Stop Working Against the Clock: Developing Productive Habits

Confession: I love organizational apps. At the time of writing this, I count at least nine different organizational and/or time-management applications on my phone. The combination of calendars, lists, and documents makes me seem, at a glance, like an extremely productive person. Unfortunately, those tools don’t give me any more time in the day than anyone else.

Here in the 21st century, we have a myriad of time-management options available to us. Shouldn’t it be easier than ever to be productive? Ideally, sure. But as our methods have changed, so has the way that we work.

77% of Americans work more than 40 hours a week. America is one of the few countries where a maximum length to the work week isn’t mandated by law, which means that all of us in our quest to accomplish more are working hundreds of more hours than others around the world. Throw in the prevalence of remote work and the growth of the gig economy, and it becomes evident that many Americans spend more time working than doing anything else.

That sounds pretty productive, but recent research from MIT in conjunction with the Harvard Business Review demonstrates otherwise. HBR used a survey to invite readers to analyze their own productivity habits based off of seven specific skill sets associated with accomplishing more. The patterns they noticed provide evidence that “working longer hours does not necessarily mean higher personal productivity.”

We have 24 hours in a day. And most days, it seems like if we just had more time, we could get more done. Turns out that no matter how much time you have, your habits will dictate how you spend that time. Productive habits may vary from person to person, but research offers some common characteristics of highly productive people.

 

Plan & Prioritize

HBR found that those identified as most productive were advanced planners with specific goals. This doesn’t mean having every moment planned out by the half-hour, (unless that’s what works for you) but you should develop specific routines that give you the opportunity to plan ahead.

It’s suggested that a successful day starts the night before. HBR recommends that each evening you revise and prioritize your schedule for the next day. How you choose to do this is up to you, whether it’s an app or a good old-fashioned paper calendar. Personally, I prefer a whiteboard.

The habit of planning extends not just to the day-by-day, but your tasks throughout the day. Large projects can--and probably should--be broken into smaller pieces. Use outlines when you write, and please, for the love of all your co-workers, have an agenda prepared for upcoming meetings.

Give Your Schedule Some Space

While you’re planning out that schedule, don’t get too caught up in filling it to the brim. A full schedule isn’t always the most productive. In fact, MIT’s research showed that productive workers also leave spaces in their schedules. These are spaces for emergencies, but also just to make sure that you have time for your regular routines.

If it helps you to even write down those regular routines, like getting dressed or making breakfast, go for it! Just be sure to give yourself the space to take care of yourself so that you’re functioning on all cylinders. That’s right--productive doesn’t have to mean over-time. Give you, and your schedule, some space to be flexible.

 

Communicate with Clarity

HBR finds that the productive worker “should understand the needs of your colleagues for short meetings, responsive communications, and clear directions.” This conciseness and clarity benefits everyone involved.

Limit meeting times to 90 minutes if at all possible. Make sure you’re preceding those meetings with an agenda and ending them with defined next steps. Respond to messages right away, or reserve time each morning to take care of correspondence. And if you find yourself delegating and giving instructions, be as clear as possible and include viable metrics so that everyone is on the same page.

 

Same Minutes, Better Habits

You can’t turn back the clock, but you can make the sure the clock doesn’t turn on you. Notice that none of these suggestions are about working any faster, or accomplishing tasks at great volume. It’s a matter of technique. So, use time to your advantage by developing productive habits that let you and your team work smarter, not harder.