Improving productivity doesn’t only mean to be more efficient, investing your time better, or producing more. For me, it’s about optimizing your way of working in order to live better and work happier.
Offices and other workspaces can be environments that cause a lot of pressure and discomfort. In my opinion, work (if you enjoy it) can be fun and satisfying, not a place where you spend precious hours of your days in negative ways. If you invest everything in your power to make it the best experience possible, a direct result will be an improvement in your productivity without any extra effort.
The following nine behaviors are some symptoms of discomfort and unease very common in the modern worker. With a minimal investment of time, introspection and, in some cases, money, some changes in habits will give us invaluable and lasting return over investment.
1. Limiting Yourself by the Tools That You Know
You won’t see marathoners run with ordinary shoes. They’ll invest in the best brand and in footwear adapted to their foot type. The same happens with professional photographers who will prefer to invest everything they can in their photographic equipment. Why is it not the same in all professions?
Whatever the reason may be (little interest, little money, laziness, etc.), it is common to see people work with tools they already have. This includes the tools you use daily at work: not investing in them could be a terrible mistake.
Think about your daily work and the tools you use, which can range from a physical object, such as a keyboard, to software, such as Photoshop. Ask yourself:
- Does this tool meet all my needs? Is there a better alternative that I do not know about and that I could work better with?
- Have I really thought through why I need to buy/use this tool? Is it good or is it mediocre?
- Does it make my work easier? Is it difficult to work with it?
2. Not Investing or Optimizing Your Workspace
I am a designer, and I spend many hours of my day sitting in front of a computer. If I spent those hours in an uncomfortable way, my work would generate a lot of frustration for me. I’d be unproductive, and my final results wouldn’t be as as good as they could be.
Besides thinking about the tools you’ll use, you should think of your workspace. In my case, it concerns a desk, chair, screen, laptop stand, and, above all, the room where I am at (lighting, temperature, etc.). Of course, this all varies depending on the type of work you do, not to mention other important variables that you may not be able to control.
It is important that you are aware of all those elements of your workspace, and you recognize the influence they have in your daily productivity. Investing on them is key; how much, and when and how will depend on your possibilities. This is not just for optimizing your productivity. These factors also affect your health, and can help you enjoy more what you do on a daily basis.
Do you sit in a chair for hours every day? Save some money so you can buy yourself a good chair that will not shatter your back. Are you a writer or a software developer? Maybe you should consider a good mechanical keyboard to do your job. Look around and ask yourself these questions. I’m sure you’ll find many things that can be optimized.
3. Starting to Work Right After You Get to the Office
Perhaps it’s normal for you to get to the office, go straight to your desk and start working, right? In my case, I have found that I become much more productive if I follow a specific routine before I get to work.
It is a very simple routine that involves placing all my work tools the way I like, putting my bag somewhere that will not bother me, get my bottle of water and leave it on the desk… And other personal habits that help me stay more focused.
This routine does not take me more than five minutes, while it gets the space I need ready for me to work in a pleasing way — and immediately activates my productive mentality. When I follow all these steps, I feel my mind place itself instinctively in work mode. There is no extra effort in order to begin my day, and the work day flows naturally.
Obviously, I’m not inviting you to follow these exact steps. This is the routine that works best in my case. What is important is that you find out which method activates your mind to start the morning with the best possible attitude.
4. Trusting Your Brain Too Much
One of my biggest mistakes regarding my productivity has been to rely upon my brain too much and, more specifically, on my memory. Our energy is limited, and while time passes by, it only decreases. Our attention span is like a kitten chasing a laser pointer, and our willpower is depleted too quickly. Once we understand and accept that, we’re better able to shape our day in order to adapt to this reality.
My memory is not the best, so I decided to start using the Bullet Journal method so I won’t forget important things. To combat the lack of energy and willpower that strikes me in the beginning of the afternoon, I try to save the mornings for the most creative tasks, and the ones that demand more mental effort. This way, I leave more automatic and easy tasks for the end of my day.
I’d advise you not to to rely too much on your own brain, and that you know better your times and energy levels. Think about how you might sabotage your goals – whether consciously or not – and look for the methods and supports that give you a hand in keeping the necessary concentration. Do you find it hard to wake up on your own? There are countless alarm apps that will not stop ringing until you move. Do you get constantly distracted by notifications on your phone? Activate the “do not disturb” mode when you get to the office and forget about them.
5. Wait to Burst Into Exceptional Creativity
This recommendation applies better to creative work, but I think it can help even the most technical ones. Let’s face it, the kind of inspiration that comes suddenly out of the blue is the exception, not the norm. Good results often start out with something basic and rudimentary, from which it is built and improved over and over again, until you get what you are looking for.
Do not wait until you get “the idea of the century” – begin now. Start typing, designing, coding… It’s quite possible that the first result you get will look bad, but that’s not important. What really matters is that you start; that you have something to develop instead of banging your head against a blank canvas that never evokes anything, which ends up taking us directly to procrastination.
6. Being a Slave to Email
Directly related to my advice on how to start the morning with more complex objectives is how one should deal with one’s email — this great daily obstacle that everyone talks about, criticizes and is a participant of. It is not my intention to speak of the goodness or evil of this tool. It’s one of my main forms of communication, and it is without doubt a great tool, as much as it can be counterproductive to our productivity.
On the one hand, there are the notifications, constantly popping up from our taskbar, smartphone or both that begins destroying our concentration. On the other hand, there is the feeling of guilt involved in having so many unanswered emails, and that there are people waiting for our answers. At the same time, it’s (usually) incredibly easy to answer them, a key factor to stop whatever we’re doing to respond immediately to the mail that has just arrived.
Being quick to answer an email may sound like a good idea in principle. But when replying this way, it means interrupting a project you were working on, getting unfocused, maybe taking you to other distractors (since you’re done with that message, why not check the Twitter feed really fast, right?), and facing another new message in your inbox in five minutes. Well, it just doesn’t sound like a good idea anymore, does it?
If you have the tendency to constantly check your inbox during the day, and at the same time your productivity is low, I’d bet those two variables are directly related.
My advice here is simple:
- Define some moments of the day for you to check your messages. You could check some in the morning, some after lunch, and the last ones before you go home.
- Ask yourself if you really need those notifications to stay on, or alternatively turn them off so you check messages only in those moments you’ve set for yourself. If you still feel like leaving them on, consider at least the possibility of turning them off when you’re focused on a task or project.
- Don’t check your email right after you wake up. Try as much as you can to separate that work routine from a personal moment, so you’re not overloaded with worries even before you get to office.
- PLEASE, do not use your email as a task list, and don’t allow others to demand that from you. Consider instead other tools specifically thought for the task (such as Trello for teams or Todoist for your personal organization).
It may sound complicated, but it’s possible. With time, if you, for example, start checking your email only at certain times of the day, your coworkers will get used to receiving your answers at that time, and won’t be waiting impatiently for your reply throughout the day. If the email they sent you contains something really important and urgent, don’t worry: they’ll find an alternative way to let you know about it.
7. Adjusting Your Time to a Machine or to Others
One of the most common tips I’ve read and heard since I became interested in productivity is about time control. Specifically, I’d emphasize on methods, such as the Pomodoro or the 2-minute Rule, which certainly helps a lot of people.
In my personal case, however, these methods seem counterproductive. Pomodoro invites you to work on your tasks at intervals of 25 minutes, with breaks of 5 minutes between each. In concept, it might sound good (and again, it seems it works well for many people). But, in practice, humans are not robotic or programmable, and everyone has different needs and times. There will be days or cases that will require working non-stop for an hour, or take breaks of twenty minutes. Having to follow strictly the times set by a machine, in the end, ends up being more of an unnecessary pressure than help.
8. Forgetting to Renew Yourself
We live in times when there are new applications, new tools, and constant updates every single day. We should not be so naive to think that what we know, however good it is, is the best solution.
It is vital to never stop learning new things, knowing all updates of our applications and services, questioning whether what we’ve been doing for years is maybe not the best practice anymore.
If we don’t do this, we can be not only wasting time, effort and energy, but also become obsolete as professionals. Read articles, follow interesting people in your field, and stay abreast of what is being discussed.
9. Leaving Your Attention under No Constraint
In Happiness by Design, Paul Dolan says your mood is determined by how you place your attention. What we keep focused on influences our behavior, who we are, and is key to our happiness.
Attention is a finite resource. If we dedicate 10 minutes of our time to watch a YouTube video, we’re taking the decision of not using that time for something else.
It is important that we value our time and not let our attention go jumping from one stimulus to another without control. When we look back, it is not nice to feel that time has been lost.
Invest some time into analyzing what you falter and what are the triggers of your distractions. Not only define them, but begin to take concrete steps to avoid falling into permanent procrastination.
I assume you’ve read this article for the same reasons that I spend so much time reading about productivity. I believe deeply in the idea that sharing is caring, so I decided to share with you the many methods and tips that have helped me improve.
Would you tell us what methods you use, if you feel identified with any of the common errors I described, or if you managed to modify any of your bad habits for productivity? I’d love to know.