We have powerful technology tools and multiple communications channels, giving us instant access to the information and the people we need to connect with every day to do our jobs. With all these resources at our fingertips, why are so many people burned out? Why is anxiety on the rise? What is driving some people to throw up their hands and hand in their resignations?
In certain ways, all the innovative resources and multiple databases and sophisticated systems developed to empower today’s office workers have actually overwhelmed them to the point of exhaustion¾physical, mental and emotional. Yet some office professionals seem to sail through their days with ease. They are the office wunderkinds who always seem to be on top of things. They never miss a meeting. They can always retrieve an elusive file at a moment’s notice. They seem to arrive early and stay late, without ever appearing harried. What do they know that others don’t?
Anyone can become a productivity pro. Anyone can learn how to ensure that the tools of typical office trade never become the instruments of office torture. Here are 10 commonsense ways to approach common work responsibilities that allow any office professional to maximize potential for greater productivity and higher performance in the office.
A Smarter Way to Tackle Tasks
Technology can be employed to eliminate low-value, repetitive tasks that free up staff to focus on more complex, higher-value challenges. For administrative staff today, that might mean never knowing the “joys” of faxing and copying or the tedium of collating and filing reams of paper reports. While that is true, it often leads to an erroneous assumption that the most powerful tool in the office is the computer, whether that computer is desk-bound or mobile. In actuality, the most valuable resource in any workplace is the office professional with the skills and the knowledge to work with people and technology in ways that simplify and streamline what may seem like a never-ending to do list.
Here are 10 key strategies the best office professionals employ to tackle tasks more effectively (and avoid burnout):
- Start with a plan
- Avoid multi-tasking
- Turn off email and social media alerts
- Schedule blocks of task time
- Take breaks to refresh
- Set goals and agenda for every meeting
- Stick to time constraints
- Learn how to say no
- Take the time to learn how to use technology more effectively
- Know when to turn off and tune out
1) Start with a plan. From bicycles to battery installation, there is a reason why we are always cautioned to read instructions first. They represent a plan of action. They lay out which steps to take first to avoid wasting time due to mistakes and do-overs. The same should be true for the workday. Whether you prefer to handle planning for the next day at the end of the previous day, the night before or first thing in the a.m., making a plan will help you be more productive. Experts may differ on how to schedule your day, but they overwhelmingly agree that taking the time to plan boosts productivity. Sales trainer Brian Tracy suggests you can free up two hours in your day by planning.
- Start by setting goals and priorities.
- Identify the three or four or five tasks that are most important to advancing your big goals.
- Build time into your schedule to cover needed meetings and thinking time.
- Don’t over-schedule.
- Plan some thinking time in your day and well as doing time.
- Avoid listing too many items as you may feel overwhelmed.
- Enjoy the satisfaction of checking tasks off your list by the end of the day.
2) Avoid multi-tasking; it’s inefficient and distracting. Search any resume database and you will see a slew of multi-taskers. The ability to juggle multiple responsibilities and seamlessly switch from task to task has long been viewed as a big plus in the workplace. What we’ve learned, however, is that the science behind multi-tasking does not support it as a productivity tool. In fact, the opposite is true. According to the American Psychological Association, “the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.” Researcher David Meyer, PhD, found that no matter how quickly a person can switch gears, the time and focus it takes to switch from one task to another “can cost as much as 40% of someone's productive time.”
3) Turn off email and social media alerts. Like Pavlov’s dog, that familiar ping of an incoming message or alert instantly catches our attention. It’s supposed to do that, but when you are concentrating on getting your work done, that ping can be a major distraction. Even if you refuse to take a look at the source of the ping, it still diffuses your focus. Email, social media, texting and other time killers can compromise quality, play havoc with project deadlines, negatively impact relationships and hurt the bottom line. So adjust your device settings to silence the pings and set specific times during the day to view your notifications.
4) Schedule blocks of task time. When you plan your day, in addition to identifying what tasks you’d like to accomplish before quitting time, it helps to physically schedule time to accomplish those tasks. Who hasn’t been surprised at the end of day, wondering “Where did the time go?” The workday can seem to fly by, yet it may be a challenge to pinpoint a single noteworthy achievement or any substantive accomplishments. It’s a complaint that often accompanies grumbling about how many hours get eaten up by email or meetings. One way to avoid an end-of-day letdown is to block time throughout the day to work on designated projects. Just as meetings get scheduled into your day (often by other people), you can manage your time more effectively by scheduling activity time. There are lots of different ways to carve out time for yourself:
- Schedule 45-minute meetings with 15-minute intervals for recap and planning of next steps
- Block your most productive hours for solo work
- Identify the time of day when your brain most needs a break to handle less creative, but absolutely required tasks (the ones it’s so easy to push off when time gets tight)
- Experiment with proven time-pacing methodologies, such as the Pomodoro Technique
Most importantly, don’t simply make a mental note to block time; schedule it as though it was a meeting with the CEO. That will make it sacrosanct.
5) Take breaks to refresh. All work and no play is counter-productive. Stepping away from a task allows the brain and the body to refresh. Eating lunch at your desk may make you feel more dedicated, but it doesn’t necessarily make you more productive. The best use of an 8-hour day is to devote at least some of that time away from work. Even the shortest breaks can be beneficial in boosting critical thinking and creativity. Research gathered by LifeHack tells us:
- Stepping away from the screen for five minutes or less can hone mental sharpness by 13%
- Simply looking away from the screen for 15 seconds every 10 minutes can lessen fatigue by 50%
6) Set goals and agenda for every meeting. In one data review by Lucid, it was reported that most people think meetings are effective. If that surprises you, then you may be participating in meetings that are characterized by lots of talking and little doing. All that time-wasting is not only de-motivating, it is costly. There are lots of techniques businesses have employed for more effective meetings, e.g.:
- Stand-up sessions
- 15-minute time limits
- The use of timers to limit chatterboxes from monopolizing the discussion
While any one of these might temporarily break people out of meeting monotony, none will work well without a clearly stated purpose and a tight agenda. Share your agenda when you schedule the meeting. That gives invitees insight into their role in the discussion and the importance of participation. You can also use an agenda as a short-cut to a post-meeting action list.
7) Stick to time constraints. A cavalier attitude about time can play havoc with your own productivity as well as everyone else’s. Consider this:
- As a basic courtesy to your colleagues, be on time. Their time is no less valuable than yours. They must deal with the same traffic snarls and early morning preschooler meltdowns as you.
- When you lead or facilitate a meeting, do not wait overly long for stragglers (or be a straggler). That throws off everyone’s schedule and can earn you a reputation as a time-waster.
- When you schedule blocks of time but allow one activity to run over into another, each slippage can negatively impact a subsequent activity.
Time is a finite resource… for you and for others. Understand its importance and treat it as a valued asset. Build air into your schedule to deal with activities that run over your most optimistic time estimates.
8) Learn how to say “no.” One of the biggest threats to personal productivity is an inability to say “no.” It’s nice to be known as everyone’s go-to resource to provide an extra pair of hands, lend expertise to a project or back up a colleague stretched to the limit. Doing this all the time, however, can make it impossible to complete your own tasks on time. It can also contribute to overwork, stress and burnout. Remember that someone else’s crisis (or lack of planning) doesn’t automatically constitute an emergency for you. Wanting to say “no” and actually doing it can cause its own rasher of stress, but there are ways to do it.
9) Take the time to learn how to use technology more effectively. There is no question that office technology allows us to communicate and collaborate more effectively. In the past two decades, it has delivered a previously unimagined level of productivity. At the same time, however, most office workers use only the most basic capabilities available to them. Why?
- To some extent, office productivity tools have become so ubiquitous that we tend to jump in and get started without taking the time to learn more than what we need to immediately get things done.
- In other cases, we assume we know what we are doing, which often leaves features and functions unexplored and unexploited in the search for greater productivity and higher performance.
- In still other cases, it is simply a case of managing time and prioritizing learning.
In the Emerging Workforce® Study, sponsored by Spherion, evolving technology expertise (e.g., the latest mobile applications, cloud computing, security, etc.) was ranked as one of the most important skills the workforce will need in the next five years, so there is definitely a desire to continually enhance technology know-how. Employers can also help their employees set aside sufficient time to learn how to optimize their use of technology.
10) Know when to turn off and tune out. Technology helps us stay connected in an increasingly digital world. That is a tremendous convenience, but it can also become a burden when it facilitates 24x7 availability, blurring the lines between work life and home life. Just as brief breaks during the workday can spur bursts of creativity, longer breaks can also lead to higher productivity. Most people enjoy their leisure time, but American workers tend to use less of it than we should. In fact, according to Project Time Off, more than half of Americans do not take full advantage of earned vacation time. So learn to be disciplined about how you use your time. Make a conscious decision to switch from work mode to personal mode, whether at the end of a workday, at the beginning of a weekend or the start of a vacation. Whatever time you take to break away from your job will allow you to refresh yourself and your ability to perform at your best.
Getting More Done Every Day
Knowing how to organize and prioritize can make a significant difference in how work gets done. The ability to minimize stress in the workday by applying proven strategies that make tasks more manageable is a skill that is often both undervalued and underrated. The best office professionals do more than follow traditional practices and protocols. They find ways to update them. They simplify tasks and streamline workflows. They do it for themselves, but it is often the entire office team that benefits. They are efficient; they are knowledgeable, and they facilitate a smoother functioning office for everyone.
Some of the skills the most sought-after office professionals bring to the job are inherent; others are learned through experience and experimentation. According to multiple research reports like Spherion’s Emerging Workforce® Study, today’s must-have skills include problem-solving, technology know-how, communication and collaboration. How can you identify these abilities in job candidates? How can you be sure you are hiring individuals who will make a positive impact on your business? It’s possible to test for some of these skills; others can be uncovered in candidate screening and interviews. Finding the right office professionals to support your organization can make a substantive difference in how smoothly and effectively your office functions, how productive your business operates and how well your team collaborates and innovates.