3 Things Productive People Know How to Do

You know the feeling: You’re sitting at your desk, staring at the computer screen, thinking about dinner tonight, or how much a cruise would cost, or whether you could truly put all your stuff in the car and drive off into the sunset.

You’re not thinking about the project you’ve got to finish by tomorrow or the 67 emails you have to answer this morning or the staff meeting at 3:00 p.m.

And then you realize that you’re not thinking about these things — these important aspects of your job. In realizing your mind is wandering and that you are not engaged at work, you might beat yourself up. You might hunch over that keyboard and start “doing” something, just to start “doing.” Or you might end up looking for ideas to increase work productivity because as long as you’re stuck at that desk, you might as well make the best of the time, right?

As a former public defender, I totally know this feeling. The workload at the defender’s office could be crushing. One motion after another rolled into my office on what felt like a conveyor belt of deadlines. When I looked around at my most productive colleagues, however, certain patterns appeared.

1) Focus

When it comes to getting stuff done — and I mean really getting it done, not just being “busy” — shutting that door, holding those calls, and ignoring those emails matter (or if the project is purging the inbox, ignoring everything else and digging into those emails).

Single-mindedness matters. Set your goal for the day (keeping it realistic) and grind it out.

Let’s say you have to finish writing that report. Tell yourself you will shut the door, decline calls and meetings, and ignore emails and texts for the first hour and a half of the day. (You can even set an alarm on your phone.) Then dig in. The time will fly. After that first hour and a half, get up. Stretch. If you can, take a quick walk around the block. Let yourself respond to the key emails in your inbox (say the top four or five). Then settle in for another hour and a half. With uninterrupted stretches of time, you’ll get the report done. By giving yourself a break, you’ll also stay refreshed, sharp. You will find your sweet spot in terms of time between breaks (an hour, an hour and a half, maybe a little longer), and you’ll find you can get a lot done.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses a related concept in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Essentially, if you can get into a “flow state” with your work and enjoy that uninterrupted engagement in the process, you’ll unlock creativity and productivity.

2) Engage

With single-mindedness and flow come engagement — and engagement increases productivity. The majority of American workers are not engaged or enthusiastic with their work. A Gallup poll released last summer showed a “record high” of 34 percent of employees reported high work commitment and engagement. Yes, since Gallup started collecting figures on the subject in 2000, 34 percent represents the height of employee engagement.

Gallup defines engagement as being involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to an employee’s work and workplace. The 13 percent of actively disengaged workers are “miserable” at work. For more than half of Americans, work represents something they are “not engaged” with — while these employees may be “generally satisfied,” they “are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace.” They show up “and do the minimum required.”

This detachment takes a huge economic toll and reduces a sense of well-being. Companies with higher employee engagement (and lower active disengagement) perform at higher levels, achieving earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors. Employee engagement results in substantially better customer engagement, higher productivity, better employee retention, fewer accidents, and higher profitability — and engaged employees report better health outcomes.

Now, you may be sitting there in a cubicle you hate with a boss from a bad sitcom, but even then, engagement can be a choice. I’m not saying it’s an easy one, but that single-minded commitment to the task at hand, that choice to create for yourself that “flow experience,” that choice to show up and give more, can help you engage. And this engagement can translate into greater participation in meetings, increased responsibility, and an outlook that leads to greater output.

3) Schedule

If you’ve got something to get done, start by breaking it into bite-size pieces. Then set a deadline to complete each piece and stick to that deadline, even if it means sacrificing a lunch hour or two. Make it a habit to meet your personal deadlines.

Along with this commitment, though, comes the need to schedule breaks to clear your head, stretch, refresh. If you find you work best in hour-long chunks, commit to an eight-minute break every hour. Sure, that’s more than a 10% “loss” in work time, but these short breaks will actually make you more productive by keeping you fresh and sharp, rather than just “busy.”

Grotto has talked a little about mindfulness practices in the past (that idea of truly being present in the moment). In terms of work productivity, mindfulness helps you stay alert to your needs as a human being, including that need to get a drink of water, reset with a walk, or step away from a situation to refocus on customer satisfaction. It can combat burnout, reduce stress and improve concentration, and increase your focus on the customer, all of which will make you more productive. So schedule that time to tune back into you.

Maybe you’re seeing a theme here: focus on the task, engage with that task and the organization’s higher values, and keep yourself fresh with little reset breaks. These small steps can yield big results when it comes to keeping up with it all.

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