14 Steps to Being Super Productive At Work

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

Being more productive at work will help you feel better about yourself, clear your mind, eliminate stress and it will help you make more money and get promoted faster. If you struggle financially, this exercise will tell you why you are broke and what to do about it. It will help you live longer and have more fun. What’s not to love?

When I became a financial planner I had no choice but to improve my efficiency. There were (and are) a huge demands on my time. I had to learn to use time well if I wanted to be successful and have a life too.

It wasn’t important to me to earn as much money as possible. But what was (and is) very important to me was to use as much of my time as possible doing the things I wanted to do. That means I needed to be as efficient as possible. Over the last 28+ years in business, I’ve learned a few tricks to accomplish that – some I had to learn the hard way over at the school of hard knocks.

At the end of the day, I’m convinced that being as productive as possible is the least-cost way to significantly improve your life. Here are 14steps you can take to accomplish this starting today:

1. Identify Your Obstacles.

In order to fix a problem you must understand it fully. What do you waste time doing? Facebook? Twitter? Computer games? Do you check your e-mail 17 times a day? The very best way to get a read on this is to log your daily activities. You can do this in one of two ways. First, you can simply write down everything you do and how long it takes you to do.

Another way to do this is to install software on your computer that follows all your browsing. This is cool because it’s air-tight and there is no fooling yourself. A great tool to use is RescueTime plugin for Chrome. What’s cool about this plugin is that it actually tells you how productive you are compared to the hundreds of thousands of other users. It also tells you where you are wasting time. Nice!

If you don’t use a tool like RescueTime, create a log. Write down where you went, why you went there (really) and what the result was. Your log might look something like this:

8:00 Am to 8:30 – email – wanted to see if anyone was thinking about me
8:30 am to 9:00 – Facebook – wanted to see if Jim responded to my question and then got sucked in to responding to other comments/questions.

Of course your whole day won’t look like this (I hope). But you have to ask yourself if you spent your time for bona fide business reasons. Was your ego involved? Were you looking for some ego booster? Be brutally honest with yourself.

Are you checking your email because you absolutely have to know the instant somebody wants to tell you a joke or has a question? Is it really about that? Or do you need distractions from the stuff you really don’t want to do? Do you feel alone and need some attention? Write it all down next to your log.

2. Be transparent

Take your list to your accountability partner. That’s right. If you are really serious about being more productive at work, share your goals with another human being and then show her how you’ve been spending your time. There is absolutely no better way to get motivated than by sharing your goals with another human being. Set up a weekly or monthly meeting to share this log and get her input.

3. Identify Resources

Once you have done reconnaissance, look for the patterns. Even though you think you know how you’ve been wasting time, you may be surprised and may learn something. Are you interrupted often? How? Do you initiate these interruptions by frequently wondering around physically or online-ishly? (New word brought to you by yours truly!)

The patterns you identify at this point are tremendous resources. Every problem you identify is a resource. If you can’t see problems, you can’t change your behavior and it will be nearly impossible to improve productivity. Look for problems as you would pan for gold because that is what these problems are.

These first 3 steps are the preliminary tasks to set up your productivity foundation. Now let’s get into the day-to-day:

4. Telephone

Just because the phone rings doesn’t mean you have to answer it. When you are in the middle of a project you need to focus. They invented voice mail for a reason. It’s your friend. Use it.

Try to use a phone with caller ID. This is a must. Let those calls that can go to voicemail, go to voicemail. And never take a call from a vendor.

Make all return calls at designated times so you can give your full attention to the person on the other end of the receiver. She’s busy too. Respect her time please.

5. Email

Email can help you become incredibly efficient but it can also be your number one time killer. You simply must check email at designated times – not throughout the day. I strongly encourage you to check it after 10 am and then again at 2 pm. It’s important to keep your inbox empty.

This is the most effective way to improve your productivity at work. When you read an email, deal with it. Create folders for those emails that you need to deal with later on. Delete emails you deal with or you don’t need anymore. No more emails in your inbox. When it comes to email, I have to talk about your cell phone.

Personally, I suggest that you get rid of your smart phone like I did. The smart phone is a slave-driver if you ask me. With it, you will be constantly under the barrage of email and tempted by silly distractions like Facebook and Twitter to say nothing of “Angry Birds”. These are time wasters. If you insist on having a smart phone, disable your email or work doubly hard to only check it twice a day. I know that if you do this you may feel like someone took out your left kidney at first but believe me you’ll survive.

I got rid of my Android because I was constantly checking the email needlessly. Just by getting rid of the phone I feel like I have an extra 2 hours in my day. I love it.

6. Social Media

Just like email, don’t check Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn etc. first thing. Instead you can use blockers like Leechblock (Firefox) or StayFocusd (Chrome) to block these social media sites during specific hours.

You will notice a lot of extra time being freed up during the day if you schedule your time on social media sites and only visit those sites during those allotted periods.

7. Personal Space

Get rid of anything on your desk that you don’t need to use over the next week. Get it out of your sight. That includes supplies, equipment, post its, documents on your desktop, books – everything. Make your personal space wonderful and beautiful by making it pristine. You must be able to see 90% of your desk surface. If not, keep trying and/or ask your accountability partner for some help.

8. Briefcase and/or Purse

When you get home tonight, sit down on your kitchen floor and empty the entire contents on your briefcase or purse on the floor. Everything out. Only put those things back in that you are absolutely going to use within the next 72 hours. If you won’t use it within that time, it doesn’t get to travel with you. No free ride for anything.

The problem with too much stuff is that it takes up space and time. It makes it harder to clear your mind and it makes it more difficult to locate the things that are really important. Clutter is really camouflage. Unless you are packing heat and looking for bad guys, you don’t need camouflage so get rid of it. Clear the clutter now.

9. Meetings

I only meet with people if I have a written agenda and I never have meetings without taking notes. Recently, I started taking notes using my laptop. This way, I can easily transfer the notes to the appropriate file on my computer. This last step has saved me a boat load of time.

10. Documents

Don’t rely on your memory for anything. Create an easy-to-find document filing system and make sure the title to each document has lots of words that will help you find it later on.

How much time have you wasted looking for a document that was filed in a place that you couldn’t find? Spend an hour right now thinking about how to organize your documents and start implementing that system.

11. Problems

From today on, look at every time waster as a huge opportunity. If you waste 5 minutes today on something, chances are high that you’ll waste 5 minutes on the same problem 3 or 4 times this week. Minutes turn in to hours. So if you can find a solution for that 5 minute time waster now, you’re going to improve the efficiency of your work and that improvement will pay dividends for years to come.

Actively look for problems that require a solution. They make you money when you solve them for yourself and for others.

12. Learn to Say “No”

Everyone has their own needs and sensitivities. Other people don’t understand your routines or pressures. People will ask things of you without understanding where you are coming from or the pressure you are under. That doesn’t mean they are bad people. But it also doesn’t mean you have to say yes. There are many examples where saying “no” is obvious but there are a number of instances less obvious where saying “no” is just as important.

For example, if someone asks you to relay a message to someone else, politely refuse. That’s because once you enter into the cycle of an issue you’ll get drawn further and further into the event and waste more and more time for everyone.

When clients tell me something that someone else at my firm really handles, I put them on hold and connect them with the appropriate staff person. This saves me time but more important, it insures that my clients’ needs are going to be taken care of fully.

It just makes no sense to needlessly get involved. If two people need to work something out, why introduce yourself in the mix?

13. Rewards

When you accomplish what you’ve set out to do, you must celebrate it and reward yourself. This will give you something to look forward to and an extra (tangible) benefit to doing what was right and staying on task.

One reason we waste time is because we want to get distracted sometimes. Who wants to do something difficult outside their comfort zone? Difficult work is unpleasant and painful. Who needs it? That’s why checking email and surfing the net looks really good at times. This is just part of the human condition and one you must consciously work against.

Give yourself a reward in exchange for sticking to your plan. This will help you attach pleasure to something that otherwise seems distasteful. And this will give you that much more motivation.

14. Lists

Make yourself a list of 3 to 5 things you need to get done today. If they are simple quick things, list 5. If they are more involved, whittle it down to 3. Rank them in priority and / or most difficult. Then, do the most difficult task first. The rest of your day will seem like a breeze.

These 14 steps, when I use them, help tremendously. Do I do it perfectly? Absolutely not. But at least I have a track to run on. When I have an unproductive day I sit down for a few minutes to determine what went wrong. Sometimes, things happen that are out of my control. But can I do something today to make sure that problem doesn’t reoccur tomorrow? I look for something I could have done differently to have a better outcome. Then I implement that change. Often, it boils down to creating a list and completing my 3 to 5 tasks. If I start the day with my list, I usually don’t get too far off track.

Being more productive at work isn’t about working faster. It’s more about working slower and more focused. And it’s about not doing the right things rather than doing the wrong things.

Get rid of the distractions. It’s far easier than you think. And the rewards are astounding.

What did you do to become more productive at work? Why did you do it? How has it changed your life?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Glen Craig July 25, 2012 at 8:03 AM

I’m going to have to look into the RescueTime extension. Thanks for pointing it out.

One thing I’ve started to do is if I find I’m not being productive at all then I leave the computer to go do something else. Sometimes you just can’t be in front of the screen too long and stay productive. This way you come back fresh.

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Neal Frankle July 25, 2012 at 8:15 AM

Glenn – and excellent and easy to implement idea. Thanks.

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