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The Future of Work

5 Strategies For A More Productive Workday

Distractions happen, but warding against them is easier if you take control early in the day.

[Photo: Flickr user Sascha Kohlmann]

What is it that makes certain people highly productive at work? If the three cups of coffee you drank this morning aren’t doing the trick, it might be time to try a new approach. Here are five ways to make get more out of your workday with a little less anguish.

1. Make Your Morning Count

As soon as you wake up each morning, there are no doubt emails, phone calls, and people that need your attention. But resist the urge to start responding right away.

Put your phone down and move away from your laptop. Checking those messages may seem like a great way to get a head start on the day, but it leaves you reacting to other people’s agendas, rather than setting your own.

Instead, outline your own priorities. Consider Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who puts aside one hour every morning to set his agenda. If judging only by the success of his company, it looks like Schultz may be on to something.

The truth is, how you start the first hour of your day determines how much you have accomplished by the last. So, spend that initial hour mapping out your objectives, eating a healthy breakfast, and meditating or working out. Not only will these things increase your focus, they’ll also provide the boost of energy you need to get more done in less time.

2. Remember The "Law Of The Vital Few"

Otherwise known as the Pareto principle, this economic rule of thumb says that 20% of efforts generates 80% of the results. For example, by fixing 20% of its software problems, Microsoft saw the incidence of errors and crashes drop by 80%.

Highly productive people understand that 80% of their output comes from 20% of their input, so they spend time on the 20% of their activities that has the greatest overall impact, understanding that the other 80% of their time doesn't warrant nearly as much stress or energy.

Identify what, in your day, costs time but doesn't contribute much to your productivity. Systematically break down what you do and ask yourself whether it's driving 80% of what you accomplish results. Once you zero in on the 20% that gets you real results, focus on deleting, diminishing, or delegating the other 80% that doesn't produce the most value for your time.

3. Write It Down

Think about how many tasks, questions, meetings, and dinner plans fill up each day. Unfortunately, it’s easy to waste brainpower trying to commit them all to memory. So don't.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson knows a thing or two about productivity. In his autobiography, Branson wrote that his most essential possession is his notebook. He takes notes about all the people he talks to each day. The less your brain has to worry about storing information, the more focused and productive you can be on the task at hand.

If you aren't a pen-and-paper kind of person, there are now countless apps to help you stay organized, remember important information, and keep your calendar in order. Some are much more sophisticated than others, but even a simple to-do list can help. Focus on the most important tasks (remember that 20%) and accomplish those before you move on to smaller ones.

4. Eat A Frog

Mark Twain once remarked that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing you do the rest of the day will be as bad by comparison. Although I can't recommend eating live amphibians, the gist is clear: Don't put off the most daunting tasks. Do them first.

The more you put something off that you already don't want to do, the less likely you are to do it later in the day as fatigue sets in. So tackle the tough stuff while you're still feeling fresh and energized.

5. Single-Task

You might be tempted to multitask, especially when you're under pressure to meet deadlines, but some studies show single-tasking can be more effective. In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes that our brains are sequential processors—they work best when we aren't dividing our cognitive resources between different tasks. In fact, some research has shown that multitasking can make tasks up to twice as long to complete and increase the likelihood of making an error by 50%.

In addition, a study by the research firm Basex revealed that, on average, workers were able to devote only 11 minutes to a project before getting distracted. Worse still, it took them an average of 25 minutes to get back on track.

You can't afford this level of distraction. If you want to make the most of your workday, make a conscious decision to omly focus on the task at hand and get rid of anything that threatens to throw off your focus. If that's Facebook, Twitter, or websites you like for entertainment, try browser add-ons like StayFocused (for Chrome), LeechBlock (for Firefox), and WasteNoTime (for Safari) to cut yourself off from online distractions.

Making the most of each workday takes a conscious effort starting the moment you wake up. But working more purposefully is about sticking to the agenda that you set for yourself, taking useful notes, and tackling your goals head on. See each task to completion, and make sure it's the best investment of your time. It takes practice and fine-tuning, but keep with it and before long you’ll find yourself getting more done in less time.

Akash Karia is a top executive coach and bestselling author. He is currently the chief commercial officer of a multimillion dollar company in East Africa. He is regularly sought out by top businesses and governments for his expertise on productivity and communication.

Related: Your Perfect Productive Day

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