Being something of a productivity geek, I thought I’d blog about my top productivity secrets for maximising efficiency and effectiveness in the office. A few years ago, after a shake-up in my business life, I completely overhauled the way I worked with some dramatic effects. At this point, I should credit Asian Efficiency, whose advice I’ve been following for many years and whose expertise has inspired many of the ideas below:
My Top 15 Productivity Secrets
- Wake up early
My number #1 productivity secret! There’s considerable evidence that high achievers start early in the morning – some very early! I work from home most of the time so I’m in the office at 6am. It’s something I started 4 years ago and it took a while to get used to, but I’ve never looked back. I’m generally at my best first thing – motivated, alert and focussed. I tend to tail off in the afternoon and in the evening I’m very unproductive. I strongly suggest having a regular morning routine to ensure you get off to a good start. This may include stretching, exercise, meditation, 30 mins reading, learning or watching a webinar or reviewing your to-do list for the day. Of course , not everyone is alike – some night owls work better late into the evening and even into the small hours. Personally I prefer and recommend early starts.
- Start 12 week planning
We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a week and underestimate what can be done in a year. Neither of these timeframes are particularly helpful for planning. The first is too short and the latter far too long. Too much can change over the course of a year to make 12 month goals effective. And if you don’t believe me, just ask a politician at the moment! Yearly planning encourages procrastination – we’ll leave as much as possible until December and then cram before the year is out. 12 Week planning has been found to be far more effective – a long enough time frame to make meaningful progress, but not too long that the end is out of sight. Quarterly reviews enable you to take stock of changing circumstances and adapt your priorities accordingly. For more on this, I recommend buying and reading The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington.
- Exercise often
Exercise is good for the body and great for the mind. Cardio-thoracic activity produces endorphins – a naturally produced group of hormones that acts as a happy drug! Running in the fresh air also gives me valuable thinking time away from my desk. I’m amazed how many times I’ve mentally solved a problem by the time I’ve completed a 5k run. You don’t have to train for a marathon for these effects – although if you want to, I can personally recommend it, having run this year’s London Marathon. 30 mins exercise three times a week is more than enough. I like to exercise first thing in the morning – it generally guarantees me a far more productive day than if I’d just fallen out of bed into the office! If you don’t want to or can’t run or cycle, a brisk walk is just as good. And if you work in central London, you’re in the perfect location, spoilt by the size and proximity of our Royal Parks.
- Take regular breaks
Your brain can only concentrate for a finite amount of time before you lose focus and your productivity slows down, then grinds to shuddering halt. I use the Pomodoro Technique, which boils down to working exclusively on one task for 50 mins and then taking a 10 min break. After repeating through this pattern 3 times, I’ll take a longer 30 minute break. And then start again. There are Pomodoro timers available as apps which help to make this straightforward, but the simple built-in alarm on your phone will do the trick. If possible, I also like to close my eyes for 20 mins mid-afternoon. My productivity slows after lunch – there is a natural dip in my performance. Taking a power-nap can revitalise me enough to get me through the rest of the day.
- Plan tomorrow the night before
Don’t shut up shop for the night until you’ve planned your priorities and to-do list for the following working day. At a stroke, it will give you a chance to review the day’s progress and make sure that you’re ready to get cracking in the morning – with less chance of distraction or procrastination. And write down your priorities – either on paper or in a task manager on your computer or phone. Planning the night before will prompt your sub-conscious to start preparing for tomorrow’s activity in advance, overnight.
- Clear to Neutral
On a related note, make sure you metaphorically press the reset button before you finish work: clear your desk of any papers and other detritus and set everything up so you are ready to go the following morning, free of any distractions. Similarly, clear your computer’s desktop of any documents – bin them or file them. This is just good housekeeping. Doing this at the end of each day will stop any mess building up – either in your office or on your computer.
- Focus on important not urgent
Prioritise important tasks over urgent ones. When you’re at the coalface, it’s very easy to find yourself swamped by other people’s priorities to the exclusion of your own. Firefighting is important of course – emergencies do happen, but they shouldn’t be the norm. It’s vital that you’re able to distinguish between a task that has to be done this instant and something that can be added to a do list or scheduled to be done later. If you are continually answering your phone or responding to emails or dealing with questions from colleagues, you will never get anything productive done! The bulk of your time should be taken up with important, not urgent tasks – i.e. the priorities you’ve written down the night before.
- Field all telephone calls
Unless it a scheduled phone call, I let all phone calls go through to my voicemail. I will then listen to the voicemail immediately. If it really is urgent, I will call that person straight back. If not, I will add it to my task manager and make all my phone calls in one hit at a specific time of day. This way, I can filter all cold calls or nuisance calls. It also prevents interruptions and allows me to remain focussed on the task in hand.
- Check your email only twice a day
Another invaluable productivity secret: this has transformed my working life beyond recognition. I don’t have my email app running all the time. The danger of having email open all day long is that you will find yourself continually checking it or instinctively reacting to the mail notification sound. Almost without thinking about it you’ll be replying to the email or acting on a request contained in the email, regardless of its importance. You’ll be instantly distracted from and taken away from whatever it is you were supposed to be doing, which is a disastrous way to work. Not everything requires an instant response – in fact very little does, in my opinion. If someone does need to communicate urgently, they will call (see Field all telephone calls above). In my experience, for most situations, as long as you reply to an email within a day, you’ll be fine. I check my email twice a day. At 11am I’ll check and respond to any important emails. And at 4pm, I will check my emails again and process any less important emails. I subscribe to SaneBox which automatically sorts my email into important and later, which is a real time saver – I recommend it. I never, ever check my email first thing in the morning. That leads to immediate distraction and the day will never recover. I also don’t check it outside business hours or – heaven forbid – last thing at night!
- Inbox zero
I apply this approach to all inboxes in my life – email, my task manager (if you use a Mac, I thoroughly recommend OmniFocus) or my paper in-tray. None of these inboxes are for storage Everyday, I will process my inboxes – which means filing, binning, deferring or taking action on each item in the inbox, leaving it empty and pristine. Again for email, SaneBox makes this task very easy. For my task manager, I will assign the task to a project and context. For paper documents, I have a small filing cabinet, a paper bin and a tickler file for any documents that I don’t need immediately, but will need at a later date – for example, an invoice which needs paying, a document which needs reviewing prior to a meeting or tickets to an event. It’s an ingenious system which will ensure the appropriate document will appear on the right day and nothing slips through the net. It’s devised by David Allen who wrote Getting Things Done and I highly recommend it.
- Learn to touch type
About 10 years ago I helped my late grandfather buy his first computer at the grand old age of 83. He’d never used one before, so I was expecting a steep learning curve – starting with showing him how to operate the mouse. Whereas my young children picked up this skill seemingly instinctively, he struggled at first. What I didn’t expect was that he would struggle to use the keyboard – after all it’s just like a typewriter – invented more than half a century before he was born. But of course he’d never used a typewriter either; he retired from his office job in the mid 1980s, and a secretary had always typed up his dictated words. Back then, if you weren’t a secretary, part of a typing pool, or a writer, there was little point learning to type! These days of course, a keyboard is the primary interface for doing just about anything office-related, with one on every desk: logging into your computer, communicating via email, writing a report or building a spreadsheet. If you are a programmer, you’ll be typing all day. And yet so many of us are unable to touch type. We can all get by of course – we’ve been using keyboards long enough to know where all the letters are on a QWERTY keyboard. But how much more efficient could you be if you could type at the speed of thought? There are many typing courses and apps available online – personally I recommend the original and best – Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
- Learn keyboard shortcuts
Following on from that – everyone should learn keyboard shortcuts to functions they use regularly. Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V is so much quicker than using the mouse to select Copy and Paste from a menu. Using Word or Excel – or any application frankly – without using keyboard shortcuts is almost as bad as trying to use them with one arm tied behind your back. Watching someone using the long method is painful! You don’t need to know them all – just the handful that you use most. Copy and Paste should be de rigour. The common excuse is: “I haven’t go to time to learn them!” Well, think how much time you would save if you did!
- Buy multiple, large monitors
Monitors are cheap these days, flat screens take up little space and both Windows and Mac allow you to have multiple monitors connected to one computer. I have as much screen real estate as it’s possible to fit on my desk – and it makes a huge difference to my productivity. I could never go back to using a small single screen.
- Store shared documents in the cloud
If you work remotely, cloud storage is a no-brainer. At Find a London Office, we are not always all in the same office, so having a shared space on Dropbox is vital for productivity. Having (effectively) a single copy of each document on Dropbox is far more efficient than emailing multiple copies of that document. Email is not designed for large attachments in any case. Whether I’m at Find a London Office, working from home, or on the road, I have access to all our shared files – as does every other member of the team. Other cloud storage options are available of course – Google Drive, Microsofts One Drive and Apple iCloud.
- Go paperless
I mentioned earlier that I have a small 2 drawer filing cabinet. As far as possible, however, I try to be paperless. All my sales invoices are sent via email – and most of my purchase invoices arrive via email. They are saved in Dropbox where my bookkeeper can process them on the other side of London. Any which arrive via snail mail are scanned, saved to dropbox with the original shredded. For paperless filing of other ‘paperwork’, I use Evernote – a fantastic note-taking tool – which like Dropbox can be shared with colleagues.
These productivity secrets have helped to transform my approach to work and I hope they provide a starting point for you. Feel free to comment below if you have any other productivity tips you’d like to share.