Increase productivity by working smarter, not harder.
Here’s the truth of the matter: You’re productive for only about three hours a day, or 40% of your workweek.
Most workers are busy all day long, so what’s taking up all of our time while also tanking our productivity?
The main culprits are email and meetings (reading and responding to emails alone takes up around 30% of your workweek), but there’s also catching up with coworkers on non-work related things, checking social media, and grabbing snacks and coffee in the break room.
Of course, we’re not recommending forgoing your Monday morning catch-ups with your work BFF or declining to participate in your team’s coffee outings—these are important aspects of building social capital which is essential for high-performing teams.
However, there are specific actions you can take to increase your productivity and reclaim some of the 60% of your workweek typically lost to “busyness.”
In this article, we’ll highlight four ways you can use project management (PM) tools to be more productive.
4 ways to improve work performance
1. Timebox your work (in 90-minute sessions)
Timeboxing consistently tops lists of productivity tips (with good reason), and yet few of us are taught to work this way. This technique involves assigning a fixed period of time to a task, scheduling it, and then focusing on nothing else during that time (more on that in tip three). This means no multitasking!
This method helps you effectively plan out your work across an eight-hour workday, something a to-do list doesn’t accomplish. Timeboxing provides a visual breakdown of what you can reasonably accomplish during a workweek, which helps prioritize tasks to meet deadlines while also serving as a record of what you’ve been working on.
You can use your digital work calendar to organize your day by blocking off time to work on specific tasks.
Time boxing example from SPICA (Source)
Or, if you work better by writing down your tasks, you can download our time boxing template.
Whether you choose to timebox on a digital calendar or our template, plan work in 90-minute sessions, then schedule a short break after. Pushing yourself to work on a task longer than 90 minutes (the duration when productivity is at its peak) negatively impacts your ultradian rhythm and actually hinders performance. When it comes to productivity levels, slow and steady really does win the race!
2. Limit work in progress
According to research by the American Institute of Stress, more than 80% of employees feel stressed at work and cite excessive workloads as a top factor. Work overload means the amount of time needed to complete daily assignments exceeds the available hours in a day. This can lead to unhealthy work life balance, burnout, and low employee morale.
What causes overload? Typically, it’s a combination of factors such as the number of open work items, the variability of work items, and high resource utilization. The wait time for tasks in a queue increases relative to these three things.
But what is high resource utilization? It refers to the amount of work employees are given to complete. The trick is finding the right balance to sustain productivity: Expect too high a rate of utilization and risk your workers getting burned out. Expect too low a rate of utilization and underuse your team of employees (plus they might get bored).
The sweet spot for improving productivity is between 70% and 80% utilization, according to Gartner analyst Robert Handler. This means that to optimize productivity, employers should encourage employees to hit realistic goals and work 70% to 80% of their maximum output. Wait times begin to exponentially increase once this exceeds 80%.
Working at 70% of their maximum output, a task estimated to take two hours to complete will wait in the queue for 0.9 hours and take a total of 2.9 hours to complete (wait time + estimated time to complete). At 80%, it’ll wait in the queue for 1.5 hours and take a total of 3.5 hours to complete. But at 99% utilization? That same two-hour task will wait in the queue for 37.1 hours, taking a total of 39.1 hours to complete.
When it comes to workplace productivity that is sustainable over time, sometimes less is more. By being mindful of your employees’ workload, you’ll not only see higher productivity levels, but also increased employee morale and engagement.
3. Turn off notifications
Did you know that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption?
Some workplace interruptions are outside your control, such as when someone stops for a quick chat at your desk (sometimes about a work-related task, but more often about last night’s episode of “Whatever We’re All Watching Now”). But the majority of interruptions we face during the workday are self-imposed: notifications from email, social media, our phones, and automated tools we use.
Each time you stop what you’re doing to read one of those notifications, your productivity takes a massive hit (the time spent responding to the notification + 23 minutes to get back on task).
By turning off your notifications (or at least snoozing them), you eliminate the distraction and can re-invest some of that time back into your tasks.
4. Display work visually
A Planview study found that workers are 20% more productive when the information they need is visually displayed.
Data visualization helps you absorb information at a glance and can convey more meaning than words alone (e.g., using yellow to report areas of concern on a project status report to alert stakeholders that items need attention). Data visualization is commonly used for reporting but is not used enough for day-to-day workflow management.
We found a ton of interesting research on productivity tips when writing this article, not all of which was centered on using software to boost efficiency. Here are a few lifestyle tips to incorporate into your day-to-day while you strive to put your most productive foot forward:
- Take walks. Not only does exercise offer a 15% boost in overall productivity, but there’s substantial evidence that walking can help you de-stress and combat depression. In doing so, it can boost learning, memory, and cognition.
- Get enough sleep. Employee sleep deprivation costs employers up to $65 billion annually. You suffer a 40% deficit in your ability to make new memories without sleep, as well as a 70% drop in immune cell activity. The kicker? Sleep deficits are directly linked to early cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.