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I’ve read (and written) quite a bit about how to be more productive at work or school. Here are five things that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
1. Get unpleasant tasks done first.
If you have something to get done that you’re dreading, whether that’s a difficult conversation with a customer or an expense report that needs to be completed today, do that task first. It’s easy to procrastinate on things you’re dreading. But putting them off doesn’t make them go away and just prolongs the dread. If given a choice of dreading something for ten minutes or dreading it all day, that’s an easy choice. And the truth is that not only is the task usually a lot less unpleasant than you expected, the feeling of having it done and dealt with is a great way to get on with your day.
2. Don’t multi-task.
Multi-tasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It sounds good in theory to work on lots of things at once, but the list of to-dos goes away faster if, whenever possible, you focus on just one thing at a time.
3. Close your email when you’re working on something important.
This is a more specific item of the “Don’t multi-task” tip. You get to choose when and what to multi-task, but you don’t get to choose when, and how many, emails arrive. Incoming email is a constant stream of interruptions that divert your focus from what you’re working on. And unless you’re a lot stronger than I am, the curiosity gets the best of you, and you’ll end up reading and probably responding to every email as they arrive. If you’re doing something important, close your email and focus. The emails will be waiting when you’re done. And if you can’t wait that long, put yourself on an interruption diet and only check email at certain times of the day. While you’re at it, keep Facebook closed, too. And for the trifecta, turn your phone off and answer your calls and text messages later.
4. Say “no” often.
Sometimes the best way to get things done is to say no to less urgent, less important opportunities. What’s really important? What do you need to focus on, do well, and get done? Whatever it is, that’s the top of your to-do list. Until those things are done, say no (politely) to other things, or agree to do them when the important stuff is done.