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How to improve your personal productivity

03 Sep, 2021 Personal productivity

Increasing your productivity, like communicating better, is much more complex than it may seem at first. Therefore, you need to be strategic about approaching the subject. This article explains how to improve your personal productivity as a professional by taking into account the whole picture.

What is productivity?

A couple of ways to look at productivity:

  • Employee productivity is the amount of work (output) produced by an employee in a specific period of time.
  • Productivity is how much an output or outcome can be produced with a given set of inputs.

An example of seeking to improve productivity is when you may wish to replace the software you currently use for pitching news angles to journalists with software that provides a better quality of contact with a more personalized and up-to-date contact list. This might create 10% more positive responses from journalists you are targeting. A more productive result.

Productivity increases when a greater volume of output results from the same amount of input/s, eg when you can do more of a task per hour or for the same cost. Also, when the same amount of output is produced with fewer inputs, eg in quicker time or lower cost.

Communication productivity

So, what can productivity apply in our communication activities? Fundamentally, improved productivity should contribute to better organizational performance – the ultimate outcome. This productivity may be at the individual, team, department or organizational level.

For instance, your team’s better messaging about change may lead to more acceptance by your organization’s employees of the need to change and may therefore contribute to better operational efficiency and results, even social measurable performance. (The difficulty then is to prove your team’s improved productivity led to better organizational results, because many other internal and external factors may have contributed to better organizational performance – and other departments/business units will want to claim the success as theirs.)

However, the relationship between productivity achieved at one level and at other levels becomes inter-related and complex. And what impact do WFH and hybrid modes have on productivity? For example, how can an individual working in these modes contribute to improved organizational productivity?

How to improve your personal productivity as a professional

Here is a range of ways experts recommend to improve your personal productivity. Firstly, these look at what you can do to increase your own productivity by changing your personal actions.

Change your personal activity

Write your to-do list before the end of your previous workday

Establish priorities before the end of your previous workday, rather than wait until the start of the next day. In fact, it is even better to plan your day the afternoon before, say 4 pm. Planning like this means you can prepare your To-Do list while whatever needs to be done tomorrow is still fresh in your mind. By not waiting until the end of the day, when you are less likely to be motivated, you have a better chance of sticking to this productive routine.

A productive day doesn’t just happen. It requires planning. Research has found that when we write down what we intend to do — and when and where we intend to do it — we are far more likely to achieve our goals, says behavioral scientist, Samantha Imber in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article:

Google’s executive productivity advisor, Laura Mae Martin, told me that she plans her day the night before. To start with, she writes down her top three priorities on The Daily Plan template she created. “Underneath the first priority, it says, ‘Until this first task is finished, everything else is a distraction.’ So that’s my one thing I need to get done.”

The Daily Plan template is well worth checking out. Very user-friendly framework for planning a successful day.

From my experience in our profession, we seem to have endless daily tasks, so you need to think about adding more than three priority tasks as recommended in the above Daily Plan. Redefining Communications advise planning for a maximum of five things:

…maybe one big and four small, or two big and three small. But never five big tasks. Remember your day is made up of interruptions, reactive things you need to deal with…Don’t put the pressure on with a big list.

Anyway, by listing your tasks in descending order of importance, you increase the probability of finishing all of your most important tasks during the day.

Block out chunks of time

Blocking out chunks of time during a day when you only focus on one task or project might seem unachievable. But it is possible, and it will improve your productivity. For instance, arrange meetings to fit in with your priorities. If you’re most productive in the morning, schedule meetings for afternoons. Or the other way around. Decide on your priority tasks for the day and then block out segments in your program so you can complete those. You can also organize meetings for certain days. This may not always work, but at least it does free up some time on other days if at least partially successful. Gini Dietrich from Spin Sucks says you can learn more about time blocking here, here, and here.

Consider using the Eisenhower Matrix to plan your time

When you have written down all the tasks on your To-Do list, you may start to feel overwhelmed by seeing how many there are. But if you prioritize them and sort them by importance and urgency, you will know where to begin.

The Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix, helps you decide on and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which you should either delegate or not do at all.

If you want to take this into further detail, Week Plan, based on the Eisenhower’s Matrix or Urgent/Important Principle, enables you to list all the tasks for the week and organize them into different groups to improve your PR productivity:

  1. Important & urgent (eg. Finishing a client project, submitting a draft article, or responding to time-sensitive emails)
  2. Important & not urgent (eg Strategic planning, professional development, networking, exercise)
  3. Not important & urgent (eg. Uploading blog posts, scheduling, responding to some emails)
  4. Not important & not urgent (eg. Social media, watching TV, video games, eating junk food).

Image: Eisenhower Matrix

In addition, I noticed an article published in Fast Company magazine on 29 September 2021, “This is how your brain tricks you into thinking you don’t have time for important stuff, which also advocates using the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritizing your tasks. And I also came across an August 2021 Medium article, “The Eisenhower Box,” by former high-profile Proctor & Gamble CEO, AG Lafley, who said:

I guarantee you, and there are very few guarantees in life, that if you take your daily to do list, thoughtfully place each item in the Eisenhower Box, and take the appropriate actions to each box within the box, you will significantly improve your personal leadership effectiveness and it will show in your team and business results.

Plan a schedule instead

Nir Eyal, a US “behavioral designer,” [his firm is called Nir and Far – get the wordplay?] is a strong advocate for using a schedule to plan your day rather than just using a To-Do list to improve your PR productivity. He says weekly schedules give us a framework, while To-Do lists don’t give structure. You can copy a free schedule maker template from his website (template layout below). He writes many articles “at the intersection of psychology, technology, and business, and a dash of neuroscience.” Worth visiting his website.

Image: Schedule Maker from Nir and Far.

Minimize your distractions

Uninterrupted time is essential for efficient work on selected tasks. In an interview with Fast Company, US researcher Prof. Gloria Mark said her research had found:

“…it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after an interruption… Roughly half of them are self-interruptions. That’s to me an endless source of fascination: why do people self-interrupt? I do that all the time.”

“…people scored significantly higher on various dimensions of stress when interrupted. They had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload. So that’s the cost.”

Here’s how to minimize your distractions so you improve your personal productivity:

  • Mute your phone and computer alerts – instead, you can set them to activate during suitable times of the day, or you can cut them out completely during your day’s work. And don’t have multiple web browsers open on your desktop monitor/s.
  • Don’t check social media for updates while working on an important task. We are easily distracted because our brains are naturally curious and like novelty. When something pings on our screen or our phone we are interrupted, and our brain will want to check it out.
  • If you need to focus on a certain task but don’t trust yourself not to give in to online enticements, there are apps that can help you block out any online distractions.
  • Another way to set reasonable expectations about your response times, according to Inc. contributor Nicholas McGill in 2017, is to add this type of message to your email signature: “I check my email twice a day. Once at 10:30 am and once at 3:30 pm Pacific Standard Time. Email received after 3.30 pm will be read the following day.”
  • Obviously, if you are working in WFH or hybrid mode, you will have various different distractions from those at the office, especially during COVID times. Business facilitator Kimberly Crossland offers some useful tips for dealing with toddler distractions as well as other at-home distractions so you can improve your personal productivity.

Batch similar tasks into a single grouping

You can group tasks like writing blogs and articles, making phone calls, sending email and other quick chores into a single batch. Dealing with all these activities in one session will save you time. In the same way, gather your quick tasks together. Schedule quick video meetings and calls in batches to fill time between meetings – contact time that you can wind up quickly.

Don’t multi-task

Nearly all the experts say not to multi-task. Prof. Nancy Napier says research shows that the brain doesn’t do tasks simultaneously. In fact, we are actually just switching tasks quickly – and there is a stop/start process taking place in the brain. Prof. Napier says that “rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy.” It’s actually a no-brainer to think multi-tasking is effective 😊. What’s more: studies show how it lowers your IQ and hinders your creativity.

Moral of the story – focus on just one task; to improve your personal productivity, focus on one thing at a time.

If you say “But I have lots of busy tasks I need to finish! If I just focus on the big things, I won’t get to the bottom of my to-do list!” And that’s absolutely true…except you never complete your To-Do list anyway, so make sure it’s the busywork that’s lower on your priorities.

When you want to focus on important stuff, you need to give those key tasks your best time when you have the most energy and brainpower. If you feel overwhelmed, you should identify when you are the most productive. Then work during that time on your highest-priority tasks.

But on the other hand…

Experts suggest there is actually a way to effectively do two things at once. You just have to understand the specific requirement for this to succeed – and that requirement is you can only focus on one thing at a time.

If you’re going to do two things at once, they can’t compete for the same cognitive resources because your cognitive system can only handle one thing at a time. And so doing two things at once can succeed when you pair a focused task with an automatic task. For example, you can do this by holding a walking meeting or listening to a podcast while doing the dishes or while driving.

In these examples, the automatic task involves using your body. Most of the time, the movement of your body is governed by your automatic system, especially when you’re performing a task that’s familiar or routine.

Matthew Kent says you can know for certain if you’ve selected two tasks suitable for multitasking by asking yourself: Can you do both things at the exact same time while devoting adequate attention to each? If you are “switching” between one thing and another, you’re wasting your precious cognitive resources and would be better off doing the tasks separately. You should also stop trying to write and edit your work at the same time. Write your first draft, and then go into editing mode and clean it up. Kent also says:

Another useful question to ask: Do both tasks require language? If a task requires you to talk, listen, or write, your brain is engaged in controlled processing. Therefore, if you try to watch a show while writing up a report, both tasks will suffer.

And if you feel like you’re straining, he advises you to switch to a single task. Or simply take a break.

Learn and understand business jargon

Learn and speak tech jargon. Use your communication skills to listen and ask questions to help you become familiar with unique terminology and to translate information to your team members. Speaking in tech jargon demonstrates your willingness and ability to absorb new details quickly and stimulates productive conversations when coordinating with your IT team and product providers. This will improve your personal productivity.

Increase your technical knowledge

Ironically, many people have entered the communication profession believing they will need minimal math understanding. Wrong! Data and technical knowledge are central to many communication activities in this digital era. This knowledge will help you deal with digital work more efficiently, and to coordinate with your IT team more effectively, which is even more important when working remotely. What’s more – it will help your career as others recognize your tech understanding.

Establish a daily ”closing-down” routine

These routines help you change from work mode to personal time. To end your day (and prepare for the next), you can:

  • Close loops, such as responding to an important email.
  • Note your three most satisfying achievements the day.
  • Plan tomorrow’s workday.

Communicate more with your boss

If you feel overwhelmed by work, you need to create time to communicate with your boss. It can be tempting to downplay how overwhelmed you may be feeling or what you are struggling with, or to try to cover up things that haven’t been completed. But that ultimately creates more problems. The best way to get back on track is to seek time with your manager to discuss your current projects and your overall workload. Often, feelings of being overwhelmed are due to miscommunication and the assumption that all work is urgent. Create time in your schedule to communicate regularly with your boss about priorities, current status and the best way forward from there. It is certainly an important way to improve your personal productivity in the workplace.

Don’t agree to team-up unnecessarily

When many people have been asked to do something, and despite knowing they should say no, they still agree to cooperate.  They commit and then later wonder why they are behind in their work. According to the authors of a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, “Collaboration overload is sinking productivity,” collaborative work — time spent on email, IM, phone, and video calls — has risen 50% or more over the past decade to consume 85% or more of most people’s work weeks. The the Covid-19 pandemic has caused this figure to jump even higher. These invisible demands are hurting organizations’ efforts to become more agile and innovative. And they can lead to individual career derailment, burnout, and declines in physical and mental well-being. But there’s a lot that organizations can do to equip their employees to work more. Depending on the extent of your influence in the organization, you can act on this if you are a team leader, and you can press for management to act on it:

Beware of these unhealthy triggers

You need to guard against:

  • Identity and reputation triggers such as a desire to help others, a sense of fulfillment from accomplishments, a desire to be influential/recognized, or a concern about being seen as a good colleague and contributor.
  • Anxiety and the need for control triggers such as fear of losing control over a project or outcome, a need for closure, dislike for ambiguity, and fear of missing out (FOMO).
What to do?

The authors of the HBR article recommend three key actions for team leaders and management to initiate. These actions can apply to all work modes – office, hybrid and remote:

  1. Implement a “Free-Form Fridays” policy. Leave your calendar blocked from 2pm every Friday, to provide dedicated space to engage in “deep work,” catch-up on emails, and recharge.
  2. Conduct more frequent pulse surveys focused on wellbeing and stress. These will reveal actions needed after listening to employees. One action taken as a result of these types of surveys was to arrange more frequent, visible reminders from senior leadership to employees about the importance of prioritizing only the most important work and focusing on self-care. As an example, many senior leaders turned to video messages and more frequent unscripted and authentic dialogue with their teams (and the rest of their employees), in which they emphasized the need for prioritization, self-care, and a test-and-learn mindset.
  3. Introduce “Ways of Working” training and tools for business units with high levels of collaboration, stress, and negative mood. This type of intervention begins by briefing leaders on the state of collaboration and mood among employees, and starting discussions about how the organization might act differently. Then, group sessions can be held for each unit, teaching more effective practices and ways to guard against personally-driven overload generated by agreeing too often to requests for teaming up with other individuals and groups.

Learn to say “No”

Due to the hectic pace of your professional life, you can’t finish absolutely every task on your To-Do list within due time. So how about keeping tighter control over the number of new tasks you accept. There are more ways than you might think to do this. Here are some ways to keep the number of new tasks at a manageable level.

Lifestyle fundamentals

Sleep

Sleep is a key factor in maintaining good energy levels. Being sleep-deprived has been found to cause some major accidents in the workplace and on the road. Chronic lack of sleep is more than just frustrating. It can impact all areas of your life including physical and mental health. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 35% of American adults aren’t getting enough sleep.

If you are not getting enough sleep, you should discuss with your physician. As a young PR consultant, I found the stress of work was causing me to wake up and worry every night around 3 am, which became rather debilitating, and led to some health problems in the long term. I worked in the PR firm for 6 years before becoming corporate affairs manager in a large company, which at least wasn’t as stressful on a daily basis.

Exercise

Research has found that a short walk at lunchtime and/or during the afternoon boosts productivity, so head out for a few minutes during the day. Doing some simple stretches during your break will help to increase your productivity.

Also, in my personal experience, I have had a lower back ache for many years, caused by playing sport at a high level in my younger days, which was diagnosed as disk degeneration. Short of temporary benefits of chiropractic, nothing has seemed to work very well. And deskwork doesn’t help when you have a long back. Then I accidently came across a wonderfully, simple back stretch on YouTube – the ‘cat-cow’ stretch on all fours (I think based on a couple of yoga stretches). Anna Maltby, the presenter says “If I were, for some reason, only allowed to do one-stretch for the rest of my life, I’m fairly certain I would pick cat-cow.” I agree!

Make best use of work-time energy

We all have a ‘body clock,’ which is our natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. And so we have peaks and slows in daily energy. Most people have peak alertness in the morning, reduced energy mid-afternoon, and a return of energy in the late afternoon. Structuring your main activities around the peaks of your body clock can help you attend to important tasks more productively. People’s brains are generally the most active about 2-4 hours after waking.  Therefore, check if you get a brain boost around that time, and prioritize that time of day for your most important deep thinking and tasks.

Final thought

Another of my articles discusses how you can be more productive immediately. You may gain some further useful ideas from the article, which will help you to improve your personal productivity.

How you can be more productive immediately

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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