You might be used to thinking about productivity in terms of your team – but what about your own productivity? Whether you’re a manager, team member or freelancer, there are many simple things you can do to get more out of your day. Let’s take a look.
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Why is personal productivity so important?
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world of work upside down. Businesses have had to be super-agile - pivoting their services, reorganizing their workforces, and making a rapid move to flexible or remote working.
This has increased the focus on productivity. Organizations are worried about whether people will still be as productive when working remotely, In fact, 78% of business leaders think hybrid and home-working will harm productivity, according to the World Economic Forum.
But while the jury is still out, the signs so far are pretty good. Several studies have noted an uptick in productivity rather than a fall. In one survey, 94% of employees said their productivity was higher or the same as it was pre-COVID. Another piece of research shows remote employees are experiencing less unproductive time and fewer distractions than office-based staff.
As organizations focus on measuring employee productivity and team collaboration, how are we, as individuals, evolving the way we work? Remote working means having more responsibility for managing our personal productivity, but how do we do it?
While traditional productivity trackers look at tasks, perhaps it’s time to look at productivity more flexibly. Maybe we should even start to measure productivity ‘backwards.’ To begin looking at output first and then find the actions and behaviors that led to success – and those that got in the way.
We’ve got to look at productivity holistically in terms of wellbeing, too. It’s widely known that there’s a connection between productivity and stress: The more stressed someone is, the less productive they’re likely to be, while a drop in productivity may be a sign that there’s something wrong with a person’s mental wellbeing.
How do I measure my personal productivity?
There’s a simple equation for measuring productivity: The amount of value you create divided by the number of hours you work. A person with high productivity will create the same amount of value for an organization in a shorter time or create a more significant amount of value in the same amount of time.
The problem is, it’s hard to measure personal productivity this way as you won’t always have a clear understanding of the value you create. This is especially true if your work doesn’t involve creating a physical product, making output harder to measure.
So it might be easier to think about productivity in terms of the total number of productive hours you have on an average day or week. A productive hour is one where you get stuff done - where you feel you can concentrate on a task and complete it, free from distractions.
Many of us feel more productive at certain times of the day or week than others. And distractions range from sudden meetings and phone calls to chat notifications to having too many small or odd jobs getting in the way - all of which prevent you from getting the “big stuff” done.
A 2019 study reported by the UK’s Economic Research Council found that the UK average worker was only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes in every working day. Assuming the average working day is around 8 hours, this leaves nearly 5 hours of doing... not so much. This leads to the eyebrow-raising conclusion that if your personal productivity is above 3 hours per day, you’re already more productive than the average employee.
When it comes to measuring your personal productivity, you might want to ask yourself questions like:
How much time do you have on an average day to focus on one specific task?
If your calendar is full of admin blocks or if you tend to work on two or more projects simultaneously, this may affect your productivity.
How many meetings do you usually have in a day?
Do you regularly find yourself juggling multiple tasks or unrealistic deadlines?
If this often happens, it suggests you need to reassess your approach to work – do you need to delegate more?
Are you able to take regular breaks, including a lunch break?
Breaks are essential for maintaining focus, so you need to carve out time to step away from the screen.
How do I maximize my personal productivity?
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to maximizing your productivity is that it begins with a shift in mindset. All the time management apps or productivity tracking software in the world won’t make a difference if your head isn’t in the right place.
Here are our top 10 tips for switching your brain into a higher gear:
1. Think about what’s holding you back
Do you feel distracted, overwhelmed or bored at work? Being aware of your workload and your feelings is the first step to understanding and improving your productivity.
2. Visualize what a productive day looks like for you
Try to picture the thoughts and feelings you associate with being productive. Where are you? What sort of mindset are you in? What does your working pattern look like?
3. Create stepping stones to try and achieve this ideal day
Don’t assume that you can achieve the vision in your head just by wishing for it, and don’t try to do everything at once. Instead, work out a strategy to make it happen, then go through it step-by-step.
4. Set yourself a productivity plan (to-do list) for each day
Using a productivity planner to map out each day is a great way to approach the day more productively. It also helps you visualize your priorities – so if extra work arises, you’ll instantly know where it slots into your schedule.
5. Get the big stuff out of the way early
If there’s a task looming over you, be sure to tackle it as early as you can in the day or week. Getting your most stressful job done can help you feel much more positive about approaching the other things on your to-do list.
6. Break big tasks into smaller ones
If you feel overwhelmed looking at the sheer scale of a project, try breaking it down into lots of smaller responsibilities. Once you start ticking little things off your to-do list, you’ll feel like you’re making progress towards completing the bigger goal.
7. Reward yourself with small incentives
For every task you tick off your to-do list, give yourself a treat. Whether it’s a 10-minute screen break, a drink or a few minutes scrolling your social media feed, you’ll feel much more incentivized to complete your work quicker if something is waiting for you at the end.
8. Make sure you take your scheduled breaks
Taking a break helps with everything from concentration to reducing stress. So while you might think working through lunch is the key to getting your work finished, you might be slowing yourself down.
9. Delegate or automate tasks if and when you can
When you find yourself with too much on your plate, don’t be a martyr. Instead, find someone to help you, or better yet, find a way to let technology do the work for you - like using a bot to send and collect survey results, for example.
10. Track your productivity over time and look for trends (e.g. things that regularly trip you up)
Keep track of the hours you spend and be honest about recording your productive and non-productive time. Once you’ve collected some information, take a look at the data and try to find a pattern of things that made you more productive and those that slowed you down. You can use this as the basis of a strategy for working smarter.
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What techniques can I use to improve my personal productivity further?
Of course, if you want to take your productivity management to the next level, you can always teach yourself tried-and-tested productivity techniques – there are lots to choose from, so you can find the one that suits you.
Here are some to try:
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound. First defined by Peter Drucker, this method is a step-by-step sequence to help people set realistic goals, then achieve them by working in a consistent, straightforward way.
Francesco Cirillo’s time management technique follows a simple system of working in 25-minute bursts with regular breaks in between these short sprints. It’s named after the Italian word for tomato because Cirillo used a tomato-shaped egg timer to create the technique while he was a university student.
Kanban is a simple but effective project management technique. All you need are some sticky notes and a table with three columns labeled “To-do,” “In progress,” and “Done.” By moving the notes left to right across the table, you help to visualize how you're completing tasks while getting a full overview of your other responsibilities for the day.
A method inspired by Mark Twain’s quote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Brian Tracy framed this productivity hack around one simple concept: Get the most challenging task done first thing in the morning and the rest of the day will feel much more straightforward.
This acronym stands for “must have,” “should have,” “could have” and “would have.” It’s a simple method of putting your tasks into a hierarchy of most to least urgent. “Must” tasks are the ones you should focus on right away (like replying to an important message), while “would” tasks are the vague goals you set yourself in the future (like getting a promotion).
The brainchild of a computer science student, the Systemist method combines with the Todoist app to streamline multiple workflows while also helping to balance other responsibilities on the side.
David Allen’s well-known GTD technique works by treating your mind like an email inbox and designating tasks in five categories: capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. It encourages users to focus on one thing at a time by allowing other, less critical tasks to be stored – or even thrown in the recycling bin.
8. Zen to Done
Zen to Done, or ZTD, takes David Allen’s GTD one step further. Building on the behavior changes necessary to adapt to GTD, ZTD removes the need for people to pause and think about their tasks and instead encourages them to push on. It’s much more useful for people who prefer action rather than reflection.
Also known as the Seinfeld Method (although Jerry himself claims to have had nothing to do with it). Don’t Break the Chain teaches the user to think of every item ticked off their to-do list as another step towards building a better version of themselves in the future. It’s a great way to incentivize people who value personal progress.
What personal productivity tools can I use to improve my performance?
When it comes to productivity tools, you’ve got a choice:
Productivity planners can help you keep track of you and your team’s schedules, tasks, projects and goals. There are lots of digitized planners - and some people still prefer the paper variety.
Time trackers can combine project tasks and milestones with to-do lists. You can also use them for scheduling in advance. One advantage they offer is that you can use the stats they generate to see how long doing different tasks takes you.