“Often, no matter how hard I work, I feel like I can’t get it all done. Even when I do my best to be productive, I just don’t make enough headway.” Phoebe dropped us a line from Minneapolis sharing her dilemma—and we immediately empathized with her struggle. Phoebe’s not alone in battling productivity burnout. You probably know exactly what it’s like. Even when you prioritize, make to-do lists, and try to multitask, there are often things left unfinished at the end of each day. So to help Phoebe out, we conducted some research, gathering hacks and tips on making the most of your workday. And then we added one more—because we both need to spend a lot more time focused on it.
1. Minimize simple decisions
What do Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have in common? A secret productivity weapon. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, former President Obama shared, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” It’s a simple idea that can make a world of difference. Cutting out small decisions allows you to utilize brain power to focus on more important decision making throughout the day. Mark Zuckerberg wears simple, uniform work attire for the same reason. Whether you create a standard set of work clothes or meal prep for the week, minimize mundane decisions throughout the day to improve your own productivity. After all, if it works to help keep these two leaders on track, it will work for you, too.
2. Broaden your horizon
Yes, staying focused throughout the workweek is important. But prioritizing non-work related learning can also boost your productivity. The late Steve Jobs shared that learning about a variety of subjects allowed him to innovate and keep Apple on the cutting edge. New subject matter can change how you think and inspire new, unique ideas. Catch up on industry literature, watch a documentary, or even find a new team hobby. Engaging with a variety of subjects will give you a break from tackling projects head-on. Plus, your refreshed creativity will not only help you be more productive, but more innovative too.
3. Don’t overdo it
You know better than to bite off more than you can chew, but raise your hand if you still do it (we’re both raising ours). Next time you don’t want to say no when a teammate asks for help and you already have too much on your plate, remember: overloading is an enemy of productivity. Harvard Business Review has found proof of what we already knew instinctively: if you have too much to do, you may end up feeling so stressed that your productivity takes a nosedive. Learn how to say no—politely, but firmly. Find a constructive way to let others know that you need to focus on current projects. Once time frees up, extend an offer to help if they are still in need. You’ll be more productive with your original tasks and be able to lend a helping hand without feeling overwhelmed.
4. Just take a break
Trudging away without breaks is a terrible way to maintain productivity long-term. In fact, a growing body of research shows that taking small breaks throughout the day benefits productivity. Make time to reset and refocus on the task at hand—and if you can muster it, put down the tech. Stanford neuroscientist Anthony Wagner explains that constant use of technology can actually hinder productivity. In “situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory,” it’s difficult to prioritize information relevant to your current goals. So leave your phone in your office and take a walk, chat with a coworker, step outside for a moment, or find a quiet room and do some deep breathing. Make it a daily ritual, and you’ll see an increase in your 9-to-5 productivity.
5. Prioritize you
Why is employee health and wellbeing such a hot trend right now? Because leaders (and employees) know that you can’t do your best if you let your health slide. The wellness trifecta encompasses more than just physical health, however. Empower your social and emotional health, too. Take more walks. Vent to friends. Snack on healthy foods and drink more water. And share appreciation when someone does great work. When you take care of yourself, your work goes easier, and you’ll find your efficiency increasing with every passing day.
What did Phoebe think of our list? “It’s crazy how much two simple changes—packing my lunch the night before and taking regular breaks—changed my work life,” she wrote us. “I feel so much more productive because I’m not rushing out the door. And at work, my breaks help me wind down and put daily challenges into perspective. It’s been great.”
We hope you see the same results, which reminded us of one last tip that we both need to practice more often. Ready?
6. Heed your own advice
As leaders, it’s easy sometimes to see how other people could become more productive. It’s also easy to toss out advice without ever considering how that advice could improve your own work.