Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 Leadership stories of 2015. See the full list here.
People who manage to get a lot accomplished each day aren't superhuman; they've just mastered a few simple habits. Some may be easy to guess: Keep your desk organized and aim for around eight hours of sleep a night. But others, like taking a mid-day nap or complaining, might surprise you.
Here are 15 easy ways to make every day more productive:
Creativity may arise from chaos, but a litter-strewn office probably isn’t helping you get stuff done. "Attention is programmed to pick up what’s novel," says Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Two Awesome Hours. Visible files remind you of unfinished tasks. An unread book is temptation for procrastination. Even if you don’t think you’re noticing the disorder, it hurts your ability to focus.
People with neat offices are more persistent and less frustrated and weary, according to a recent study in Harvard Business Review, which found that a clean desk helps you stick with a task more than one and a half times longer. "While it can be comforting to relax in your mess, a disorganized environment can be a real obstacle," says Grace Chae, a professor at Fox School of Business at Temple University and coauthor of the study.
No matter how crazy your days get, make sure you carve out and ruthlessly protect just 90 minutes—20% of an eight-hour day—for the most important tasks. "Even if you squander the remaining 80% of the day, you can still make great progress if you have spent 90 minutes on your goals or priorities," says Charlotte, North Carolina–based productivity coach Kimberly Medlock.
Think you can get more done by tacking on extra hours? According to a 2014 study by Stanford professor John Pencavel, who examined data from laborers during World War I, output was proportionate to time worked—up to 49 hours. Beyond that, it rose at a decreasing rate, and those who put in 70 hours had the same productivity as someone who worked 56 hours.
You might believe you’re ignoring your iPhone, but unless it’s fully turned off, it’s a major distraction. In a report published this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers from Florida State University found that even if you don’t look at your phone when it buzzes, the sound makes your mind wander.
How Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter With Social Media, avoids getting distracted when she’s waiting for an important message:
1. Find the email-to-text format for your cell-phone provider with a quick Google search. Verizon, for example, is @vtext.com, so if your mobile number is 555-123-4567, your address is email@example.com.
2. Using that address, set up your email so it forwards messages from a specific sender to your cell phone via text (in Outlook, find "Rules" in the "Tools" task bar).
3. Shut down your inbox and ignore your emails while focusing on more pressing tasks, knowing you’ll be alerted when the important message comes in.
People are more efficient at things that come naturally, while tasks that feel like a struggle are likely to impede progress. If you can, delegate the duties that feel like an effort, and instead focus on "high value activities." "HVAs are within your mission, leverage your strengths, and create impact or change," says Hillary Rettig, author of The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. "They also create clarity and open your schedule." Delegating your non–HVA activities also helps create community. After all, they could very well be someone else’s HVAs.
Three ways to get the most out of your group sessions:
Many meetings don’t have a particular agenda, but it’s important to know what you want to accomplish going in. "Keep meetings short by limiting the agenda to three items or less," says Alan Eisner, professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business. "Afterward, send out minutes using your agenda so everyone knows what to work on."
Put non-agenda thoughts into an "idea parking lot." "People bring up ideas that are important to them but not on topic," says Cary Greene, coauthor of Simple Sabotage: A Modern Field Manual for Detecting & Rooting Out Everyday Behaviors That Undermine Your Workplace. "Instead of losing them, write them down." Don’t let the parking lot be a black hole: Assign follow-up steps right at the end of the meeting.
Walking meetings are gaining popularity, but you can get a similar benefit without hitting the hallway. Set a timer for 30 to 45 minutes. When it goes off, have everyone get up and move. "You can stand and shake it out a bit as a group, which lightens everyone up," says workplace psychologist Karissa Thacker. "Moving regularly is good for us in all kinds of ways, including improving our ability to focus."
It might be tough to convince your boss, but researchers from the University of Michigan found that taking a daytime nap counteracts impulsive behavior and boosts tolerance for frustration. The findings also suggest that workplace dozers could be more productive.
Identifying distractions is the first step to avoiding them. Here are the top five workplace attention destroyers, according to a 2015 survey by CareerBuilder:
- Cell phones/texting
- Social media
To get more done, be mindful of everyday choices, suggests Lisa Zaslow, founder of the New York–based Gotham Organizers:
"We can’t operate at peak performance all day long," says Zaslow. "When I’m feeling my best, I concentrate on important activities like writing. When I’m feeling tired and foggy, I do relatively mindless tasks like dealing with routine emails."
"In order to focus on urgent or meaningful activities, let some other things slide," she says. For example, open your mail just once a week; these days, nothing urgent arrives with a postage stamp on it. And while some organizers will tell you to touch any piece of paper just once, Zaslow is more forgiving. It’s okay to toss less-pressing work in a pile for later, she says.
It’s not surprising that getting more done starts with a good night’s sleep, but it turns out getting too many hours is as bad as too few. Analyzing the sleep and work habits of 3,760 people over seven years, researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that under-sleepers and oversleepers were both more likely to take extra sick days.
An office with a view sounds like a recipe for mind wandering. Actually, access to sunlight boosts productivity. In a study by the California Energy Commission, workers who sat near a window performed better, processing calls 6% to 12% faster and performing 10% to 25% better on tests that involved mental function and memory recall.
Energize staff by clearly defining expectations and routinely offering positive feedback. According to a recent study by Gallup, companies that engage their workforce see a 65% decrease in turnover, a 21% bump in productivity, and a 10% increase in customer ratings.
But do it the right way. Present your beef with an idea for improvement. "Framing things in terms of solutions lessens the focus on the problem and who might be at fault," says management professor Russell Johnson, coauthor of a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. "It evokes pleasant emotions instead of negative ones that cause mental fatigue."
Exercise not only improves health, it boosts output. And you don’t have to kill yourself in CrossFit—a jog will do. Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand found that a daily 20-minute run helped lab rats complete problem-solving tasks more quickly and efficiently than their nonexercised counterparts.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.
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