How to Be More Productive and Get Everything Done

We talk to a work-life balance expert about how to become productivity-perfect.



My husband, Chris, pointed out over the weekend how exceedingly ironic it is that I have put off writing this blog post—on how to be more productive at work and in life—for nearly two weeks now. I replied that this is why I don’t interview myself for these stories. I find experts who actually know what they’re talking about and share their words of wisdom with you. It’s the whole, “do as I say, not as I do” thing. And for that, you’re welcome, readers.

Today’s words of wisdom come by way of the lovely Julie Cohen, a career coach headquartered in Elkins Park who specializes in issues of work-life balance. In fact, Julie literally wrote the book on the subject a few years back, and has been helping clients here in Philly and around the world be more satisfied at work for more than a decade. In other words, if there are answers to be had here, Julie has ’em.

And, boy, does she ever. In the two weeks since our conversation (shut it, Chris), I’ve been trying to employ some of her tips and techniques for myself. My biggest takeaways: how to organize my workspace and prioritize my massive to-do list. And with the busy, stressful holiday season right around the corner (eek!), her advice couldn’t have come at a better time. Read on to see Julie’s tips for being more productive and getting everything done—even when you feel like you’re drowning in deadlines (or Santa Claus wrapping paper, as the case may be).

Let’s start with a simple question: Aside from wanting to keep your job (duh), why is productivity and feeling productive actually important?

Whenever I run workshops, one of the questions I always ask is, “How do you feel when you’re most productive?” People say they feel more accomplished and energized than on days when they’re not productive. They feel proud. Being productive obviously allows you to cross things off your to-do list—and for some people that’s enough in and of itself—but there’s also the residual benefits: the emotional, the physical. We feel less stressed. We feel empowered. We feel more driven. Those byproducts enhance overall well-being when we feel like we’re doing the right things in the right way for us.

Why is keeping our productivity high during this time of year especially important?

There’s more and more demand personally and professionally at the end of the year. Budgets. Planning projects. Pretty soon all the holiday parties and shopping will be in full tilt. If you have kids, you might have even more demands—school parties, concerts, plays. We get stretched thinner and thinner. Usually when this happens, one of the first things that comes off our list to-do list is taking care of ourselves—good sleep, exercise, whatever self-care means to you. As we get busier and busier, there are more stressors and demands on our time, attention and energy, and we usually put ourselves last on the list. You have to ask yourself: Am I putting the right fuel in the tank to be able to get everything done that needs to get done? I’m talking about exercise, time with family, sleep, eating well. It’s making sure you’re including time to add energy so you can actually do the things that need doing.

What are some of the biggest reasons you hear from clients about why they’re unproductive at work?

Multitasking: Responding to emails, answering the phone, chatting on IM—all of the things we react to. There’s significant research that shows that multitasking actually lowers efficiency and effectiveness. Even though it can make us feel productive, the time it takes to switch back and forth between answering an email and returning a call—it slows you down in all your tasks.

The social-media black hole: Think about all those times when you say to yourself, “Oh, I just want to go on Facebook for two minutes.” Twenty-five minutes later, you’re still there. We think a little distraction will help us, but once you get online it can really pull you down.

Lack of Planning Time: For a lot of people this is counterintuitive, but I see it in the workplace and at home, too. Because we’re often so to-do list focused or reactive to what shows up on a given day, it’s critical to take time out from the business of doing to plan. For example, for me, I’m a morning person, so at the beginning of the day I try to take 10 minutes to think about the the three most important tasks I need to get done today. Most days I have 20 things on my list, so deciding which three are the most important helps me set reasonable expectations for myself.

Clutter: I’m not an organizer and I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for organization. But it’s knowing that feeling when there’s too much junk around you. It can be on your desk, in your head, on your computer. Can you find what you need to find in a really reasonable way? Is your environment supportive of getting you what you need when you need it? If the answer is no, you need to work on your clutter.

No support structure: Simply put, if you’re doing everything and you don’t have people around you helping you do things you’re not the best at, you’re never going to be as productive and effective as you could be.

How can I figure out exactly what sapping me of productivity and efficiency?

Keep an energy log to identify your leaks. When people are productive, they usually have the residual benefit of feeling energized, optimal, proud of their accomplishments. We want to look for behaviors that are giving us that feeling, and look to repeat it. Even the most productive people don’t stop to pause and assess, but that pause-and-assessment time is important. So I recommend over the course of a week, maybe three or four times each day, rate how you feel in a notebook or file. How am I doing? How productive am I feeling on a scale of one to 10? Note what’s going on. A one might be, “I worked on three projects and got nowhere. Or a 10: “I cleared my inbox, wrote a letter to editor, and had great call with client.” You want to start looking for patterns and do what’s getting good results and change what’s not.

Okay, so once I’ve logged my work habits for a week, what are some things I can do to really turbocharge my productivity?

Time boxing: Block out time in your schedule to work on answering email, or whatever activity you identify as a time-suck. If that doesn’t feel appropriate to your corporate culture, let important people know not to reach you over email during these times—contact me this way instead.

Address the clutter: Find a system that enables you to get the things you need at your fingertips and in your head. If you have so much stuff in your head that you feel overwhelmed or frazzled, create a system where you get your thoughts out of your head, like a journal to get ideas down. Or you could walk around with a recorder or iPhone and record messages to yourself.

Shut your door: There’s something to be said for physically shutting out distractions.

Turn off your email: I don’t have my email set to automatically update. For me to get my email I have to go into the program and hit send and receive. This way, I don’t have a ding pulling me away every five seconds. (Ed. note: I actually adopted this tip a long time ago and found it super helpful. On my Mac at work, I have the alerts turned off so that I don’t have to see a pesky red number in the dock telling me I have email; I only see new emails when I physically check it myself. Another thing I often do: turn off my work email on my phone on the weekends. I know some of you absolutely have to stay connected, but if you can be a little flexible, I think you’ll find that keeping your free time all to yourself really pays dividends in terms of mental wellness. And hey, you earned it, right?)

Turn off your cell phone: Senior executives will often say, “I never get to my important work. I never get to be strategic.” Well, have you ever thought about shutting off cell phone for an hour? I suggested that to a client recently and he thought I was from a different planet. I pressed him: “What would happen if you did that? Do you think an hour is unreasonable to be out of touch?” He admitted that it wasn’t. So he experimented, and all of a sudden he was getting important stuff done.

How important is a to-do list? Also, is it super embarrassing that sometimes I put things on my list that I’ve already finished just so I can cross them off?

I think you have to pay attention to your energy. Does a list give you a structure and a process to get important things done? Or if you have a 50-item to-do list, will it annoy you and stress you out? This is why I restrict myself to three items a day. I have a white board in my office where I write my priorities every day so I can see them visually. If you are going to use a to-do list, make sure you see the important stuff. Don’t put “clean the kitchen sink” next to “write the will.” Make sure your list is meaningful. There is value to getting all your thoughts out of your head—it lessens that feeling that you’re getting nothing done—but if you have a haphazard list of 30 Post-It notes all over your desk, it’s going to add to that stress. Can you categorize them? Do they fall under themes?

Throwing something on your list that you’ve already done to just cross it off—that’s human nature. It feels good; I got it done. We want to look for as many opportunities to acknowledge our success as possible. If it’s working, whatever your system is and you’re feeling productive, don’t over-assess.

How do you know you’re being productive? Is it measurable?

I think it’s both a feeling and physical output. For a lot of my clients, productivity on each day is a moving target. If you’re working on a very data-driven project and you need to crunch numbers for three days, there may not be an output each day, but it’s moving you towards a final product—and that’s productive. This is one of the myths of work-life balance, and it sets us up for dissatisfaction: 1) that there’s one definition of work-life balance, and 2) that we never get there. I am über-productive; it’s who I am. It serves me a lot, but sometimes it gets to be too much. I might not sleep and take good care of myself. You have to make it about you achieving what you want, not about whether the person sitting next to you has 176 things they crossed off on their to-do list and you’ve crossed off three. Comparing yourself to other people will only drain your energy even more.