It’s a dilemma every employer has had—how to increase productivity in the workplace. Employees, too, are looking for better ways to get through their daily to-do lists.
Distractions like office gossip and social media are only a part of the problem. Important tasks often get derailed by simple things like email notifications or phone calls from clients. Coworkers with the best of intentions disrupt your work with seemingly-unimportant questions. The work environment itself is often filled with unintended distractions—particularly for those office workers without a private office of their own.
There are an unlimited number of things that can disrupt the flow of productive work. While we can’t get rid of most of them, there might be better ways to deal with them.
Start by getting rid of distractions
Distracted work is inefficient. As reported by the New York Times, research shows that once interrupted, a typical office worker takes 25 minutes to get back on task. And those interruptions happen every 11 minutes on average.
Some of the most problematic distractions, and how to eliminate them
Interrupting coworkers – This is something we’ve all dealt with and it’s not always the fault of the interrupter. Sometimes it’s not apparent that you’d rather not be disturbed, and at least in the coworker’s mind, it’s important. Sure, it can probably wait, but how do others in your office know when it’s ok to bother you?
If you have your own office, the simplest solution is to shut the door. If it’s not already understood what that means, you may even want to hang a “do not disturb” sign.
Most office employees don’t have their own offices, of course. So to keep people from bothering you while you’re working on your next big task, you’ll need a more creative solution.
- Put on headphones – This has become the nearly-universal signal for “Don’t bother me! I’m busy!”
- Just let people know – If you’re in a small office and it’s appropriate in your office culture, just make a polite announcement that you need to work undisturbed for the next 60 minutes (or whatever timeframe you need).
- Put up a sign – Just because you don’t have a door to hang it on doesn’t mean you can’t use this technique. It might not even need to explicitly say “do not disturb.” It just needs to be something that your coworkers understand.
- Find a quiet spot – This, of course, depends on your workplace. If you have access to a quiet location within the office, take advantage of it. An unused conference room or an empty office can be great, if you’re able to use them.
- Leave the office – A simple but effective solution; if you can go somewhere else, your coworkers can’t bother you.
Phone calls – Sometimes they’re important, but how often are they really urgent?
- Schedule your phone time – One of the simplest productivity tips I can give that will immensely improve your work life, is to silence your phone and let calls go to voicemail; both your office phone and your cellphone. Schedule two or three blocks of time throughout the day when you will respond to those calls and stick to it. It’s an effective way to eliminate one of the biggest office time wasters, possibly second to meetings.
- Keep necessary calls short – Even when you’ve scheduled time for it, there is no need for unnecessary chit-chat on the phone. Keep the small-talk brief and get to the point. Usually, the person on the other end will appreciate it, too. You might also find it helpful to set a time limit on your phone calls.
- Direct people to email – Let people know that email is the best way to reach you. You might even include this in your outgoing voicemail message.
Meetings – This is one of the work world’s biggest obstacles to getting things done. On average, American executives are spending almost 23 hours a week in meetings, according to Harvard Business Review. In a survey they conducted of 182 senior managers, “65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.”
- Avoid them – Of course most of the time this won’t be an option. But if you can get out of a meeting without getting fired or jeopardizing your long-term career goals, it’s almost always the better option. And as Mark Cuban puts it, “Never take a meeting unless someone is writing you a check.” If you’re the one scheduling the meetings, consider ways that you might reduce them.
- Offer alternatives – Is a face-to-face meeting really essential? Or can the same goal be accomplished over email or through a quick phone call? If you are in a position to do so, offer suggestions that are more time-efficient. It helps if you have a good reason, such as a tight deadline.
- Ask for an agenda in advance – If you have to attend a meeting, getting an agenda in advance does a couple things. First, it ensures that you can come to the meeting prepared, which means you’ll get more out of it. Second, it subtly prompts the meeting organizer to be more efficient and more organized—it might not always work, but reminding them that your time is valuable too is not a bad thing, and this is a very polite way to do it.
Email – While it’s a great tool to increase productivity when used appropriately, it has become a big distraction for many people and often works against productivity.
- Turn off email notifications – If you’re like the average American office worker, you’re receiving email all day long. The notifications do nothing but disrupt your productive times.
- Schedule your email response times – Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss suggests checking email no more than twice a day. You’ll get much more done if you aren’t rushing to reply to every email the moment you receive it. Ferriss also recommends letting people know about your strategy so that they’re not immediately following up with an angry phone call when you don’t reply right away.
Social media – You already know this is a time waster, but sometimes the temptation is too much. According to Forbes, seven out of ten employees are accessing social media during work hours.
- Use technology – There are several apps and browser extensions available that are designed specifically to help avoid time-wasting activities online. Rescue Time is an app that runs on both computers and mobile devices and tracks the amount of time you spend on any websites or applications that you use—sometimes just knowing how much time you’re wasting is enough to stop you from doing it. StayFocusd is an extension for Google Chrome that lets you restrict the time you spend on websites you want to avoid, in case knowing of the problem isn’t enough.
- Turn off notifications on your cellphone – When you have important work to do, your cellphone buzzing every few minutes is not good for your productive day. Those notifications from Instagram will still be there when you’re workday is done.
- Uninstall your social apps – Perhaps an extreme solution, but if you find the temptation too great and turning off notifications isn’t helping, this might do the trick.
Clearly these aren’t the only distractions that office workers face, but they are among the most common. Still, distractions are only one part of the problem.
What else can I do to be more productive?
While minimizing office distractions goes a long way toward maximizing your productivity, there’s more you can do to ensure you’ll always do your best work in the most effective and efficient way.
Here are a few productivity hacks to make your workday more productive.
- Get some exercise – It’s good for more than just your physical health. Regular physical activity gives you more energy, improves your mood, and might even fight against cognitive decline as you age.
- Eat healthy – It goes right along with exercise. When you are healthy, you tend to be more effective at work. Especially try to avoid sugary foods—they’ll give you a momentary boost, but that’s followed pretty quickly by a crash. It can easily become a vicious circle if you’re constantly seeking that sugar high to get you through the day.
- Get enough sleep – Frequently, high achievers brag about how little sleep they need; however, studies show that they are usually successful in spite of their lack of sleep, not because of it. It is very rare that a person can function optimally on less than seven hours of sleep. According to a study conducted at UC San Francisco, less than 3% of people have the gene that allows only six hours of sleep. Turns out, almost all the people who claim that six hours are all they need are deluding themselves.
- Get the simple tasks out of the way – In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests following the “two-minute rule.” Simply put, if a task isn’t going to take more than two minutes to complete, do it right now.
- Take regular breaks – It might sound counterintuitive, but your brain power fades with extended work sessions. Taking just a few minutes to “refresh” gives a surprising boost to your productivity. Many successful people have already discovered this—according to at least one study, the most productive people work an average of 52 minutes in one stretch, followed by a 17-minute break.
- Reward yourself – When you’ve accomplished an important goal, give yourself a reward. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be something you value and you should do it consistently. Your subconscious mind links the pleasure you get from your chosen reward to completing something important, making you want to keep doing it. Just don’t sabotage your health by going crazy with sugary treats or other unhealthy rewards—in the long term, the damage to your health will hurt your productivity as well.
Have you tried these productivity tips yourself? Do you have any to add? Sound off in the comments below.