do that?
I’ve found that one of the biggest challenges of running a business is figuring out how to most efficiently use my time. And efficiency isn’t just important for entrepreneurs – it’s is a highly sought after quality in employees. Business school can teach you theories behind how to work productively, but once you get out into the workplace, testing those theories is really what will help you figure out what works for you.
You mentioned separating the important tasks from the urgent tasks. Knowing the difference between these two is key. I generally define the “important” tasks as those that are related to the bigger picture – the larger goals you may have for yourself or your company. In our case, this means things like creating a 5-year plan for our division of Highbury. “Urgent” tasks are those that have a ticking clock on them. Items that have hard deadlines and crises that require immediate attention fall into this category, and can include everything from making sure our tax returns get filed on time (me) to convincing Annie to make dessert for the holiday party at the last minute (Emma). Sometimes these tasks are urgent because you couldn’t foresee them; others come up last minute because you’ve procrastinated.
To help you figure out what’s what, I suggest using a simple task management tool called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Take a piece of paper, divide it into four quadrants as demonstrated below, and start filling it in with everything on your to-do list. By dividing up your tasks this way, you’ll be able to make more educated decisions about what resources you allocate to different activities. If you really want to take a deeper dive into this topic, take a look at author Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book is from 1994, but it’s still a classic when it comes to the topic of productivity.
I have a BIG deadline coming up! Any tips on being productive/efficient while also maintaining some sanity?
Coffee. Lots of coffee.
Seriously, though, the key for me has been learning how I work. Ask yourself: Do I work better for extended periods of time or in shorter chunks? Am I more effective when I work alone, or when I have lots of collaborators on a project? What kind of work environment invigorates me vs. what saps my energy?
I’m best when I am able to really focus in on the task at hand for elongated periods of time in a quiet environment. If I get distracted when dealing with the complex calculations often required for business strategy, then I have to start the process all over again. And that can get very frustrating.
To maintain sanity, I now schedule large chunks of time for a particular project, and then reward myself with a small break during which I do something that usually has nothing to do with the project at hand. Often this involves getting outside and going for a hike or a run. Another buddy of mine is obsessed with a poker app on his phone that he plays during his downtime. Whatever it is, it should be something that gives your brain a break from your current deadline. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to tackle a problem or task from a new angle.
I’ve also learned to cut myself some slack and call in help when I need it. When I’ve got a deadline looming, I spend a bit more at the dry cleaners, and order take-out more often than usual. And I don’t flog myself for not achieving perfection in these other areas of my life. I’m not sure if that’s officially Emma Approved, but it works for me. I also tell my friends and family what’s going on, so they know that if I disappear for awhile into work, it’s nothing personal.
Lastly, surround yourself at work with good people. The pressure of a high stakes deadline can bring out the worst in people, so it’s important to trust those around you. Humor can go a long way, so try to find teammates that can get you laughing during the tense moments. It’s one of the things I appreciate in my current job – I may do things very differently than some of my co-workers, but I know we’ve got one another’s backs.
How do you suggest a young professional with a busy career (or two) find time and balance for a personal life?
I think it’s important to have things in your life besides work, but the reality is that if you’re a young professional, chances are that you’re not going to have a ton of flexibility or vacation days. That’s where the matrix I mentioned above can really come in handy with identifying how you want to spend your time.
If you find yourself passing up nights out with friends because you’re always working on one of the items in one of the “Urgent” quadrants, see if there’s a way you can start to tackle some of those things ahead of time so you’re not always dealing with last minute emergencies. If you’re a chronic procrastinator, maybe the reward of socializing will finally help you kick the habit. If you have creative projects outside of your job that you want to work on but never seem to have the hours, limit the time spent on “Not Urgent/Not Important” tasks (yes, this means the “Which Harry Potter Character Are You” quiz). And if you find that you’re not getting any time to focus on the “Important/Not Urgent” quadrant, which is often where your bigger life goals fit in, start scheduling in appointments in your calendar specifically to focus on these items. It may seem strange a first to schedule in “thinking time,” but this is important if you want to begin to approach your life on the offensive instead of always reacting from a defensive position.
Another simple strategy for work/life balance is to combine activities. Want to work out and see your friends? Get together to shoot hoops. Or, you know, yoga-lates. Craving some family time and some culture? Take your mom to a play or museum and grab coffee afterwards. Love to read but have a long commute? Give audio books a try.
And speaking of books, here’s a quick list of books on productivity, business strategy and some of the ideas that I’ve talked about that you might find helpful. There are a lot of different theories here and in other books on the topic, some of which contradict one another. Find what resonates with you and don’t worry about the rest. One word of warning: there are a ton of books out there on this topic. Don’t let researching efficiency get in the way of actually being efficient.
- Organizing Your Day: Time Management Techniques That Will Work For You. By Sandra Felton and Marsha Sims.
- Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. By Francesca Gino.
- What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. By Laura Vanderkam.
- 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. By Peter Bregman.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. By Stephen R. Covey.