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5 Tips that Doubled My Productivity Last Year

5 Tips that Doubled My Productivity Last Year

Goals give you direction, make your calendar look less intimidating, and tell you when to celebrate your achievements, but no matter how many goals you have and how good you are at achieving them, productivity can be a major issue. That’s why, in 2012, one of my major goals was to improve productivity across the board. I experimented, changed sleep habits, shifted when I focused on certain tasks, and tested a dozen different theories to see what worked and what didn’t, and while the vast majority of my “genius” ideas turned out to have very little (or negative) impact on my productivity, a few things worked quite well.

Here are five of the things that worked best and how they can be quickly and effectively used to boost your own productivity:

Working Fewer Hours

When things get really busy and it seems like you’ll never, ever get caught up, the knee jerk reaction of most is to work more, not less. On a strictly logical basis, it makes sense: when you work more, you get more done, right? As I found last year, this may not be the case—I’ve always noted that on days when I have a LOT of time to get things done, I tend to get less done overall, and In 2012 two things happened to confirm this.

First, I started taking half-days twice a week to spend time with my son. On those two days I would work from 7am until 1pm; about 3 hours less than my normal schedule. It was immensely stressful at first, but with time I noticed that I was actually getting just as much, if not more, done on those days than I did on the days I worked until 4pm.

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Second, I installed RescueTime. Recommended by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Work Week, Rescue Time installs in the background of your Mac or PC and tracks how much time you spend on certain tasks. You can use it to block certain tasks or provide advanced analytics if you pay for it, but I use the free version just so I can get a weekly email telling me how productive I was in any given week. Every Sunday an email shows up that includes the number of hours worked and the percentage of productivity I reached that week.

The first week, I worked 45 hours and was 73% productive, which Rescue Time told me was better than about 75% of the people using the site. I made it my goal to get that number up to at least 80% though and the only way I could do it was by working fewer hours. As I started to work less—at first to do the Dad thing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and later to ensure I had weekends for yard work and family time—I noticed that my productivity increased greatly. It reminded me of Parkinson’s Law; If you give yourself a set amount of time to complete a task, you will fill that time to completion, so when I gave myself 45 hours to get a week’s worth of work done, it took me 45 hours. When I only gave myself 35 hours, I still got everything done, plus I had a lot more time to myself, which in turn reduced stress and made me even more productive.

Unplugging Once a Week

Around the same time that I realized I was wasting close to 12 hours a week at my desk reading email and watching YouTube videos, I started to wonder if I was spending too much time in front of a screen. On Saturdays and Sundays I would quite literally groan whenever I needed to log on and send an email; my brain and body were worn out with screen fatigue. As such, I decided to turn everything off for one day (on a voluntary basis—I was still available if there was a work emergency) and spend time working outside, running errands with my family, or playing board games with friends.

Not only did this help me get over the anxiety of screen fatigue on the weekend, it made me much more productive when I logged on Monday mornings. I didn’t dread the thought of turning my computer on; I embraced it.

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Automating as Much as Possible

Everyone has a handful of tasks they spend entirely too much time working on; the little stuff that eats time out of your day with very little or zero benefit. Whether it’s a maintenance task like updating your financial spreadsheets or a communications task like sending emails, you’re losing anywhere from 5-10 hours a week doing stuff that is either A) boring or B) low return. I always knew this, and while I hated it, I couldn’t do much about it. Automation took to much time, or money, neither of which I had.

In 2012 I made the investment and started automating key tasks. Things like:

  • Email – Instead of having it open all day dinging at me, I closed my mail app and only checked it twice a day. I leave Skype on in the interim and everyone knows that if it’s important they should just call or Skype me.
  • Accounting – I set up a new Freshbooks account, installed the mobile app on my iPhone and started sending invoices and updating expenses while on the go. Combined with Quickbooks for general accounting, it now only takes 20 minutes a week to update all my financials instead of the hour or two I was spending every Friday before.
  • To-Do Lists – For the heavy-hitting GTD apps, you’ll need to spend some money. There are some great freebies like Wunderlist, but most of the bigger, multi-platform, cloud-syncing tools cost money. That said, they are well worth the investment; I estimate I’ve saved dozens if not hundreds of hours the last 18 months with Omnifocus on my phone and computer.
  • Outsourcing – When I outsourced before, it was an ordeal: Either I spent all day answering emails and phone calls, or I received a finished product that was nowhere near what I had asked for. I invested some time in creating training materials for contractors, such as videos, style guides, and templates that ensured outsourcing was MUCH easier to get done right.

Automation, when implemented properly, can provide an immediate boost to productivity and finally help you reclaim some of the mental energy you’ve been spending on routine tasks.

Recording and Revising Key Work Habits

One of my favorite books of 2012 was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, Duhigg talks about everything from how habits work to the amazing things people have been able to accomplish by changing small keystone habits.

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After reading the book, I became significantly more aware of the things I would do every day that took a bite out of my productive hours, such as when I was most likely to read movie reviews or surf Facebook, why I would go downstairs two or three extra times in the afternoon, and the many things that would hold me up in the morning and cause me to start work late. While I haven’t fixed everything, simply being aware of those small issues was a huge first step.

It begins with observation: spend two or three weeks just making notes of what you do. Keep a journal on your computer or buy a notebook and jot down quick notes. Nothing is too small. Write down when you eat, when you take breaks, when you look at websites you shouldn’t, etc. (RescueTime can help here too). After a couple weeks, you’ll have a much keener idea of what things are getting in the way of your productivity. Then, look at those habits and identify the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is the trigger: the act, thought, or moment that makes you want to follow that habit.

In my case, I noticed that whenever I finished a work task I would immediately surf a website that had nothing to do with work—a sort of mental cleanse. The cue was finishing work, the routine was visiting IGN and the reward was that I didn’t have to think about work for 5 (going on 15) minutes. To change this habit, I started getting up and doing some stretches whenever I finished a task. The cue was the same—I wanted to do something different after writing 5 articles—but the routine changed, and not only did it improve productivity, it got me out of that chair.

Look for similar moments in your day and ways you can change those habits to boost productivity.

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Setting Aside Review/Thinking Time Once a Month

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Every day, for at least a few minutes, I would get distracted by some “big picture” task. Finances, scheduling, email, clients—whatever it was, I would stop writing and start taking notes and thinking about my next steps. I like to be organized—very organized—but as a freelancer, organization only gets you so far. You also have to be flexible, so those planning exercises would pop up every day of the week. I was probably spending 1-2 hours a day looking at my calendar and to do lists; not actually doing anything, but certainly thinking about it a lot.

I decided to set aside two hours every Friday and one day every month on which I would think about those bigger, overarching goals, and the rest of the time, I just worked. Whether I had a clue about what I was doing or not, I just worked. Not only did this cut down on the amount of time spent tweaking my schedule, it improved productivity by cutting out distractions and forcing me to just get things done.

Productivity Is Getting Out of Your Own Way

It’s not easy to be productive all the time. There are moments when you just want to be lazy and do nothing for a few minutes, and that’s perfectly normal. The most productive people are the ones who have a system in place that allows for those lazy moments and jumpstarts them back into high gear the moment they are ready.

As I get more done in less time, automate time consuming tasks, and change my habits more in 2013, I expect to become not only more productive, but happier in what I do. While not every tip in this post is right for everyone, I guarantee that implementing even just a couple will help you get more done.

What strategies have you used in your life to get more done? How do you boost productivity without setting unrealistic expectations? Sound off in the comments below.

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Last Updated on February 18, 2019

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

How to Motivate Employees and Boost Team Productivity

These days, in a world with cognitive, AI, and extraordinary advances, we have failed at the most basic stimulus: motivation. Why do I say so? Just take a look at these statistics:

58 percent of managers said they didn’t receive any management training as per a CareerBuilder.com survey. Only 12% of employees leave their jobs because of more money. Research indicates that around 80% of employees leave their jobs due to “lack of appreciation”. Due to fear of failing, more than half of American workers don’t take their paid vacations. 53% of Americans are unhappy at work (not engaged). And 1 in 3 are working in a field they don’t like.[1]

Archaic people management and HR structures are the root cause.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So how to motivate employees and boost team productivity?

Here are 3 key things that you can do to motivate your employees and boost team productivity:

1. Run Your Team/Group/Company like a Lean Startup

The Lean Startup phenomena by Eric Ries has been socialized across millions all over the globe. In a nutshell, it is a methodology for developing businesses and products, which aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable; this is achieved by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning.[2]

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Encourage Your Employees

When you empower your employees (or family members) to do what they deem to be best for a particular roadblock, idea, or improvement, you create magic. You create genuine trust. You enable innovation. The result is happy, inspired employees who feel they have a say in the grand cosmic stage at work.

Note that increasing the competency level of employees and coaching and mentoring them along the way is key. You yourself, need to do the same. Nourish your brain – and get a mentor that will keep you at the edge of your game.

Offer Rewards

Motivation is also intrinsic. The startups I have worked at offered instant rewards — not just fat checks or equity increments, but Oscar-style nominations.

The non-monetary rewards were actually more coveted, and grandiose: lunch with the CEO, tickets to an Obama fund-raiser, horse-back riding with a world-class equestrian.

Compare this to a dodgy, corporate, white-cubicle dinosaur that had a “yearly performance review” where both parties dread the conversation. In a world of instant WhatsApp messages, having a conversation about performance, likes and dislikes cannot just happen annually in 60 minutes. Employees need to be rooted in the belief that their manager genuinely cares about them.

Give Autonomy

Another key attribute is autonomy. Most employees start brushing their resumes and cruising LinkedIn when their hands are tied in their current positions: approval forms, long meetings, escalations, and more meetings. In the world of agile and scrum masters, deliberating for the sake of deliberating is poison. You will choke the very employees that giddily accepted the job initially to “change the world”.

Within a reasonable realm of assessment and deep-dives, trust your employees to do the heavy lifting. Give them access to the knowledge, people and resources that help them directly make the choices that will shape the future of your team, and your company.

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Eliminate yourself as the bottleneck – and interject yourself as a benevolent, servant leader that is the symbol of high-performing organizations.

2. Apply the 90/90/1 Rule

I recently saw a video by Deepak Sharma (a leadership adviser) about productivity and this principle stuck with me. Here’s what it’s about:

Devote the First 90 Minutes of Your Day to Important Project

For the next 90 days, devote the first 90 minutes of your day to your most important project—nothing else. Do this for yourself and your employees.

We usually get sucked into the most wasteful, operational activities in the morning which robs our focus, and steers us into an unwanted rabbit hole. So mute your notifications, avoid the temptation to check your exploding inbox, and scroll your Instagram feed later. Instead, focus on that ONE thing that will provide real value to you, your team, or your business/company/home.

Apply this rule to yourself – and your team. Your team will thank you. Note: If you’re feeling really stretched for time, you can always hack the rule by testing out a “45/45/1” version.

A To Do Scheduling System

Another version of this is to use the Kanban concept, developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota. Kanban is a scheduling system employing boards and cards.

The most basic version is a canvas with “To-do”, “Doing”, and “Done” boards (or columns). Each activity or task is a “card” that moves from one column to the other. I use Trello (a Kanban-inspired app) that is a key system for my personal and professional life. It allows me to understand my workload, their priority, and due dates.

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I use importance and effort metrics (scores) for each task to understand what is truly necessary in my life to work on. It negates the FIFO (first-in, first out) paradox that has plagued millions of people. Instead, it allows me to take stock of what is on my plate, and then bite on what truly will move the needle for me, my team, my life, and my company.

With a limited appetite (at least for some), would you eat the veggies, fries, mashed potatoes and leave the sizzling steak? No, you wouldn’t (unless you are a vegan and ended up in the wrong restaurant).

Approach your work with a weighted vengeance – and encourage your team to do the same.

3. Align Passion and Skills to Purpose

The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, and gives you a sense of meaning, joy and passion.

“The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” — Richard Leider

An ace team-member once told me that while she enjoys working for the company we both used to work at, she really hated anything to do with technology. She was more of a “people” person, and did not want to sit behind a desk sifting through lines of code.

What struck me was that she was in that role for more than a decade and had just spoken up. The good thing is she spoke up. She expressed her desire and interests. And it allowed her to get into a role of her liking within 30 days.

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Ask If They like What They’re Doing

If you, or a team member is frustrated, demotivated, or not performing at their best – one of the questions you should ask is whether they like what they are doing. Then genuinely try to help them get to the role they should be in (whether in the same team/company or not).

There’s a reason why 53% of Americans (and perhaps more or same across the globe) are unhappy at work. A butcher cannot be an ace salad maker. Pursue your passion – and help pave the way for your team. Unlock your potential and theirs. You will command and lead a supercharged team.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

The Bottom Line

Sometimes, passion has to be ignited. It is dormant, clouded by busy-ness, buried by wrong career choices, and plagued by non-supportive eco-systems. Some will climb out of it, but we as society — and in the case of business teams — incumbent upon the manager/CEO/leader to foster, grow, and nurture the employee.

Teach her the ropes. Show her the path. Advise him as you would yourself. Let them lead, and make mistakes. Do not fear them, rather make them the leader you would want to become.

For your not-so-great team members, understand that it is not personal, it is just not a good fit. Help them move on to the pastures they would be fit to graze on. Hence, hire slow (and fire fast).

Your team is a reflection of you. Boosting their confidence and helping them achieve the impossible is motivation. Focus on that, and you will have a productive team that you and your company will be proud of.

More Resources About Team Management

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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