Camelia Zoica
Camelia Zoica

The Comprehensive Guide to Productivity at Work

Productivity

Productivity at work is not about just showing up. So many things play into it. From sleep to food to preparing your work clothes ahead of time, there are so many aspects that play a role in the way we handle work. Some of them have a bigger impact, others a smaller one, but all of them add up to form our work persona. I can’t cover all of them in this article, but I’d like to share with you the ones I find the most important for our success at the workplace, so here they are (in order of importance).

Browse by Category: Click any of the links below to jump to each category.

Sleeping
Diet
Exercising
Taking breaks
Prioritizing
Organizing
To-do lists
Avoiding multi-tasking
Reading
Tracking time

Make sure you’re sleeping well and going to bed early

According to the National Institutes of Health, 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders and sleep problems that can greatly impact their health, alertness and safety. Sleep disorders left untreated have been associated with hypertension, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and other chronic diseases. In addition to the serious health problems they can cause, both the amount and quality of your sleep can significantly affect your productivity at work.

In a study conducted by researchers from Cambridge University and Rand Europe on over 21,000 employees in the UK, it was shown that those who sleep for 6 hours or less are significantly less productive than those who get 7 or 8 hours of sleep. It should come as no surprise that sleep affects productivity (among others – check this great video to better understand what’s happening with your body if you don’t sleep):

But even though the data to prove it has been around for a while, we find it hard to accept. In our busy schedules, we seem to never be able to squeeze in an extra hour of sleep. With so many things to do, how can we afford to sleep for 8 hours a night? Well, if you think about it logically, isn’t it better to have 5 hours available in which you can be as efficient and productive as you possibly can instead of 8 hours in which you’re practically walking around drunk from lack of sleep and only functioning at maybe 50% or less of your ability? Isn’t this the reason why some companies are starting to introduce napping policies at work?

Smart employers are starting to realize how much more productive employees can be when they’re given the chance to take a 20 or 30 minute nap, and that two units of work will not necessarily produce twice the output. And when it comes to work, we need to start thinking in terms of output rather than input. It shouldn’t matter how many hours of work your team puts in as long as you’re satisfied with the quality and quantity of the work they produce.

Woman Sleeping

But although naps are a good solution if you’re sleep-deprived, getting a good night’s sleep is still the best. There are several ways to improve your sleep, but one of them is definitely going to bed early. Ideally, that would be somewhere between 8 and 10:30 PM, depending on your natural circadian rhythm. Notice when you’re initially getting sleepy at night and try to make it a goal to go to bed around that time and not force yourself to stay up longer to watch a TV show, check Facebook, or whatever keeps you up at night. It will be hard in the beginning, especially if you’ve turned into a night owl over the years, but you can do it gradually by decreasing your bedtime by 10-15 minutes every week and eventually you’ll get there. Just think how great it will be to wake up before everyone else and get a good start to your day. Instead of having to rush out the door every morning, you’ll have the opportunity to exercise, have a healthy green juice and breakfast, and even read if you want to. You’ll be more peaceful and you won’t have the feeling you’re jumping straight into work when you’ve barely woken up.

Watch your diet

You’ve probably heard the saying “You are what you eat”. Do you believe in it? I do. I believe what we eat has a powerful effect on all aspects of our life, including productivity. We can’t expect to eat a donut and have the same level of efficiency and alertness as after eating a bowl of oatmeal. Sure, you’ll get an energy boost from both of them, but the blood sugar crash from the donut will be just as fast as the rush, whereas the oatmeal will guarantee a slow release of glucose that will fuel you for hours. There is a lot of controversy around proper nutrition, but I think we can all agree food plays an important role in our brain activity and development.

And when it comes to food affecting our productivity at work, I think there are a few simple tricks that can have a major impact:

Start your day with a power-punch breakfast

Breakfast is really decisive in the kind of start you have to your day. If you feel like you need a lot of energy to wake up and get going, don’t start your day with a coffee. Have a green juice instead or some lemon ginger water. It will give you the boost you need and you won’t feel drained a few hours afterwards. Have your drink and then follow it with a healthy breakfast such as a fruit platter, oatmeal with berries, a fruit smoothie or a chia pudding. If you prefer something more savory, try some guacamole or hummus with veggies on the side.

Healthy Food

Avoid large, heavy lunches

When you eat a heavy lunch, your body will direct a lot of its energy toward the digestive process, which will leave you feeling fatigued and sleepy and you won’t be able to get much work done. Try to have something light for lunch, such as a big salad or brown rice with steamed veggies, or at least keep your portion small if you’re having something heavier.

Have some pick-me-up snacks

If you feel like you need an energy boost mid-morning or in the afternoon, don’t automatically go for coffee or some sweet junk food. Coffee and sugar are indeed great stimulants and will make you feel more alert and focused, but only for a short while. The energy crash that comes after the boost will be inevitable. Have a tea or some lemon ginger water instead of the coffee and snack on some fresh fruit, dates, a handful of nuts or even some carrots. Check out this great article for some other ideas for brain-boosting foods.

Make exercise a priority

Sport

As long as we’re on the chapter of health related to productivity, I have to mention something many of us like to pretend is not that important: exercise. We all know that exercise plays a huge role in preventing major diseases, in improving our mood and our general well-being, and still we have the tendency to postpone it indefinitely. We don’t seem to have enough motivation to find the time for it. Would it help if I told you exercise also plays an essential role in improving our productivity? Just think about it: exercise increases the blood flow to our brains and our level of alertness, so naturally you’d be able to focus better and therefore do your work easier, faster and more efficiently. And then you’d have more time set apart to exercise. It’s just a cycle. Stay long enough in it to see the results and you’ll no longer want to get out when you see how good you feel.

Now I know what you’ll say, that you just don’t have the energy to do it early in the morning or after a long and tiring day of work, and believe me, nobody understands lack of energy better than me. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, exercising will actually increase your energy levels and make you feel more alive. Maybe not in the beginning, when your body is still not used with the effort and you feel exhausted, but you’ll start feeling a lot better within a few weeks or maybe even a few days. And it doesn’t have to be something very intense or complicated, especially if you suffer from fatigue. It can be something as easy as taking walks, doing some light yoga or low-intensity aerobic, and generally increasing your activity levels by getting up more from your computer, standing when talking on the phone, and even getting a stand-up desk.

A study conducted by University of Georgia researchers on people suffering from fatigue (not including those with serious medical conditions) showed a 20 percent increase in energy levels in both control groups who were asked to perform low and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times a week for a period of six weeks. In fact, the low-intensity group actually had better results, reporting a 65 percent drop in feelings of fatigue, compared to a 49 percent drop in the group doing moderate-intensity exercise. You don’t have to force yourself to go to the gym if you don’t like it, find an activity that you really love, as simple as it is, and just stick with it. It will be a lot easier to motivate yourself if it’s something you actually enjoy.

If you’re looking for ways to motivate yourself to exercise, check out this article to see different tips & tricks from BuzzFeed readers, or learn how to motivate yourself into an exercise routine. Both articles offer valid points and are good sources of inspiration.

Take regular breaks

Take a break

While we’re on the subject of moving your body, let’s talk about taking regular breaks. If your job implies sitting in front of a computer all day long, like most of them do nowadays, it is crucial to take regular breaks to stretch your muscles, rest your eyes and refresh your mind. Nature did not intend us to sit for such prolonged periods of time. We were meant to be active, and the fact that we’re constantly going against the grain can only have negative effects on our bodies. Being sedentary is our new disease. A disease that can lead to other diseases like diabetes, IBS and other digestive issues, heart disease, and of course back pain (accompanied by other aches and pains) and eye strain. And don’t think that you’re off the hook if you exercise daily. Being active throughout the day is just as important, and maybe even more important than regular exercise. Now I’m not saying regular exercise won’t help, of course it will, but it just doesn’t absolve you from taking regular breaks. It doesn’t mean that if you exercise an hour every day, you can get away with sitting for 8 hours straight. That’s all.

Take a 10 minute break every hour or how often you can, and you will return to your work with a fresh mind and eyes, ready to take on the next challenge. Walk or stretch a little and you’ll see the increased blood flow to your brain will allow you to focus better and even come up with fresh ideas. Productivity is not accounted in how many hours you spend at your desk. It is measured in results, and your results will be better if you take regular breaks, and you won’t sacrifice your health in the middle. And you don’t have to feel guilty about it. Any reasonable employer should understand the necessity of taking breaks and appreciate output over input, and if he doesn’t, just think if it’s worth sacrificing your health for your job.

In this Buffer article, you’ll see more scientific reasons for why it is important and beneficial to take breaks, and also learn some tips on how to spend your breaks.

Learn to prioritize

How can you prioritize when everything is a priority? With so many things to do at work, everything seems important and you just don’t know where to start. Learning to discern between tasks and spot out what is truly important is a necessity. You have to learn to differentiate between what’s urgent and what’s important, and always focus on the important first. As Seth Godin says in this blog post, “ If you focus on the important stuff, the urgent will take care of itself.” The truth is few things are truly urgent and if you take on every little thing labeled as “urgent” as soon as it comes up, you’ll never get to the important stuff or you’ll end up doing it in a hurry and do a sloppy job.

What you can do is make a list with your priorities at the beginning of each day and then mark each task/priority as urgent or important. Put all the important and hard stuff to do at the beginning of the list and everything urgent or new that comes up during the day at the end of the list. Don’t worry, you’ll get to the urgent stuff if it’s really urgent, but this way you’ll also get the important stuff done without too many interruptions. Don’t get lost in small details and don’t interrupt your work every time you get an email. It’s not that important. If it were something that required your immediate attention, you’d probably get a call. And hey, if you know one of those people who always calls or emails you with something urgent to do, just ignore them. Not everything can be urgent, can it? You have to learn to say no to people who always take up precious moments of your time with no actual benefit. Cut out distractions and take responsibility for how you spend your time. Don’t let other people do that for you! And if you feel like you just have too much on your plate, learn to delegate. Don’t be that person who has to do everything on their own because they don’t trust other people can do the job as good as they can. Let go of your perfectionism and keep focusing on what’s important. The minor stuff CAN be delegated. Don’t be afraid to trust others and teach them how you want things to get done.

De-clutter and organize your work environment

Declutter

Having a lot of clutter on your desk frequently distracts you and makes you lose your focus, especially if you’re a woman. Men usually have the ability to stay better focused, while women have better peripheral view, and therefore the eye gets drawn to the things around, making clutter a real problem. There’s an old saying going “A cluttered desk is a symptom of a cluttered mind.” Or maybe it’s the cause of a cluttered mind. Either way, it’s clear that a cluttered desk is unproductive for most of us. Of course, there are people who function better in chaos, but most of us need organization in order to stay productive. As Steven Pressfield says in his book “The War of Art”, a professional seeks order. A professional cannot tolerate chaos and disorder, he has to eliminate it from his world in order to banish it from his mind. You can’t invite creativity in when your mind constantly gets bombarded by clutter or when you have to dig under mounds of paperwork and garbage to find what you’re looking for. And just think about how much time and energy you’d be saving if your desk was in order. All that time spent looking for misplaced things could be spent working, and all that energy lost on things constantly grabbing your attention could be used to stay focused and finishing your work much faster.

But how to do it? When it comes to staying organized and keeping your office free of clutter, like most things in life, there is no one way that works best. There are several methods and techniques, but one thing is clear: after you find the right method for you, you have to be persistent. Don’t let a day go by without following your rules because chaos can set back in really quickly and comfortably. Clear your desk of clutter at the end of each day and you’ll be glad you did that in the morning. There’s almost nothing better than coming to a clutter-free desk in the morning. Ok, maybe there is something – waking up to a clean kitchen. Yeap, that definitely beats it. But still, taking that extra minute or two to clean your desk at the end of the day will be so important to set a good start for the next day. You’ll feel like patting yourself on the back every morning you come into the office.

Create to-do lists

Some people love making lists. If you’re one of them, that’s awesome and I’m sure you see a lot of benefits from it. If you’re not, I’m here to tell you to-do lists can change your life. That might sound exaggerated, but just think about having your mind free from the burden of constantly thinking of everything you have to do. I think that’s the biggest advantage of to-do lists. Once you write them down, you free your mind from a lot of clutter and you won’t have to constantly think about what’s next on your list or fear that you might forget to do something. Just write them down and take them on one by one. Having the satisfaction of marking the tasks as complete or deleting them from your list is free fun. Most people feel very accomplished when they know they’ve tackled everything on their list. When you accomplish things without having a to-do list written down it’s like you lose part of that joy. You’ll always have the question “Did I forget to do something?” in the back of your mind.

You can start simply by writing your to-do list in a document or in WorkFlowy, but if you want something more complex or personalized, there are many to-do list apps out there. You can check out some of the best in this article. And as a piece of advice: try to keep your lists short and remember to constantly prioritize and put what’s important at the top of the list. If it’s not important, don’t put it on your list. We are expected to do all sorts of things, but time is limited. Before putting a task on your list, think if it’s really worthwhile. It might sound harsh, but it’s something you need to do if you want to get what really matters to you done. However, if you’re a very busy person and have a lot to do, divide your list in several categories and keep a separate category with the most important things to do that always gets prioritized above everything else. Be in charge of your time and don’t let anyone tell you what your priorities are!

But as great as they are, keep in mind that to-do lists don’t work in every context. If you have a business, a to-do list won’t be enough. It will be something you can use with success on a personal level, but you need a project management tool to keep your team connected and under control. A proper project management tool will provide a good platform that can be used in connection with other tools you need, such as time tracking or invoicing ones.

Avoid multitasking

Multitasking seems to be pretty popular nowadays and it kind of sounds like something you would brag about being able to do. However, trying to accomplish more than one thing at a time can actually be more unproductive than you think. Studies have shown that people who try to do more than one activity at once get easily distracted and the quality of their work suffers. I like how this article says that focusing on a single task is a lost art. I think it is. If you focus on more than one thing at a time, you can’t possibly be doing a great job on all of it. All your tasks will be accomplished, but most likely all of them will be mediocre or slightly above average, and none of them will be excellent. And what’s more, you won’t even finish them sooner.

When you’re working on more than one task at once you probably feel like you’re accomplishing more, but you won’t have any results to show for a pretty long time. Instead of having a task done in two days and then moving on to the next project, you’ll have five tasks extended over ten days or more, but the fact that you’re not having anything finished in those ten days will probably make you feel frustrated and like you’re not getting anything done. And your boss or client might feel the same, even if they are the ones insisting all those tasks are important and need to get done. Here’s an idea: next time your boss comes in with a new task, let them know what you’re working on and that you’ll get to it after you finish your current project, unless the new thing is something really important. Don’t be afraid to ask them if the new project is more important than what you’re working on and you’ll probably see that most of the times they’ll agree the new project can wait and you should get on it after you finish your current one.

For more multitasking anti-propaganda, check out how multitasking can “kill you”, an article by James Altucher.

Read as much as possible

Reading

In addition to enhancing your intelligence, improving your vocabulary and your memory and a host of other benefits, reading can also increase productivity. Reading broadens horizons and helps you see things from different perspectives, which allows you to be more creative and come up with new ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. A study conducted by researchers from Emory University in Atlanta showed that reading a novel causes changes in the ‘resting-state connectivity’ of the brain that are visible even after a few days. The study was conducted on 12 students over a period of 19 days and had them reading the same novel – Pompeii, by Robert Harris. They were given a 30 day section to read every evening and were asked to come in the next morning to undergo a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan. After all 9 sections of the novel were completed, the participants underwent scans for five more mornings in a resting state. The results showed intense connectivity in the left temporal cortex (which is associated with language receptivity), as well as in the central sulcus (the primary sensory motor of the brain). The lead author of the study, Professor Gregory Berns, said: “The neural changes that we found, associated with physical sensation and movement systems, suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

There is no question that reading is very powerful. It has a strong impact on our brains, and on our personalities as well. If you want to become a better person or improve a certain part of your professional arsenal, read. Read as much as you possibly can. And not just personal or professional improvement books, read anything you can get your hands on. You’d be surprised where creativity can strike from. And don’t waste your time on books you can’t click with. If you don’t like a book within 15 to 30 minutes after starting to read it, move to the next one. There are so many amazing books out there that it’s not worth wasting precious time on books you find mediocre.

If you don’t know where to start, check out these book suggestions. I also highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s “Do the Work” if you’re looking for motivation.

Track how much time you’re spending on different tasks

Time tracking

If you don’t know how much time you’re spending on a certain type of task, you won’t know how much time to allocate for it and how to build your schedule around it. That’s what time tracking is for. Manual or automatic time tracking will help you be more productive. It will help you allocate your time efficiently and spot potential problems. For instance, you might notice you’re spending too much time checking your email or Twitter account or working on non-important tasks. Sometimes we have habits we don’t even acknowledge and it’s really important to be able to spot them so we can work on them. As I like to say, if you know you have a problem, you can fix it. If you don’t, it will probably still be there a year from now. Knowledge is the first step towards healing.

As a business owner, you want to know how your employees spend their time as well so you can help them be more productive. If you notice an employee is slacking or spending too much time on a certain task, you can step in and see where the problem is. Maybe they are feeling overwhelmed or maybe someone else would be better at that task. Whatever it is, you can fix it if you can get a handle on what’s going on.

In addition, just knowing that their time is tracked will increase your employees’ productivity. There’s just something about working under the assumption that every little bit of your time is worth money. It helps you prioritize the small number of hours in your work day, as well as focus on one task at a time and getting it done well, thus avoiding the dreaded multitasking mentioned above. Rather than checking email, answering a call or jumping from one task to the other, time tracking will actually encourage you to focus on one activity for an extended period of time so that you can be as productive as possible.

If you liked this article and got some useful ideas from it, make sure you share it with your friends and co-workers. I would also love to hear your opinion, so let me know your thoughts below.

11 Comments on The Comprehensive Guide to Productivity at Work

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Great point about sleeping an extra hour to have 5-6 productive hours vs. being a zombie all day. I'm going to commit to fixing my bad sleep habits! Thanks for the article

Alexander Abell

Great point about sleeping an extra hour to have 5-6 productive hours vs. being a zombie all day. I’m going to commit to fixing my bad sleep habits! Thanks for the article

Reply

Hi Alexander, thanks! Good luck fixing your sleeping habits, I'm trying to follow my own advice and do that as well! :)
Camelia Zoica

Camelia Zoica

Hi Alexander, thanks! Good luck fixing your sleeping habits, I’m trying to follow my own advice and do that as well! 🙂

Reply

Camelia, wonderfully researched article. Were were you 50 y ears ago when I could have really used your advice (metaphorically speaking, of course)? Hadn't know about the brain research behind reading. Reminds me to pick up books more often. :)

Scott Scowcroft

Camelia, wonderfully researched article. Were were you 50 y ears ago when I could have really used your advice (metaphorically speaking, of course)? Hadn’t know about the brain research behind reading. Reminds me to pick up books more often. 🙂

Reply

Thanks Scott! :) Haha, I know what you mean, I wish I'd followed my own advice sooner! :)
Camelia Zoica

Camelia Zoica

Thanks Scott! 🙂
Haha, I know what you mean, I wish I’d followed my own advice sooner! 🙂

Reply

Great!!!

Pablo Cossio

Great!!!

Reply

Thanks Pablo! :)
Camelia Zoica

Camelia Zoica

Thanks Pablo! 🙂

Reply

Good article, some familiar stuff and some new links to explore. Love the idea of a napping policy - are some employers really doing that now?

Anna G

Good article, some familiar stuff and some new links to explore. Love the idea of a napping policy – are some employers really doing that now?

Reply

yup, some places are doing this for a while now.
Jan Lukacs

Jan Lukacs

yup, some places are doing this for a while now.

Reply

[…] Productivity is not about just showing up for work. So many things play into it. From sleep to food to preparing your work clothes ahead of time, there are so many aspects that play a role in the way we handle work. Some of them have a bigger impact, others a smaller one, but all of them add up to f…  […]

The Comprehensive Guide to Productivity at Work...

[…] Productivity is not about just showing up for work. So many things play into it. From sleep to food to preparing your work clothes ahead of time, there are so many aspects that play a role in the way we handle work. Some of them have a bigger impact, others a smaller one, but all of them add up to f…  […]

Reply

Great info, thank you!

Mayra Alvarado

Great info, thank you!

Reply

Thank you Mayra :)
Camelia Zoica

Camelia Zoica

Thank you Mayra 🙂

Reply

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