Over the past two years, we’ve all been looking for ways to increase productivity whilst working through some unprecedented upheavals in the workplace.
Whether you’ve been constantly adapting to new COVID regulations as a frontline worker, navigating remote work as a previously office-based employee or figuring out freelancing in the toughest of times, it hasn’t always been easy.
Buffer’s 2022 State of Remote Work Report gives an insight into the issues a few of us might be facing right now. Over a fifth of respondents said they had difficulty focusing whilst working remotely, with the same number citing difficulty motivating themselves as an issue. Meanwhile, 17% ran into difficulties surrounding communication and collaboration.
All of these things impact our productivity significantly.
How do we overcome these slowdowns?
You might be relieved to know that it’s often about working smarter, not harder.
Knowing when to take a break, how to prioritise tasks and how to identify the right goals makes all the difference. Combine that with the right tech – whether that’s an employee app for better internal comms, a kanban board for collaboration and task management or a simple time tracking tool – and you’ve got a solid strategy for doing more whilst stressing less.
What do we mean when we talk about ‘productivity improvement’?
The Economics Library defines productivity as “output per unit of input”. And, whilst that sounds dry, viewing it in these terms might just hold the key to a full understanding of the term.
If productivity is output per unit of input, then productivity improvement is getting more output from the same level of input.
Translating that into human terms, productivity improvement isn’t about working more hours to get more done – that’s a common mistranslation. Instead, it’s about getting more done in the same amount of time.
This might seem impossible from where you’re standing right now. But trust us – it’s doable.
Are you a manager looking at how to increase productivity in the workplace? Or perhaps you’re an employee hoping to get more out of your day.
Here are six ways to increase productivity that get results.
Taking breaks, and reasonable working hours
Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup”?
The American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Wellbeing Survey suggests that nearly three-fifths of employees suffer from negative impacts of work-related stress, including:
- Lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%)
- Lack of effort at work (19%)
- Cognitive weariness (36%)
- Emotional exhaustion (32%)
- Physical fatigue (44%)
Needless to say, you cannot function at your best with these symptoms. To improve work-life balance, relieve workplace stress and perform better, consider:
- taking a short break every 90 minutes – even if it’s just to make a coffee, say hello to a colleague or stretch your legs around your workplace.
- having an absolute cut off time after which you don’t look at work emails or carry out any work-related tasks after this point, if working remotely.
Your mental wellbeing is important, so don’t be afraid to set clear boundaries here. It might need a difficult conversation with your boss, or even HR intervention if they’re not receptive, but the long-term payoff is worthwhile.
applying the two-minute rule correctly
You might have heard of the two-minute rule. It goes something along the lines of “if you can complete a task in two minutes or less, do it immediately”.
That’s actually a misrepresentation of the original idea, according to productivity expert Maura Thomas. The original rule, as popularised by David Allen’s bestselling book Getting Things Done, specifies that it should be applied:
- during processing time (“deciding what actions to take on stuff” in Allen’s words)
- when it’s related to what you’re doing currently
An example of ‘processing time’ might be looking through your inbox and deciding which emails need action and which don’t, or looking at the day’s task list and prioritising work.
Applying the two-minute rule during these times is a fantastic way to increase productivity, reduce potential delays and keep your to-do list manageable and non-intimidating.
Use it outside of these times, however, and you risk interrupting your flow. Once you’ve interrupted yourself with an unrelated task, it’s difficult to pick your focus back up from where you left off.
avoiding multi-tasking to increase productivity
Trying to complete multiple tasks at once leads to confusion, a decrease in productivity and a poorer quality of work overall.
Using a planner to prioritise your tasks based on urgency helps you focus. It’s always better to complete a piece of work well then move onto the next task. Giving each your undivided attention at separate times is quicker and more effective.
If you’re having trouble here, try blocking out sections of your calendar and assigning them to different tasks. Getting better at saying ‘no’ – to meeting requests and other potential workplace distractions – and rescheduling these outside of your scheduled working times.
Tracking time spent on tasks
Using a time tracking tool is a quick productivity hack that yields significant results. Tracking hours spent on different tasks allows you to identify how much time, on average, you need to allocate to different aspects of your job.
From here, it becomes so much easier to plan your day. Understanding when you like to work on ‘deep focus’ tasks can also help. If you have something you need to concentrate deeply on, you might schedule it for the morning, for example, and follow up with easier tasks over the course of the afternoon.
Finding productivity apps that work for you
If you’re an employer looking to increase productivity over a dispersed workforce, this is where you might have a blind spot.
A recent survey of 1,500 decision makers suggests that just over a third (36%) think their organisation has provided sufficient technology to maintain employee productivity whilst working from any location.
If your remote and frontline teams’ potential is being hampered by poor communication, it could be time to think about the tools you offer, and whether to upgrade.
An employee app is a strong option here. This allows managers and employees to communicate instantly over day-to-day tasks and updates, such as changing rotas and schedules. Instant communication across your entire organisation gives a huge productivity boost to everyone.
If you’re not in the position to buy team or organisation-wide software, don’t worry. There are plenty of accessible tools out there to increase productivity on an individual level. You could try:
- Kanban boards like Trello for individual or team task management
- Time tracking tools like Clockify
- Automated transcription services like Otter AI for note-taking during meetings
- Evernote to keep on top of basic tasks and jot down ideas on the go
Breaking down large tasks into smaller goals
We’ll end on a tried-and-tested way of increasing productivity.
Large, ambitious goals are great – and it feels absolutely fantastic when you hit them. Equally, it can sometimes feel like you’re slogging away at a particular project and not getting anywhere – and that’s dispiriting.
Breaking these larger to-dos down into smaller stepping stones allows you to measure your progress in more manageable chunks. You still get the satisfaction of hitting a big target, but you also see yourself making progress along the way.
Optional extra: treat yourself to a small reward each time you hit a milestone! It could be a short break, a drink or a quick conversation with a colleague – these things make all the difference.
taking your foot off the gas
Often, our efforts to increase productivity are centered around willing ourselves to do things against the grain.
“I must get everything off my to-do list before I start work again tomorrow.”
“Just a couple more hours should do it, then I’ll really be in a good place.”
“I will force myself to finish this task, even though I’m so tired I can’t see straight.”
The issue is that there will always be tasks to complete. Your to-do list will only stay at zero for one disappointing evening before things pile back up. One more hour turns into two more hours, then three, and so on.
The key to increasing productivity is really more about understanding how to organise your working hours, and using the right tools to help out.
For example, you could cut your workforce’s time chasing emails in half by using an employee app with instant messaging.
Or you could organise your work so that all of your meetings were in the afternoon, giving you the entire morning uninterrupted to finish key tasks.
The great news is that increased productivity breeds more productivity. You get more done in less time. You start feeling good about yourself. You stress less, sleep better and are even more productive as a result. The cycle continues.
The process starts with a degree of introspection, organisation and, perhaps, a tough conversation or two around the boundaries you want to draw. This might seem intimidating, but trust us when we say the results are absolutely worth the while.