We’ve all hit the productivity wall at some point in our professional lives. The most successful people are able to scale that wall, or slam on the brakes before they crash into it.
In this modern, connected world, there are more demands on our time than ever before. With our attention being pulled in every direction, staying focused and maintaining productivity can be a significant challenge.
We can get so caught up in trying to cross everything off extensive to-do lists that we end up bouncing from task to task without actually getting anything done.
Many well-known business people have offered their own productivity tips over the years. Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post co-founder and former editor-in-chief, famously espoused the virtues of sleep, breakfast and ignoring your phone. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his day at 3.45am (though we wouldn’t recommend that one).
We looked a little closer to home to source our tips. As part of our A Day in the Life series, we ask senior-level STEM workers what they do to stay productive. Here are some of their best answers:
Productivity tools such as Doodle, Noisli and OneNote are my go-to applications for increasing my productivity within the office and at home. Doodle helps to arrange collectively suitable meeting times through polling, Noisli helps me to focus on a specific task and drone out background noise in the office, while OneNote is a handy Microsoft product that I use for tracking my to-do list or notes from meetings.
Collaboration tools and spaces within the office are also a great resource when problem solving. As the old adage goes, ‘Two heads are better than one’. Sometimes walking through the issue on a whiteboard with someone else can help to see another solution.
Rather than focusing on a working day, I like to focus on productivity over a working week. I always start my week by saying, ‘What are the three big things I need to get done this week?’. It helps in preventing me from getting distracted by other tasks that may be of less importance.
Block-book your time and turn off your email. It’s okay to take the time you need to complete the tasks you need to. Being responsive and available, especially when you’re a team leader, is crucial but you also need time to get your tasks completed as well. So find the time to be a little selfish and you’ll find you need half the time in the end.
Years ago, I was doing field work at an IBM site in Germany. The person I was interviewing in the context of a project showed me his online calendar. It was absolutely packed! He confessed he blocked time for reading, preparing presentations and other activities months in advance, otherwise his colleagues would schedule meetings in any available slot.
I am trying to do the same here at University of Limerick: to prioritise time for research, to schedule my meetings with students I supervise back-to-back and to allocate time for reading. Otherwise it doesn’t happen, and I arrive home at 6pm with a long to-do list for the rest of the day.
Getting a good start. I work from home, I take my time on breakfast – probably too long – but I get a good bit of the mindless news catch-up and web trawling out of the way to lessen distraction throughout the day. Apart from that, a good continuous music playlist that I don’t have the urge to keep flicking through.
Time management is key. We usually have tasks that need to be done in parallel. Efficiently dividing your day into different kinds of tasks is crucial. That way, you don’t keep looking at the same thing for the entire day, but move forward on all the different tasks at hand.
Make notes and lists. If the answer to a question will take you less than two minutes to give, you are better to respond right away. If it takes any longer, tell the person you will come back to them and put it on your to-do list.
To-do lists, to-do lists and more to-do lists. My desk is covered in brightly coloured Post-its. Writing out exactly what needs to be done immediately makes you feel more in control and allows you to easily prioritise. Without them, I always have this vague nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something terribly important.
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