There are two parts to this question. To be more productive you need to be: 1) more efficient, and 2) more effective. That means being more focused, and working on the things that will make a real difference.
If you want to be more efficient and focused, you need to know how you use your time. What you want to find out is: a) when you are the most productive, when you get most of the work done; and b) what your time-wasters are. In order to do that, keep track of what you do (of how long you spend on each activity) for 3 or 4 days, and have a look at the results.
We all have peaks of productivity during the day. For instance, in my case I’ve identified three different areas. In the morning, between 11 and 2 pm I’m extremely productive, time flies and I get more done than if I worked double the time at any other moment. Then there are times of regular productivity, and times when I mostly procrastinate (from 2:30 to 4 pm).
Being aware of that, I know that writing articles from 2:30 to 4 pm would be a waste of time, because I can hardly concentrate, so I do it during my peak times. And you can do something similar, use your time in a smart way. You can use the time of the day when you are most productive to do the hard work, and leave easier tasks for other periods where you might be less focused. For instance, you might want to write the discussion of your paper/thesis or to design a complicated set of experiments during your most productive time, and leave the minipreps for the afternoon. Just this will increase your productivity and satisfaction because you’ll feel that you have accomplished more.
Apart from that, you also need to track your time-wasters. Those activities that are supposed to take you five minutes, and when you realize you have spent half of your morning. That usually includes email, Facebook, Twitter, going for a «5-minute» coffee, and so forth. Find out how long you spend each day on those activities , you will be surprised with the results.
Once you know that, it’s time to figure out how to recover the time (if you need to). Some of the things you may consider doing are:
- Consolidating tasks, for instance instead of checking your email every 10 minutes commit to check it 3 times a day. Or if you have to leave the office to run some errands, dedicate a day to do them all.
- Saving chunks of time for uninterrupted work (no phone, email, Facebook,…).This works extremely well, and I encourage you to try it. If you find it difficult, start with short periods of time, 10-15 minutes, and then make them longer. You will get much more done.
1. The four quadrants approach. This technique, described in the book «The 7 habits of highly effective people» by Stephen Covey, consists in categorizing your tasks into:
- important and urgent
- important and not urgent
- not important and urgent
- not important and not urgent.
Obviously you need to tackle first the activities in the first quadrant, but the smartest thing is to do what’s important before it becomes urgent.
2. Pareto’s law. 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Identify the relevant 20% and tackle that first. One way to do it is this: say you have a to-do list of 20 items. Divide it by five, and select the four that would make the most difference in your work.
Also, a question you might ask yourself to help you prioritize is: what is the most important thing that I need to get done today? or if I only had to do one thing, what would that be?
Now you know how to be more efficient and effective, which should make a difference in the way you work; but there is a third part, the most important: willingness. Being more productive will depend on your willingness to follow through regardless of the obstacles you find on the way.
So ask yourself: 1. Do I need to be more efficient, more effective, or both? 2. Am I willing to do what it takes?
Feel free to share your comments or advice below, they are appreciated!