The modern workday is all about completing complex tasks.
Because we live a world of micromanagement and hyper-connectivity—posting 140-character status updates on Twitter, using online apps to track every business expense during the day, processing hundreds of emails—it’s easy to get overwhelmed by granularity. Not only do you have to track individual tasks during the day, but you probably have an app on your phone or online that helps you. How can anyone possibly stay on top of it all?
As work gets more granular, it’s even more important to get smarter about how you handle your day. Say you need to plan a business trip. There was a time when you might have just bought the tickets, made the hotel reservation, and alerted the staff verbally.
Today, you have to post a message about your plans on Twitter, gather up all of your devices and chargers, make sure the hotel has that one VGA adapter you need for your presentation, and do countless other tasks. Beyond that, you still have to learn how to use a new smartphone and post your presentation to an online portal. Everything takes time. Here’s how to manage it better.
1. Do the Hardest Tasks First
Here’s an obvious one that you’ve probably seen before, but it works. When you start your day, take a quick look at what is facing you. The hardest task is the one that will slow you down the most and also the one that will zap the most energy. Say it’s learning a new desktop app the company is rolling out for every employee. If you save it for later, you’ll keep thinking about the challenge. Finish the most difficult task first. Your day will go much smoother, paving the way for the easier projects.
2. Offer to Help the Most Productive Co-Workers
Collaboration is the key to being highly productive. But how can you kickstart the process? First, try to find the employee who is working the hardest in the office. Offer to help with a task. (Make sure you don’t have any ulterior motives about it—be genuine about wanting to assist.) Your co-worker might help you when you get stuck. It’s the golden rule of productivity in business: Help others and they will help you. And, by the way, this rule applies equally to folks in the office and to remote workers.
3. Finish What You Start
Here’s another obvious tip, one that’s easy to forget because we all get so busy and try to multitask throughout the day. When you start something, you use up some mental and physical energy trying to gain momentum. (The same physics are at work if you start a 100-meter dash.) If you just finish the task, you don’t have to try and start it again. As an example, if you decide to find those chargers for your next trip, find them all. If you keep looking for them throughout the day, the task will become even more Herculean.
4. Stop Working on Something When You Reach a Dead End
While it is important to carry a worthwhile task to completion, you also have to know when a task is not going to pan out. Let’s say you start a business presentation that is making a point about Millennial buying habits. You keep tweaking the chart, and then realize the data is all wrong. It’s best to ditch the presentation altogether and find a new angle. The productivity superstars know when to abandon a task that will never go anywhere.
5. Resist the Urge to Call for Help Early
Being highly productive means you know how to persevere through anything. If you start to falter on a task, just keep plowing ahead. Here’s why. When you press hard and finish something, you learn a lot about how to finish things when they get complicated, and that helps you the next time you hit a wall. In the example of learning how to use a new smartphone, don’t call tech support or your friend across town. Learn how to use it on your own—it teaches you how to be autonomous.
6. Ignore Office Chatter
Being productive has its own rewards—when you accomplish something, there’s a tangible feeling of self-worth. Don’t trade those benefits for a little office gossip. It’s important to keep focused on your work—grinding through any frustrations or distractions. At the same time, don’t forget to build relationships with co-workers, encourage others to excel, and even go for a brisk walk to get the synapses firing again. Don’t confuse a healthy distraction at work for wasting time.
7. Watch the Squirrel Moments
Speaking of distractions, here’s the ultimate productivity killer. You may remember the dog in the movie Up. He would get distracted and say “squirrel!” during a conversation, and we all know people like that. There are good distractions that can re-direct your efforts, but most distractions just derail you. It’s best to weed them out as much as possible. Get a good pair of headphones, find a quiet place to work, and dig in for a few hours to finish a task. Save the squirrel moments for your off-work hours.
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