Productivity hacks can help. But instilling meaningful change and habits is more effective.

Accomplishment: that feeling at the end of a working day that we’ve achieved something. When we know the needle has been moved towards goals we may be tired, but we’re already looking forward to picking up progress tomorrow…

Except this doesn’t happen easily. There are many barriers to being productive at work. Some are linked to personal circumstances, and may be relatively unique to us as individuals, such as family stresses. Others are common even though they aren’t tied to work at all, such as – assuming your company is implementing work-from-office – long commutes. Most are within the organisation’s ways-of-working, including an overload of meetings, multiple reporting lines, and technologies that aren’t fully enabling. And let’s not forget the very human issue of conflict, which chews time and drains mental energy; managing people, in and of itself, can be exhausting.

The Web proliferates with productivity advice. Much of it has a high clickbait factor, and the advice itself can often be described as puerile.   

Part of the problem is the terminology. Calling them ‘hacks’ or ‘tips’ implies short-term stopgaps and superficiality (is it meaningful to urge professionals to eat breakfast?) Generic silliness aside, many people experience limited success even with those productivity tips that do have merit. This can be ascribed to limited understanding about how the process of productivity happens. To really ramp up productivity we need to rethink our attitude to these measures and get to the core of what inhibits the effective flow of outputs.

Understanding where your productivity blockage lies will help pinpoint the technique likely to make the biggest difference, whether smaller ‘hacks’ or measures to address the underlying issue.

The ingredients of productivity

There are three main components to an individual’s productivity. Goals gear motivation, the primary driver of getting things done. Task management is the ability to organise work, including identifying priorities and the use of enabling technologies. Time management ensures the efficient execution of the organised work.

The single most important contributor to making progress of any kind is motivation. James Clear, motivational speaker and author of the book Atomic Habits, has an interesting take on this. “Many people have a hard time making decisions because they don’t know what is important,” he says. “When you have a clear mission…and you’re fully committed, you don’t need rules for how to spend your time.” His conclusion is that “many people don’t need productivity or time management advice. They need conviction.”

This is especially relevant for leaders and senior managers. Propelling people towards a purpose and around a clearly communicated mission is a critical catalyst of productivity. More specific to individuals, it’s important to be clear about what you want to achieve at work.

  1. Major goals motivate. But small goals drive progress. What we envisage as our career goal or job-related milestone should be the driver of our productivity. But even when this is crystal clear, the pathway may not be. Bridging the gap between the outcome and the roadmap is called reverse goal setting. By imagining yourself at your destination, you can retrospectively plan all the steps along the way – the milestones and mini-goals to get there.

It’s best not to apply hacks to goals; it’s too big an issue. But reverse or backwards planning is a relevant, valuable method to address any task. Whether large projects or smaller jobs, they can be segmented and even split into micro tasks. How to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Task management: the power of organisation

Today, almost all jobs involve multiple, simultaneous task streams. Requests, interactions, thinking time, the creation of outputs – activity at work is better described as a whirlpool rather than an ebb and flow.

Juggling different jobs used to be regarded as an important route to productivity, and people good at this were considered highly effective at work. But the brain science supports the opposite: multitasking – which psychologists call context switching – may require 23 minutes to fully refocus for each switch, and cost up to 40% of productive time.

But neither the context nor the science helps solve the inherent difficulties around prioritising tasks which, for many, is a major productivity inhibitor. Different approaches work for different people based on their personalities and responsibilities, among many other factors. Sound advice is to tackle ‘low hanging fruit’ tasks first. Getting a few relatively quick and easy things done gears momentum, and puts us in the frame of mind for more challenging issues.

Or maybe not. An equally valid approach is to start with the day’s biggest problem. This allows more time, fresher perspectives, and the latitude to flex around the problem; if it’s left later in the day time starts to run out and decisions may be rushed, with suboptimal delivery or results.  

Two particular techniques will help cut through the complexity of task management. 

  1. Think 80-20. Nineteenth-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that in much of nature and society there is an imbalance between causes and consequences, and that this asymmetry can be approximated to the effect that 80% of outcomes stem from 20% of inputs. His Pareto Principle is useful as a productivity playbook, because it tells us that it’s worth concentrating on big impact tasks.

However, be careful. Pareto is a rule-of-thumb principle, not a guarantee. Judgement is involved in selecting what to concentrate on – which roughly one-fifth of tasks merit that initial thrust. Further, remember to ask your team how they feel, because your view may not be how they experience interactions with you during the working day. (You may think low hanging fruit first is working well, but your subordinates may be annoyed that you regularly bring them major tasks and problems late in the day.) A deliberate, systemised approach is necessary to prioritising daily, weekly and monthly tasks – but stay flexible.

  1. Adopt the Eisenhower Matrix. The WW2 general and post-war U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower, used a four-‘D’ quadrant guide to classify tasks and identify priorities. ‘Do’ were the clear, immediately necessary tasks; ‘Decide’ were those that needed subsequent thought and were not hugely pressing; ‘Delegate’ he deemed those that could actually be done by others; ‘Delete’ he scrapped entirely.

There’s a fifth ‘D’. Discipline is needed to properly implement Eisenhower’s approach. (And few of us have the authority to delegate as much as a president does!)

Regardless of techniques adopted, task management involves a bigger issue: understanding the flow of work. Unmanageability and unpredictability are signs that your team’s processes, or the organisation’s, need refining. Many of the greatest productivity ideas have sprung not from inventions or discipline-specific tools, but from arrangements that improve the flow of work, its process, like assembly lines, conveyor belts, project management applications. If you and your team are finding it increasingly difficult to organise and plan before executing, some conversations need to be had with senior leadership.

Don’t lose time – use it 

In its relation to the execution of work, time management is critical and for many people this is where significant productivity gains can be made.

If procrastination is the thief of time, distraction is its enemy in plain sight. Two specific techniques are invaluable.

  1. Start tomorrow, today. This is especially helpful to curtail procrastination. Late in the day, make a small, even inconsequential start on something you know needs to be tackled tomorrow. You will know exactly where to start work the following morning, creating momentum straight away.  
  2. Get a traditional alarm clock. The humour of the story behind this – why its inventor called it the Pomodoro technique, Italian for tomato – deflects from the point that it works. Once you’ve identified and listed tasks for the day, allocate 25 minutes to each. Set the clock running. When the alarm sounds, you have 5 minutes to take a breather and get ready for the next task. Repeat for as many half-hour cycles as you need to get through your to-do list.

The visual presence of the ticking clock creates an urgency and instils discipline. The real gain is that it fosters an appropriate habit which, as it becomes stronger, can flex into longer sessions and breaks.  

  1. Clear out the clutter. Overdue filing and admin, hundreds of unattended emails, cluttered workspaces – neuroscience confirms that disarray is a distraction and diminishes energy.

There is no hack or technique involved here. Be accountable to yourself and courteous to those who share your workspace. Take the time needed to catch up and clear up, even if it means coming into work one weekend.

Pervasive technology: boon or bane?

Technology has spawned a productivity paradox. Generally, through automation and smart, rapid systemisation, technology is an enabler of productivity. But, as experienced by almost any professional in today’s information economy – and proven by meta-studies – with so many technology tools and apps at their disposal, people get distracted. Worse, when an organisation expects its employees to juggle dozens of programmes and systems, there is a risk that they spend more time trying to get to grips with technology than they do using it for productive outputs.

So, think about your relationship to workplace – and personal – technology tools. You could invest a bit of time and practice in learning the dozens of shortcut commands available on all the main tech tools most of use day in, day out.  

Or you could sign out from social media feeds and leave work 52 minutes earlier, having focused on completing your to-do list. Now that’s productivity. (A recent survey by recruitment company Zippia revealed that 77% of employees accessed social media at work, spending an average of 12% of their workday on these unproductive platforms.) 

Finally, remember that any techniques towards improved productivity are supposed to be relatively easy to apply. So, whether they’re hacks or deep-level changes, if you’re finding it laborious and annoying to implement your selected mechanisms, then they’re not helpful at all. They’re hindering your productivity.

The best advice in that situation? Scrap them all, and get down to work.

From general business leadership to specific business skills, DigitalCampus has a spectrum of short courses designed to improve peoples’ productivity and prospects. Contact us today.     

Written By:

Kevin Williams

Managing Executive


 In partnership with Dave Gorin