Other stories by Amna Shamim

Procrastination is easy. Spending far too many hours on a project is easy. What’s hard is getting things done in a reasonable amount of time with a high level of quality. Productivity is most likely something you and your team struggle with every day, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can learn from the masters, people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, and get things done. All you have to do is make a few small adjustments to the way you work.

Start with your why

Simon Sinek has written a whole book and given an incredibly popular TED talk about the importance of knowing your why. Your why will do everything from helping you find your ideal customers to inspiring you on those dreary days when you just want to quit. Elon Musk isn’t building Teslas because they’re fun (although that probably doesn’t hurt) but because he wants to have an impact on car emissions and global warming. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to connect people. JK Rowling wanted to amuse her daughter.

Effective and efficient people know what their goal is and focus on it. In doing so they’re able to eliminate distractions and devote their time and energy to what really matters, what will propel the project forward. This clear focus allows them to reach their goals faster and more directly but they aren’t foolish enough to do it without help.

how to be more productive at work tips

Develop Systems

Don’t start from scratch each time you complete a task and don’t ask anyone you work with to either. Make everything you do more efficient and effortless by implementing systems for everything. There is no task too small to be systematized, whether it’s how to respond to customer emails or how to organize tasks in Trello. Even the processes for creative work can be systematized, although the creative work itself shouldn’t be.

The momentum required to start a new task from the beginning is hard because it involves a lot of decisions. By systematizing as much as possible, you take away the friction and resistance you’ll naturally feel. Instead of starting a project from the beginning, you’ll be able to jump in at step 2 or 3 and begin with momentum.

Don’t Multitask

There is no such thing as true multitasking. What you’re actually doing is forcing your brain to switch repeatedly between tasks and denying yourself the time to focus entirely on what you’re trying to accomplish. Science has been telling us this for years.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Instead of multitasking and doing two things badly in twice the time, focus on one task at a time.” quote=”Instead of multitasking and doing two things badly in twice the time, focus on one task at a time.” theme=”style6″] Get it done well. Move on to the next one.

Ask For Help When You Need It

You know what’s not efficient or productive? Staring at the same problem for hours or days without making any progress when someone in your company or your life could easily help you make it past this roadblock. Maybe you’re too deep in the issue or maybe you just don’t have the information/experience to see what would be clear to others. The best solution in this case is to simply ask for help.

No one expects you to have all the answers, not even if you’re the boss, and people love knowing their experience and expertise is valuable. So ask and be prepared to be asked for help in return. This sort of symbiotic relationship is why the company isn’t just you.

Use Your Goals to Make Decisions Easy

You make hundreds of decisions every day. Some of them barely matter (what you eat for breakfast, what color socks you chose to wear today) and some can impact dozens of other people (whether to take on that lucrative but difficult client, whether to go after more funding now or in a year.) The easiest way to make the decisions that matter is by asking yourself “Does this get me closer to my goal?” If your answer is yes, do it. If not, move on.

Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, is well known for using this decision-making process as part of his goal to make Southwest a well-known and well-loved low cost carrier. Don’t waste time debating the pros and cons of every decision. With this one simple framework, you can make good decisions quickly and easily.

When you have an unambiguous goal, it’s easier to see the route to get there. With systems in place, anyone on your team and carry the baton on your journey and they’ll be happy to pitch in and help because you’ll be able to clearly explain the destination. You’ll make decisions easily and be able to focus on what needs to get done, one task at a time. Effective and productive leaders implement these strategies and there’s no reason you can’t as well.

Focus and the resulting productivity are the holy grails of everyone’s workday. Being focused is something we all strive towards and there is no doubt of the benefits one gains when they’re able to focus. You get more done, faster and with less mental effort. Being able to focus for extended periods of time can save you a lot of time and mental energy. After all, any distraction, whether it’s Facebook, an incoming mail or thoughts of what you’re having for dinner, are minutes or hours of lost productivity. Even if it’s just a few minutes here and there, that time adds up. And the time cost doesn’t include the mental energy required to come back to the task, figure out where you were, and get back into flow. Do that a few times and your brain will have wasted quite a bit of energy it could have spent on the task at hand.

So focus is great. Focus is the golden cup we should all be reaching for, right? Well, yes and no. It turns out too much focus is also a bad thing.Your brain, like the rest of you, needs a break from hard work.

An exhausted brain not focusing, but instead paying attention on a number of different activities. Such as social media, email and other things that takes attention away. Focus is the golden cup we should all be reaching for, right?

Excessive focus can exhaust the focus circuits of your brain.Your exhausted brain will naturally have less energy and less self-control. This lack of self-control can make you more impulsive and less helpful. In your work environment that means you’re not making well-thought out decisions and are less likely to collaborate with your colleagues. Just the reputation you want, right?

So what do you do? Do you sacrifice your hard-won ability to focus? Or do you focus anyway and just hope you don’t exhaust your brain by doing so?

For optimal brain function, what you need to do is switch between focused and unfocused periods. Alternating will allow you to become more resilient, more creative, and to make better decisions.
[clickToTweet tweet=”For optimal brain function, you need to switch between focused and unfocused periods.” quote=”For optimal brain function, you need to switch between focused and unfocused periods.” theme=”style6″]

When you’re intentionally unfocused (come back from Instagram now please), what you’re doing is activating the brain circuit known as “default mode network”, abbreviated as DMN. When you’re at rest, this circuit uses up 20% of the body’s energy (which is impressive since your brain is only 2% of your body weight.) Why so much energy? Because while you’re resting, the DMN isn’t.

The DMN is hard at work under the brain’s conscious radar activating old memories, hopping through the past, present and future and combining different ideas. Using this new or previously uncombined information, you’re able to imagine creative solutions, tune into other people’s thinking and predict the future, which leads to better decision making. Think of all the times a possible solution just “came to you” after puzzling over the problem for hours and then walking away. That was thanks to the efforts of the DMN.

There are several ways to build productive unfocused time for your DMN to be activated into your daily life.

Take a nap

Don’t do this at work unless you’re a freelancer working from home or you have an incredibly understanding boss. When your brain is tired, your creativity and clarity are negatively impacted. To be more creative, go for a full 90 minute nap. If you’re just looking for a little clarity, a 10 minute power nap is your best bet.

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

That’s right. Pretend to be someone else and see how they would approach the problem or task you’re facing. Someone like JK Rowling would approach a problem very differently than someone like Marie Curie would. Try on various hats and see if thinking like someone wildly creative will bring you different solutions than being your normal self.

Carve out some time for Positive Constructive Daydreaming (PCD)

PCD is not accidental daydreaming nor the guilt-ridden and stressful rehashing of worries. It’s the relaxed mind-wanderings you have while engaging in a low-key activity like knitting or coloring or gardening. The very reason these activities, especially knitting and coloring, have grown in popularity over the last few years is because they are a gateway to PCD.

PCD is when you spend time engaging internally- exploring who you are through what you enjoy, casually connecting ideas and digging deep into your forgotten memories to establish your sense of identity. After some time engaged in PCD, your sense of self is stronger and your mind feels relaxed and refreshed.

Constructive unfocused time is just as important as your focused work, and will actually improve the quality of work you do when you’re focusing. So get your work done but also be sure to take a break and let your brain play on a regular basis. Your team will thank you.

Every company has at least one difficult person (and if you can’t figure out who it is, check in and make sure it isn’t you.) When it’s your colleague or employee who is toxic, but brilliant at their job, you have to figure out how to work with them. You’re still going to have those days where you feel like they’re trying to suck all the joy out of your life but if you manage your interactions with them with them carefully, they won’t succeed. This is what you need to do in order to keep the work progressing and your sanity intact.

Set Limits

Toxic people are exhausting and if you let them, they’ll be at your desk every day about something. It’s up to you to establish and maintain those boundaries for your interactions. Just because you work on a team with or manage a toxic person doesn’t mean you have to be close and friendly with them. Sit down and define for yourself what you need your boundaries to be and then be diligent about enforcing them in a professional manner.

Stay Aware of Your Emotions

Your difficult colleague most likely enjoys pushing your buttons but you may not be aware that’s what’s happening if you’re not monitoring your emotions. Sometimes you’ll need to be able to take some time and regroup to be able to figure out how to move forward. Again, being aware of your emotions will allow you to recognize when these times come and you shouldn’t feel bad about needing to step back and assess.

Don’t Get Infected

Negativity is easy to spread because we all have our own insecurities and doubts. Spending too much time around a negative person can lead to those insecurities coming to the surface and to a more negative mindset in general. Don’t let this happen to you. Acknowledge their negativity and toxic outlook and focus on staying positive.

If you’ve been spending too much time around them and your self-talk has become negative, don’t let it bring you down. Be aware this is happening and work on changing your internal dialogue and, if possible, setting stricter limits on your interactions with them.

Stay Solutions Focused

If you keep your eyes on the muddy ground, you’ll never see the sky and where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. Being wrapped up in a problem you’re facing will only result in stress and negative emotions. In turning your attention to solutions, you will instead feel motivated and powerful and less stressed, all of which are positive emotions.

Difficult people will try to draw you into their personal drama and stress you out. They will be focused on their problems but don’t try to step in and fix the problem for them, which will only result in more stress for you. Instead spend your energy on figuring out how you can manage them. By keeping your eye on the task of how to manage them and their negativity, you’ll stay in control and be able to walk away unscathed.

Don’t Forget

Like small children, toxic people will try to manipulate you and require constant management. An emotionally aware and intelligent person can forgive their transgressions and move on but it doesn’t mean they forget. Don’t be bogged down by their mistakes and manipulations but also don’t forget them to the extent that a toxic person is able to manipulate you in the same way again.

Walk Away

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to literally walk away. When your difficult colleague is stressing you out, create the space for you to calm down and come back to the issue with a clear head. You’re likely missing something important because your emotions are clouding your good judgement.

Walking away might not always be possible but whenever it is, take advantage of it and tell them you’re going to think about it and come back to them. Take the time away to process and let go of the stress they’re causing and focus on what really matters – the work.

Sleep It Off

One of the best things you can do for your stress level is to sleep enough. Most people need 7 or 8 hours each and every night so carve out that time. Not only will enough sleep give you the emotional resilience to deal with your toxic colleague and daily stressors, but it’ll enable you to work better and faster. Your focus, attention and memory are all tied to your quantity and quality of sleep, as are your creativity, positivity and ability to handle stress. Keep your baseline stress levels lower with enough sleep and you’ll be better able to handle all the additional stress work and life will pile on.

In an ideal work environment, you wouldn’t have difficult colleagues to deal with but unfortunately, your company probably isn’t perfect. You can minimize your workplace headache by learning how to intelligently manage your difficult colleagues and keeping your stress levels low and your work focus high.