There are only so many hours in a day to complete all your tasks in. Unless, of course, you live on Mars and you get extra time in the day (if you have watched the film The Martian you will know where I’m coming from here!) But as we are all presently Earthbound, using those hours wisely to increase your productivity is a more feasible option right now. Luckily there are some simple ways to improve productivity.
Being organized is key to increased productivity in the workplace, particularly when the task at hand is extensive and involves several team members. This organization applies across the entire team if getting more productive is your focus.
When your team is charged with a large project, it can be pretty daunting. Considering the time and effort to complete can have the effect of making your mind go blank. The solution is to break the project down into manageable chunks – after all, you wouldn’t eat an elephant in one bite, would you?
Is your productivity up or down?
According to research, when staff are happy, their productivity increases by 12%. Creating an environment that is pleasant to work in goes a long way to increasing this feeling of contentment at work, as does managing workload, providing support, giving regular feedback, communicating well and being clear on job roles and responsibilities.
On the other side of the scale, stressed workers suffer a lowering in productivity. Major stress can be the result of too much work, and it is this type of stress that lead to burnout and lowered productivity.
Balance is critical here. By planning each project carefully, plus managing it on an ongoing basis, it is possible to cut through the chaos and create a plan that improves the productive process for the whole team. The manager is ultimately responsible for this, but the job can be made much easier by careful planning, and employing virtual help such as cloud-based software to aid management.
Start with a plan
To be able to break down your tasks, you must first have a plan. According to Project Management Institute, planning is the most important stage of any project for creating workflows, and has to be handled by the manager. Controlling schedule planning and task management is a task that should not be delegated out to other departments.
"Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort." - Paul J. Meyer
The first step in the creating processes is to record the project and start looking at what tasks are involved. For example, let’s imagine your project is to improve your content marketing strategy. How exactly are you going to achieve that, and with maximum productivity?
The next step is to prioritize each individual task. List your tasks and consider them against your overall aim. Some will naturally have to be completed prior to moving on to other tasks, and these need to be top of the list. Other jobs may be important to the overall completion but don’t necessarily impact the day-to-day flow of the project. These can be scheduled for later.
Divide these tasks into now, soon or later (with dates attached). Use any scale that works for you, or if you are using management software, input the tasks into the relevant time pane.
Use your team’s strengths
Delegating is a crucial aspect of increasing employee productivity, so getting to know your team is critical. Dividing the project into smaller tasks is only one part of the story; knowing who to give each task to is equally important. This will also help improve your company’s overall collaboration.
Assigning roles should not be completed carelessly. Instead consider the strengths and weaknesses of the team and compare these with the tasks in-hand. The Project Management Institution advises using a system called the RACI matrix – responsible, accountable, consulted, informed – to help clarify all roles and responsibilities. This then helps you pinpoint capability, availability and skills so that tasks are not given to someone unable to fulfill them.
Delegation can be difficult; it’s like the first time you let your teenage child go off on holiday without you. Yet letting go is crucial to development, and if you don’t, progress will stutter. Make the process easier by creating a delegation plan that demonstrates the tasks across the whole workforce.
Keep it clear
Next step, ensure that everything is so clear and well defined that even the family cat could follow it. Every different task within a given project needs to be recorded to maintain the productive workflow, with all the necessary detail. State the deadlines, aims, title, work required, task leader, and how it fits into the overall project. The project should be completely transparent, and presented in such a way that all members of the team can access all task details.
If the task instructions aren’t clear from the start, it will be like driving through thick fog, with no idea of your destination. You know it is somewhere in front, and you have a vague idea that if you keep following this road you should get there, but how easy would it be to drift off-course in such conditions?
Encourage staff to produce to-do lists at the beginning of every day. The back of an envelope may be the preferred medium for some people, but point out that these have a habit of ending up in the bin. Instead use a cloud-based task management system that allows you to track and manage your to-do list.
The added bonus is that the whole team can view each to-do list, enabling you all to track progress. It also makes it much easier for you to delegate, comment or interact with advice and guidance, as well as making the whole team share good practices.
The effect on productivity? This type of task management software frees up huge chunks of time spent on unnecessary meetings, and waiting for email replies and phone calls. Plus, there is no need to search your files for the information you need, or to scroll through your emails; it is all available under the project button.
Multiple smaller tasks
So let’s say your team member, or you, have to plan an online marketing campaign. At this point all you’ve got is the general idea. How on earth are you going to plan a full campaign out of just the idea??
This is where breaking it down into manageable bits really comes into its own. Start bullet-pointing your ideas and strategies. Say you come up with 20 points; that is now 20 separate subjects to consider. Now you have 20 small tasks to complete, each one corresponding to your bullet point. On each task, set an achievable time goal that fits into the overall larger task. If you don’t have a deadline, it is easy to procrastinate.
So instead of concentrating on the whole marketing campaign, just focus on that one small subject, which could be as straightforward as “integrating Twitter”. Treat it like a complete project in its own right and when it’s complete, tick it off; polish your halo; treat yourself to a coffee (and a chocolate biscuit if you’ve been really good); and move on to the next one.
At the end of the day review how many tasks have been marked as complete – you will be amazed! Better still, review the biscuit packet – the emptier it is the better you have done!
Task switching can lead to a 40% reduction in productivity, according to Psychology Today. This is where batching can come into its own. Batching means doing the same thing for several different tasks at once, instead of flitting between tasks.
What this does is focus a particular part of your brain, rather than forcing it to switch back and forth between different processes. The creative part of your brain works differently to the analytical part, for example.
Sticking to one type of task at a time uses less time and energy, so if four of your tasks require some detailed research, why not dedicate your day to research? Not only will your brain thank you for not switching, but you’ll also get more work achieved as a result.
Use a timer
Concentration times differ between individuals, but if you find your mind wandering towards what is happening on social media, then you'll know you have drifted off-task.
A method to stay focused on short tasks is to set a timer. Mindtools discusses how the Pomodoro technique works by breaking down your work intervals into manageable periods, often 25 minutes, followed by short intervals of up to 5 minutes.
This is backed up research that demonstrates how short breaks help keep you focused and thus more productive. Depending on your tasks, you can set a certain number of intervals before taking a longer break, or moving on to a different topic.
Try this free Chrome extension to get a Pomodoro timer in your favorite browser.
The important aspect is to mark off the Pomodoros, which gives you a sense of achievement. It also increases the flow and focus of work, without allowing for unnecessary interruptions. Setting a time scale helps to break the tasks down into manageable chunks, particularly if it is an in-depth or complicated subject.
Putting it all together
That big project needn’t be so daunting. In order to encourage higher productivity, all you need to do is be organized and plan ahead.
- First break the project down into sections, and delegate job roles to the most suitable team members, based on mutual agreement.
- Then guide each team member to break their individual tasks down into bite-sized chunks, and view each aspect as a separate task.
- Create to-do lists and prioritize each task, working with all the team to ensure the tasks interlock when required.
- Monitor the tasks, offering advice and guidance as required,
- Mark off each task as completed, and move on to the next one.
- Use techniques such as batching, time-keeping and frequent short breaks to further increase productivity.
Ok, so there are a few balls to juggle here, but by using task management software this becomes a breeze! Using a task management software is a little like having your own personal assistant who pops up on your computer, helping to keep all your tasks flowing productively. All you need to do is click and view, and you can see at a glance exactly what the current status is.
Whether the task is big or small, a one-man band or needs a full soccer team to see it through, your software can help you delegate, communicate and break down tasks. And it sure beats the heck out of the back of an envelope or post it notes for all those to-do lists!
Check out the presentation version of this article below!