It’s not hard to find people who believe an “always on” work ethic is essential if they and their firms are to succeed in the global marketplace. In fact, according to a recent Harvard Business school survey, 94% of professional service workers (consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, IT, and the like) said they put in 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group turning in more than 65 hours a week.
While some people claim the long hours are necessary, numerous studies show that a lack of work-life balance comes with negative consequences, including trouble sleeping, increased risk for depression, and even a harder time communicating and getting things done.
It’s a reality that many Americans recognize. According to JUST Capital’s 2019 survey — which asks the American public what they care about most when it comes to business practices — work-life balance is one of the areas that Americans want companies to prioritize. Across many demographics, Americans made it clear that they want companies to make it easier to address work-life balance challenges by offering flexible working arrangements and day care services.
In addition to support from your employer, finding balance and spending more time on the non-work activities that matter to you requires getting your job done in less time — which might be easier than you think.
There’s no shortage of productivity-boosting tips— a quick Google search of “ways to be more productive” delivers more than 171 million results — but we’ll save you some time: Below are the four best strategies to try first. All require minimal effort so you can start doing them today and enjoy some extra time in your schedule tomorrow.
1. Close Your Door (Metaphorically, at Least)
The open-door policy is undeniably popular in modern organizations, but its roots might surprise you. In the 1970s, it was actually touted by larger companies as a way to prevent unionization of their workers. By giving employees limitless access to managers, there’d be no need to unionize.
Communication is key, but this sort of unrestricted approach was started before things like email and instant messaging were around, says Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a productivity coach and speaker.
“We’ve kept this very antiquated system of communication, and I think it’s overused nowadays,” she says. “It often substitutes for good task management, because people expect immediate answers and direction — and they’re willing to interrupt others to get it.”
That might be one reason why only 39% of our workday is spent on our actual job duties, according to Workfront’s U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report.
Your productivity-boosting move: Shut your door. Don’t have that option? You can practice this metaphorically, too.
Block off time on your calendar for focused, heads-down work — and don’t let anyone schedule a meeting during the block. Put on headphones to tune out noise and signal to your coworkers that you’re buckling down. Bonus: One study of 1,000 workers conducted by Cloud Clover Music found that nearly 80% of respondents think listening to music increases their productivity at work.
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2. Turn Off Notifications
When you’re constantly pinged with emails, instant messages, and social media alerts, digital distractions can easily rip your attention away from the task at hand.
“These are self-imposed interruptions,” Gratias says. “We actually cause 50% of our own interruptions due to digital distractions.”
Turning off notifications is likely advice you’ve heard before, yet most people still don’t do it — and they end up being one of the average Americans who checks their smartphone 52 times per day.
That’s especially disheartening when you consider it can take 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction, says Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine whose research focuses on interruptions in the workplace.
You’re unknowingly robbing yourself of hours every day. A better approach is to set a time block for getting work done, and when that block is over, give yourself 10 to 20 minutes dedicated to checking email, messages, and your phone. When time is up, close your email tab, snooze your instant messaging notifications, and put your phone in a desk drawer if you have to.
You can do this multiple times per workday (aim for no more than four), but by consolidating it to a set block of “email” time, you’ll avoid the constant distraction of notifications.
3. Plan Your Day Before Checking Email
A common misconception is that productivity means you should constantly be producing. That’s why so many people jump right into their workdays by checking their inboxes. A survey by Sleep Advisor found that 17% of Americans check their email as soon as they wake up, and 55% check it within one hour of waking, before they head into work.
A better strategy: Take a beat and plan out your day before seeing what messages or requests are waiting for you.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of time — five to 15 minutes,” Gratias says. “Productive people use this time to narrow down their task list for the day so that it includes the central things they want to make progress on.”
Setting these intentions for the day will help you focus on the important, high-impact work, as opposed to getting sidetracked by the seemingly pressing requests and to-dos that are lurking in your email.
4. Set a Quitting Time
It’s harder to light a fire under yourself if it feels like your workday stretches out into eternity. There’s no pressing need to start checking items off your to-do list.
That’s why Gratias says the most productive people do something that seems counterintuitive: They set a hard stop for themselves.
“I call it the Fred Flintstone, ‘yabba dabba doo,’ slide down the dinosaur tail moment,” she says. “They make an active choice to end working for the day.”
Setting these sorts of limits gives you a clearer idea of how long you have to get tasks accomplished, which instills a greater sense of urgency. And that heightened arousal often leads to improved performance, as stated by the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
A recent experiment conducted at Microsoft supports this “less is more” theory: When the company implemented a four-day workweek at a Microsoft subsidiary in Japan last summer, it led to a 40% increase in productivity. The trial was part of Microsoft’s Work-Life Choice Challenge, a summer project that examined work-life balance and aimed to help boost creativity and productivity by giving employees more flexible working hours.
Our annual survey results have made it clear that Americans value flexible working arrangements, but if your workplace doesn’t offer that (yet), take matters into your own hands. Start by creating a daily shutdown ritual: Straighten your work area, create a task list for the next day, and glance at your calendar so you know what to expect. “You’ll more effectively transition from work to personal life,” Gratias says.
Final Reminder: Productivity Is Personal
To be your most creative, productive self, resist comparisons. You might need a clean workspace while your coworker thrives with a messy desk. You might swear by a fancy app, while your team prefers paper lists.
There isn’t one way to do things, and it might take some trial and error to find what works best for you. But the above strategies are a great place for anyone to start.
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