By Amy Spelman

You’ve buckled down and you’re ready to work. You’re fed, caffeinated, and in a quiet space. Free of distractions - or so you thought.

A new email hits your inbox. It’s from your bank. You remember you need to pay your credit card, and decide to quickly do so. While making the payment, you realize your spouse’s birthday is fast approaching. Might as well quickly research some restaurant options. You plan to look at just a few, and 30 minutes later find yourself down a Yelp rabbit hole.

Despite our best intentions, we don’t always make the best use of our time.

So, why does productivity often feel so elusive?

  • If the email → credit card payment → Yelp example resonated with you, procrastination may be to blame. (Although, if you believe Tim Urban’s amusing 2016 TED talk, we’re all procrastinators to an extent.) And certainly, smartphones, constant notifications and endless open tabs don’t help keep us on task - especially when you consider that it takes a full 20 minutes to regain focus after becoming distracted.

  • Your goals or tasks may be too big or vague. For example, a goal like “find a new job” must be broken into manageable steps: update resume, refresh LinkedIn profile, identify ideal positions and companies, tap into professional network, begin interview prep, etc. When goals are SMART - specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound - we’re more likely to achieve them.

  • It could be a matter of team dynamics. Just because you’re productive, doesn’t mean your team’s performance is optimal. We see this surface in workshops and facilitations, especially when different working styles and/or personalities are at play.

  • Others are dictating your priorities. If you’re constantly being pulled in different directions by your inbox and notification center, you’re letting others control your to-do list. This puts you - and your productivity - at a disadvantage.

  • You’re overworked. Regardless of why - either you’re a workaholic or your boss is - research shows time and again long hours are counterproductive for people and companies. Everyone needs time to recharge.

So, is there a silver bullet for productivity?

There’s not one catch-all solution, but several strategies will help. Find the mix that works best for you and your team.

Start by auditing your calendar.

Are you in meetings all day every day? Do you spend hours catching up on email? You can’t optimize your time until you know where you’re spending it.

Be strategic about your to-do list.

Remember, don’t add tasks that are too big or vague (per above). However, you also want to avoid adding anything too small. If an email or other ask can be resolved in less than 5 minutes, deal with it as soon as you receive it. Incorporating it into your to-do list or productivity system can actually slow you down.

If you’re more of a visual person, try leveraging the Eisenhower Principle, and plotting your to-dos by urgency and importance.

Finally, once you have your actionable to-do list, keep it with you as a reminder of your goals. And remember, don’t let other people (i.e., your inbox - per above) dictate your priorities.

Enlist an accountability partner.

Ask a close colleague or friend to keep you honest. This is especially helpful for any large or daunting projects that you’ve been avoiding. Make it fun - meet at a cafe or bar. Even better: find a way to reward your efforts. For example, maybe the last person to complete their work buys the drinks.

Want to up your accountability? A coach can help.

Make time for what matters.

It’s not hard work that causes burnout, it’s resentment. If your work schedule leaves no time for the activities you hold dear, you will quickly become bitter. Ask yourself what the daily activities are that you value most. It could be picking up your kid from school or fitting in your favorite fitness class. Whatever it is, ring-fence that time and make those activities a priority. Everything else will feel a little bit easier.

Focus on one task at a time.

While it may seem counterintuitive, multitasking is actually counterproductive. It splits our focus and we achieve little as a result. Try to devote your attention to one thing at a time. Focus on your phone conference instead of your lunch order; be present in your 1:1 instead of keeping an eye on your inbox, and; proofread your presentation without playing a webinar in the background. Not only will you cross more things off your list in the long run, you’ll also feel more sane.

Optimize your teamwork.

A team comprised of individual rockstars doesn’t necessarily make for a rockstar team. To be greater than the sum of its parts, a team needs to learn how to work most effectively together.

The most successful teams have self awareness and “other awareness” - i.e., recognition and respect of each other’s strengths and styles.

If your team’s productivity is lacking, consider holding a workshop. A third-party can facilitate fruitful discussion, identify blind spots, workshop challenges in a safe environment, and propel teams forward. Plus, they’re fun (of course we may be biased…).

Remember your whole self.

If you want to be your best self at work, you have to take care of your whole self.

Of course, this can mean different things for different people, but we’ll make some research-backed generalizations:

  • Switch off at least 30-60 minutes before bed. Limiting your screen time - especially close to bed - will help you sleep better, and you’ll be more effective the next morning.

  • When working, try to take a break every 90 minutes. Do yourself a favor and make it an actual break - i.e., get away from your desk and try not to look at your phone. You’ll return refreshed and more productive.

  • Exercise is a known endorphin-booster, but did you know it can boost productivity at work, too? Might help you make a case for that treadmill desk…

Not only does productivity drive business results, it also makes work more enjoyable. After all, who doesn’t love the feeling of crossing items off their to-do list?

Do yourself - and your team - a favor and see how these strategies can make you more effective.

Amy Spelman has a wealth of communications and branding experience to her name. What she’s most passionate about, though, is helping individuals position themselves for success. She also gets stuff done. You can reach her here.