You reach the end of your workday and glance down at your (now coffee-stained) to-do list. You’re immediately overcome with frustration when you realize that barely half of the items are checked off. Seriously, what happened? You were here for eight hours, so why didn’t you get more accomplished?
Here’s the short answer: maintaining your productivity at work is just plain hard.
There are so many gotchas that can throw you off track despite your best intentions to crank your way through your task list at a breakneck pace. Fortunately, you aren’t totally powerless here. Let’s take a look at some common culprits that steal your focus and motivation, as well as how you can show them who’s boss.
Does this mean I’ll always get everything on my list done?
Before you implement one more hack, tip, or tool, know this: even the most productive people have off days. Expecting yourself to operate at peak productivity levels every waking moment is only setting you up for disappointment.
“People naturally have ebbs and flows in their work processes or in how well they can focus,” explains Dr. Melissa Gratias, a workplace productivity coach and speaker. “We have peak productivity times and we have to set reasonable expectations for ourselves in terms of what we can get done.”
What does this mean for you? Well, to put it simply, show yourself a little grace. Place your emphasis on improving your productivity levels rather than expecting to discover a magic bullet and check off all of your tasks without breaking a sweat. Like any other positive change, this is all about taking baby steps in the right direction.
While you can’t expect yourself to be a lean, mean, productivity machine day in and day out, there are some common blockers that sabotage your focus and undermine your motivation. Finding a way to eliminate or work around these hurdles gives your productivity levels a much-needed boost.
Hurdle #1: You’re bombarded with distractions
Your phone buzzes with an alert about a new text. You get a notification from Instagram. Another email lands in your inbox. A colleague pings you with an instant message.
Sounds like a typical workday, right? However, these ever-present distractions are ripping your attention away from the tasks at hand and sabotaging your ability to get things done. “Distractions and interruptions are for sure an impediment to productivity,” says Gratias. She explains that these distractions fall into two different categories:
- Self-imposed: distractions within our control, like the notifications we receive from our devices, which we have the power turn off.
- Environmentally-imposed: distractions that we can’t control as easily, like a colleague dropping by our desks.
When you’re constantly needing to redirect your attention to these endless pings and interruptions, it robs you of time you could be dedicating to the important tasks you planned for that day. This not only includes the time you dedicate to the distraction itself, but also the time it takes you to refocus and get back to work (which research has shown can take 23 minutes). It’s no wonder we all feel like there’s never enough hours in the day.
Here’s how to deal
“We can only strive to reduce these interruptions, because eliminating them altogether is not realistic,” Gratias explains. As you might suspect, self-imposed distractions will be much easier to regulate. Taking certain steps like turning off notifications, closing your email tab, silencing your phone, and setting your status to “away” on your instant messaging platform gives you the uninterrupted space you need to focus.
If you’re prone to constant internet surfing, also consider installing a browser blocker (like StayFocusd) to help yourself steer clear of time-wasting sites. In addition, finding other tools that work for you can help you maintain your focus—without constantly bouncing between different apps and solutions.
“We have this platform called Gmail add-ons that allows users to connect their email—which is where they spend a huge portion of their days—to the other tools they use,” says Aakash Sahney, a product manager at Google. “For example, you can quickly take an email and send it to Trello or Jira. This can be really powerful to reduce those small bits of friction that would otherwise take the user out of context.”
In terms of environmentally-imposed distractions, give yourself the time you need to focus. “I block time off on my calendar every morning for three or four hours of focused work time to make progress on the most important things for that day,” he adds.
Hurdle #2: You’re trying to do too many things at once
“‘I am a great multitasker!’ That’s my favorite misconception that I hear from employees,” explains Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus and the previous Chair of Psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills. Here’s the thing: Research shows that the human brain is actually incapable of multitasking. Instead, you’re rapidly switching between different tasks—something appropriately called “task switching.”
Needing to constantly change gears has dire effects on your ability to get things done. Recent estimates state that it can cause your productivity levels to nosedive by 40%. But, when it comes to trying to do too many things at one time, multitasking is only one piece of the puzzle.
“The critical behavior that I advise people not to fall into is setting yourself up for failure before the day even begins,” Gratias says. “If we pull out a task list of 25 things to do, we’re guaranteed that we’re going to be disappointed in our progress at the end of the day.”
Here’s how to deal
Avoiding the trap of multitasking is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. You need to hone your skill of doing one thing at a time. Try this: say out loud the one thing you’re going to work on. It’s called external self-talk, and plenty of research has shown that doing it can actually influence your behavior.
In regards to not overwhelming yourself with a to-do list as long as your arm, Gratias recommends choosing between five and nine (seriously, no more than nine) tasks you want to make progress on that day—something that ties back to a psychological principle called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.”
You can absolutely have a master task list where you jot down all sorts of to-dos and important reminders. But, when it comes to the list you’re working from on any given day, really focus on what tasks have the most impact.
“This isn’t revolutionary, but I think it’s important to make sure that you’re explicit about your highest priority thing that’s going on in your work life at any given time,” says Sahney. “So, when you have that work time, you’re not just clearing out your inbox—you’re making proactive progress toward something.”
Hurdle #3: You’re seriously tired
Have you ever felt totally zapped of motivation? When you stare at a blinking text cursor for five minutes, just willing yourself to get anything done?
Don’t beat yourself up. You’re not lazy. But you might be seriously fatigued.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours each night. However, most healthy adults require between seven and nine hours to be functioning at full capacity. How much can your lack of sleep really impact your workday? Quite a bit, considering that things like low motivation, poor concentration, short-term memory problems, and impaired decision-making are all symptoms of fatigue.
Here’s how to deal
The obvious answer is to tweak your schedule so that you leave time to get more sleep so that you can tackle each workday feeling focused and well-rested. On those days when you’re still feeling sluggish, give yourself permission to take a brief break to recharge—ideally, outdoors. Studies show that getting out into nature can alleviate mental fatigue. Plus, getting out of your fluorescent-lit office in favor of some natural light can boost your work performance.
While you’re at it, reach for a cold glass of water rather than filling yet another mug of coffee. Fatigue is also related to dehydration, and while chugging H2O is no replacement for adequate sleep, it certainly can’t hurt.
Hurdle #4: You’re paralyzed by perfectionism
“I think one of the most insidious beliefs that limits productivity more than anything else is perfectionism,” explains Gratias. This perfectionism not only leads to failure to start things because “if we can’t finish them perfectly, we don’t even begin,” but it also eventually leads to failure to finish because “if it’s not perfect, we keep working on it and keep tweaking it.”
Research shows that perfectionism is on the rise, and while this desire to do spotless work is admirable, it can also significantly hinder your progress and productivity. In a study conducted on 1,258 psychology professors, the researcher, Dr. Simon Sherry, concluded that, “Perfectionism may represent a form of counterproductive over-striving that limits research productivity among psychology professors.”
If psychology professors themselves aren’t immune to the dire effects of this pressure to be flawless, you certainly aren’t either.
Here’s how to deal
Does this mean you should lower the bar and give yourself a hall pass to turn in shoddy work? Definitely not. What you need to do is flip the script. “We don’t need to strive for perfection; we need to strive for progress,” adds Gratias.
When you have a task or a project, set a timebox (i.e. a certain span of time, such as 15 minutes or an hour) that dictates how long you’ll work on that specific item. When the timebox ends, that task is as done as it’s going to get for now.
Not only does this tactic instill a sense of urgency (which inspires you to get moving), but it also removes some pressure—you’re more focused on seeing how much progress you can make in that time period, rather than working until the entire task is completed.
You’re on the home stretch
Hopefully now you’re feeling equipped with some strategies you can use to supercharge your own productivity. But, remember, that’s nothing more than knowledge. It’s only when you implement these tactics and stick with them that you’ll see a marked difference when you take that end-of-day glance at your to-do list.
So go on, leave your desk feeling delighted rather than defeated.