Emily Kim used to be overwhelmed by her job and her life.
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"I always had too much to do," she says. "I never got to the end of my to-do list at work. I didn't take breaks and ate lunch every day at my desk or skipped it altogether. Even if I came in early and stayed late, I could never seem to catch up. I was tired all the time and irritable."
She smiles. "One co-worker told me that I growled at her when she stopped by my desk to ask how I was doing."
But Emily has given up being grouchy. Today, she bounces to work ready for a challenge. And she even has time to eat lunch with friends.
What changed? Emily says she did.
"I realized that I was part of the problem," she says. "Maybe I can't change my workload, but I can change how I deal with it."
Soon, Emily began trying productivity tips that she found online. Here is a list of the top 10 productivity tips that she still uses every day.
1. Before you open your e-mail or check your phone messages, take time to plan your day.
Take 15 minutes to figure out what you need to accomplish and by when. Also, make sure your tasks today help you move toward your overall goals for yourself, your department or your small business.
Figure out your top three priorities for the day. What absolutely must be accomplished today and what can wait for tomorrow or later in the week?
2. Keep your desk and office organized.
Having to search through stacks of material for the one folder you need can add up to a lot of wasted minutes each week. Instead, save time by organizing your office, desk, computer and filing system so you can find documents when you need them. Color-code your folders or highlight important data so you can easily spot whatever you need. Put office supplies and staplers where you can easily reach them. If necessary, keep everything for an important project in a specific file drawer, cabinet or a covered banker's box.
Keep only reference materials, supplies personal items, and the files and papers for your current project on top of your desk. File everything else away. This will help keep another project from grabbing your attention simply because you caught a glimpse of its folder. (But if you should find yourself suddenly distracted by thoughts of another project, determine what your next action for that project is, write it down and then put it out of your mind and refocus on the project at hand.)
3. Read only the important e-mails.
No matter how many hilarious Internet jokes your friends send you, skip them until break time or save them for when you have downtime between projects.
Create a special file for unread e-mail messages. Dump everything in that file and open it only when you have time.
Delete spam e-mail as soon as you see it. You'll save space on your hard drive and maybe even prevent yourself from downloading a computer virus.
4. Take breaks and eat lunch.
No matter how busy you are, how long your to-do list is or how hot your project has become, take short breaks and eat lunch. Study after study has shown that everyone works better with an occasional break, and no one can continue to function at peak efficiency without food. You might not feel hungry, but your body (not to mention your brain) needs nourishment.
Even a short break can take your mind off your work and allow your creative juices to flow freely once again. Also, many people find that talking with co-workers can help them re-energize themselves to work even harder.
Missing lunch and skipping breaks can cause burnout which can make you grumpy, constantly tired and unable to concentrate.
5. Use technology to your advantage.
The usual "Hi, how are you?" conversations on the telephone can waste a great deal of time. Don't call if sending an e-mail—or even an instant message—will work more efficiently or allow you to get quick answers to your questions.
When you're concentrating on a project, allow Caller ID and voicemail work for you: Watch your Caller ID and only pick up calls you absolutely have to. For everyone else, especially the generally chatty folks, let callers leave you a message. You can always call them back after you have completed your top three priorities for the day.
6. Do productivity checks.
Every few hours, ask yourself this question about what you are currently working on: "Is this the best use of my time today?" If it's not, stop doing that activity. Delegate the task to someone else or schedule it for another day or a later time.
Many time-wasting activities are done out of habit. Try to break yourself of them.
7. Question everything.
When your colleague, your employee, your boss or a client gives you an assignment, don't immediately accept it, no questions asked. Instead, hold off on beginning a project until you have all of the details and you completely understand everything that is required. You don't want to waste days and weeks working on an assignment only to find that your client or your boss was expecting a quite different product or that you weren't given a crucial piece of information.
So ask questions: When is the project due? What is required to complete the project? What are the other person's expectations about the outcome? Should the final product be e-mailed, faxed or delivered by messenger?
8. Work during your prime time.
Are you a morning person? Or do you not get fully up to creative speed until after lunch? Determine when you have the most energy and concentration and tackle your most challenging projects then. Schedule routine telephone calls, meetings and other activities for your less energetic moments.
9. Don't allow impromptu meetings.
Spur of the moment meetings waste time, especially if they're during your prime work time. When co-workers, bosses or employees pop into your office unexpectedly, explain that you're in the middle of an important project and politely ask if you can call or e-mail them later to schedule a meeting. Then when your prime work period is over for the day or you've finished your project, follow-up with them and set a meeting time that works well for everyone.
10. Schedule meetings with staff.
Instead of encouraging or even just allowing employees to drop by to ask questions, schedule meetings with them as needed.
Mondays are not usually good days for general staff meetings because nothing much will have happened yet. But if you schedule department or company meetings for later in the week (Wednesday through Friday), your staff will have something to report.
If people need to meet with you every day, don't schedule the meetings during your prime work hours. Once you have accomplished your top three priorities for the day, you will feel much more able to meet with co-workers, staff and even your boss.
It's 3 p.m. and Emily is discussing her favorite Thai restaurant with a co-worker. But isn't she too busy to chat?
"I'm a morning person," she says with a smile. "I've already completed my top three tasks for the day. I don't need to growl anymore."
Manage Projects Like a Pro