Suppose you are at the start of your career. Your work is hard, and you are burning out. What can you do to make it slightly better? Here are some quick methods to maximize productivity in a Work-from-home, Hybrid, or Work-from-office system.
- 1. Use communication strategies to establish boundaries and prioritize work.
- 2. Simplify your work-related decisions with reliable resources.
- 3. Stop planning the entire day every day. That’s disguised procrastination. Choose alternative tasks instead.
- 4. Learn to do things there and then.
- 5. Don’t wait for motivation or inspiration. That’s probably an excuse not to get started.
- 6. Give yourself lesser time than you need to do something.
- 7. Don’t “wait” for one thing to end to start something new. Start a second task.
- 8. Avoid a 100% routine day; make your day flexible with a few fixed routines and impromptu plans.
- 9. Spend time recovering and having fun (low key and high intensity).
- 10. If you don’t know what you need to do, drink water and wash your face.
- 11. Challenge yourself and learn to explore.
- 12. Be productive for a few hours, not the whole day, and take 20–30 minute breaks between sessions.
- 13. Wear comfy clothes or work-appropriate clothes and stay hygienic. You work better when you feel good.
- 14. Close your eyes for 10 minutes and lie down on the floor with arms and legs stretched out. This will reduce fatigue.
1. Use communication strategies to establish boundaries and prioritize work.
Constant connectivity creates the expectation of being constantly available for others’ requests. This makes work pile up when others aren’t aware of how much you have to do.
- Prioritizing requests: If someone pings you with a request, be ready to say you are working on something else and will get on the request quickly. In fact, ask them – should I prioritize what I am doing or finish your request? Let them help on the decision so there is minimal conflict. Chances are they will give you a deadline.
- Me-time: Create no-call-no-ping dead zones – moments of the day you don’t respond to any message/call or take zero work requests. These are necessary to avoid burnout and interpersonal stress. You should follow up after that to maintain healthy communication.
- Notes and reminders: Keep a system to store reminders and interaction details. My personal favorite is a self-WhatsApp group. You can create it by making a group of 2 and kicking the 2nd member. Now you have a group to store documents, reminders, and temporary information, like external human memory storage. Plus, it’s always in your awareness.
We tend to use comfortable and easy options because they are less stressful. But work involves complex decision-making in most cases, and that creates a large portion of stress. Moderate stress is good for learning and memory and makes us cognitively sharp. So that’s useful. However, too much stress again impairs decision-making and cognitive functioning. So to manage stress according to work demands, you can optimize your resources to reduce micro-stressors. These are the resources you should optimize first:
- Work processes – writing templates, coding systems, communication protocols
- Documents and shareable in one organized place
- Phone and laptop charging
- Updated and access to useful apps
- Easy modes of payment and purchases
- Ensured logins so communication is easy
- Knowing where to find what you need
- Space to do what you need to do
- Knowing useful humans
- Ability to ask those humans for what you need
- Time: doing small things there and then
- Time: committing to a future hour in a reasonable capacity
- Backlogs: working on backlogs without ignoring current priorities
- Managing & maintaining your tools: stationary, gadgets, software, utilities, etc
- Your self-notes, to-do lists, and bookmarks need to be in your awareness and up to date
- Physical resources: maintain your energy supply with food and nutrition
- Environmental de-stressors: Sunlight, air, and nature reduce stress and improve productivity
These resources will eventually make your job easier by reducing unexpected hurdles and stressors. In addition, when these save you time, you can afford to take short breaks to restore yourself.
3. Stop planning the entire day every day. That’s disguised procrastination. Choose alternative tasks instead.
Procrastination is delaying a task to reduce anxiety caused by negative emotions about the outcome of a task or the process of doing a task. But what you do while procrastinating is important. Sometimes, we choose mood-repairing activities, and other times, we do seemingly productive activities to avoid the guilt of procrastination. These activities manifest as overplanning, collecting resources, waiting for some other important thing to happen, etc.
One way to overcome this is to predefine what you need to do and do the less stressful work while procrastinating. So you can create a short list of things you have to do that aren’t very urgent and do them when you are in no position to commit to a task emotionally. Instead of overplanning with no helpful outcome, do an alternative, less difficult task. Making a list of tasks is useful. If you aren’t into list-making, develop your prospective memory – the ability to mentally remind yourself to do important things when you are unoccupied.
4. Learn to do things there and then.
With a work-from-home and hybrid-working approach to productivity, there is ample flexibility. Activities like short emails, updates, sending files, logins, collecting screenshots, sending reminders, charging your devices, etc., don’t take much time, and all of them can be completed there and then. Thinking you can do those activities at a specific hour later might hamper productivity through forgetting and interference with other tasks. You may feel this multi-tasking hampers productivity, but research shows that multi-tasking during routine or easy work improves focus by reducing mind-wandering and habituation.
5. Don’t wait for motivation or inspiration. That’s probably an excuse not to get started.
Consider your work objective as a “stimulus.” Then, your productive action is the “response.” You can simplify your work with a simple Stimulus-Response mindset. However, we tend to place “motivation” between “Stimulus and Response,” making it Stimulus-Motivation-Response (SMR), and then decide if we should start the response. Unfortunately, that’s a problem because it gives us the option to ignore the response. While easier said than done, it is possible to ignore the concept of motivation. What this does is – our decision-making gets easier. Instead of thinking about doing and not doing based on feeling, you can focus on starting a small response to a small stimulus. You can devalue motivation by thinking of the exact steps you need to take – the exact responses needed. Then do them one by one as if you are following your own instructions. Instead of one big S-M-R pair, you create a chain many small S-R pairs.
Objective = stimulus. Work = response. SMR looks difficult and overwhelming. SR looks small and manageable. SMR feels incomplete right till the end. SR feels like it is properly shaping up as you are working on it.
Example: Don’t wait for motivation when writing a report. Instead, use your information as a stimulus and respond to it by writing about just that. Then use another bit of information to build another section. This way, you can incrementally build an index, the methods section, discussion, listed points, etc. Then use that information to write page titles. Then format each partition. And then finally polish the document. Essentially, don’t go from start to finish; that’s hard. Instead, work on different fragments, and watch the entire picture complete. Breaking down the task makes it feel easy and small in size, so motivation seems irrelevant.
6. Give yourself lesser time than you need to do something.
Work tasks occur with deadlines, so we often estimate how long a task will or should take. The problem is that estimates affect how long we’ll actually work. Without precise data on how long a task takes, it’s hard to be accurate about how long it should take. “Parkinson’s law” states that work expands or contracts to occupy the time allocated. So if you feel an email will take 10 minutes, it’ll mostly take 10ish minutes. However, if you assign 30 mins, you may work slower and occupy 15-20 minutes for a 10-minute job. Our estimates are crude and guide our behavior, so giving ourselves lesser time than we think we need can speed us up.
7. Don’t “wait” for one thing to end to start something new. Start a second task.
Sometimes, we hold an assumption – one task has to get over for the other to start. However, in most real cases, this assumption is flawed. It’s also flawed for the human brain because the brain is capable of holding multiple trains of thought in memory and also continues processing those thoughts in the background.
- Create an opportunity for creative insights: Most forms of creative insights occur randomly when there is background processing going on. But for this to start, we have to begin multiple tasks. You can manage 2 tasks at a time, and then distancing yourself from them can give you a fresh perspective. If you do that, you’ll be more likely to think creatively because distance changes perspectives.
- Shuffle 2 tasks and race to finish one first: We show a zero-risk bias, where we prefer to complete one small task instead of partially progressing on one big task when we have to choose between the two. When you have 2 tasks going on, you can shuffle between 2 tasks so that one task is always more complete than the other. This creates a motivation to finish the least incomplete task. Once completed, you can start a new task. Now, the previous more incomplete task is comparatively more complete, so the motivation to finish that increases. This form of task-shuffling can help you progress on many fronts simultaneously.
8. Avoid a 100% routine day; make your day flexible with a few fixed routines and impromptu plans.
A full scheduled day might for some people, but it is unlikely to work for too long, even for those who prefer it. At some point, you would feel you’ve lost ownership of your time and feel the day controls you instead of you controlling the day. For this to not happen, keep open and closed time slots in the day. Open slots are when you make decisions about how you spend time. Closed slots are when you say No to any odd plan and do your routine work. You can say Yes or No to other people’s requests during open slots.
9. Spend time recovering and having fun (low key and high intensity).
Work-life balance is essentially a productivity-fun-relaxation balance. To maintain high productivity, you need fun and relaxation. Separating moments of fun, idle time, and work adds boundaries to an otherwise blurry, monotonous, burnt-out day/week. Exercise, dance, and sports create boundaries, and so does 20 minutes of Instagram and 2 episodes on Netflix. They also increase biological arousal, which counters depressive moods, releases anxiety, and improve overall energy.
10. If you don’t know what you need to do, drink water and wash your face.
Thirst is a very easy-to-ignore bodily signal. If you feel something is missing, it might just be water. Water makes us alert at a very deep biological level. Similarly, washing your face can make you alert. Both these activities can act like full stops and commas in your workday.
11. Challenge yourself and learn to explore.
At most jobs, we need to improve at doing our work. This means productivity depends on learning. Small challenges drive us to improve and send us into the flow state, which gets a lot of work done. Exploration helps us identify new methods, opportunities, and details that broaden our horizons and advance our skills. The more they advance, the more expert you become. And when you become an expert, work feels less stressful and intuitive. To maximize this, change your approach to work if it is failing you repeatedly. This means you should explore new tools and frameworks which others use reliably.
12. Be productive for a few hours, not the whole day, and take 20–30 minute breaks between sessions.
Breaks are needed to restore attention if you are doing attentive work. And they are necessary to regain energy if you are doing mundane, boring work. Chunks of a few hours are usually enough to finish large portions of work, and 20-30 minutes of breaks are short enough to lose momentum. If you work too long every day, you’ll eventually burn out.
13. Wear comfy clothes or work-appropriate clothes and stay hygienic. You work better when you feel good.
What we wear affects how we feel. For some, comfortable clothes can help them relax and work steady hours. For others, dressing up according to expectations and appropriateness can bring out a particular work mindset.
- Dress up or be comfy with a goal in mind: Research shows wearing formal attire makes us feel more authoritative, competent, and trustworthy, and casual attire makes us feel more friendly. Others might also feel similarly and affect the nature of productive interactions. For example, dressing well for an important video call might not only impress others but also make your mindset more serious and work-focused. The important thing here is to figure out what works for you and simplify clothing-related decision-making.
- Manage working temperature: Environmental temperature affects cognitive functioning, so clothing can optimize it. This differs greatly between men and women, with men working better at lower temperatures and women working better at higher temperatures within the 18- to 32-degree celsius range (64 to 90 F). Clothes can also affect your confidence, motivation, and status, improving or worsening performance.
- Body image: Hygiene and grooming are equally important – feeling good about yourself is essential for well-being and performance. It may break barriers to confidence and also improve body language and communication.
14. Close your eyes for 10 minutes and lie down on the floor with arms and legs stretched out. This will reduce fatigue.
… Or any other method to stretch and loosen up the body.
- Stretch and relax: Reducing temporary and built-up fatigue is important because tense muscles communicate to the brain, saying, “You are still stressed; continue a stressed mode of working.” This is biological feedback between the body and the brain – both want to be on the same page, so a tense body creates a tense mind, and a tense mind creates a tense body.
- Give your eyes a break: Eye fatigue is a major problem, too, because of screens. It disrupts sleep which functions as the body’s “restoration” mode – it restores attention and consolidates learning along with cleaning up the cellular debris in the brain. It also reduces the intensity of your response to stress and difficult emotions – sleep weakens the response and lets you adapt better the next day. The ophthalmologist’s advice – 20/20/20 – Every 20 mins of screen time, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds – is a great way to reduce eye fatigue.
Some other things you may want to improve: Room/office lighting, access to fresh air, and sleep quality.
Not everyone will need to modify these, but these productivity tips will help most early-career employees find some way to improve their core productivity.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.