What behaviors define the highly productive? What habits, philosophies and strategies make some people consistently more productive than others?
First, let’s figure out exactly what we mean by “productive.” Too often, productivity gets confused with simply being busy. But that’s only part of the story. True productivity means not only getting work done; it means getting the right work done—most efficiently. We may labor all day through a series of tasks, but have we completed high-impact work (i.e., has our effort produced results or merely shuffled the paperwork)?
Highly productive individuals can focus on results-driven work because they’ve distinguished productivity from “busy-ness.” Often, the first step in smart productivity is eliminating the “task-noise” that drains time and resources. Think of it this way: The person who answers 100 e-mails in three hours may be busy, but the person who takes 20 minutes to create an auto-responder or a filter that reduces e-mail volume permanently, has been productive.
So how do you transform busy-ness into productivity?
1. Embrace simplicity
Simplicity drives true productivity. Think about the small, relatively inconsequential tasks that compete for your attention every day. What can be eliminated, automated, delegated or relegated to the back-burner? Productive individuals ruthlessly root out those tasks that compete for their time and sap their resources. Maybe you have a staff of five or 10 employees that call you throughout the day with small issues. Is there a qualified leader on the team that can field those questions? Is it time to train and empower each employee to make more decisions independently?
2. Manage distractions
The forces of our hyper-connected, 24/7 world offers us amazing opportunities to engage—and even more opportunities to become distracted. The truly productive understand the threat of distraction in all its forms and create clear boundaries between the task-at-hand and the host of diversions that vie for their attention. Whether the distractions are work or play, establishing a “sacred space” for what you’re doing is key in becoming more productive.
3. Bend activities around inspiration
No strategy can match the motivation that comes from being inspired. Productive individuals understand this and leave their schedules flexible enough to identify and respond to inspiration. Though inspiration doesn’t always come and we often have to force ourselves to complete some tasks, knowing how to leverage those motivated moments can transform our work experience, cut the time investment and improve the quality of what’s produced.
4. Seize small blocks of time
What would get done if you waited until you had enough time? Productive people understand that small blocks of time used wisely can whittle away at projects large and small. Whether it’s 15 minutes before work or an hour during a commute, being ready (read: organized) to seize the moment can make all the difference.
5. Make lists and set goal paths
Highly productive individuals understand that every goal, no matter how small is driven by smaller supporting goals. Dissecting this dependency and flow is essential to creating sound goal paths.
If you want to change careers, that goal may be driven by several smaller goals like going back to school, improving your networking skills, updating your resume or getting a new certification. And each of these smaller goals is supported by even more granular sub-goals. Creating daily “to-do” lists is perhaps the most common way we identify each of these mini goals and understand how they fit into the bigger picture. Productive people tend to be ardent list-makers and are motivated by accomplishing the small daily tasks that, over time, drive larger achievement.
Multitasking gets a lot of good press in modern corporate culture. The willingness and ability to juggle five or 10 tasks simultaneously is almost assumed, and most employees are trained to be circus performers early on. But what subtleties of concentration, recall and quality are lost as we indiscriminately multitask?
The truly productive realize that multitasking can be useful at times and utterly ineffective at others. Choose your occasion carefully. For those jobs that don’t require creative problem solving, interpersonal communication, attention to detail, or quick response times, multitasking works great (but what exactly are those jobs?). The rest of the time, embrace the long-forgotten “mono-tasking”—it’ll boost the quality of your work, reduce your stress, help your communication skills and ultimately, make you more productive.
In the end, productivity is one part old-fashioned discipline and one part smart strategy. Organizing our lives so that we optimize our chances of being productive is half the battle. Once we see results and start to build traction, the strategies become habit and we open ourselves up to a life that’s powered by smarter time management, more focused work, and greater personal and professional achievement.
Kentin Waits is a freelance writer and marketing specialist based in Portland, Oregon. His work has been featured in US Airways magazine and top-rated blogs such as Wise Bread, the Consumerist, and MSN SmartMoney. When he's not writing, Kentin runs a small online antiques business.