There’s a price to being unproductive—and it’s not simply your supervisor’s wrath: According to Joseph McCormack, the author of “Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus” and managing director of The Brief Lab, an organization dedicated to teaching professionals, military leaders, and entrepreneurs how to think and communicate clearly, “squandering minutes or hours unproductively equates to increased risk of mission failure. People with security clearance, in particular, need to have a heightened sense of being [and staying] on time, on topic, and on task.”
So, how can you increase your productivity at work? Here are eight tips to help you get started.
1. Make a to-do list the day before.
A sleepless night won’t lead to a productive day. And that is why Jayson DeMers, CEO of productivity analytics app EmailAnalytics, recommends writing out a to-do list for tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. “It’s a great way to shut off your brain when you feel like your head’s spinning with to-do list items,” he says. “And when you make a list of all the things you want to accomplish tomorrow, you’ll instantly reduce your anxiety, enabling you to get a better night’s sleep, which will further increase your productivity.” (In fact, one study revealed that insomnia costs workers about 11 days’ worth of productivity each year.)
2. Learn to say no.
DeMers says that a major productivity pitfall is taking on too many tasks—especially those that belong to other people. “Seemingly simple requests from colleagues can quickly add up, and once someone thinks they can offload tasks to you once, they’ll almost certainly try to do it again,” he says. “Employees are less productive when they feel overloaded.” He recommends sticking to your own to-do list, and steering clear of others’ responsibilities.
3. Cut out irrelevant details.
Sharing too much information can stop productivity in its tracks, McCormack says. Instead of giving everyone every detail, he recommends that you “speak in headlines” by communicating the most important information first and removing superfluous information. “Cutting out irrelevant detail saves time and ensures you do not create unintended work or needless confusion,” McCormack explains. (If you have trouble editing yourself, then consider using an email app like Hemingway, which suggests where to shorten your sentences.)
4. Employ the two-minute rule.
The two-minute rule is this: “If it takes less than two minutes, do it now,” says DeMers. “This one’s simple, but it really works. Do something right now if you know it’ll take less than two minutes, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you get done.”
5. Don’t assume others’ knowledge.
In your field, there may be some jargon that you consider common knowledge. But, “speaking in technical terms and acronyms to the wrong audience may mean losing people entirely and wasting valuable time and attention,” McCormack warns. To keep things on track, he recommends using common, colloquial terms whenever it’s possible.
6. Take unnecessary devices out of the picture.
Research suggests that merely having a phone near you while you work—even if it’s turned off—can cut down your productivity. For this reason alone, “it’s not enough to just turn off your notifications,” says DeMers. “You need to physically put your phone in another room while you work.” Or consider leaving it at home.
7. Set deadlines for yourself.
There’s something called Parkinson’s Law that dictates that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, we’ll often take from now until our deadline to complete a task—even if that task should take much less time to finish. But we can use that law to our advantage, DeMers says: Simply “set shorter deadlines and you’ll complete more tasks in less time,” he advises.
8. Do your most difficult tasks first.
Aside from tasks that take two minutes or less to do, DeMers says that you should prioritize difficult tasks or simple ones. Here’s why: Difficult tasks are the “ones that require the most mental energy and willpower,” DeMers says. “Willpower and mental energy decrease throughout the day, so you’ll have a better chance of getting tough things done if you do them earlier in the day.” Save your easiest, most menial tasks for the afternoon, he says.