How to Be Productive at Work: 9 Ways to Tackle Your To-Do List More Quickly

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By Laura Berlinsky-Schine

READ MORE: Productivity, Work-life balance

Your time is valuable, and you want to make the most of it. Sometimes, though, even in you have tons of work to do, procrastination gets the better of you. So how can you increase your productivity and improve the value, rather than quantity, of your work? Here are nine ideas for engaging in more productive work:

1. Work less.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the more time people spend at their jobs, the less productive they end up being. Your motivation decreases and you're more likely to waste time with other distractions. If you stop working overtime and spend a more reasonable amount of time on the job, you’re more likely to make those hours count.

This idea originally came from Henry Ford in 1922. While the then-president of Ford Motor Company, Henry’s son Edsel Ford, claimed that the company was reducing the six-day workweek to five in order to give workers more leisure time to spend with their families, Ford Motor Company also expected to increase productivity under the notion that workers would put in more effort with a shorter amount of working time.

2. Make a to-do list.

Write down your goals for each day. While you probably have larger projects you can’t finish in a single sitting, you could divide them up it up into smaller components that are more manageable. Being able to check off individual steps will make the whole task seem more achievable, and finishing smaller goals along the way will allow you to have victories and achievements every day.

3. Employ SMART goals.

In a 1981 issue of Management Review, George T. Doran used the SMART acronym as a method for setting achievable and quantifiable goals. (The term has also been attributed to other authors.) Using this method, you can evaluate how to meet an objective.

SMART stands for:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Relevant
Time-bound

When you set a goal, ask yourself whether it withstands this test and what the results might look like. Of course, you probably don’t need to run every item on your to-do list through this measure; it’s more of a test for larger work and life goals, such as those you might propose in a performance review.

4. Stop wasting your time.

According to the Pareto principle, 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. In business, this translates to 80% of results coming from 20% of efforts. That means you should attempt to focus on the 20% of efforts that actually yield results. Cut out the clutter that doesn’t matter. That could include meetings that you don’t really need to attend or skipping a step in a project that doesn’t contribute to the finished project.

That doesn’t mean you should get lazy. If there is a quality assurance measure that might allow you to catch errors, even if they seldom appear, it’s still a worthwhile step to take. Only cut steps that truly don’t contribute to the final product. You may want to discuss your ideas with your manager before taking any drastic measures; the process could be outside of your control, and if your manager still expects you to do it even after you explain how you believe cutting the step will increase productivity, it’s best to follow her directions.

5. Make mornings time for yourself.

Ignore your work emails and other work distractions until you arrive at your office or start your workday if you work at home. You’ll only be able to focus part of your attention on work issues if you’re also thinking about breakfast, taking a shower, and the rest of your morning routine. You'll also increase your stress if your thinking about too many issues at once. Once you’ve accomplished personal tasks, such as exercise and breakfast, you’ll be able to devote your full attention to work matters and start your day refreshed and with plenty of energy.

6. Take breaks.

There’s a reason why employers give workers breaks in the middle of the day, and that reason is productivity. You need time to refuel—literally, because your brain needs glucose to recharge—to tackle the rest of your objectives for the day.

7. Tackle your most challenging task first.

It’s tempting to start with the more achievable tasks on your to-do list, but if you get your worst item out of the way first, you won’t have it hanging over your head for the rest of the day. You’ll also have a more productive day overall by creating momentum for tackling the rest of your objectives, and will feel a sense of accomplishment from getting your least favorite task over with.

8. Take it one step at a time.

You’ll kill your productivity and waste time if you try to accomplish multiple items on your to-do list at once. Instead of spending five minutes on one task and switching to another, finish your priorities first, even if they're one step toward a larger goal, before moving on to another item.

9. Relax.

After a long day, unwind with something that will take your mind off of work and destress: a book, TV, or a nice meal. This will allow you to separate work from personal time and help you maintain a good work-life balance. Also, make sure to get a good night’s sleep to replenish your energy, because people are more likely to be productive if they’re well-rested and refreshed.

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