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The new year has arrived, which means it's now time for the annual flood of productivity tips and workflow hacks, all of which are supposedly meant to make us into perfect workers deserving of promotions and raises aplenty… but what is productivity, really?
As we move into 2024, let's take a moment to set aside our to-do lists and refresh our understanding of what productivity really means—and how you can use it actually to advance your career.
Defining Productivity in the Modern Workplace
Far from the "busy work" attitude of some former generations, productivity in the 21st century revolves around maximizing your personal ROI or return on investment. That means finding ways to do the most high-impact work (and do it well) in as little time as possible without sacrificing quality or mental health.
Done correctly, this approach to productivity is one of the most potent ways to show an employer or client your value as a professional—and potentially land the raises, promotions, or rate increases you deserve.
Remember, however, that demonstrating your productivity to an employer or client often takes more than simply doing good work. In 2024, knowing how to track and document your productivity is often as important as the productivity itself.
Common Productivity Myths Debunked
There are countless myths and productivity hacks about staying on track at work, and you've likely been on the receiving end of more than a few. But just how much truth do these myths hold? We've debunked a few of the most common (and we hope you do, too, the next time you hear them).
Myth 1: If you aren't connected, you aren't productive
If you've ever had a manager or employer demand you download work email onto your phone or check in during vacation time, you know how draining it feels to be constantly connected to work.
The truth is that most people are more productive when they take the occasional break from work, focus on mental health, and get some fresh air away from the demands of their jobs. Don't be afraid to set healthy boundaries between real life and work or politely push back when coworkers overstep them.
Myth 2: Multitasking hurts productivity
Over the years, employers have viewed multitasking as either an invaluable skill or an inefficient distraction from high-priority tasks. The reality is that both are true—and neither is true.
As with most things, there is no binary answer as to whether multitasking is good or bad for productivity. Instead, the answer is unique to each individual.
For one person, rapidly switching between tasks may help keep them motivated and energized throughout the day, making for a more productive day overall. For others, switching from one task to another may require a mental shift that ruins their "flow."
Instead of relying on a one-size-fits-all approach to productivity habits, consider spending time thinking about your own productivity style and whether you prefer to complete tasks one by one or in pieces.
Myth 3: There's a "perfect time" for productivity
According to some experts, humans are most productive immediately after waking. According to other experts, most productive people finish their work around noon. According to other, other experts, you get the most work done at exactly 10:26 A.M. Seriously.
Now, most of these studies come backed by compelling evidence and research, but how well do they actually apply to you, the individual? Not much, if at all. Remember that a unilateral "perfect time" for productivity simply doesn't exist and that all of these suggestions are just that: suggestions.
The true key to increasing productivity is taking an honest look at your own habits and work style and then identifying ways to capitalize on your natural strengths while minimizing weaknesses. When do you get the most work done, on average? Consider keeping a journal to track productivity. Then, once you've identified the time of day when you're most productive, prioritize tasks so that the most important tasks fall during this period.
Measuring Your Productivity
As mentioned earlier, measuring and documenting your productivity is crucial for showing employers your value—but the benefits go far beyond that. By making a deliberate effort to track your productivity, you help yourself stay focused and motivated, learn more about how you prefer to work and set yourself up for greater overall success as a professional.
And, just like with productivity itself, how you track your workflow is entirely up to you. For some, a simple journal may help, while others prefer an Excel sheet or other online document.
Whenever possible, record hard numbers and metrics, especially those that may determine success in your line of work, as well as any new processes or time savers you’ve put in place. Also, track how quickly you can perform a certain task and how that time compares to previous entries doing that task at other times of the day. Information is your most powerful ally here, so record as much of it as you realistically can.
In addition to making you better at your job, this information will also prove invaluable when it comes time to argue for a raise or promotion.
Setting Up Productive Work Habits
Improving your productivity involves three main things: routine, organization, and environment. Below, we'll go over how to improve each so that you can get more done without burning yourself out at work.
Daily Routines for Peak Performance
Even for the most free-spirited among us, building a healthy routine can be one of the most important things you do to support long-term productivity. Contrary to what you may believe, taking the first steps toward a daily routine is much easier than you might think.
First, figure out what your most productive time of the day is. For most people, this will be sometime in the morning, though others may experience a burst of productivity in the late afternoon or evening. Whichever is true for you, set aside this time for your most important tasks.
During the rest of the day, plan out any other recurring tasks that have a lower priority level or require less time and effort. If you're answering emails, record-keeping, performing small administrative tasks, or doing similar tasks during your high-productivity window, you're likely wasting the most valuable hours of your day. If you tend to feel in a slump after eating lunch, consider scheduling collaborative meetings in the afternoon to help you stay energized.
Finally, think about how breaks factor into your workflow. If you find that you're more productive and fresher after a short break, try to schedule one to occur immediately before your high-productivity window.
Organizational Skills and Time Management
Organization and productivity go hand in hand, especially when you structure your day in a way that allows you to focus on the tasks that matter most. Rather than spending each day doing housekeeping, setting up documents, or going through last-minute prep for important tasks, building a strong organizational structure often means these small but time-consuming duties can be done once a week—or less.
To start, make a to-do list of your recurring daily tasks, ranking them in order of importance from High to Medium to Low:
- High importance: These tasks are those that you aim to accomplish during your high-productivity window when you're firing on all cylinders.
- Medium importance: These tasks are still necessary but can usually be accomplished with less mental strain or effort.
- Low importance: These tasks are those that need to be done but either are less time-sensitive or only serve to prepare yourself for other, higher-priority tasks.
Once you've sorted your duties out this way, spend a few days timing how long it takes to complete each, on average. Often, people spend a surprising amount of time on low-importance tasks, especially when those tasks are sprinkled throughout the day rather than condensed into a single, pre-scheduled block of time.
By organizing your work into structured blocks according to when you're best suited to complete them, you avoid wasting time repeatedly switching between small tasks and start to build healthy habits that will help you in all areas of your career.
Creating a Conducive Work Environment
When most people think about setting up their work environment for better productivity, they consider removing unnecessary noises, screens, or other distractions. This is an excellent first step and something we highly recommend, but there are other things you can do to make your workspace even more conducive to getting things done.
If working remotely, for instance, ensure you work in a different place where you are relaxing, watching television, or playing games. By creating a clear delineation in your home between workspace and entertainment space, you get more from both.
Finally, make sure you add tools that help promote productivity just like you would remove things that reduce it. This brings us to...
The Best Technology and Tools for Productivity
For most people, better productivity takes little more than some self-reflection and discipline, but there are tools and resources you can use to streamline the process. Here are some of our favorites.
Apps and Software
Chances are, you already have too many "fluff" apps downloaded on your phone or computer, and we're not trying to add to them. Instead, our choices for productivity apps and software pack the most utility into the least amount of space.
- Notion: A crowd favorite for a reason, Notion is an all-in-one digital workspace that organizes everything from individual tasks to company-wide initiatives. We particularly like the clean, minimalist approach they take to building their interface, which reduces distractions and allows users to inject their own style and preferences.
- CleanShot: There are many screenshotting applications on the market, but the best we've found is CleanShot. This powerhouse tool lets you capture, annotate, record, upload, and copy image-based text from anywhere on your screen. Plus, the app's extremely intuitive interface means you save time jumping between tasks and screens.
- Things 3: It may seem hard to improve the simple to-do list, but Things 3 does just that. With a clean, no-frills interface and smart connections to your calendar or other apps, Things 3 is an excellent way to organize, prioritize, and stay on top of what you need to get done.
Tech and Hardware
Everywhere we look, there's a new device or gadget promising to revolutionize the way we work. And while most of these don't live up to the hype, there are a few workplace staples that can help you stay focused and productive.
- Noise-canceling Headphones: Unlike visual distractions, unwanted sounds are some of the most counterproductive for the average worker—and are often harder to avoid. Luckily, sound suppression has come a long way in the past few years, and noise-canceling headphones are more affordable than ever.
- Digital Work Timer: When setting a time limit on a task or tracking productivity, a good timer is key. And for those prone to distractions, separating that timer from your phone or laptop is typically for the best. Here, a simple digital LED timer is a helpful, inexpensive tool that takes up next to no space.
- Second Monitor: Data is king in 2024, especially when it's kept readily available and within view. For this, a second (or third) monitor is an excellent way to boost your productivity. Whether it's taking a call on one with your notes up on the second, starting a new task without having to close out the other, or any of the dozens of common reasons you'd need a second screen, this is a must-have for anyone who spends time behind a desk.
- Work Chair: Whether at home or in the office, most of us spend a significant amount of our day sitting. Without the proper support, this often turns into muscle soreness and discomfort. For the sake of your productivity and physical health, invest in a high-quality office chair.
- Physical Planner: Sometimes, nothing beats a good old-fashioned pen and paper. Reliable, inexpensive, and without any risk for distractions you might encounter with a computer or phone-based planner, a good work journal is one of the best investments you can make.
Automating Routine Tasks
AI is set to revolutionize countless aspects of the workplace, but how do individuals make the most of it?
The answer is task automation. These AI tools are some of the best we've found for automating common tasks, thereby freeing up your time for greater productivity.
- ClickUp: ClickUp is a multi-purpose business platform that serves many of the same functions as its competitors but also offers potent tools for automation. By organizing certain repetitive tasks in the order they're performed and then applying "if/then" logic to them, ClickUp will automatically move from one task to the next as triggers are met.
These tasks could be anything from changing project statuses to setting deadline dates, but the sheer number of ways to automate workflow makes ClickUp an excellent time saver.
- Zapier: Similar to ClickUp in many ways, Zapier's key value is its ability to facilitate communication between different apps and services. For example, if you use Excel for one thing, Slack (a messaging platform) for another, and CleanShot for a third, you can set up Zapier to link all three. That way, you can call for a resource from your Excel document and match it to a screenshot from CleanShot—all without ever leaving Slack.
Digital Detoxing for Focus
Now that we've exhaustively gone over how tech and digital resources can boost your productivity, it's time to talk about how important it is to detox from that same tech every once in a while.
In 2021, experts reported that the average American spent almost three hours daily checking their work emails. Similar studies indicated that nearly half of those same professionals felt exhausted by endless facetime with their computers or phones. What's worse is that data indicates that these numbers are only worsening year over year.
So, how do we break the cycle? To start, treat digital detox as something regularly scheduled into your routine. It could be something you do for 30 minutes in the middle of the day, for several hours on the weekend, or even days at a time every six months. Even better, combine all three.
By taking time to step away from your technology, you give yourself a chance to reset, refocus, and come back even stronger.
Productivity Strategies for Different Career Stages
As you grow and evolve along your career path, changes in your professional responsibilities and work personality will also mean changes in how to be more productive. Keep an eye on your productivity as you move through your career; if it starts to dip, it may be time to reassess how you get things done.
For Recent Graduates
When transitioning from academic life to your first career, there are several skills that you should carry over—and many you should leave behind. The trick is knowing which is which.
To start, remember that learning doesn't end when you leave school; if anything, the lessons you learn in the early stages of your career will be some of the most important of your life. Stay open, look for opportunities to grow, and study new skills like you would have during school.
That said, your priorities and time management will change drastically as you learn to meet the shifting demands of your career. Take care to learn your own limits and avoid over-promising. As you settle into your career and become more comfortable, you'll continue to become more and more productive. Until then, don't let eagerness cloud your judgment.
Most importantly, it's far easier to learn good habits than it is to unlearn bad ones. If you take the time to build a strong routine and productive habits from day one, you'll set yourself up for a much more successful career.
For Mid-Career Professionals
For professionals firmly in the middle of their careers, the issue typically isn't knowing how to start being more productive. Instead, many people in this situation suffer from burnout, boredom, or a lack of motivation.
Often, all of these are due to a need for more advancement or perspective. If any of these sound familiar to you, it may be time to step back, take an honest look at the professional you've become, and assess whether the habits you developed when you began your career are still serving you today.
Are you using outdated tools simply because they're what you first learned? Have you failed to adapt your routine and habits to new responsibilities? Has your work personality changed in a way that affects your productivity?
Once you've asked yourself these questions, start taking steps to update and refresh your skillset. Fortunately, recognizing the need for a change is often much more difficult than the actual change itself. And, being the seasoned professional you are, you likely already have the skills and experience to make the necessary adjustments.
For Professionals Returning to Work
If you're returning to work after time away, the name of the game is modernization. Chances are, there are new tools and resources that weren't available to you pre-hiatus, and many of your peers will likely be capitalizing on them to improve their productivity (so you should, too).
Remember, however, that you don't need to learn every new piece of tech that's come out since you were away, only those apps and tools most relevant to your job. Whenever possible, reach out to other professionals in your field who might be more current with these resources to ask for advice (perhaps trading your own expertise at the same time).
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Better productivity—and knowing how to make your boss pay attention to it—is the key to advancing your career. As you move through your career, we genuinely hope that the advice we gave above helps you to grow and evolve as a professional.
If you find yourself needing a little extra help to bring your career to the next level, however, our career coaches and AI-driven assessment are here to help. Whether finding a new job or excelling in the one you already have, we'll do everything in our power to help you make your professional life as productive and fulfilling as possible.