Every Workday Needs a Game Plan

Bob Larson, CPC
Bob Larson, CPC

Have you ever felt that you barely got anything done at the office after finishing an eight-hour work day? If the answer is yes, rest assured you are not alone. Heightened demands on the job, combined with endless distractions and interruptions are conspiring to make some workers feel scattered, confused and unsatisfied. In response, according to The New York Times career columnist Phyllis Korkki, they are either shutting down and surfing the Internet, or spinning their wheels by doing busywork that is at most tangentially related to the core mission of their business. In a Q&A feature published by that newspaper, Korkki took a close look at the topic and offered the following insight on ways to become more productive in today’s often-harried work environment:

You started the day with such good intentions. What prevented you from finishing any work?

Perfectionism, which leads to paralyzing fear and procrastination, are major culprits. The false promise of multitasking may also be leading workers astray, said Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant based in New York. As much as employers may sing the praises of multitasking, research shows that it is not actually possible to perform more than one job at any given time. Workers trying to talk on the phone, answer e-mail and complete a report at the same time will be unable to focus completely on those tasks. It is better to have a sequential approach to work that requires priorities and discipline, Morgenstern said.

Does a lack of productivity mean that you’re lazy?

Most people do not want to be idle or inefficient at work; they want “productive, rewarding jobs where they make a difference,” said Mark Ellwood, president of Pace Productivity, a company based in Toronto that studies how employees spend their time. People may blame themselves, or blame others, but a lack of productivity basically means that “you really didn’t have a strategy for attacking the day,” Morgenstern added.

Can technology inhibit productivity?

A compulsion to surf the Internet and check e-mail stirs up a “desire to be in the know, to not be left out, that end up taking a lot of our time” at the expense of getting things done, Ellwood told the newspaper. If he had his way, he would cut off Internet access – but not e-mail—for a vast majority of employees, and set up dedicated workstations for people to use when they really needed the Web for their work.

Will making a to-do list help you get things done?

A realistic to-do list can indeed help create a map for the day, and it is satisfying to make the check marks that indicate a task has been accomplished,” Ellwood pointed out. But being realistic is crucial, because “when you are looking down the barrel of an endless to-do list, you freeze,” Morgenstern noted. “And then you start doing things like procrastinate, and doing the small easy tasks rather than the big important ones,” she added.

What other steps can you take to be more productive?

Shockingly, Morgenstern advised against checking your e-mail when you arrive at the office. She has even written a book on productivity called “Never Check E-mail in the Morning.” She calls e-mail “the world’s most convenient procrastination device.” Instead, she told the newspaper, use your first hour at work to concentrate on a high-priority task. That will help you begin the day with a clear head. Free of mental debris from the start, you set a good precedent for the rest of the day.

Ellwood advised clients to imagine that they have nothing to do for the next day: no e-mail, no phone calls, no meetings, no specific plans. Then he asks: What can you do to accomplish a long-term goal you want to achieve one month from now? This forces people to disentangle themselves from busywork, he said, and to focus on what is really important to their business.

Morgenstern urged workers to end their day with a plan for the next day, and for the two days after that. This reduces the chances that they will be stuck in “reactive” mode – continually responding to calls, e-mail and in-person requests without an overarching plan of their own. It is also important to accept that interruptions are a part of the day, and to assess realistically what percentage of your time will be spent dealing with them, as well as when they are most likely to occur, she said.

You have so many things to do. How can you decide what is most important?

Give the highest priority to activities that either help generate revenue for your company or help it save money, Morgenstern advised. Once you have defined these activities, you can work on what she calls the four D’s: choosing which work you can delay, delete, delegate or diminish. Winnowing out the peripheral tasks and homing in on the most important ones will help you gain control – and “once you feel you’re in control, you’re productive,” Morgenstern added.