Regularly we read news stories about how many hours staff work beyond those they are contracted for. It’s claimed that one in five employees in the UK regularly worked unpaid overtime last year, worth over £33bn pounds to the economy.
There’s even a day dedicated to working your proper hours, which this year (2021) was February 26th, the idea is that those who work long hours take the day as an opportunity to think about their approach to balance in their lives.
The situation is not a straightforward one. For a start, where do you draw the line when it comes to classifying ‘unpaid overtime’? Does this include the time taken for a solution to an office problem to present itself to you while you’re in the shower? Or the detailed review of the previous day’s productivity that whizzes through your head while your children are playing in the park?
Add all these moments up and it’s likely that the amount of unpaid time devoted to work is even greater than some research suggests. But what about those who love and enjoy their work and are making a conscious decision to shift their work/life balance in that direction for a specific period of time?
We wholeheartedly endorse encouraging people to take time to review their approach to work. It’s the lack of such moments of review that can, over the course of months or years, result in individuals feeling they’re not in control of their own destiny and this can be a major cause of stress and anxiety.
But beyond thinking about getting out of the office on time, wouldn’t it be nice to end each day having achieved everything you set out to achieve, not just your work but also your personal admin, family commitments, social life and down time? All of this can be achieved by thinking a little less about the time on the clock and a little more about quality, productivity and the efficiency with which we make use of our time.
A theme that recurs regularly during resilience workshops we run is that staff feel overwhelmed, often enduring days where they are juggling three or four tasks with a further three or four waiting in the background, and all that even before they’ve had a chance to work through their email inbox. The upshot is that they often report feeling unable to do anything to the best of their ability and this can leave them feeling frustrated and low on mental and physical resources.
The opposite of this situation, and a more desirable environment for us all to work in, is one where staff experience high energy, creativity, and enjoyment, all feelings that boost engagement, productivity, and results.
So how do individuals go about boosting productivity and achieving greater quality and efficiency in their professional and personal lives?
1. Plan the day
Productivity is always improved if you invest your efforts in the right areas and minimise any wasted time. This means being clear about what each section of the day is about. Get into the habit of planning your day and reviewing your progress regularly as the day unfolds. Check in with yourself every 90 minutes to ensure you’re always on track to complete what you set out to achieve.
2. Get in the zone
Most people know what it feels like to be working efficiently or to be ‘in the zone’, and there are many simple, practical things that can be done to inhabit this arena more often. Many elements of achieving this peak performance state are particular to individuals – it has a lot to do with getting proper rest, how active your are on a regular basis, how you manage relationships and communication, and your general outlook on life.
One thing everyone can do is to engage with the times they feel positive and effective, and note down what has led them to these circumstances. The greater understanding you have of how you achieve this performance level the easier it will be to recreate it more often.
3. Take a lesson from the world of sport
Athletes are instructed that every part of their training is geared towards improving their performance. There's no time or value in empty training hours. You should adopt the same strategy. Every minute of the day should be directed towards a chosen outcome. Your aim is to be more proactive and less reactive with your schedule.
The benefit of this approach is that it puts all of your daily decisions into a context and you can say yes or no to additional requests accordingly. It also mean that the occasional conversation with colleagues or flick around social media is fine if this time is seen as recovery between important tasks rather than a distraction from these tasks.
4. Think about your energy balance
To improve quality in everything you do, make sure there are plenty of things in your day that boost your energy. Also be aware of everything you do that could rob you of physical and mental energy and leave you feeling less productive than you'd like to be.
Energy robbers can include coffees, teas, sugary snacks, high fat foods, eating too much, skipping meals, sitting still for too long, too much time spent on one project, lack of variety in your day, prolonged periods of stress or pressure, feeling overwhelmed or feeling under-utilised. A good habit to get into is noting down moments when you sense your performance level is compromised and identifying what you think has caused this lull in energy.
Solutions will be found in simply reducing the frequency of energy draining triggers and also focusing on what you can do proactively to boost energy. Items on this list include taking short breaks, staying hydrated, eating healthy meals and snacks regularly, moving regularly through the day, delegating better, communicating more efficiently, getting fresh air and sunlight, and making notes of success moments and key learnings.
Explore this subject further and analyse your energy balance here.
5. Listen to the rhythms of your body
Our concentration naturally ebbs and flows every 90 minutes so get to grips with the points in the day when you feel most effective and schedule important tasks for these moments. Activities involving your full attention and focus should be punctuated with less demanding tasks during the lower moments of your energy cycle – you can catch up on emails or do some research here – or get together with others who have different rhythms to you and feed off their energy.
6. Take some time for you
Completing one or two personal tasks can not only provide you with a welcome distraction from work but can also reduce stress levels for the entire day. Taking time to do something for yourself, even if this means doing nothing for short moments during the day, can make a huge difference to your effectiveness and enjoyment of the day as a whole.
7. Remember what it’s all about
Too much time spent doing things that are inconsistent with your core beliefs and values can leave you feeling frustrated and ineffective. One other way to restore productivity and quality to your day is to remember why you do what you do.
We've already said that all work tasks should be directed towards a specific end but it's important to also focus on why your job is important in relation to what you want out of life. Even if you have a role you love, it is possible to lose sight of this when things are busy. Remind yourself regularly of the contribution you’re making to your master plan and the fact that you have chosen to follow the path you’re on. Taking responsibility is always an energising step.
Even if you’re not the biggest fan of the job you’re currently doing, put it in the context of a means to pay the bills and pursue some of the things you enjoy outside work. Or think of if as a necessary step on the journey to finding your ideal job. Focus on where your current role is taking you and this will infuse you with energy to work efficiently and get there faster.
8. Get some sleep
There’s no better aid to productivity and quality than a good night’s sleep. It can make a world of difference. March is National Bed month, so there's never been a better time to start getting the rest you need.
The bottom line is that if you are able to engineer a routine where you plan well and are able to give full attention to every task in hand, whether it be a work project or a family gathering, you’ll restore a sense of balance and satisfaction in everything you do. Always strive for quality rather than quantity and your days, weeks and months will be much more rewarding.