In the tech world, innovation is practically a job requirement. If you don’t have several side projects going on, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough, even when you’re working overtime.
But how do you manage your ever-growing workload without getting completely overwhelmed by the number of things you have to get done?
To help you out, I talked to a handful of go-getters in the tech community about how they stay on top of their work. Below are eight hacks for IT productivity from pros in the field.
1. Know exactly what you should be doing—and when
Almost every one of our experts said the first step to increasing productivity is writing your tasks down. That way, everything is laid out in front of you. And once you’ve completed a task, you can move right along to the next one.
Getting things out of your head and onto paper (or into your favorite task management system) leaves you with more brain space for truly important things. Instead of trying to remember what your next step in developing your latest app is, for example, you can write that step down and think of all the ways you’re going to make your app amazing.
What the experts say
Lucas Lambertini, CEO and founder of StarOfService, which helps you find professionals for freelance projects in your area, advises: “Don’t try to memorize every little detail or appointment. Free your brain of reminders, ideas, tasks, and meetings so you can focus on what is important.”
Lambertini’s tools of choice for documenting these details are Evernote and Google Calendar.
But, it’s not always enough to write everything down, especially when you’re juggling multiple projects at once. You need to know what’s most important, and what can wait until later.
You can do this every day, just like Gene Caballero, the co-founder of GreenPal, the “Uber for lawn care” app:
“I make a handwritten list when I get into the office of the top five most important things I have to get done today. Handwriting these tasks allows me to scratch them off and gives me a sense of accomplishment when they have been completed.”
Or you can take a big-picture approach, starting with all your projects at large and breaking them into smaller and smaller pieces. Terry Kim, the founder and CEO of NexGenT, which provides training to cover the skills gaps in the IT industry, offers advice for this method of prioritization: “I use a Trello board to map out my priorities at a high level to understand what my quarterly goals are. I basically plan out my year; [I] break it down into quarters and then into months.”
QUICK TAKEAWAY: Starting big and ending small helps you work backwards from the final product you’re envisioning to the first steps you need to take to get started on achieving your ultimate goals.
Whichever method you choose, start by getting everything out of your head so you can focus on doing good work.
2. Don’t overestimate your abilities
When you’re looking over what you want to accomplish over a given day, month, or year, it’s important to keep your expectations in check.
If you set the bar too high for yourself, you’ll easily become discouraged when you don’t achieve the goals you’ve set.
What the experts say
To avoid the negative feedback loop that inevitably results from such self-discouragement, follow the method used by CEO and owner of IT service provider, Triton Technologies, Trave Harmon’s for scheduling his techs:
“We always overestimate the time needed to complete a task. History and experience has shown us that normally if something takes an hour, we allocated an hour and a half or two full hours to do it.”
While Harmon uses this method to make sure his team has enough time on site to fix IT issues correctly, you can apply the same method to your schedule.
People are historically very bad at estimating how much time it will take them to do things. And although you might be a tech hotshot, you are not exempt from this planning fallacy.
If you think it’s going to take you an hour to finish a task, give yourself an hour and twenty minutes to get it done, instead. That way, you have a buffer built in for interruptions, mistakes, or anything else that might go wrong.
This method can actually create a positive feedback loop if you defy the odds and get everything on your to-do list done ahead of schedule.
QUICK TAKEAWAY: When you’re evaluating your daily to-dos, don’t allow them to become overwhelming. Always block out a little more time than you think it will actually take to finish something.
3. Know the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing
You have your prioritized to-do list. You’ve blocked off time in your schedule (with some cushion) to get everything done. Once you get to work, you’ll crank out every task, right? Wrong.
Take it from a master procrastinator: Just because you know that you should be doing something doesn’t mean you’ll do it.
Let’s face it, you’re not looking forward to every task on your list. And if you’re not looking forward to something, you’ll avoid it at all costs. In fact, a lack of motivation is one of the most commonly cited reasons for procrastination.
What the experts say
Alexandra Isenegger, founder and CEO of Linkilaw, recommends using positive visualization to get you through the rough patches on your list. Instead of thinking about how you feel now—bored, sleepy, hungry—think about how you’ll feel when you’re done with whatever you’re working on: “Big projects can be daunting. So if you imagine your success and finishing a task, you will be less likely to procrastinate,” Isenegger says.
Terry Kim incorporates personal motivations directly into the Trello board he uses to map out his tasks and goals. When he feels stuck or demotivated, he does the following:
“I have a ‘Why’ column that stands for something like, ‘If you accomplish this goal, you can do X,’ like treat yourself to a vacation or have dinner with a loved one. It could even be a reason like, ‘I’m doing this because I’m helping others,’ or something like that. The ‘why’ is important because it motivates you and makes you think of something beyond the task at hand.”
This “finding the ‘why'” method is so effective for Kim that he even uses it at home, offline, recreating his goals from Trello on a cork board so he can always keep track of his goals.
Keeping track of why you’re doing something in the first place is a great way to get yourself through an especially difficult or unpleasant phase of a project.
If you find yourself struggling to find a positive in your task or the “why” behind your goals, Isenegger recommends gamifying your to-do list: ” Divide your project into small tasks and take them one at a time. Every task finished is a new ‘level’ in your game.”
There are even apps out there that can help you gamify your goals.
QUICK TAKEAWAY: Whatever method of motivation works for you, try to find a compelling reason or reward for completing the things you have to get done, especially when those things are unpleasant.
4. Pick one task and actively avoid distractions
Now that you’re in a positive head space, you’re definitely good to go, right?
As many a college student—and many a real adult—can tell you, the advice to simply avoid procrastinating is utterly useless.
This is partially because of the reason we discussed before: lack of motivation. But another reason for procrastination, especially in the age of the internet, is that there are so many things you could be doing instead of working.
There are so many cool things you could be looking up on your phone! There are so many funny co-workers you could be socializing with! There are so many other fun tasks you could be doing!
The first step to help get you past the temptation of distractions is consciously picking one task—and only one—to work on.
What the experts say
As Harmon tells his teams, “Unless it is an absolute infrastructure-downing emergency, the project you’re on, or the task you’re on, must be completed first.”
It’s OK to say “no” to people or projects that fall outside of that task or who take up too much of your time. In fact, you can say “no” to interruptions from your teammates and co-workers before they even happen by designating distraction-free time.
Lambertini suggests this productivity hack:
“When you plan your day or month, block out certain hours for certain tasks in a ‘focus mode.’ When you are working on those tasks, explain the concept to everyone, and then just put everything else aside. Turn off all distractions and really focus on what you are doing.”
I’ll take this one step further than Lambertini: Suggest that everyone on your team block out a “focus mode,” preferably at similar times. When everyone’s supposed to be focusing, there will be fewer people to distract you. And seeing everyone around you put their heads down and crank out urgent tasks can be motivating.
In order to truly focus, you must identify your particular distractions and remove them.
In the digital age, a good place to start is by turning off your phone, email notifications, and any other electronic device that might take you away from your work.
But distractions can come from anywhere, and everyone’s distractions are different. Don’t just stop at technology. Identify your biggest personal distractions and confront them directly.
To do this, Isenegger says that whenever you feel a block in your productivity, you should:
“Take a break and make a note (in your head or on paper) of what is stopping you from finishing. Are you tired, bored, hungry, unhappy? Is someone blocking your progress? Once you’ve deciphered what the problem is, take the time and the appropriate steps to solve it and get back to work once you’re ready.”
Writing your distractions down when they occur can help you realize which ones pop up the most and which are the biggest drains on your productivity.
Next, develop a plan to overcome them, as Caballero describes:
“I have a meal service company deliver my food to the office. Every Monday, they deliver my food for the week so I can make sure that lunch is not a distraction, and it’s never skipped due to work. This helps me stay on track to get everything accomplished for the day.”
The important thing to note here is that Caballero knew his distraction was thinking about lunch. But he didn’t make the unhealthy choice of avoiding lunch entirely in order to stay on track. He found a solution that included both of his necessities: lunch and work.
If lunch is your distraction, but you can’t go the meal service route like Caballero, try setting aside time to make your lunches on the weekend before coming into work.
QUICK TAKEAWAY: The point is, everyone has something that throws them off track. Maybe you need to block Facebook. Maybe you have a particularly chatty co-worker. Or maybe you’re too excited about all the restaurant options around your office.
Whatever your distraction is, acknowledge it, then come up with a plan for overcoming it.
5. Remember to schedule breaks into your day
While many of our experts advocate buckling down and focusing completely for a certain amount of time, they also stress the importance of stepping away from your desk and your to-do list periodically.
What the experts say
To give yourself some variety but continue to be productive, you can vary the projects you work on throughout the day. “To prevent burnout with our technicians, we give them as much time as they need for breaks from a big project and rotate them throughout the weeks and months to give them a well-rounded experience,” Harmon says.
In addition to giving yourself variety, stop and take physical breaks from your work. As Lambertini points out:
“There is no point in trying to do four hours of coding without breaks, thinking that you are working hard and putting in the time. If your brain is not focused and your attention span drops along the way. Limit the time you work on each task and take short breaks. That will force you to focus. Working for long intervals of time will only lower your productivity and often lead to procrastination.”
During your breaks, whatever you do, don’t work. Your breaks are your “you time,” and you should do something that makes you happy or that energizes you.
Caballero, for example, plays the piano:
“It helps me get my focus back and gets my creative juices flowing again. Playing any instrument has been scientifically proven to engage practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices, so it gets my mental capacity going again and helps me through my afternoon. It’s a like a mental full body workout and lets me refocus on what I need to do.”
He keeps a keyboard both in the office and at home in case he “hits a mental rut or just needs to step away.”
QUICK TAKEAWAY: All work and no play makes everyone miserable. Treat yourself throughout the workday, even if it’s only with a 10-minute walk around the block.
6. Turn productivity into a habit
Scheduling time for work and for breaks will be easier if you actively try to form habits around both of them.
Creating a habits is easier said than done, but it can make you so much more productive. When something becomes a habit, it basically means you’re putting your mind on autopilot when navigating the different parts of your day.
What the experts say
For example, Caballero says:
“The first thing I do is grab my laptop when I wake up to check my emails. This lets me know how my day is going to be, allows me to figure out what the five most important things that I need to accomplish that day are, and then write those down when I get to the office.”
Caballero’s routine follows the idea of creating behavior chains to form a habit. One specific action (waking up) triggers another action (checking email), which triggers another action (making a to-do list). This behavior chain helps Caballero stay on track throughout his day by planning it all out in the morning.
You can also learn from Kim, who blocks out time in his schedule every day, including weekends, to follow up on another good habit: “I have a midday workout. At 3:30 or 4:00, I use that to break and that helps me recharge and rejuvenate.”
QUICK TAKEAWAY: Whether you want to form a habit surrounding work or play, focus on creating one habit at a time.
And just as when you’re making up your to-do list, don’t overestimate your ability to make a behavior into a habit. It takes about 66 days to form a new habit to the point of making it an automatic. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re taking a bit longer to change than you might want or expect.
7. Take care of your mind and body
When you’re thinking about what habit you’d like to form first, consider one related to a nonwork activity, such as exercise or sleep. After all, it’s hard to do your best work when you’re not feeling your best.
If you have the option, make wellness at work a group activity. As we mentioned before, Kim exercises every day, and he occasionally grabs a group of co-workers to hit the gym with him.
It’s often easier to hold yourself to a habit when you’re accountable to other people or when you surround yourself with people who have the same goals. If you don’t have a group of co-workers to motivate you to work out, you can use an app such as HabitShare, which lets you share your goals with friends.
What the experts say
You should also focus on what you eat. It not only affects your overall health, but it can affect your work life, too. As Kim points out, “You don’t want to consume high-carb meals at lunch because it can actually put you into that ‘coma’ state. Eat a light meal like a salad or something low-carb, or even high-fat.”
You don’t want to nod off in the middle of trying to get ahead on a big project, after all.
Kim actually doesn’t have a problem with sleeping at work; he allows his employees to take naps during the day. He recommends investing in a white noise app—and his personal favorite is the sound of beach waves crashing. He says, “If I have that on, I’ll fall asleep in two to three minutes. But I have a timer to wake me up after 10 or 15 minutes. You don’t want to go deeper than that, or you’ll come out groggy and won’t be productive at all.”
If you want to try sleeping at work, do it strategically and only for the amount of time it takes you to feel refreshed.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that productivity is about so much more than working. Make sure your overall well-being is top-notch if you want to do your best work. As Lambertini notes:
“If you are not balanced, it will affect your work productivity sooner or later. It’s important not to neglect your health, both physical and spiritual: eat, sleep, rest, exercise, or simply take a long walk in the park with a friend. You will feel refreshed and energized if you just unplug for a while. If you feel happy, you’ll do better work and your productivity will be much higher.”
QUICK TAKEAWAY: Figure out what makes you feel good outside of working and completing tasks, and take time to do those things for yourself.
8. Open the floodgates to communication and collaboration
Finally, remember that you can’t do everything by yourself.
One method for improving productivity that nearly every one of our IT pros recommends is to centralize project communication.
What the experts say
Isenegger stresses that, “If everyone knows where each other stands, and the dialogue is in a centralized space (instead of lost in emails), you and the rest of the team will be more productive.”
Harmon tells us, “We abuse Office 365. Our technicians, calendars, contacts, and information are all entirely flowing through it. This allows us to get our information instantly and scheduled appropriately.”
Kim says, “I have my team plan its week and set its top three goals for the week in Dapulse.” This system helps his team plan their activities and communicate well, especially when they’re stuck.
Having everyone on your team come up with a plan means it’s less likely that small things fall through the cracks. It also means, hopefully, that everyone knows what they’re working toward in the long run, keeping everyone on track.
Kim also notes that Dapulse uses a color coding system to keep track of where everyone is on a specific task. There’s even a color code that denotes that someone is stuck, which has helped his team create a plan to get over obstacles: “If you’re stuck, you tag someone that can get you unstuck.”
So not only has Kim provided his team with a tool that helps them get things done, he’s also given them a road map to follow if, and when they hit a wall.
Keeping information and communication in a single place will hopefully cut down on meeting times since you’ll spend less time debriefing and updating your team members. But you shouldn’t drop them entirely.
“Meetings can be cumbersome and even counterproductive. But, when done right, they can be a quick touchpoint that increases productivity and team cohesion. My team does morning stand-up meetings. We quickly go over our tasks for the day and offer help and support. I have found that short daily interactions are more helpful than one long meeting each week or every other week.”
In order to keep the lines of communication open with your team, keep meetings short and focused on project progress.
To keep communication going outside of these meetings, Naylor recommends Asana for project management. His team also uses Slack for collaboration, which he feels is especially “engineered for tech teams.”
QUICK TAKEAWAY: All in all, a combination of project management and collaboration software, along with in-person check-ins keeps everyone on the same page and, ultimately, makes your whole team’s productivity skyrocket.
Everyone has tricks to make themselves more productive, and not every hack is going to be effective for everyone.
If you feel the need to tweak some of the tips our IT professionals provided, by all means, do whatever works best for you and helps you churn out your best results.
Ultimately, you’ll be the most productive when you’ve actively thought of how you’re going to start doing your best work. So below, we’ve provided you with a worksheet to help you map out your own plan for productivity.
In the meantime, you can check out more of these resources on productivity and time management:
- Ideas for alternatives to Trello if that system isn’t really doing it for your team
- Thoughts on project management tools geared towards growing teams
- A guide for planning your day around skills
- Apps for the tech entrepreneurs out there
- A list of free task management systems
- A discussion of the productivity hacks we Capterrans use
- A story of the triumphs and failures one of our team members experienced when trying out different productivity hacks for himself
Feel free to share your productivity plans in the comments below! You can count on the Capterra blog community to hold you accountable for your goals. And if you’ve got a good IT productivity hack yourself, feel free to share it below.