The 5 Secrets of Highly Productive Employees

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We all know at least one of them …

That employee who always has a neat desk and leaves at 4 p.m. every day, but still manages to get everything done and then some, exceeding goals and garnering positive reviews every quarter.

Are they from another planet? Secretly a cyborg? Did they make some kind of deal with the devil?

And how the heck do you get the rest of your team to produce like that?

As a project manager, just think how much easier your job would be—and how much more productive your team would be—if everyone performed as efficiently as your most productive employees.

highly productive employees

Your team could get more done in less time using fewer resources. And as for your employees, who wouldn’t want to be more successful and have more time to relax?

What if you could identify some of the habits of your productivity all-stars so that you could share those secrets with the rest of your team and empower them?

Good news: You can. To help you get started, we’ve collected a few of them below.

5 secrets of highly productive employees

If you have a team member who is struggling to keep up, share these tips with them.

But don’t just talk about how these practices can help. Use them yourself to lead by example and show how making a few small changes can yield life-changing results. We’ll give you some tips on how to lead by example below.

1. Highly productive employees do something hard first

Some project managers call it “eating the frog.” But maybe it’s time to retire that unpleasant phrase, along with these others.

Here’s a much less graphic description: As soon as they get to work (yes, it’s OK to get a cup of coffee first) highly productive employees pick one thing from their to-do list, something that most people might dread and put off for days, and they do it.

This can be scheduling a meeting with a manager, sending an email to a vendor, making a phone call to a difficult stakeholder … you get the idea.

It’s not easy, but the important thing is moving from that negative feeling we get before a difficult task (anxiety, dread, self-doubt) to that positive feeling we earn afterward (confidence, sense of accomplishment, optimism). Highly productive employees use that boost to propel them through the rest of the day.

 How you can lead by example:  Keep a to-do list and knock out the hardest thing you can before moving on to lower hanging fruit. That way, when one of your employees is struggling with a difficult task, you can relate your experience and explain how the “do something hard first” approach helped.

2. Highly productive employees take breaks strategically

MLB Home Run Derby competitors use breaks strategically (Source)

During the MLB Home Run Derby, participants are allowed a 45-second time out during each four-minute round to regroup and recharge. The most savvy competitors time their breaks strategically, right as their pace is beginning to slow, to maximize their output.

We can all learn something from this approach.

Unless you’re a cyborg with computer-aided focus, anyone’s attention to detail and alertness will wane over time. A 20-minute break when the momentum is starting to sputter out could be worth hours over the course of a day.

According to Meg Selig of Psychology Today, breaks can improve physical and emotional health, help us make better decisions, restore motivation, increase productivity and creativity, and improve memory retention.

 How you can lead by example:  Go for a walk outside, work on a crossword puzzle or sudoku in the break room, or go for tea and invite your employees to join you.

Explain to them that—even if it sounds counterintuitive—they can actually increase their productivity by not working for short, strategic stretches. For an easy way of implementing this approach (and to avoid taking 20-minute breaks for every 15 minutes of work), see secret No. 4 below.

3. Highly productive employees exercise and stretch

For a super productivity boost, highly productive employees combine tips two and three by using break time to exercise.

To be fair, there are plenty of good reasons for not undertaking a full CrossFit session in the middle of the workday: You won’t stop sweating for three hours, even after a cold shower; you’ll look like a showoff to all of your coworkers; or you drop a kettlebell on your toe and spend the second half of the day in the ER.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a quick cardiovascular workout in by going for a brisk walk or light jog, doing yoga, climbing stairs, or performing calisthenics in a conference room.

And how, exactly, do highly productive employees increase their productivity by abandoning their computer to work out for 30 minutes? Because regular exercise has been shown to improve concentration, memory, mental stamina, mood, and creativity.

Julia Dellitt of Self magazine says that squeezing a workout in during lunch has made her “a more productive employee, better able to lead my teams, and most of all, less stressed and more committed to exercise as a whole.”

 How you can lead by example:  Invite your team to have walking meetings where you swap out an artificially lit conference room for the great outdoors. Play tennis or basketball or Ultimate Frisbee during lunch. Let your team know that it’s OK to squeeze a workout in by doing so yourself. Take the opportunity to explain that even light exercise can boost productivity and focus.

4. Highly productive employees use the Pomodoro Technique

A 25-minute kitchen timer shaped like a tomato used in the Pomodoro Technique

A classic tomato timer used in the Pomodoro Technique (Source)

If you’re an experienced project manager, you’re probably already familiar with the Pomodoro Technique.

Francesco Cirillo developed the technique three decades ago while he was a student, and it is still one of the most popular time management methods in the world.

The Pomodoro Technique works like this:

  • Pick a task you want to complete.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes—if you want to be authentic, you can buy a tomato timer, but the timer on your phone works just as well.
  • Work on the task until the timer goes off. For the system to work, you have to actually put in focused work for the 25 minutes.
  • When the timer goes off, you can take a five-minute break to take a short walk, get a snack, or chat with a co-worker about “Bachelor in Paradise.”
  • After every four cycles (you can keep track with a notepad, or beads, or whatever works for you), you can take a longer (15 to 30 minute) break to exercise, eat a meal, or do a “Metroid” speed run.

The beauty of the Pomodoro Technique is that it encourages a healthy balance of work time and break time in a very simple package.

The Pomodoro Technique: Choose a task and work on it for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, Repeat the work/break cycle a total of 4 times, Take a 15-30 minute break

The Pomodoro Technique

If I asked you to sit down and focus on one task for three hours before lunch, you might quickly get discouraged and let your mind wander. But if I asked to focus on that same task for 25 minutes and then take a break, you’ll likely have a much easier time being productive for that entire 25 minutes.

 How you can lead by example:  Buy a box of tomato timers and give them out to your team—you’ll have the perfect platform to explain the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique.

5. Highly productive employees end the day on a productive note

Employees who end their workday by eating a stale doughnut and watching cat videos for 45 minutes are not carrying any productivity momentum into the next day. They leave work feeling unproductive and sluggish and likely beat themselves up about it for the rest of the evening.

In the morning, they have to struggle to catch up, burn out by mid-afternoon, and the cycle continues.

“How you end the day is critical, as it has much to do with how you start the next day,” Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author, told Forbes.

“They’re like first and last impressions that hold tremendous impact on your view of your work, attitude, and productivity level. The end of your day sets the stage for tomorrow, and the start of your day sets the stage for today.”

Instead of dragging themselves across the finish line, highly productive employees aim to complete one manageable task toward the end of the day. That way, they leave the office with a sense of accomplishment as opposed to a feeling of remorse, and they carry that momentum into tomorrow.

 How you can lead by example:  Before you go to happy hour with your team, finish any open tasks and update your to-do list. Explain on your collaboration channel: “Hey guys, I’m just finishing this email and updating my to-do list for tomorrow, then I’ll join you!”

You don’t have to be a showoff about it, but you can explain how doing this has helped you carry momentum throughout the week.

What’s your productivity secret?

By encouraging your team to start the day off strong, take regular breaks, exercise, and end the day on a positive note, you can make sure that your entire team is performing like your most productive members. And even if they only pick up on a few of these secrets, you’ll see tangible improvements.

What secrets have you gleaned from your most productive employees? Stop keeping them to yourself and share them in the comments!

For more great project management productivity tips, check out these articles:

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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