Our guide to getting a lot more done in a lot less time

In business, as in almost every aspect of life, the most productive people are also usually the most successful ones. After all, by getting on top of your workload, you’ll free yourself up to think more about the bigger picture when it comes to growing your business. So, if you’re struggling to get as much done as you’d like, here are 13 ways to become more productive.

1. Plan ahead

“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” the saying goes. So before you get started on your productivity drive, the first step is always to work out what you need to do and what you’d like to get done. Then write it down. Repeat this process every month, every week, and even every day. Better still, to really stay ahead, plan your day’s work the night before so that you give your mind the time to turn everything over and hit the ground running the next morning.

2. Prioritise

There’s a big difference between being busy and being productive. And working without prioritising is likely to leave you busy and unproductive. So once you know what needs to be done, the next step is to work out what you need to do when. The Getting Things Done® (GTD®) productivity technique recommends that the most powerful way to prioritise is to look at every task and ask, ‘is it actionable’? If not, deprioritise it and move on to other tasks. If it is, you should immediately decide the very next action required. This whole process should take less than two minutes.

3. Set a routine

Studies show that we're better equipped to perform different tasks at different times of the day and, if there's one thing the human mind likes, it's a good pattern1. So there's a lot to be said for completing the same work at the same time every day. For instance, most people's brain functions best in the late morning, while we're often at our creative best when we're just a little bit fatigued. Try completing the most challenging work – or the work you want to do least – first thing every day. As Mark Twain put it: "Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you all day."

4. Do one thing at a time

Many people pride themselves on their ability to do many things at once. But, really, the human mind isn’t set up for multitasking. In fact, research shows that multitasking kills performance2 and that people who multitask are actually slower at switching from one task to the next. Instead, the key to productivity is to give one task your complete attention; finish it; then move onto the next. To be even more productive, you can even try “batching” or grouping similar tasks together and then completing them in one hit. This is especially true of email or social media, where constant checking can keep our mind from focusing on the task at hand.

5. Delegate

Once you have a good sense of how much work you’ll need to get through, you should ask which tasks really need to be done by you. If there’s a task that you simply don’t need to be involved in, delegate it. If you're worried about the time it will take to brief someone else or even train them to do it the right way, don’t be. Investing a little time upfront can bring about a big lift in productivity over time. That’s because you’ll be freeing yourself up to work on more important tasks, while creating the opportunity for far higher output.

6. Set deadlines

Almost everyone is more motivated when they’re working to a deadline, so even when a project is open-ended, it pays to set your own. Research shows3 that we can become more productive by 'tricking' our mind into believing a deadline is real.

7. Cut distractions

No one’s productive when they’re constantly being interrupted. ‘The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers,’ Hemingway said. These days it’s more likely to be email, social media, the internet. After all, while it’s vital that we stay up to date with what’s going on in the industry, constantly breaking from our work to read the latest financial service-related email or social media post will have a substantial impact on our productivity. Whatever keeps interrupting your thought processes, it’s time to cut it out and then assign it to a discrete period or periods each day. If you need help resisting temptation, why not use an app to help you, such as RescueTime.

8. Start saying no

It’s human nature to try to please others but if you keep agreeing to take on every task or attend every meeting that comes your way, you’re letting others dictate your schedule. One of the keys to being productive is staying in control of the way you spend your day. That means saying no to unnecessary invitations or tasks that take you away from the main prize.  

Being more productive isn’t a one-off; it’s an ongoing process that involves dedication and constant evaluation.

9. Take a break

No one can concentrate for hours on end, especially for tasks involving serious mental effort. So taking regular breaks is a vital part of staying productive too. Walking, reading a book and even taking a proper lunch break can all help keep your batteries charged and keep you more alert. The power of taking breaks is the centrepiece of the Pomodoro method of time management. It encourages you to break every task into half hour blocks called ‘pomodoros’, which consist of a 25 minute ‘sprint’ followed by a five minute break. After two hours, or four ‘pomodoros’, you then take a longer break to stay focused.

10. Segment your life

In an age of mobile devices, social media and 24-hour connectivity, it can sometimes feel as though we’re always at work. And that can be very bad for our productivity. But people who don’t switch off tend to be less productive, more anxious and more error prone.4 Separating work from your personal life – by switching off and leaving work at work – will help you keep energised and focused when it comes to getting work done.

11. Organise your space

Disorganised and cluttered offices will cost you time and hamper your attempts at being efficient. But there’s more to a productive office than just a clean desk. By separating your space into work zones (with a computer and computer-free area as a minimum) and developing a system for dealing with incoming and outgoing documents, you’ll give yourself greater control over your workflow, making yourself more productive in the process.

12. Get appy

These days, there’s an app for pretty much everything, including workplace productivity. Need to bring disparate calendars and diaries together, try Sunrise. Want to become more productive in managing many people’s workflow? Why not use Asana or Trello. Or need to sort out an inbox disaster? Then it’s hard to go past Spark or Boxer. You can read about these and more in our article 16 apps that will change your practice (and your life).

13. Embrace procrastination

We usually think of procrastination as the enemy of productivity. However, that may not always be the case. Sometimes we procrastinate for good reason. It may be that our ideas aren’t yet fully formed or the task we’re meant to be doing isn’t that important after all; it might be telling us that this is something outside of our skillset or something we should delegate. So if you’re procrastinating about getting a task done, ask yourself why and then then address the underlying cause.

And finally...

Our work changes, our priorities change and the direction of our business changes too. For that reason, being more productive isn’t a one-off; it’s an ongoing process that involves dedication and constant evaluation. These 13 tips will help you stay on top of your workflow and keep you on the path to getting more done in less time.

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1 http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444180004578018294057070544

2 http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/#2ba41a9c2c16

3 http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160309-can-you-really-trick-your-brain-to-more-efficiently

4 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201406/switching-after-work

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