The first step to increasing productivity is to determine how it should be measured. This will depend, of course, on your industry and job function. More about this in a moment.
But regardless of how you measure productivity, there's something rewarding, fun and necessary about getting work done more efficiently.
You will benefit from these tips exponentially when you apply them and share them with staff or co-workers. More specifically, you will:
- reinforce your own learning and productivity
- increase your status as a team player and company resource
- make your company a happier, more productive place to be
The key, of course, is to share these tips in a spirit of "So we can all get better" vs. "So you can get better."
What is productivity in the workplace?
In the broadest sense, productivity in the workplace is another term for return on investment. While labor costs and efficiencies are part of that equation, they may not be the largest part.
For example, if you're a manufacturer, plant productivity may be more heavily influenced by overhead and materials costs. Which means telling your team to "work smarter, not harder" is of limited consequence.
Still, no one can deny that being productive just feels good. And right. It also leads to better teamwork, higher morale, and reduced turnover costs. Those factors alone make increasing productivity worthwhile.
For a more macroeconomic look at productivity, please see No-Nonsense Guide to Measuring Productivity from Harvard Business Review.
15 expert tips to increase productivity
1. Make increasing productivity a priority (not just a wish)
"Every day, it's important to ask and answer these questions: ‘What's good in my life?’ and ‘What needs to be done?'" — Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D.
As simple as it sounds, most life-changing outcomes start with a decision. Example: the decision to be grateful, successful, or in this case, more productive.
The more you consciously choose to be productive, the more opportunities you find. It becomes a part of your identity. People who are productive carry themselves with a healthy sense of urgency. They respect others' time as well as their own.
2. Focus on results
"You don't get any medal for trying something, you get medals for results." — Bill Parcells
Have you ever asked someone for a status report, especially on a key project—only to get a list of tasks (e.g., "I sent this many emails ...")?
Tasks may be necessary, but only results will drive your company forward. Make sure everyone on your team understands this—especially if you're paying them as a consultant.
Changing the focus from tasks to results may open up better, faster ways of getting the job done. For example, you may find certain parts of a project/outcome can and should be delegated.
3. Know when to delegate
Delegating takes time, money and patience. It doesn't always pay off right away -- which is why it's tempting to rationalize, "I can handle this faster myself."
Yet if increasing productivity is your goal, it benefits you to look at delegating as a long-term investment --both in yourself and your team. Three traits of tasks/projects that can or should be delegated:
- It's not your area of expertise; nor do you need it to be
- You don't enjoy it
- You don't add value
What are you spending time on that falls into one or more of the above categories? Maybe it's something technology-related. Or you're trying to do your own graphic design when that's not your strength.
On the home front, examples of areas to delegate include laundry, yard work and house-cleaning. To paraphrase Brian Tracy, "If your work pays twenty dollars an hour, you cannot afford to do work that pays fifteen."
Maybe it's less about the money and more about the reclaimed energy and focus.
The more you delegate, the more energy you'll have for the work where you do add value. For more insights on how to delegate more effectively, see Micromanaging Boss? 9 Telltale Signs You Are One
4. Put yourself higher on the list
This is not a case for selfishness or shirking responsibility. On the contrary, the most productive, benevolent and influential people I know have well-established routines -- especially in the morning -- that keep them sharp and energized.
If you want to be more productive all day, take a look at your morning routine. If necessary, recommit to the activities that anchor you. As an example, on the mornings when I get outdoors for a walk and fresh air, I get more done than if I tell myself I've got too much to do. I don't always understand how it works. I just know that it does.
What does your ideal morning look like?
5. Keep calm and cultivate a sense of urgency
What do you envision when you hear the term "a sense of urgency"?
Most would think it meant cramming as much work into a day as possible. Or keeping up a breakneck pace. Yet in his book A Sense of Urgency, which I read nearly ten years ago, John P. Kotter paints an entirely different picture. He describes a true sense of urgency as follows:
"Urgent activity; action which is alert, fast moving, focused externally on the important issues, relentless, and continuously purging irrelevant activities to provide time for the important and to prevent burnout."
How much more could your team accomplish if you took this definition to heart -- especially the part about preventing burnout?
6. Automate recurring tasks and decisions
Examples of recurring tasks and decisions:
- What time you get up and what time you go to bed
- What you eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner
- What you wear to work, even while working from home
- What time you start your workday and what time you stop
Sticking to a schedule or routine can free up mental energy and give you more focus for more challenging work.
7. Trade your to-do list for a roadmap
This tip comes from my friend Jean Gajano, executive director of New Eyes for the Needy:
"I'm a lister, and I end each day with a list for the following workday. But I don't let the list define me; I define the list. So if I'm not crossing off items, I don't let it frustrate me. It's more a reflection of what's going on in the office and I adapt accordingly. The list gives me a roadmap, but I can turn off that route whenever I need to and get back on when the traffic has cleared."
This is an excellent example of combining structure and flexibility for optimal productivity.
8. Have fewer meetings—and make them count
For example, where is it written that meetings ...
- Always have to be an hour long
- Are the default way of getting things done
- Should take place like clockwork, even if there's nothing to cover
The best meetings operate with a clear, meaningful agenda. They serve a purpose that justifies their time and expense. Participants leave feeling energized and clear on next steps.
By contrast, if even one staff member is clicking away on a keyboard during group time -- not to take notes but to catch up on email -- that's a sign that the meeting could be shortened or eliminated. Or maybe someone needs to be reminded to answer emails outside of group time.
Ask your team if you're having too many meetings. Productivity happens more readily when the days aren't fragmented with non-essential meetings.
9. Manage your energy and your time
Some practical ways to do this:
- Identify your most productive time (e.g., early mornings) and protect it from busywork
- Make strategic use of your "wait" time; for example, instead of fuming at being on hold, use it to clear your desktop or take a few deep breaths
- Leave part of your daily calendar unscheduled; you need breathing room for the unexpected
- If possible, leave one day per week to wrap up loose ends
Lastly, eliminate the barriers that keep you from getting started. For example, if your goal is to finish writing a report by tomorrow noon, gather everything you'll need the night before. Set a firm time to start writing so it's not left to chance. Small disciplines add up and make success more automatic.
10. Systematize recurring projects
As a minor example, writing a blog post involves several steps:
- Creating an editorial calendar
- Identifying topics/audience
- Giving each post a title
- Setting up a framework for the overall content
- Writing the intro
- Fleshing out the content
- Scheduling the post online
There's more to it than that, but you get the idea. Having these steps spelled out eliminates the need to reinvent the process, each and every time.
Likewise, you probably have projects on your plate that would benefit from simplifying and systematizing. Why not set aside regular time to handle this high level of planning?
11. Eliminate the distractions
Up until a few moments ago, I had no less than twenty-three tabs open on my desktop computer: everything from a quote by Richard Branson to an article my mother sent me from Mayo Clinic, on how to stay healthy during the pandemic ("... aim to choose healthy snacks, such as an apple, a few carrots, popcorn or yogurt"). Seriously?!
I closed most of those tabs and saved a few for later.
How easy it is to get comfortable with distractions instead of eliminating them. Other examples besides having too many tabs open:
- Responding right away to every ping on our phones, watches and other devices
- Checking social media
Notice how all of these become even more counterproductive when done in the presence of another person. Give the person or task in front of you your full attention, even if it's just to say, "I'm right in the middle of a big project. Could I touch base with you later?"
Thankfully, not everything has to be done right this moment. Save your energy for the things that do.
12. Acknowledge when you're stuck
When you feel your energy starting to wane, try taking a break instead of simply plodding through. Whether it's getting some fresh air, getting a glass of water, calling a friend, doing some stretches to get the blood flowing, simple activities like these can help you get unstuck.
Laughter also helps. Here's a six-minute clip of comedian Gary Gulman describing how hard it can be to get things done.
13. Turn increasing productivity into a game
A word of caution here: If you're a manager, try not to impose your game or contest on your staff. Chances are they won't like it or buy into it. Encourage your team instead to find their own unique ways to make a game out of productivity. A few examples:
- Starting each workday with a favorite song or short motivational video
- Setting an hourly reminder on your phone to stretch
- Challenging yourself to get things done, even when someone's in your office assembling a desk (this happened to me just recently ... for two hours, getting "work" work done was futile; so I challenged myself to knock out a few tasks on the home front I'd been putting off)
Once your team has employed some of their own ideas, get together as a group and determine how you can challenge one another to be more productive. Keep it fun and friendly.
14. Use vacations to unplug (even if you're home)
According to a 2018 survey by Accountemps, more than half of U.S. workers (56%) check in with the office while on vacation. This of course defeats the purpose of a vacation, which is to regroup and recharge.
Turning off notifications and badges can curb the temptation to check in. Email autoresponders are also your friend, because they set the expectations.
Tip I learned a few years ago: Schedule your vacation response to start the workday before you leave. Nothing like having to put out a fire late at night instead of easing into your well-earned time away.
15. Remind yourself, "Whatever I get done today is enough"
“If you do not enjoy a moment, you lose it forever. If you enjoy it, it is yours forever.” ― Debasish Mridha
If you're following most or all of the tips on this list, whatever you get done today is enough. Reminding yourself of this fact can lower your stress levels.
Finally, while you're being productive, look for the enjoyment. As a family friend shared with me nearly twenty years ago as we sipped wine on her porch, "You don't need a life plan. You need a life approach."
When it comes to increasing productivity, make sure your life approach serves you well. Make sure it is life-giving.
Your Turn: What makes being productive rewarding? What makes it challenging?