Improving Your Process: Boosting Productivity

Posted: January 07, 2008 Comments(10)

A common goal among people is to work hard, and to work smart. I try to keep this in mind as much as I possibly can, and I’ve got a strong interest in finding new and improved ways to work more rapidly and intelligently. With that comes a constant change in my day to day ‘routine’ (or lack there of), whether it be what time I get up, what I sit down at my desk and do first, or what I save for the end of the day.

In a more general sense of the term, I’ve got some tips that I try to constantly keep in mind, regardless of the small changes in my workflow.

Make yourself weekly and daily to-do lists

Making to-do lists has been by far the most difficult routine to force myself into sticking with. At first it was extremely tedious and seemingly menial, which became frustrating as though it were counterproductive. On the other hand, I’ve always had an issue with neglecting the small things. Not so much at work as in my personal life, but it’s an issue nonetheless.

Getting in the habit of making to-do lists has really helped me to stay on track and really get things done very efficiently. I’m never sitting back for a second to think “what should I work on next?” — and that can be a really powerful thing. Having an itemized task list every day really helps me to have a finish line to cross at the end of the day. To-do lists not only help me to keep myself organized, they help me feel like things are getting done throughout the day.

The habit I’ve tried to force myself into is sitting down first thing with a cup of coffee and determining exactly what needs to get done that day. It only takes about 10 minutes to really take a look at what’s going on and come up with a detailed list of things that can (and should) get done by the time I pack up to leave the office. Mondays are a bit different in that I try to think of what needs to get done by the end of the week. It tends to help me prioritize things on the fly and make notes for later in the week.

There are a ton of ways to keep track of your to-do lists. For instance, a pad and paper can work wonders. Having a small pad sitting next to you (always visible) can be quite handy with keeping track of your to-dos. For the more electronically inclined (as we all are), there are countless applications both on the Web and for the desktop that can help you out. Some of the more prominent on the Web being Remember The Milk and Ta-da List. There are a number of desktop apps (which I tend to prefer) such as Anxiety (OS X) or High Priority (OS X) for quick to-do management. Optionally, you could completely dive into personal organization with a Getting Things Done-oriented app such as OmniFocus (OS X), Things (OS X), tudomo (Windows), or iGTD (OS X). People will prefer many different ways of task management, but the important thing is to find something that works for you.

Stop autochecking your email

One of the most consistent speed bumps I found myself slamming into was email. That’s not to say that I feel I receive too much email, it’s more of an issue with my (unnecessary) feeling that not replying right away is rude. When I first began working professionally, I checked my email dozens of times a day, to ensure that clients weren’t frustrated or felt they were ‘left hanging’ in any way. That is not to say that I now feel differently, I’ve just realized that email is in no way shape or form an instant message conversation.

Email should be treated as it is – electronic mail. An instant response should not be assumed by the sending party, and the receiving party shouldn’t feel obligated to respond straight away. While I can say that, I’ve still got an issue with seeing unread messages in my inbox. To alleviate this unneeded stress I put on myself, I simply disabled autochecking of my email. At first I had my email client checking for new messages every five minutes, and it’s probably safe to assume most people do the very same thing. Instead, I try to check my email three times throughout the work day. Once when I first get in, once in the middle of the day, and a last time before leaving for the day. This helps me to have two solid blocks of work time every day of the week, instead of having a few dozen as a result of being interrupted by new email messages.

Pick up the phone

Although we live in a time where the Internet connects us more easily than ever, there are certain times where you should instead just pick up the phone and make a quick call. I’ve had countless experiences where a ten-second phone call saved me at least a half hour of emailing back and forth due to simple misunderstandings. Many times, a quick phone call can circumvent any miscommunications from the very beginning.

Sign off AIM & ignore social networks

AIM (or any other instant messaging platform) at work can be trouble. Where I work, AIM has become a staple for communication, and while it can be helpful for a quick note to a coworker, often times there are problems which have arisen as a direct result of this communication medium.

Another problem with instant messaging at work is the tendency of distraction. Focusing on tasks at hand is what I’ve found to be the best way to really get things done. When you’re focused on your work, you can find yourself in The Zone. When you’re in The Zone, you’re getting things done much more quickly and things for some reason just seem to fall into place. Instant messaging can sometimes get in the way of The Zone. If you’re using instant messages at the office, just sign off. If someone needs to get a hold of you there’s always email, or the phone, or even better a personal quick chat.

This nearly goes without saying, but the abundance of social networks you’re involved in are a black hole for work productivity. Finding out about your friend’s wild night at the bar over the weekend can wait until you’re off work, can’t it?

Take lunch

Give yourself a lunch. Taking time at the middle of the day to have lunch can be really beneficial to your productivity. It doesn’t have to be the textbook Lunch Hour, but allow yourself decent time to give your brain a rest. Sitting back down to work after a solid lunch will help to alleviate any feelings of burden because of your work.

What habits have you adopted to stay on track?

Those are the things I try to keep in mind every day to stay on track and make progress with my workload. Keeping these habits in mind can be frustrating and tedious at first, but they can truly benefit you both at work as well as in general. Work has become a major source of stress for many people, but much of that stress can be avoided by adopting new ways of doing things. What are some of the things you try to keep in mind to stay on point throughout the day?

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  1. I’m with you on the email thing… and lunch too for that matter! I’ve decided to set aside time at the beginnning of the day and after lunch to respond to email. And turn off the auto-checkers.

    I also have a strange obsession with keeping my inbox really clean. i don’t like to see a lot of unread messages sitting there. I also use Opera’s mail client, which means my mail panel is always open when I’m browsing – I need to just close the panel when I’m not using it.

    I tend to find myself doing way too much scattered multi-tasking rather than sitting down to do one task at a time. That’s how I ended up checking bloglines and coming across this post just now! So another thing I need to do is to avoid checking RSS feeds throughout the day and set aside a particular time for that.

    Lunch is often hard to take, especially if your workplace doesn’t have a defined space for breaks and eating lunch (and if everyone else eats at their desk!) When the warmer weather comes I’ll be able to get outside for a bit which will be nice.

  2. Recently, I have been unpleased with my productivity level. Many of the issues you covered are the issues I am currently dealing with. I am one of those people that check their email constantly, am aways on AIM, and no to-do list. It’s really bad, I think.

    One thing I really need to work on is making a to-do list. I always have a list of stuff I would like to complete throughout the day, problem is that it’s all in my head. I never write anything down and I need to force my self to start. With all the stuff in my head, I tend to forget some things, small or large, and that bothers me so much that I stay up late in the night, sometimes 2 or 3am to get some things done.

    I also believe knowing when to end your day would be a productivity factor. I found out that, staying up late was actually hurting my productivity level rather than helping it. I would wake up 4 or 6 hours later and feel so lazy, and the rest of the day would be unproductive. Since I have changed that habit, I feel I have more energy and can get a lot done. Laziness is a killer.

    Also, I love being in the Zone. My personal Zone is pretty simple. I just put on my headphones and listen to music while I code. Don’t know why, but every time I listen to music while working I work very quickly and get a lot complete. It feels awesome too!

  3. […] Things Done idea. One is Practicing Simplified GTD by Gina Trapani on Lifehacker. The other is Improving Your Process: Boosting Productivity by Jonathon Christopher on Monday By Noon. I’m not going to rehash these articles for you […]

  4. About the sleep thing, Tashjian. I whole-heartedly agree with you. My sleep schedule has been so far off lately ( 5am -> 1pm ) that I have done almost nothing in the past 2 weeks. I really have to start sleeping regularly again.

  5. This topic seems to be quite popular in the blogosphere. I recommend installing a todo list script on your own server. Thus you have more privacy and don’t depend on a service which can go out of business anytime. I’ve also programmed my own productivity tool which I use everyday you can download it here:

  6. Excellent post! I see this topic pop up every now and then, and it’s always a good reminder if you’re like me and tend to get off the track from time to time. Working in a larger company, where small things always pop up, it’s hard to stay in “the zone” for longer periods of time, compared to when working alone.

    On a good day, you might have very few interruptions, but I’ve also had days where interruptions kept me from doing any of the things on my to-do list. So my advice to those working in larger teams, is to always plan for interruptions.

  7. @Megan: In all honestly, I’m mostly against multitasking. I find it extremely difficult to do your best work when you’re trying to get 3 things done at once. Many people feel that multitasking has really changed the world for the better, but I’d have to disagree. I think it is a major factor when it comes to stress at work and life in general. I’m so glad you mentioned RSS as that can be a complete time-sinkhole. Lunch is, indeed, hard to take. Personally I usually eat lunch at my desk every day, but I make sure to close out anything I’m working on, open up my RSS reader, and check some things out while I’m eating.

    @JR Tashjian: Sleep habits are definitely a major factor as well. To this day, I often find myself only getting 3 or 4 hours sleep, but that’s mostly due to poor personal project planning on my part. I’ve also got an issue with procrastination (I’ll admit it) and that doesn’t help one bit. To-do lists have really helped to keep that controlled. Having a set time to end your day is another fantastic suggestion. Even if you love what you do, overworking yourself doesn’t help anybody in the long run. Your work will suffer in the end.

    @Adam Butterworth: You’ll definitely find yourself getting more done if you can find a way to lightly schedule yourself. Ironically, that’s the hardest personal habit to force yourself into. No one wants to do it, but it really does help.

    @Noah Everett: It really is a curse. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not replying to email right away; we’ll both have to work on that a bit.

    @Oliver Antosch: Thank you for the link, I’ll be sure to give it a quick look as soon as I can.

    @Fredrik Karlsson: I definitely find myself slipping with disciplining myself to follow my own guidelines, and it is definitely great to have reminders from time to time. Your point about planning for interruptions is fantastic, I would definitely agree with that suggestion as it truly is unavoidable.

    Thanks everyone for leaving your tips, thoughts, and suggestions!

  8. Good point on the emails.

    Making todo-list is an amazing thing to do. I use it also for scheduling the day estimating the time each task takes, and if there’s over time on a specific task I let it rest to the next day.

    A great todo-list app for the PC is at and it’s free

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