Being productive at work is more than being busy or checking every item off your to-do list. A productive day is one where the time was well spent.
Productive work focuses on the tasks or actions that create the most value and move you towards the goal you are aiming to achieve. It leaves you feeling satisfied at the end of the day, even if there is still more work to be done.
Doing productive work feels good and motivates you to want to do more. Here are 20 ways to design a better, more productive workday.
1. Plan your week.
Beginning your week without a plan is like getting into a car without a destination. You could drive around and around day and night and still not end up anywhere useful or enjoyable. Spend 20 minutes each week planning how you will spend your time to stay focused on the work that matters most.
2. Schedule breaks
The first entries in your calendar should always be your breaks. If you don’t schedule a time to take lunch and smaller breaks during the day, your calendar could quickly be filled with meetings and requests from other people.
Schedule breaks as recurring events, so they are planned for the same time every day. This increases the likelihood of you stepping away from the laptop and is helpful for others who may want to book a meeting or call with you.
3. Focus on outcomes, not hours
Focus on the outcome you are working to achieve when you plan your day, week or month. Resist the temptation to fill every space in the plan; you might need this later if things take longer than estimated or if something unexpected happens.
4. Set SMART goals
It can be difficult to plan your week based on outcomes if those outcomes are not clearly defined. Use the SMART acronym to avoid confusion and lost time. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Realistic, and Time-bound.
5. Keep everything on one calendar.
Nothing is worse than getting out of a work meeting only to realise you are late for a personal appointment – or vice versa. Keep everything on one calendar to have a real view of your days and week. You can set personal appointments as private on your work calendar or sync your personal and work calendar to a third-party app.
6. Schedule your day according to your energy
Everyone has energy highs and lows during the day. These changes can be more easily identified if you have a morning routine and regular breaks. Take note of the times you feel most focused, energised and eager to work. When you can, schedule work that demands a high level of effort or concentration for these times. Leave the lighter work for the other times.
7. Tackle the most important task first
While it is nice to begin the day with something you enjoy doing, it’s much better to tackle the most important task. It means that even if the rest of your day is interrupted or goes off-plan, you have already taken care of the “must-do” item.
8. Build a morning routine
A morning routine doesn’t have to take long as long as it supports your day. Try spending 3-5 minutes in the morning to complete the phrase, “If I do nothing else today, I will….”
This will help you set an intention for the day and be clear about what is most important. Stack it on top of an existing habit, like brushing your teeth. Or use it to form a new habit, like drinking a tall glass of water in the morning.
9. Track progress
Tracking progress is a great way to feel a sense of accomplishment, as you make your way through the day. It doubles up as a record for you to check throughout the day to ensure you are accomplishing the work you set out to do – and not procrastinating on less important activities.
10. Check your email only if you have the time to reply to what may have come in.
Scanning your inbox before joining a meeting or jumping into the car only leads to thinking about the new, unactioned emails when you can’t do anything about them. Some jobs require you to check your emails more often than others. Regardless of your inbox’s activity, don’t check it unless you have at least 10 minutes to pay attention to what may be inside.
11. Take 5 minutes before a meeting to determine what result you want.
It doesn’t matter if you are the meeting organiser or an attendee; knowing what you want to get from a meeting results in you paying more attention and being a better contributor to the session overall. Take responsibility for your role in creating a better meeting for everyone.
12. Block 15-30 minutes after a meeting to tackle any tasks you were assigned
Project meetings, team meetings, and 1-1 meetings with your manager typically end with a list of actions that need to be completed. When the meeting is scheduled in your calendar, block off some time on the same day to start working on any tasks you were assigned. This prevents them from being added to the “to-do” pile.
13. Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on completing one activity
Working for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break, is a great way to overcome procrastination and practice staying focused on the task at hand. Put your phone on “do not disturb” or focus mode, and then set a timer. Work on just one task at a time until the alarm goes off. Step away from the desk and decide what to work on next before setting the timer again.
14. Group similar tasks together
Every time you switch to a different type of work, your brain needs to change what it focuses on and how it works. Switching to a different type of work requires your brain to focus and think differently every time. This can leave you feeling tired and ready to finish the day before you have even had lunch! Working on similar tasks throughout the morning or afternoon is more efficient and less stressful. For example, try to batch all your administrative work together into a single block of time.
15. Take regular screen breaks.
Step away from the laptop for 5 minutes every 40 minutes or so to rest your eyes and prevent screen fatigue. If you can’t get away from your desk, (for example, you are in a meeting or waiting on a call), push your chair back and shift your gaze to something in the distance.
16. Say No
When it comes to saying no at work, the first person you need to get comfortable saying no to is yourself. Say no to tempting tasks that will lead you to procrastinate on the work that is really important. When it comes to saying no to others, getting clear on your workload is the first step to being able to say no with confidence.
17. Regularly review your workload.
Reviewing your workload is different to planning. A workload review looks at the work you have to do, how much progress you have made, how much more time you need, and what the priorities are. A workload review helps you create more realistic plans and is also very helpful when discussing new projects or responsibilities that you are asked to take on.
18. Use the 2-minute rule to prevent small tasks from building up
If a task comes across your desk and will take less than two minutes to complete, just do it. Unless you are in the middle of focus work, taking care of smaller tasks when they arise will prevent your to-do list from growing out of control during the workday.
If you are in focus mode, take 20 minutes after you finish to sweep up small tasks.
19. Upgrade your skills
There are two things which you must set time aside for proactively, or they are less likely to happen. The first is breaks from work, and the second is training and development. Agree with your manager on how much time you can spend on developing your skills every month. Create a plan to make sure you get the training or resources you need, and then block off the time.
20. Set aside the final 15 minutes of your workday for reflection
There is no such thing as a perfect workday. But you can improve your day and bring enjoyment to work by making small changes to how you spend your time, energy and attention. Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to answer the following questions and create a better workday.
- What went well
- What didn’t go as planned
- What can I do differently tomorrow
This also helps you switch off from work and enjoy the rest of your day.