Solving The Productivity Puzzle

Contrary to the title of this post, I don’t have it all figured out. Sorry, folks. But I’m getting there, I think, thanks to the help of others who have shared their own strategies for working on the same puzzle.

This post is simply paying it forward. Here are five of my top tips, in no particular order, for becoming more efficient at getting things done.

1. Improve your e-mail efficiency.

In today’s increasingly electronically reliant world, e-mail can be a killer, regardless of your line of work. It’s easy to spend an entire day checking, reading and replying to messages, especially if you’re stuck behind a desk all day (more on that later) or glued to your smartphone. How does one escape this trap?

  1. Allot yourself e-mail time throughout the day. Schedule 30-, 60- or 90-minute sessions throughout the day to check and respond to e-mail just as you would schedule meetings, phone calls or other projects.
  2. Shorten your responses. If you can’t answer most of your messages in five sentences or less, you’re probably writing too much. Cut out the fluff and focus on the points that matter most.”But what if it’s really important?” Easy. Pick up the phone.
  3. Delete, delete, delete (and file, file, file). Chances are a lot of junk finds its way into your inbox. If the message doesn’t require immediate action, or any action at all (e.g. you’re one of 47 people in the cc field of a department-wide email), get rid of it as quickly as possible. When an e-mail requires a response, reply when you have time and then file it away or delete it depending on whether or not you’ll ever need to reference it again. Paul Jarvis recently wrote, “A ‘zero inbox’ is a truly wonderful thing.” Indeed it is. See for yourself.
  4. Turn off your e-mail client. If it’s not your allotted time to check e-mail, shut down the e-mail client on your computer. There is no greater distraction in most work environments than an e-mail alert chirping in your ear all day, whether it’s coming from your desktop or a mobile device. In fact, shut off the push feature on your cell phone and fetch your messages manually so you’re not reacting to every alert. Worried about missing something important? If an issue is so important that it can’t wait a couple hours, the sender probably shouldn’t have e-mailed you about it in the first place. E-mail should never equal urgency.

2. Shorten your to-do list.

I’ve always loved to-do lists. The longer, the better—or so I thought. After years of trying to conquer expansive, elaborate lists of action items, and failing miserably in most cases, I’ve learned that less is more. A long list would inevitably become overwhelming and my tasks were never completed very efficiently or effectively. Shortening my lists significantly was the solution. How long should your to-do lists be? There’s no magic number, but the shorter, the better. Personally, I cap my to-do lists at five action items, and I always rank them in order of importance. Just as inbox zero is a “truly wonderful thing,” so is a completed to-do list—no matter how small it may be.

3. Be unproductive.

All this increased productivity is going to make you tired. Take a break. In fact, take several small breaks throughout the day if possible. And this doesn’t only apply to workdays. Even on a busy weekend, when you’ve got all this “extra” time to get things done, find a few minutes to a few hours to relax, nap, watch TV, read a book or otherwise be unproductive. Don’t mistake this lack of productivity with boredom, however; the goal here is to take a planned break from doing “productive” things in order to recharge and refocus. These intermissions will allow your periods of productivity to be that much more productive.

4. Don’t work through lunch.

In the past nine years I’ve worked in a newsroom, a small retail running shop and a traditional office environment. Ninety-nine percent of the time I ate lunch (or dinner when I was an overnight copy editor) at my desk, oftentimes working through my meal. I eventually realized that not much work ever got done while I did this, my food got cold and I usually made a mess at my desk. If you have the opportunity, take a lunch break. And get away from your desk for it. Meal time is meant to be a social time. Collaborate with co-workers. Catch up on out-of-work happenings. Or, if you’d rather be alone, just take 10 to 15 work-free minutes to eat your lunch away from your desk. You’ll return refreshed and raring to go right where you left off.

5. Get some sleep.

I used to pride myself on having no off-switch. I’d go until the battery went out, recharge a little bit and then keep on going until it went out again. Sleep was for the weak, I thought. The battery never got back to full strength, however, and eventually I was running out of energy sooner and sooner every day. My off switch still doesn’t always work properly, but I’ve gotten better at forcing myself into sleep mode at night. Similar to allotting yourself e-mail time during the day and planning periods of non-productivity, schedule yourself a bed time every night and stick to it. The result? More energy for more of the day, sharper thinking and reasoning skills, and thus longer lasting productivity (and happiness).