Whether you’re a freelancer working from your kitchen table or a professional working in an open-office environment, productivity in the workplace is dependent upon your ability to focus on projects and tasks. All too often, focus is broken and productivity slowed by time-wasting activities, distractions on the web, and procrastination. Here are five of the worst workplace productivity killers and solutions for eliminating them.
1. The Problem: Priority Distorters
You’re at work and the day is going well, but then you get a panicked email from a client, customer, or colleague that, while important to them, you realize is not of major significance. This puts you in an awkward position. If you reply by simply saying that their concern is not a priority, you risk alienating or angering them. On the other hand, if you appropriate their concern and attempt to help manage the situation, you’ve thrown your entire morning–and potentially your whole day–off track.
The best road for minimizing the productivity-killing effects of an intrusive and potentially priority-changing phone call or email is to take the middle road. You don’t have to ignore the problem, nor do you have to make it your top priority. Instead, ask the other person two questions: 1) How much of a priority is this? and 2) How about I call you this afternoon or tonight to discuss it? Often, clear priority distortions solve themselves given time. If you provide people with enough space and time to consider their own behaviors, they’ll frequently come to solutions on their own. This doesn’t mean that you need to ignore the problem or the person, simply that you can talk it out over an after-work beer instead of letting it eat up your whole day.
2. The Problem: Social Distractions
One major benefit of working in an office is the relationships that develop between co-workers. These are the people you spend most of your time with, after all, and whose weddings you’ll attend, who you’ll hit the town with, and who’ll help you through the good times and the bad times at work. But where should you draw the line between a collegial relationship and a friendship that has the potential to distract you from your work?
Establishing clear boundaries is the simplest and best way to signal to colleagues that, while you still love them, you’ve got work to do. This means setting routines. Say hello to Jim and Stacey in accounting each morning. Set aside the first 10 minutes in the office for coffee with Ron, and establish regular lunch dates with colleagues so that you can get out of the office and get caught up with one another. Separating this clear social time from your set work routine will make it obvious to colleagues and work friends that you’re serious about being friendly and just as serious about getting down to business.
3. The Problem: Micro-Burnout
When you hear the word “burnout,” you likely think of people who, at the end of a 65-hour work week, storm into their supervisor’s office and scream “I quit!” before marching out the door with their office plant and paperweight in a file box. But burnout isn’t something that happens in one fell swoop. It’s a process, and it can occur in small ways each day.
Micro-burnout is the phenomenon of feeling completely drained after a long work task. You spent five hours and missed your lunch because you had to get that spreadsheet finished. You had to make 100 sales calls in a single day, and you zipped through them all in one push. In some ways that sort of effort is admirable, but it could ruin your longer-term productivity by leaving you feeling exhausted, resentful, and bored.
Instead of working in two-, three-, or four-hour blocks, set small, achievable goals and stick to them. Work for concentrated, 90-minute bursts and then give yourself 10 minutes to use the restroom, freshen up your coffee, and take a quick lap around the office. Then work for another 90-minute block.
4. The Problem: The Internet
In one of the most ironic Catch-22s of the contemporary working world, the Internet has revolutionized the ways we work and is responsible for unquantifiable losses in individual worker productivity. It’s not just cat videos and personal email that prove problematic, either.
Often, a work project will send us searching for useful or necessary information or data, but before we know it, we’ve strayed from the New York Times archives onto Bob Dylan’s Wikipedia page. Worse still, the social distractions and priority distorters mentioned above are often made worse by our ability to quickly communicate via the Internet. Just one quick chat message to a friend or spouse about the movie you’d like to see after work can balloon into a 20-minute chat-fest that whittles away your time and puts you behind.
Set good rules for how you use the Internet at work. Think of the Internet not merely as a tool but as a reward. If you’ve already decided to work in short bursts–like the 90-minute blocks suggested above–then you can make a deal with yourself. You can check your personal email each time you finish a 90-minute work block, but you can’t reply to anything unless it’s from a member of your immediate family. Or you can make an online purchase only before or after work hours. This will stop you from using your work time inappropriately, and it could save you from the impulse-buying that the Internet makes all too easy.
5. Fear of Action:
Regardless of whether you’re an upper-level manager or a trainee, your work day is going to be filled with decisions to make. Some will be big, and some will be small. Some will be of major significance, while others won’t matter 10 minutes after you’ve made them. But one of the worst workplace productivity killers is the inability to make any decision at all. Hand-wringing and unduly weighing options necessarily wastes time.
Use the best information available at any given moment to make your decisions, but don’t fret so much about making the wrong choice. Often, your impression of the importance or unimportance of an issue is overblown. Most workplace decisions are not matters of life or death, and most decisions–even those that turn out to have been wrong–are defensible and fixable. While it’s not always “better to apologize later than to ask permission” as some might have you believe, it’s almost always better to use your good judgment to effect a decision than it is to refuse to make a decision out of fear.
Inevitably, anyone who works will face these potentially detrimental productivity killers. Overcoming them takes patience, decisiveness, and planning. While establishing productive workplace routines isn’t always easy, these solutions will help pave the way to greater efficiency and workplace satisfaction. If you can leave the office confident that you’ve done your job well. You, your employer, and your employees will be happier and more productive.