It’s the start of another year and you’ve decided your resolutions are going to be all about being more productive.
You’re knee-deep in advice you’ve gleaned from the internet and are positive you’re going to become your most productive ever in week one of January 2017.
Maybe it’s time to hold on a second…
What do we mean by ‘Productivity’?
This might seem like a slightly redundant question, but given the vast literature and impressive volume of productivity-related advice online, it’s important to ask what we mean when we refer to our productivity.
Imagine a factory making widgets. Countless machines on production lines, all making the same widgets. These machines’ productivity can be assessed in very straightforward ways – there will be measures of widgets-per-hour, clear expectations about an acceptable error rate and scheduled downtime for maintenance.
Throw humans into the equation and predictions about performance and ‘output’ become a lot fuzzier. We don’t produce identical pieces of work at exactly the same rate. Our performance isn’t stable – we all have good days and bad days – and our ‘down time’ for maintenance (sick days) is far from predictable.
On the other hand, we can improve our performance, adapt our behaviours and learn new skills. We can solve problems, help others solve problems and reorganise our work…
Some perspectives on productivity
I regularly run workshops to help people become more productive, and it’s a topic that regularly comes up in one-to-one coaching. Regardless, I always start by asking clients what they think productivity means. Over the years, we’ve collectively arrived at a ‘floating definition’ that includes the following elements:
- Getting “stuff” done – the tasks and projects that have been assigned to us
- At the right time – not missing deadlines
- In the right order – in a way that reflects sensible priorities
- In the right way – to a good standard
- To minimise pressure and stress – avoiding last-minute rushes or forgetting things completely!
That short list really simplifies the long and complex debates I’ve had with workshop attendees over the years, but also (I think) helps demystify the productivity concept.
Another perspective on productivity, however, is to consider why you want to be more productive in the first place. We’re not the machines I outlined above, whose increased productivity will simply result in the production of more widgets.
Why do I want to be more productive?
Having clarity on why you want to be more productive can help you focus on what you’re going to do differently and provide some of the motivation to make that change.
What can you do with the time and effort saved? Do you want to plough this back into your job to help advance your career? Or maybe you want to use it for activities in your personal life? Maybe you simply want to remove the existing pressure you feel and get more enjoyment from your job. Having clarity on the ‘wins’ from productivity may help you feel more motivated to make the changes this requires.
So, how to be more productive?
There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all recommendation here, I’m afraid. If there were, I’d have written that book and retired a long time ago! On the other hand, there are some useful principles we can adopt when it comes to work, that could make a big difference. These include:
- Effective prioritisation: being clear on what’s important, what’s urgent and what’s neither. This means you can put your time, energy and focus into the most useful activities.
- Effective planning: thinking ahead when it comes to deadlines, workload and availability, not just living day-to-day, but looking at the week, month and year ahead. We’re all familiar with how quickly time can pass by, so plan ahead!
- Effective use of technology: using technology to best effect, maximising the opportunities for efficiency and avoiding duplication of effort. An automatic ‘out of office’ email is a very simple example of this principle.
- Minimising distractions: this includes technology (e.g. notifications) and temptations (e.g. social media). If you’re honest with yourself about what you’re most likely to be distracted by, you can work on removing it from your surroundings, even just while you need to concentrate.
- Distinguishing between tasks and projects: if your to-do list is full of large projects, it can be difficult to know where to start. That way leads to procrastination. Breaking projects down into manageable tasks allows for prioritisation and, if you’re lucky, some delegation too.
So, while there’s no magic bullet, there are plenty of ways you can make small steps to improving your efficiency, removing some pressure and feeling better about what you’re doing at work.
The first step is to be clear on why you want to make these changes in the first place. Over to you!