How to Avoid Drowning in a Productivity-Obsessed Workplace

The key to staying afloat is to work smarter, not harder

April 7, 2010

A remarkable thing happened during the Great Recession, businesses managed to do roughly the same amount of work with smaller payrolls and much less overhead. Undoubtedly, we’ve all heard the unofficial slogan of the jobless recovery: “do more with less.” But while companies have lived by this motto, few of their employees have taken it to heart. The vast majority of us are mortgaging our personal lives to buy greater job security; cashing in our work-life equity for increased productivity like exuberant homeowners during the bubble years. But how much longer can we manage to tread water before we find ourselves swallowed whole by our work-life deficits and voracious job descriptions?

The answer is we can’t. The key to staying afloat in the current productivity-obsessed work environment is to work smarter, not harder; to focus on what’s important and let everything else fade into the periphery. Here are a few tips:

  • Emphasize quality versus quantity. In the information economy workers are valued for their knowledge and ideas, not their strength or physical stamina. The machismo of our recent industrial past isn’t rewarded like it once was. Twelve-hour workdays and late night emails aren’t enough to buy job security. You have to make an impact. Speak up at meetings, especially if you have practical insight from the front lines that can inform the discussion. Also, get ample rest so that your mind is agile and refreshed. Your contributions and active engagement will be noticed and appreciated.

  • Audit your time and trim the fat. If you’re like the rest of us, you probably feel as though there is not enough time in the day. But how closely do you monitor how your time is spent? Try logging a full day’s work activities to see where you’re spending your time. You’ll be surprised by how much time you spend monitoring email, word-smithing communications, browsing the internet or succumbing to other distractions. You should find that just the act of itemizing your time brings mindfulness to your actions and discourages inefficiencies and diversions. If that doesn’t work, try cutting back your work hours to force greater efficiency. Eventually you’ll begin to view time as a scarce resource, and strive to maximize your return. Once you notice an improvement, you can gradually ratchet up your work time as needed.

  • Carve out time to focus on what’s important. Make a prioritized list of three to five things that you’d like to accomplish each day and book one-hour blocks of time on your calendar to prevent meetings from cutting into your project time. While meetings provide an opportunity to make an impression, many are poorly thought out, badly facilitated or just plain pointless. Treat this blocked time as if it were a meeting with your supervisor. Don’t let it be double-booked and keep it free from distractions by turning off your email client or PDA.

  • Increase your face-to-face interaction. Email can be terribly inefficient, especially for complex tasks. There are usually more people copied than need be, and there are always follow-up questions, which would have come up during an actual conversation. If you need input from a colleague, pick up the phone or walk over to their desk. Not only is personal communication more efficient, it also provides a mental break and an opportunity to stretch your legs, both of which will provide a productivity boost in the long run.

  • Guard your downtime and do good by your body. We all feel pressure to have it all, but try to reserve some downtime rather than volunteering all of your free time away or taking on too many extracurricular activities. Relax, eat healthy and devote time to exercise. You’ll find that 30-minute workouts and a diet that minimizes fat and empty carbohydrates will leave you with increased mental clarity, sustained energy and an improved mood.