Efficient and Effective: Five Tips for Increasing Productivity

A few months ago, we did a post on the five things derailing productivity. In that post, we focused on those things that people commonly do that sacrifices their productivity, including procrastination. We thought we include the other side of the coin: how to increase productivity. This post will highlight five actionable tips one can implement to get work and tasks done more efficiently and more effectively. We all have tasks that we must complete, so let’s see which tips help the most for increasing productivity.

Use To-Do Lists

While we have seen this tip constantly as a means to improving productivity, we would like to put a different spin on it. To-Do lists are the quintessential means to ensuring that certain tasks get done. They allow us to see all the things we have to do in any particular day and focuses our minds to certain tasks. But if used improperly, To-Do lists cause more headaches than they are worth. Because people can view To-Do lists as an endless list of tasks, one can get disillusioned with using them pretty quickly. Nonetheless, we would like to stress that To-Do lists can increase efficient and effective task completion significantly when used correctly.

In books like The 4-Hour Workweek and The Checklist Manifesto, To-Do lists are viewed as a series of tasks that one checks off and moves on. But we believe that the most effective way to use a To-Do list is to highlight three or four big tasks that you must complete and guide you to particular outcomes. For example, our friend and longtime legal confidant uses this To-Do list method religiously. Most of their work currently involves preparing for Friday. Thus, throughout the week, they keep the same task on their To-Do list each day until Friday. After getting their morning coffee, they sit down and immediately start working on big-task No. 1. They will focus on that task entirely until they have completed it, even taking the time to clearly think out and edit the work product along the way. Once they hammer out that task, they move on to the next big task on their To-Do list. In any given week, they have about five big tasks to complete, often with three daily big tasks. Once they complete all their tasks for the week, they typically focus on smaller, less important items.

Our friend’s use of the above-described To-Do list method has worked wonders for them and us. The lasting effects of the method is “time-blocking.” One can describe time-blocking as an allocation of daily time to specific tasks, with the most important tasks taking up three to four hours a day and smaller, less important tasks taking no more than two hours for the rest of the day. When we know what time periods our big tasks will be in, it allows us to prioritize them efficiently via this time-blocking. Most of the time, we know we will have two to three hours of uninterrupted time to focus entirely on the first item on our To-Do list.

We have discovered that To-Do lists are most effective in increasing productivity when the biggest, most important item comes first. While it might be hard to find which task is the most important, a daily or weekly view can help. One should ask the following question: “What is the one thing that I must do by the end of the week to make sure everything goes smoothly?” The answer to that question will be your top-priority task. Everything else will likely be ancillary or minor in ensuring the week’s success. In other words, if the task does not make or break the day or week, it is minor and can either wait or be batched with other similar tasks.

Note: The longer the To-Do list, the less likely one will be motivated to push to get it done. Oftentimes, the most effective To-Do list will focus on those tasks that comprise eighty (80) percent of the overall consequences or effects for that day, week, month, or year. The rest is just fluff.


Use Batching

We discovered the term “batching” while reading Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. Batching is a technique of completely similarly related tasks together instead of in a scattershot method. While he described it in the context of checking email in the office, Ferriss alludes to using it to more efficiently accomplish tasks like errands. Batching is basically going out for errands and completely all of them in one sitting instead of intermittently. Just recently, we started using batching as a way to streamline task completion. When need to get certain documents signed, we wait until we have all the documents needing signatures before dropping them off for signature. Additionally, when we have things that need to go to certain places for hold on to them until we know we are heading that way to drop them off.

One can apply batching to other things like checking email. Instead of checking email constantly throughout the day, designate two or three times during the day dedicated to checking and answering emails. Email is one of the biggest culprits to diminished productivity. It makes people obsessive, neurotic, and maybe a little overeager. One of our friends spent months checking their email to see if anyone responded to their requests. That incessant checking made them crazy, even driving them to the point of insanity and despair. Each new email notification ripped them from their primary tasks, causing them to reestablish any flow state they had been in. What could have shielded them from that? Batching the times he viewed their email.

Batching forces one to lump tasks together and address them in a specific time block. While more mundane tasks will not always make the To-Do list (which should only include those big-ticket items that must be completed or else), the time allocated to addressing them is less when they get done all at once instead of piecemeal throughout the day or week. Batching encourages effective time management too. There are only twenty-four hours in a day. Knowing how to use that time goes a long way in increasing productivity.


Stop Checking Email So Much

While batching allows more effective time management, certain tasks will derail productivity. The biggest culprit? Checking email. While it might seem like checking email shows how productive you are, it really kills time and gives the illusion of busyness. We believe that busyness is not productivity. Unless there is an important interview reminder or task that you must complete, you should not be checking your email so much.

We recently read that email has connected the world, but has lead to many wasted hours. Let’s look at the root of the word, “email”, mail. Before email, people needing to communicate with each other thought long and hard about what information they needed to convey in a particular letter. Given the long turnaround time, people included only the most pertinent information and then sent the letter. Having received the letter, the recipient would decide the best way to answer and what other information would be needed before replying. Between the long turnaround and the need to include only the most important information, people used the mail deliberately and sparingly. The advent of email changed that.

As the amount of and access to information increased, people started using email for more than official correspondence. It became akin to a chatroom or bulletin board, which people could say whatever came to their mind and later justify it as official. This shift has made email more of a waste of time than an effective means of communication. Combine stream of consciousness with frequent turnover, email no longer conveys the legitimacy it once did making it more of time-waster. Because of the recent developments in email, people need not check them so often. When we also factor in phishing and pharming attacks, email becomes one of the biggest time-wasters out there. Thus, the best way to become more efficient and effective is to stop checking email so much. Just a couple to a few times day should suffice.


Socialize after Completing Major Projects/Tasks

Remote working arrangements make this tip a little bit of a stretch, but most people still have some form of in-person work. One of our closest friends works five days in an office where they notice multiple distracting conversations. For those working in-person, colleague stops at your workstation or a routine “hello” turned into long conversation can pull us away from our tasks pretty quickly. These distractions can turn a two-hour project into a three-and-a-half-hour one, which does not lead to sustained productivity, especially on those big-ticket To-Do list items. Because of the distractions that socializing at in-person work can bring, one must learn to focus on the major tasks at hand.

Unlike the rest of the tips in this post, we will not belabor the point here. While socializing is inherently human and makes us feel good and included, it diminishes our productivity regarding tasks that we must complete. As easy it might seem to avoid either a tough assignment or a big-ticket To-Do list item, it does not do one favors in the long run. In a work context, unnecessary socialization constitutes procrastination which leads to missed deadlines and subpar work. The remedy? Focusing on the big tasks to ensure their completion. When one focuses on the most important tasks, they can provide better work product and clearer thinking. This tip alone makes productivity easier to achieve since the primary focus is on the tasks, not distractions.


Focus on One Task at a Time

The final tip in this post touches on our previous comments about multi-tasking, which singlehandedly derails effective and efficient work. In our post on the five things derailing productivity, we highlighted multi-tasking. When one focuses on multiple tasks at once, like email, phone calls, and the actual projects, they ultimately sacrifice product for an illusion of busyness. As counterproductive as it might sound, focusing on one task at a time makes work product clearer, more complete, and more accurate.

Focusing on one task at a time also ensures that one completes the most important tasks first before anything else. Distractions aside, breaks in concentration because of other tasks increases how long it takes to complete a task. We discovered within the last few years that attention and energy are finite, precious resources. How one uses this attention and energy makes all the difference in a project’s efficacy. When one dictates two uninterrupted hours to an assignment, the chances of a better product increases dramatically. Those uninterrupted hours also ensure that one more timely complete the project allowing more time to focus on other tasks.

This tip also works well with concerted To-Do lists and batching. With time-blocking, each hour goes to a specific task. Plus, those tasks are efficiently allocated, which minimizes the likelihood of falling behind on important tasks. Focusing on one task at a time pinpoints what goes into an efficiently and effectively completed task. Without it, most people will spin their wheels, choosing cognitive ease and distractions over concerted effort and deliberation.

What strategies to you implement to ensure productivity? Let us know in the comments.

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28 thoughts on “Efficient and Effective: Five Tips for Increasing Productivity

  1. These are some really great tips! I love the ‘batching’ spin on to do lists – I don’t think I’ve came across it before but it’s something I’ll have to try out – and I really need to work on focusing on one task at a time rather than multitasking. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t heard of the concept of batching before, but it makes a lot of sense. I’ve been unintentionally doing this with tasks I need to leave the house for due to my anxiety disorders, but maybe I should apply it to other areas of my life too

    Like

  3. Focusing on one task at a time has been in a big help in increasing my productivity. I tend to multi-task, thinking I can get more done, and only ever burn out instead . . . thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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