The difference between being productive and being busy isn’t obvious at first sight. In both cases, you work up a sweat to get your tasks done, but only one way will lead you to success.
We all know this feeling when we have so many tasks on our to-do list, that we wish the day could have 48 hours (I always wished to go a couple of days without sleeping).
I have a couple of friends who were coming to work early and left in the evening because they were swamped with tasks. I remember noticing that they were always late with everything they promised to deliver, because - you guessed right - they were busy!
And you know what? Being busy is contrary to being productive.
In this post, I’ll show you how to organize your time at work, so you don’t waste it on being busy. I’ve asked Karolina, our Product Manager, to share her tips, hoping that you’ll find them useful and easy to implement to your daily routine.
The worst time wasters at work
Before we go to war, we need to know who are we fighting with. Here are the most common time wasters that turn our work day into a battlefield.
According to Sanebox, email overload is a global epidemic. An average employee spends 13 hours a week reading and responding to emails. That translates into 28% of our work time (650 hours per year!) and the average inbox contains only 38% important emails.
Also, emails drain our productivity (it takes about 60 seconds to get back to your task after email interruption) and increase our stress levels.
Same thing applies to other communicators than emails. LiveChat uses Slack for internal communication, and while it’s an easier way to communicate, if not used wisely, it can be a work interruption. It’s just too easy and fun to use so you might end up with dozens of messages distracting you from work.
It’s a myth that some people can do a couple of tasks at once and not lose their productivity. The harsh truth is that if you want to be productive, you should focus on one thing.
When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully. Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ.
A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.
We all know the pain of attending in countless meetings. They always involve a lot of people who don’t even participate in a discussed project. Lots of jibber-jabber, small talk and time wasting.
And you know what’s even as much counterproductive as meetings? The time before and after a meeting. I’m sure that for most people about 10 minutes before and 15 minutes after a meeting are completely unproductive.
Lack of organization
When you’re flooded with tasks, it’s easy to lose your head and start switching between tasks, trying to finish them at once. If it looks like your strategy, then I’m sorry, but I have to say it loud: you lack time management skills.
Perfect time management helps you to plan and organize your tasks from the most urgent to least important ones. It only sounds easy, in most cases, you’ll have to estimate the time needed to complete this task, including deadlines, availability of other people, urgency and how does it affect others.
Every day you’re finishing your work, you should be able to tell what are your tasks for tomorrow.
Here’s the thing: breaks are crucial for our productivity. It’s crucial to give your brain a rest and your body a stretch. A short walk or quick exercises is awesome for your mental and physical health, but if you want to spend your time on a cigarette/coffee/social media break, it’s up to you.
The problem is that we can often lose control over break time. It’s just too easy to sink into Facebook or Twitter feed.
I literally a couple of minutes ago jumped on Facebook to copy a link to give you an example of something interesting that could steal some of your time. I responded to two messages, checked all notifications, posted a comment and while I was watching a video, I noticed that I am supposed to write this post!
Facebook is a productivity hell.
How to be more productive at work
As I talked with Karolina, LiveChat Product Manager, she admitted that she used to get distracted easily. In the past, she tried to organize her time by making to-do lists, but it turned out that she had too many tasks and ended wasting time on managing these lists.
(How crazy is that, right?)
One of her problems was also that every time when she was receiving a text message or an email, she used to respond or answer as soon as possible. You can imagine what the result was! We know how tricky telephones are, it’s the black hole of productivity.
Same thing for emails, once you start checking it, you cannot stop. You have the impression that you’re doing your job (you can see the results, right), but in fact, it’s just being busy and not doing anything meaningful.
Luckily, Karolina managed to find her way to being productive without being busy. Here are her hacks on how to be less distracted, and more productive.
Lifehack #1: Organize your time
It might sound like a cliche, but a good organization really is key to success.
It’s all about knowing which tasks are the most important, how much time they will take and if there are other people involved.
Karolina’s way of organizing her time is to plan the next day before leaving work and making a to-do list for one day only. In the past, she used to fill the list with all possible tasks she could do the next day, and she was frustrated as she couldn’t finish them.
Now, she advises focusing on the most important tasks that she will be able to do in one day. It is much better to focus on a smaller number of tasks because you cannot foresee what might happen that day (an unexpected job or a meeting). It’s much better to focus on one big task a day.
Another thing that helped her to sort her time out was implementing the Pomodoro technique in her work. She works 50 minutes and then she has a 5-minute break to check her phone or have a coffee.
Apps that Karolina recommend to organize your time are Dropbox Paper and Tomato One. I would also suggest checking Trello and CoSchedule.
Lifehack #2: Organize your communication
Communication is a blessing and a curse. It’s not only about calls and text messages, but it's also about email, Slack or other communicators, meetings and discussions. Communication steals a lot of time!
Here are few tips and ideas you can implement in your daily routine:
- A good way to escape from the noise is to check your email twice a day: in the morning and just before leaving.
- If you’re using messenger of any type (Slack, Skype, etc.), make sure that you’re contacted only in case there’s something important going on. Less urgent information can wait a couple of hours!
- Karolina checks Slack every 50 minutes (she has notifications turned off in the meantime). If there is anything someone wants from her, they can go and see her in person - easy as that.
Lifehack #3: Focus on your work
Spending a day in an office is very exciting, so it’s just too easy to be driven away from work. Alright, it’s not exciting, but still - you have to control your actions not to lose focus.
There are a couple of things that can help you to do that:
- Karolina participates in short daily team meetings where everyone shares their plans for the upcoming day. She says that because her colleagues know that she’s responsible for a task and expect her to do that, she finds more willingness to work. What’s important, her team agrees on the maximum meeting time, in most cases, the meeting doesn’t last longer than 15 minutes.
- It’s far too easy to distract when you have plenty open tabs in your browser, or when you see your messenger blinking. Karolina’s advice is to avoid distractions by using the Ulysses app. Once she has to write notes or longer copy, she goes full screen to focus on this one task.
- Another thing you can do is to cut yourself from entertainment. I recommend using browser extensions that block the most interesting websites (Block Site is very easy to use). Whether it’s Facebook, whether Huffington Post, this extension will make sure you’re not lost in the sea of fun.
- Turn off all notifications, mute your phone and hide it in your bag, so it doesn’t lie within your reach. A good thing is also turning your phone black and white so colorful icons don't draw you away from work.
Being busy is not a badge of honor
One of the most important things in being productive is to find the right time for work and the right time for the family and hobbies. A productive person knows that a brain likes diversity and knows that the right mental hygiene translates into brain power.
Another good news is that it’s possible to train your brain, so it stays focused and productive. The funny thing is that brain behaves like a muscle: when we use to multitask or distract often, it will get used to low attention span. From the other hand, when trained, it gets used to being focused and doesn’t let you distract easily.
I’m hoping that the above productivity tips will help you to be more productive. Also, I’d love to know what are your favorite hacks; share them in the comments!
And remember: being productive means working smarter, not longer.