How to Be More Productive at Work in This Messy Business Environment

You already know that your small business operates in a highly uncertain environment. You are doing your everyday activities, have unplanned meetings with prospective customers or suppliers. Your business team comes to your office to ask you something. There are plenty of the alarming signs on your phone, computer or tablet such as emails, social media updates, phone messages, calls and so on. This business environment in which you operate every day is so much messy that not allow you to work with the biggest possible level of productivity and without stress. So, the question here is how to be productive at work in such a messy business environment?

Your biggest challenge today is to become more productive in a highly unproductive environment. But, how can you become more productive at work today when you already have too many tasks, too many unpredictable calls, emails, social media messages, meetings, casual meetings, and so on.

Many entrepreneurs that I meet think that the answer to this question “how to be productive at work” is to work for more than 40 hours a week. But, this is not the real answer. With this, you will not increase your productivity. You will only increase your work time.

If you already make some of my recommendations related to productivity as setting up the SMART goals, prioritizing and delegating tasks, you can continue to improve your productivity using the following tips. This means that you already know what you need to do to achieve your long-term goals, you use the to-do list to manage your most important tasks and you make a distinction between important and urgent tasks.

1. All productive workdays come with a good sleep at night

Yes, to be more productive at work, you need to start a night before. Probably you already have those sleepless nights, after which, you found yourself exhausted at work the next day. Such nights are the biggest productivity killers for you.

This uncertain business environment in which most of us work, create high-rate pressure to do more with less. In most of the cases, many people try to cut from sleeping time to add to the working hours. But, this is not the right solution to be more productive at work. Why?

A study related to sleeping conducted by David Dinges and Hans Van Dongen on dozens of subjects in 2003 gave some interesting results when people slept four hours, six hours and eight hours. According to this study,

Those who had eight hours of sleep hardly had any attention lapses and no cognitive declines over the 14 days of the study… By the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.

On the other side, good sleep is essential when it comes to your creativity.

This sequence of the infographic (you can see in the full version here) shows how the best achievers sleep more to improve their performance.

Sleep to be an All-Star

So, it is not an acceptable strategy for cutting your sleeping time to become more productive at work. Yes, you will work more, but the quantity and quality of the work you will do will decline. If you want to be more productive at work, implement a sleeping routine to sleep between 7 to 9 hours as recommended by Mayo Clinic.

How many hours of sleep are enough?

But, the quantity of sleep in hours is not something that will guarantee the increase in your productivity at work tomorrow. Another important thing you need to have in mind is the quality of your sleeping time. If your sleep is frequently interrupted, you’re not getting quality sleep.

2. Keep your workplace organized before you come to work tomorrow

Your workplace affects how you will work. If you in a cluttered, or messy environment, it will negatively affect your productivity. Imagine if your desk is swamped with a lot of documents without some order, Post-it notes, reminders of tasks, or different office tools. How will you feel? How will you find something that you need when you need? In such an environment, probably your productivity at work will not be at the perfect level.

In many cases, this seems to you a little time and energy consumers in your workplace. But, believe me, if you sum up the time you spend on all unnecessary things you need to do at your desk, you can see that it cut more than you think. These unnecessary things can have a huge impact on your productivity at work.

Your productivity needs a continuous workflow. If you poorly organize your workplace or if it is not standardized, it will be tough to establish continuous flow.

To improve your productivity at work, you need to organize your workplace, so when you arrive next day, it is a safe and clean workplace. It is a place where everything you need to perform your work is quickly accessible to you. A well-organized office will provide you with a sense of control. This sense of control will lead to higher levels of productivity.

Use the 5s and make your workplace a more productive workplace. If you implement this in your daily routine, you will improve your productivity at work. In short, the 5S technique comes from five Japanese words:

  • Seiri – Sorting.
  • Seiton – Set everything in order.
  • Seisi – Shining or cleaning.
  • Seiketsu – Standardize.
  • Shitsuke – Sustain.

3. Schedule more breaks inside your working time

A recent study shows that those who give in to some kind of distraction or break once in an hour are performing better than those who just keep at it without a break. According to this study, even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.

If your focus is only on the job at which you work for a longer time, after a while, your brain will become unable to treat the task as important. If you take a break, it will allow you to come back to work with the renewed energy that will ensure quality accomplishment of your task.

A study from 2011 published in Cognition talks about another benefit from breaks – goal reactivation.

Heightened levels of vigilance can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with the use of brief, relatively rare and actively controlled disengagements from the vigilance task. Although it is typically observed that performance always decreases when a second (even very different) task is introduced, our results demonstrated that the addition of the second task significantly improved performance in the main task. Our results suggest that deactivation and reactivation of the vigilance goal play a crucial role in vigilance tasks and further, they provide strong evidence against the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are unavoidable and reflect a systematic dwindling of attentional resources that occur as we engage in sustained mental efforts over long periods of time. In sum, vigilance decrements are not about an exhaustion of attention, they are about a loss of control over the contents of our thoughts. Happily, it is a surprisingly easy-to-prevent loss of control.

So, when you make a break, you can be in a position to think about your goals and possible achievement. So, small breaks will contribute to improving your performance at work.

Pomodoro Technique

You can use the Pomodoro technique to organize your units of work. With this technique, you can schedule 25 minutes work and 5 minutes short break. When you finish four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes.

Pomodoro Technique

The creator of this technique, Francesco Cirillo, explained the technique and the psychology behind it in this paper from 2006. This time management system can become life-changing when applied correctly. At the same time, it is simple to learn and implement into your daily routine.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Rule of 52 and 17

Another study conducted by the social networking firm the Draugiem Group has found that while you work, you should dedicate 52 minutes of focused work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. According to this study, workers who worked small periods of time and took short breaks were more productive than those who worked long hours and without or took a few longer breaks. By using the 52 minutes to work and 17 minutes break, workers were found to be 100% dedicated to the task they work. They were not distracted while work on an important task.

So, there is evidence from the study that these 52 working minutes is quite a serious length and a 17 minute break will be enough to have total relax from the work.

4. Plan, prioritize and do the most important work

Maybe you think that the planning is not so important or it is impossible to do in this unpredictable and unproductive environment. But, you need to remember that if you plan your work ahead, you will be in a position to manage all possible unplanned and uncertain distractions from your unproductive environment.

Your plan will need to be the logical outcome of your goals. You simply make a plan in order to achieve your goals. To plan your day the night before probably is something normal for you, but what about planning your week, month, or year? According to a study published in Psychological Science, if you are able to convert your goals for years into days, you will be more proactive to start working on them. If you start working on them, you will finish them. If you finish your tasks, you will achieve your goals.

productive at work

So, you need to create a big picture, your vision translated into your annual, monthly, weekly and daily plans. Your daily plans will be your daily to-do list. So, what you will need to do? Here is the answer:

  • Before the end of the year start thinking and write your goals for the next year.
  • Translate your goals into the achievements you want to accomplish at the end of the next year.
  • Divide annual achievements in small monthly achievements that will help you to accomplish your overall annual achievements.
  • Brainstorm what you need to do to accomplish these monthly achievements.
  • Schedule the tasks you need to accomplish for each month.
  • Make your daily to-do list including all these tasks.
  • Make weekly reviews about your achievements.

So, take 30 minutes the night before and focus on what you need to accomplish the next day. You can use the paper-based to-do list, or something more automated as Evernote or OmniFocus. Simply, make your to-do lists practical. Write your tasks as much as possible clearly.

As some tips that can help you to be more productive at work when you already have a list with the most priority things you will need to do for each day use following:

  • Keep your to-do list as small as possible. Probably you will have a longer list of things to do. So, for each day create a short list with 1-3 things you really need to accomplish with the best possible results. This list will need to have only extremely important tasks that you will need to do and will have a high-impact on the achievement of your goals.
  • First things, first. Don’t do anything else before finishing the first task on your list. Don’t check your Facebook or Twitter account, email, RSS feeds, news sites and online forums. Keep working on these tasks until you’re done. When you finish them, you will have enough time for another routine and non important task as email responses or paperwork.
  • Work on one task at a time. Put all your focus on one single task. Simply, focus on that task until you finish it, then move to the next. If there are other things that come up while you work on your important tasks, note them on a piece of paper or some notes app. These notes will become things that you will need to do or follow-up on later. In some cases, these notes can be new ideas that will need to be remembered and used in the future. So, you will not forget these things.

5. Learn how to beat procrastination to become more productive at work

Procrastination comes from the Latin word “pro”, meaning “for” and “eras”, meaning “tomorrow”.

It is one of the most common problems probably you have when you work on something important or big for your business. You know that you should do something important, but you simply put it off. You play games, go to time-wasting websites such as Facebook/Twitter/News and other social sites, check your email and other things. You are doing everything instead of the tasks that are important for you and your business that you know you should be doing.

Dr. Orrison Swett Marden (1850-1924), an American spiritual author gives some interesting comparation between humans and lobster:

A lobster when left high and dry among the rocks, has not instinct and energy enough to work his way back to the sea, but waits for the sea to come to him. If it does not come, he remains where he is and dies, although the slightest effort would enable him to reach the waves, which are perhaps within a yard of him. The world is full of human lobsters: men stranded on the rocks of indecision and procrastination, who, instead of putting forth their own energies, are waiting for some grand billow of good fortune to set them afloat.

Why do we do this? Because of the uncomfortable state that comes when we work on important things. Importance brings difficulty, unknowns, uncertainty, unfamiliarity… Everything that moves us outside our comfort zone. So, it is better to stay in the comfort zone instead of in something uncertain.

According to Terence T. Burton in his book “Out of the Present Crisis“, procrastination and complacency are the largest wastes because they multiply existing waste, delay dealing with the inevitable, increase the size and complexity of problems, and negatively affect the organization.

It seems that procrastination becomes one of the biggest enemy of the humans and future development. Why? I agree that procrastination multiplies waste in the company. You cannot make something important in your company; for example, to decrease waste of time, money, and energy, without doing something about that. So, with not doing things, you increase the waste of time, money, and energy in your company. Simply, even though procrastination is enjoyable, it does not help you get the work done. You cannot be more productive at work if you procrastinate.

John Flaherty, professor of management at Pace University some years ago wrote a book titled “Peter Drucker: Shaping the Managerial Mind” where he discusses about procrastination. The book is excellent, and I highly recommend it. Here are some interesting points of view:

Looking at procrastination from this point of view, Drucker saw it as the greatest thief of time and the most obvious impediment to achieving results. Drucker said, it was crucial to address procrastination, the normal human propensity to postpone to tomorrow what should be done today, to talk about intentions rather than work toward results, and to delay actions until ideal conditions prevail. All these factors contributed to lost opportunities, exacerbated emotions, produced psychological fears, and generated unnecessary pressures. Equating procrastination with the fine art of staying apace of yesterday, he observed that postponement resulted in physical fatigue and psychological anguish that made the job seem increasingly difficult the more it was put off. His recipe for avoiding these pitfalls of procrastination in the first place invoked an alliterative triad of steps: definition, delegation, and deadline. The executive needed to define the problem or the task, delegate accountability to a specific person along with responsibility for the specific thing to be accomplished, and establish a firm deadline for completion. The definition ensured a sense of purpose, the delegation identified who was going to do the actual work, and the deadline substituted action for inertia. To offset the perils of procrastination, Drucker’s greatest single antidote was “to start.” Then, by doing a little bit on a regular and consistent basis, even the biggest project would diminish in size.

Simply, we are doing things to gain pleasure (payoffs of action) or to avoid pain (cost of action). But, all action will have some costs such as invested time, money and efforts. In this situation, we have a conflict between costs and payoffs. Because costs are visible immediately when we first perceive a conflict, we react based on how costly we perceive it to be. We do that by weighing the perceived cost and benefits of taking action. In most cases, the cost of action is far greater than the current suffering from the status quo (not taking any actions).

costs and payoffs

Here are some things you can do to start beating procrastination:

  • Break down larger projects or tasks into smaller parts so you can visualize them. Start thinking about what you want to achieve. It is important from the beginning to know possible achievements that will represent the gain side of your project. Also, think about the steps you need to take. You don’t want to have fifty or hundred steps that will immediately bring procrastination as a solution to your brain. It is important to understand at the very beginning that you can do that, and it will not take too much time or too much effort. In such a way, you will decrease the pain part of doing this project or task.
  • Make sure the first step is actionable and takes no more than one hour. Many projects will stay at the planning stages only because they don’t start with the implementation, and the owner of the project doesn’t see the progress that he made implementing it. In such a way the pain side becomes more active and stronger than the gain side, even you have clearly identified all the gains, but you still cannot feel them. If you want to eliminate this barrier or procrastination forces, you will need to make your first step actionable (try sentence of the first step to start with the verb “do”, “write”, “call”, “email”, “take”…), something that you can immediately start and something that will not require more than a half hour to one hour to do. You simply want to make sure that starting the project is as much as possible easier for you.
  • The Envision Film. With this technique, you will use the power of visualization to overcome procrastination. Simply, you imagine a role in playing a film on how you are working and how you see yourself completing this task in an ideal scenario and what you will achieve or get when you done this task or project. Often times, we procrastinate because we don’t know what the end results of our work will look like and what we can gain from our efforts. In such a situation, it is not strange to not start doing such things. Imagination is an important motivation force for all of us. Simply, if you can’t imagine yourself doing the task, how you can expect to be motivated to start doing it. Such a visualization will show you all possible constraint on your execution journey so you can know possible solutions.
  • Momentum and inertia. This technique is very useful to beat procrastination when you feel that you are procrastinating to start doing some important tasks. The technique is based around the concept of building momentum to start doing something you need to do and then use the inertia to finish what you have already started. In such a way, you are overcoming your initial resistance. When this resistance will be passed, the rest will be done much easier.
  • Timeboxing technique. This technique is different because it encourages you to focus on time instead of tasks. To use this technique, you will need to allocate a certain number of hours or days, called a “timebox,” to each activity. You then use this time to complete the task.
  • Start systematizing thing in your business. Many people procrastinate and waste their time “thinking” about the project and tasks, and simply how to start doing things. And what I mean by this is that they are staying aside wondering what they will do as a first, second… Most productive people have their own personal system of doing different tasks. They maximize the time they spent doing things and minimize the time trying to figure out their next step. All systems consist of 3 main things: input, output, and process. The input is your time and energy and the output is ideally what you want to achieve. But, if you want to create a system, you need to focus on the creation of a solid process.
Dragan Sutevski

Posted by Dragan Sutevski

Dragan Sutevski is a founder and CEO of Sutevski Consulting, creating business excellence through innovative thinking. Get more from Dragan on Twitter. Contact Dragan