Editor’s Note: This story is part of our special New Year’s package “Your Future Self,” click here to read the full series.
As a nation, we’re obsessed with getting stuff done. There is an endless supply of advice from time management experts, productivity evangelists, and thought leaders who have managed to hack their way into the 24-hour day and wring out the maximum output into each waking moment. Productivity software alone accounts for an $82 billion market, according to IBISWorld research.
At Fast Company, our deep research regularly divulges the secrets of the most productive people both on a dedicated podcast and through our reporting. But as the new year dawns, we’ve put together a special collection of fresh new tips along with a selection of the most helpful advice we’ve gathered to help make 2019 your most productive year yet.
Keep it simple
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management, breaks down what appears to be a complex equation to its essence. “Productivity is doing more with less: output divided by input,” he advises. “If you want to be more productive without working more, then your only option is to work less.” That means you need to eliminate wasted time by ditching trivial activities and focusing on what really matters. “Even if your output doesn’t go up,” he says, “you will at least have more free time to produce (or waste) in other areas of life.”
If you want to know how to achieve big goals (like saving money, getting a promotion, or running a marathon), Fast Company’s assistant editor Anisa Purbasari Horton has the formula. She hit the mark on all of these resolutions in one year by switching up the way she approached them. “They were things that I had control over–they were habit goals, which focused on the process, rather than achievement goals, which rests on the outcome,” she explains. “I knew exactly what I needed to do each week, and I simply made that a priority.”
Don’t pile on tasks
It may seem counterintuitive, but packing the calendar doesn’t ensure that you’ll get more accomplished in a day.
Time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders says you should start each week with being clear on your top two to three goals. You should then schedule in times for those first, and make everything else fit around those times.
Ximena Vengoechea, a design researcher, writer, and illustrator, starts this by looking at her schedule first thing Monday morning. She chooses no more than three goals or focus areas for the week. “Then, at the top of each morning, I prioritize activities that will help me make progress in those areas.” She does this by asking if these tasks are tied to her top three priorities for the week. “If not, they go “below the line,” meaning I’ll only take them on once I’ve hit my focus areas,” she says.
If you’re having trouble prioritizing, it may make sense to cut the workweek by a day. It’s a bold move, but one that’s been shown to boost productivity during the time you are actually working. In a previous report, Metis Communication director of marketing Rachel Sullivan told Fast Company that since shifting to a four-day workweek, she’s able to prioritize better and has also eliminated any distractions that could potentially prevent her from being able to enjoy her (well-earned) day off.
Schedule thinking time
Author, founder, and strategic advisor Reva Seth has been researching and writing about productivity and time management for the past decade. 2018 was the year that she tested all the tools, hacks, and ideas she’d ever come across. Seth moved with three boys under age 12 to a new country, supported her partner in his new public role as Canada’s Consul General to San Francisco, and continued to build her cannabis media company.
“Be honest about what you need time-wise to stay balanced, energized, and creative and then make it a priority,” she observes. “For me, this meant staying committed to my creative headspace time.” Long walks gave her time to think about the issues and ideas, and space to daydream.
Vengoechea schedules an hour of thinking time into her day. “Where I can think proactively about what I’m working on as opposed to reactively, where I’m likely to wind up working on someone else’s priorities,” she says.
To get that free hour, Saunders suggests shortening meeting times when possible, come in with an agenda for each one, and end meetings once the discussion is done. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam recently revealed 13 hidden pockets of free time you could find in any day if you need extra assistance finding time to think.
What managers can do to help their staff
Isaac Oates, CEO and founder of Justworks, believes that it’s not enough to foster work-life balance to make employees more engaged and productive. The office environment also needs to be balanced, and the open office, he says, can be counterproductive.
“Getting in the zone is important. If your workplace is one where the only way for employees to do this is by putting noise-canceling headphones on and listening to music, you’re going to undermine creativity,” Oates says, “Especially the critical kind of creativity that happens one-on-one or in smaller groups.” While he admits there is no one perfect way to lay out an office, being aware of the varied needs of a productive team is a good place to start. “Provide opportunities for people to focus alone or get creative in pairs,” he suggests, “Create spaces where smaller groups can come together to discuss goals, solicit feedback, or refine each other’s ideas.”
That said, headphones do have their place when it’s time to get into a groove to complete a project. Music can be a massive productivity booster. “Listening to music with headphones might help people keep focused and feeling like they have their own space in an open workplace,” Meg Piedmont, a project manager for CloudCover Music, recently told Fast Company. The most popular music for improving productivity, according to a study by CloudCover Music, is classic rock, followed by alternative and pop.
Laura Maness, CEO of Havas New York, thinks that creating meaningful work is another route to productivity and creativity. “It’s important to recognize that meaning comes from alignment of the head and heart–where true passions and interests can be integrated into the workplace,” Maness explains. As such, the company recently launched a personal and professional growth accelerator for employees to fuel their passions and offered a $500 yearly stipend to fund a course or activity of their choice. “This not only fosters diversified creativity but helps our employees discover new meaning and fulfillment in their work,” she says.
Taking this concept one step further, marketing strategist Ted Karczewski makes a business case for encouraging these interests during the workday. “By introducing passion projects to the daily workflow,” he writes, “managers are giving their team members the opportunity to explore new concepts, which can ultimately lead them to more creative business solutions down the line.”