40 easy ways to increase productivity at work

Efficiency versus effectiveness

It is important that you understand the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. In my mind efficiency is doing something as fast as possible without making mistakes. For instance, you build a quality ladder as fast as possible, using the right tools, right materials and right workforce. Effectiveness is doing the right thing, also as fast as possible, without making mistakes. Let's take the example further. Once you have completed the ladder you remember that you need to use it in the garden to pick apples. However, you have assembled it in your upstairs bedroom. As a result, you will now have to dismantle it and start again outside. You can see that you may have been efficient in terms of the speed by which you put the ladder together, but because you didn't plan the activity properly, you were ineffective in achieving your ultimate goal of having the ladder completed in the right place at the right time.

This is a very simple example, but when applied to the workplace, it is surprisingly common how often individuals are being efficient but to one extent or another ineffective.

Therefore, the first and most important learning is to understand why you are doing what you have been asked to do. Once you have completed your task ask yourself whether you have achieved the goal that was set. Indeed, is there a more effective way of achieving your goal? Challenge yourself to visualize the final product of your task and double check that the outcome is the desired one.

Below you will find the list. Everyone will have their own view on the relative order (and of productivity ideas I've missed altogether) so please accept this as my humble and personal view.

01. Know your job

Without doubt, there is no substitute for learning your role inside out. Therefore you should invest time to ensure you fully understand your role, the key tasks, how your performance is measured, how your work impacts others and how your output is used by others. Once you know your role really well, you will command respect and be seen as the expert in that area of the business. The expertise you have gained may relate to the processing of expenses, sales calls, facilities management, recruitment or any other area of your company's undertakings. This concept applies to every type of role, throughout your career.

02. Learn from your peers (boss)

In many jobs your peers will already have the answers to a lot of your questions. Your boss may have all the answers as well, but asking your boss for help is the most obvious step for each of us to take. Also, nobody likes to inundate their boss with questions. Therefore, depending upon the structure of your department and/or business, you could dramatically increase your productivity by leveraging the skills and knowledge of those around you. Particularly in the early days of your role your peers may be able to point out various potential pitfalls.

03. Make sure that your output is used

Before we even get to 'planning' you should think about how your output is going to be used. At work we are often asked to complete tasks and assignments, but we infrequently question why we have been asked to perform them.

One thing I strongly suggest that you do is reach out to those that receive your reports, data and/or other information and obtain their confirmation that the output is being used in a way that adds value to the business. You should do this regularly, perhaps on a quarterly basis.

My team at work has taken this approach very seriously and as a consequence has cut out a significant number of unproductive tasks and procedures. Perhaps to their surprise, recipients of information are happy to acknowledge that, on occasion, what they produce ends up in the recycle bin. A large percentage of people complain about information overload, so if you can cut that down they will surely be appreciative.

04. Know the value of your tasks

Take time to understand what tasks and procedures are essential (for compliance, statutory and other 'must do' purposes), those that add some value to the business and those that are performed as a matter of routine, with no obvious value. You should question (diplomatically) why you are undertaking the tasks that do not add value, to understand better how they help you achieve your annual objectives, your department's objectives and those of the business as a whole. It may be that you are not aware of the value of the task that has been assigned to you, or you do not have sight of how it fits into the overall scheme of things. If after this 'questioning' it is clear that the task does not add value to the business, you should discuss it further with your boss. The bottom line is that you should understand the relative value of all the tasks within your remit.

05. Invest time in learning the skills

I have included below some examples of how individuals can become far more productive by having the necessary skills:

  • Do not add up figures manually but use spreadsheets. Be trained on how to use them properly. The usefulness of spreadsheets will depend upon the role you have at work, but it is amazing how such software can be used to save you a significant amount of time.
  • The next stage is to use (by way of example) Pivot Tables, Look-Up Tables and ultimately, where appropriate, macros. One example I have is a finance team that produced manual bank reconciliations, checking that cash book amounts agreed to what was recorded on the bank statements on a manual basis. Given there were hundreds of transactions each month, and seven bank accounts, this took about 21 hours of elapsed time each month. The team introduced a macro that automatically matched the relevant items to reduce processing time to less than 15 minutes. What a saving! The key here is to learn the tools of the trade and become proficient at those that allow you to become more productive. If you are searching for data, summarizing data, organizing data or merging data (and so on!) rest assure that there is a simple cost effective way of doing these.
 

Spreadsheets are a prime example given how many people use them as a tool at work. However, the same methodology applies to word processing software, presentation software and indeed bespoke software. Learn the tools of the trade inside out and the payback should be meaningful.

06. Plan

You cannot get away from it. Planning is so very important and is something that we are taught about at school but many still fail to plan adequately when at work. From junior to senior staff we so often see the impact of poor planning on the productiveness of individuals. Before undertaking any significant tasks spend time planning out what you want to achieve and determine the best 'effective' way of achieving it.

Through planning and the sharing of your plan with others, while also asking for feedback, you will no doubt find that you are better placed to achieve the desired results.

07. Prioritize

You were no doubt expecting this to be near the top of the list, and hopefully you are not disappointed. Once you know what you should be doing, and you know what you are doing adds value and is being used by others, you can prioritize in order to get to those higher value tasks first. There is a whole host of time management courses you can go on in order to hone those time management skills (and so much on the web as well).

What I ask is that you ensure that every task you work on creates value (someone really needs it to be done) and that those that are most important are done first. By this I do not mean that you should continually ignore what you perceive as less valuable tasks, but rather ensure that the timelines for completing them are properly communicated to those that need to know, so that you can manage their expectations. In fact, the reason why many managers feel let down in this regard is not the fact that they doubt that you are working on the most important stuff but that they were not aware that some of the other tasks, perhaps lower priority ones, had been put on the back burner. By managing their expectations you are solidifying and supporting your list of priorities.

08. Clear and timely communications

Projects, assignment and tasks often fail to deliver the required outcome or do so after much noise, disturbance and correction due to poor communication from the project manager or task setter.

If you are responsible for setting tasks/projects for other staff remember to communicate early, clearly, concisely and 'buy' them into the process.

The worst run projects are often those where the objectives and expected outputs are altered mid-term, as the person managing the process has not been clear about the requirements from the outset, or has failed to communicate them in a timely manner. The result is mayhem, often leading to the imposition of 'all hands to the pump', with significant additional pressure exerted on team members as well as the general disillusionment that accompanies such pressure.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to consider those around you as early as possible in the process, to ensure that, at the end of the day, they work effectively for you.

Put another way, have you ever wondered why some people manage projects that appear to run smoothly, to time and on budget whereas others seem to be playing catch-up continually, changing the goal-posts and absorbing more and more time of those on the team?

09. Automate

There are so many ways to automate workflow. This varies widely, industry by industry, department by department and role by role.

The general rule is that if there is a task or procedure that you undertake regularly and which takes up a fair proportion of your time, then think about automation.

Examples of automation are clearly visible within manufacturing companies. Many service companies have also automated many of their routines, eliminating mundane activities. However, my challenge to you is to review the tasks and procedures that you undertake day in day out and produce a short-list of those that potentially can be automated. You may need to seek assistance from your team members and staff with the IT department. If the cost of automation is less than the savings made through automation you may be on to a winner.

10. Identify road-blocks

Productivity can be hampered by road-blocks. There may be people you rely on who are not fulfilling their part of the bargain or inputs you require that are not available or forthcoming. There may also be people that you rely on to distribute your output to the relevant stakeholders that are not performing to the required standard.

If you come across a person or group of people that are creating a roadblock (this can often be unintentional so please tread carefully), you should discuss this with your boss in order to resolve. Alternatively you may want to discuss the issue in a diplomatic fashion with those that are causing the blockage. Be careful not to damage any relationships but do pursue as it is your productivity at stake.

11. Challenge the status quo

Do not immediately accept things as they are as there may be a better, more effective way of completing a task or procedure. When you inherit the role of your boss or peer, if you assume that there are a number of inefficiencies and ineffective aspects to the role, your mind will be open to making the job more productive. Too often we assume that the predecessor knew exactly what they were doing and had ironed out unnecessary tasks and procedures, stream-lining work to ensure productivity was maximized.

When we move on to new pastures, we should endeavor to check that workflow has been left in the best possible order, with the most effective set up.

12. Let things hit your desk once only

Perhaps it would be great if tasks came across your desk one by one with you having sufficient time to complete each before the next arrives. However, that is not realistic. However, it is realistic to deal with very small but essential tasks in the moment. If the job to be done is very small, and it would take twice as long to 'drop it' and 'pick it up' later, then my advice is to proceed with it immediately. This also prevents paperwork building up on your desk, documents being mislaid and confusion arising.

13. Do things right the first time

If you do something wrong, the chances are that you will have to do it again. So my recommendation is to think carefully about what you are doing before you take action. We are not talking about efficiency or effectiveness per se but rather doing the right thing the first time. More speed and less haste.

14. Seek the paperless office

In my book, as a general rule, less paper means greater efficiency. You cannot avoid retaining documents for legal and compliance purposes, but, beyond that, there are not that many good reasons for storing and filing hard copy paperwork. I recommend that you eliminate paperwork and store information electronically where possible. By making sure that your electronic records are stored in a logical and methodical fashion you can have ready and speedy access as the need arises. If you are in doubt about the requirement to retain hard-copy documents, contact the relevant expert within your company who should have the answer.

15. Think laterally

Before you undertake a task, it is worthwhile spending some time working out how it can be completed in the most productive fashion. The most obvious route for resolving an issue or completing a task may not be the most effective or efficient.

Therefore, I recommend that you take time to think laterally in order to establish whether there is a much better way of achieving your objective. Perhaps you can re-purpose a document you had put together previously, one that was constructed for a similar purpose. Perhaps there is an easier and more efficient way of pulling the data you require from the data warehouse, or perhaps there is a smarter and more effective way to put the presentation together.

One thing is for sure. If you have completed the same tasks year in year out, there is probably a better way to re-engineer the workflow to make productivity improvements. That has been my experience!

16. Take breaks

Simply put, when you are tired you are less productive. For that reason, you should make sure that you build appropriate breaks into your daily working life. A break may be defined as taking the time to grab a coffee from the kitchen, or it may be you leaving the office for a few minutes to breathe in some fresh air. Intuitively we all know that when we are tired we perform at a sub-standard level. We do not always have the opportunity to take breaks as and when we feel that they are necessary. However, for most people there is normally scope to ensure that you have sufficient down-time during the day, so that productivity is maximized during up-time.

17. Use a second pair of eyes

Why not ask a team member or peer to review the work you have done to establish whether there is any scope for you to act more effectively or efficiently. A second pair of eyes cast upon the procedures and tasks you carry out every day can be a great investment of time. No-one is perfect, so it is fair to say that a fresh look at your area of work could be to your advantage. If the reviewer is able to stream-line or re-engineer one or more of your daily tasks, productivity will increase. If that person has some special skills (for instance spreadsheet skills) they may be able to make significant enhancements to your speed of work.

18. Liaise with the experts

There are often people in the business that have specialized skills to help you be efficient and effective. For instance, if your computer breaks down then you should probably contact IT rather than resolve yourself. This may sound obvious, but there are also less clear examples of where experts can help. For instance, if you have a human resources issue you should probably seek guidance from the HR/Talent department before taking action yourself to ensure that you do not take inappropriate action. The wrong action may be disruptive, eating into your time schedule, that of your boss and that of HR, reducing the level of productivity all round. When you do not have the expertise, find someone who does and let them guide or resolve for you, so that you can spend more time on the 'day job'.

19. Avoid time stealers

'Time stealers' is a well known phrase. It refers to an uninvited person coming over to talk to you about non-business matters when you are trying to get on with your work and remain productive.

Be firm (not rude) with time stealers and develop some techniques for closing the conversation down so that you can continue with the job at hand.

20. Identify 'incrementalists'

As you embark upon your career, you will no doubt come across those that are less organized and productive than yourself. On occasion, you may be asked to complete a task (say you are producing a sales report about sales persons in the US) only to be asked to run through the same exercise again (you are now running the same report for the UK). You may then be asked to run the report again for another country. By the end of the day, you have run (perhaps) 5 or so reports which could have been generated at the same time had you in fact known the full scope of the request at the outset.

The key is to identify 'incrementalists', those that come back to you time and time again placing similar requests in a drip feed fashion, and make sure that you fully thrash out their requirements from the start. Confirm with them the nature and scope of their request before undertaking it to ensure that you have teased out exactly what they require. This can be a great time saver.

21. Be content with short meetings

How often is it that you have set up a meeting for (say) and hour and you realize part way through that you do not need all the time set aside to discuss the issues at hand? This can happen more frequently with regular catch-ups or check-ins where the agenda may be a little looser and time in the diary fixed weeks or months in advance.

My advice to you is to be ruthless with your time management, and if the meeting looks like finishing early be confident about returning the remaining time back to the meeting participants. They will probably thank you for it.

22. Streamline

Streamlining is about cutting unnecessary steps out of a process. If you can get from 'A' to 'C' without having to pass through 'B' then you have saved yourself some time. Take a look at your tasks and processes and establish whether they are in fact as efficient and effective as possible. If you find that you are spending significant amounts of time on parts of the process that add little or no value, then you have probably identified a prime candidate for streamlining.

23. Check that you're on track

One way to maintain high productivity levels is to track your progress on a regular basis. If you are falling behind in a task, procedure or project you should find ways to speed things up or, if necessary, speak to your boss or the project sponsor about the potential push back of the target date. Regular checking allows you to have ongoing, clear and precise conversations about your ability to meet the various objectives that have been set for you. If you do not have a feel for how you are progressing, then you won't be able to raise issues and discuss them in a timely manner.

24. Be healthy

By eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly you can certainly impact your cognitive powers of awareness and ensure that you remain more alert in the workplace. Indeed, having sufficient uninterrupted sleep is without doubt very important too. Where you can control these factors you should work hard to ensure that they benefit your performance when at work. If you feel that these factors are out of your control, step back and see what you can do about it. Often you have more power than you realize to alter your daily routines in order to benefit from a healthier and fitter existence.

25. Learn to say "no"

If you earn a reputation of being the point person for each and every new task, you may sink very quickly in your role. Clearly you wish to add value, undertake exciting tasks and demonstrate to your boss (and beyond) that you're a key player within the team. However, make sure that you manage your workload effectively and where appropriate make it clear that by taking on additional tasks other work may be delayed. Saying "no" sounds very abrupt. I recommend that you prioritize your tasks and demonstrate that you either have time for the additional work or that it will impact on other important tasks that you are undertaking for your boss. Transparency, honesty and openness are normally the best way forward.

The danger of course of never saying no is that you become overloaded with work. Your boss may not even be aware of the issue and hence may not be able to empathize or work with you to resolve the issue.

26. Make use of a mentor

As well as learning from your boss, peers and team members you may be able to gain valuable knowledge and experience from other senior staff throughout the organization. These senior players have often 'been through it' before and have learnt the skills of the trade to succeed in business. They are also removed from your daily tasks and as such can see 'the wood through the trees', being able to help you with issues and resolve problems using lateral thinking skills. Also, they can stop you from making some of the mistakes they may have made when rising through the ranks.

27. Run meetings effectively

Think hard before the meeting about the specific agenda items and the length of time each topic requires. Ensure that the time set aside for discussion is sufficient. From my experience meetings often overrun and if they do not you still find that there was insufficient time to discuss some of the agenda items. It is your job to ensure that this does not happen. After all, others may have prepared thoroughly about a topic that is very important to them. They will be disappointed and may not see you in a good light. So what are the tips to ensure a meeting runs on time?

  • Be clear about the rules on timing. If a discussion looks as if it will be blown out of all proportion then it is probably best to take it 'off-line' and have the relevant individuals (perhaps a sub-group) look into it further. If you are tight on timings those involved in your meetings become better with their own conciseness.
  • Allow enough time for a topic to be discussed. Do not tag on an extra item at the base of the agenda with a 10 minute slot if it is clearly going to last longer. In fact, spend some time making sure that the time slot available for each agenda item is sufficient and where possible make sure that you get buy-in from those presenting.
 

28. Set deadlines

Without deadlines, you won't be able to judge how you are progressing against the target completion date and, as a result, you will not have a definitive measure of productivity. My recommendation is to set deadlines (even if self-imposed) for all tasks of a reasonable size. That way you will be able to assess how often you manage to achieve your objectives within the time given. If you continually fail to achieve your deadlines, you should decide whether it was due to ineffectiveness or inefficiencies or whether the timeline set was unrealistic in the first place. Naturally, there may have been other unexpected distractions, jobs or tasks pushing you off track.

However, by setting target dates you should be able to push back on unexpected work gifted to you as you have the ammunition you need to demonstrate the impact on deadlines associated with work already set. That allows you to have a full and frank discussion with your boss, which may result in a re-prioritization of tasks or indeed elimination or deferral of some work. Alternatively, the new tasks may pass to someone else with more capacity. Whatever the result, as long as you have been fair and clear in your communications there won't be an impact on your true level of productivity.

29. Do not be a perfectionist

For some roles, there is no doubt in my mind that you have to be 100% correct all of the time. For instance, you do not want to pay someone the wrong amount through payroll. However, for all roles there is a difference between doing the role well and being a perfectionist. For example, if you are delivering some feedback to your boss about the viability of a product in the marketplace he may rather have 95% accuracy after two months of investigation than 97% accuracy after four months of research. The point is, being 100% correct is not always required and may be a false economy.

Perhaps a competitor launched a similar new product at the three month mark and, as a result, stole your thunder. Some boss's like to get their hands on information as soon as possible, and as long as your confidence in the accuracy of the knowledge gained is high, that may be good enough for them.

30. Follow up on requests

Where other people are not organized they may appear to be slack in coming back to you with the information you have requested. For you to remain productive you have to stay on top of your requests, chasing up on others so that you can complete your work on time.

When following up on requests you should be firm, fair and empathetic to the pressures on the other person. You should always agree timelines with them in advance in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding. In fact, if you have not agreed a deadline with them how can you say that they have let you down time wise?

31. Work as a team

A fully functioning and supportive team, with a strong and effective manager, will deliver superior results than a 'team' that does not work together to achieve the overall aims of the department. By fostering a strong team sense of worth, the individuals are more likely to cover each other's work when one is out of the office or help out when another member is overloaded. There is no doubt that productivity is vastly improved in an environment that allows for and promotes support and team spirit. The whole is indeed more than the sum of the parts.

32. Use your gadgets intelligently

There are so many great gadgets around that can assist you in work; smartphones, tablets, laptops and so on. My one word of caution is not to fall into the trap of believing that you are more productive simply because you have access to these gadgets. Gadgets can lead to more regular and often unwanted interruptions to your work. Manage the use of them wisely.

33. Re-allocate tasks to suit the strengths of team members

It is clear that we all have different skills and abilities as well as knowledge and experience. Therefore, when allocating tasks and procedures to team members we should consider this in order to maximize overall productivity.

The counter to this is that we wish to develop the skills and capabilities of all our team members, so a dip in short-term productivity, as a result of crosstraining and staff development, is acceptable, as long as we anticipate longer terms gains.

34. Use Intranet Q & A sites

If you or your department is being asked the same questions on a regular basis consider establishing a question and answer page on your firm's intranet site. Include all the common questions asked along with comprehensive and clearly laid out answers. If your organization doesn't have an intranet, then develop a summary document of questions and answers that you can send out to individuals upon request - one that includes the most frequently asked questions.

35. Develop process/system notes for staff

It is worthwhile investing time developing system notes and procedures for the most commonly performed tasks within your remit. Not only do you have an excellent source of reference, particularly if some of the processes are complex and relatively difficult to follow, but you also have a great training aid for new staff that take on similar roles and responsibilities. The document is part of your legacy and can be used by the individual that takes on your role when you move up the career ladder. This is certainly a productive use of your time.

36. Join external groups and networks

Make use of external groups and networks as these can be a valuable source of information and can also provide guidance on problems that you encounter for the first time. These networks can be internal or external to your company and may be tied to professional bodies or loosely formed associations set up on social and work-related internet sites.

37. Manage information received

Many of us are inundated with the information that flows into our everyday working lives. There are many suppliers (both warranted and unwarranted) that deliver their information in a variety of formats including; hard copy documentation, emails, text, messages, Internet downloads, verbal communications and so on. It is up to us to determine which pieces of information are of value and how to use them for the benefit of the business.

To remain in control of the information flow, you need to be ruthless with its use, switched on about its value and fully understand your role and what drivers inflect your effectiveness and efficiency.

38. Identify your 'focus time'

We all have times of the day when our natural level of concentration is higher. Set out to identify these times so that you can maximize your productivity. Some members of staff will find that they work more effectively in the morning than in the afternoons and vice versa. If you have a complex task to perform or perhaps a difficult report to write then, where possible, undertake these actions at a time when your cognitive powers are at their greatest.

39. Avoid interruptions

On occasion, you may have a particularly difficult task or assignment to deal with that requires very high levels of concentration. Interruptions that take place while undertaking this work could potentially set you back far more time than the interruption itself. For instance, you may be working on a report using a complex line of thought. If that line of thinking is broken, it will take a while to get back into the zone and continue forward. Putting up a no entry sign is not something that should be taken lightly or indeed undertaken regularly, but there may be scope to introduce time into your day that is uninterrupted, improving your level of productivity.

40. Identify duplicate work

If you are a member of a team, it would be worthwhile determining whether there is duplication of any of the tasks or procedures you perform by your team members. In large teams, the risk of two people undertaking the same task is greater. Furthermore, the work you undertake could be duplicated by someone in another team, department or office. For instance, you may work in a satellite office producing reports for local management that are, in fact, a duplicate of or very similar in terms of content to those produced by staff at Head Office. If you have thoughts or concerns about your work being duplicated, then it is worth investigating, as you may be able to eliminate some non-productive time.