The ultimate guide to productivity in the workplace

It’s probably safe to say we’d all love to get more results from less effort.

Yes, we’re talking about productivity—that elusive blend of efficiency and expertise that allows you to tick off to-do list items and hit gargantuan goals at an unthinkable pace.

It’s an idealistic vision of a work day and one that few of us actually hit. Instead of hours of effortlessly working towards our goals, we get bogged down in busy work, distracted by meetings and calls, and tossed on tangents solving other peoples’ problems.

So how do we change this?

In his book Smarter Faster Better, author Charles Duhigg defines productivity simply as “making certain choices in certain ways” that change our focus from being “merely busy” to “genuinely productive”.

We’d go one step further and say that productivity is about making choices to spend your time on meaningful work and protecting that time like a lioness protects her cubs.

In this guide, we’ll cover techniques and strategies for selecting, editing, and curating the actions you take all day long to help boost your productivity in the workplace and make sure you’re not just doing more work, but the right work.

Before we dive in, we’ve created this as a living and constantly expanding resource on workplace productivity. We encourage you to jump to a section that deals with an issue you’re facing now and come back whenever you’re looking for inspiration.

How to boost your productivity in the workplace:

  1. Develop self awareness of what work really drives results
  2. Commit to a realistic work schedule
  3. Find a supportive environment that doesn’t promote overworking over personal health
  4. Test and refine your personal morning routine
  5. Go easy on the caffeine
  6. Block out time for focused, productive work on a weekly and daily basis
  7. Create productivity focused calendar templates for your week
  8. Use ‘location boxing’ to do the right tasks at the right time
  9. Automate as much of your communication as possible
  10. Use effective note-taking techniques to have more productive meetings
  11. Tame the constant influx of emails
  12. Beat procrastination with the 5-minute rule
  13. Hang out with high achievers and use positive reinforcement for a quick hit of motivation
  14. Fight external distraction with website blockers…
  15. …and internal distractions with self talk and mindfulness
  16. Build a productive end-of-day routine
  17. Give yourself time to be bored
  18. Prioritize getting enough rest

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The basics: How to know you’re doing productive work

“If you can measure it, you can manage it.”

Although it dates back to the 1500s, this statement is the modern mantra for workplace productivity.

Without a clear idea of what work gets us closer to our goals, all of the following productivity techniques, strategies, and tips are useless. Which is why our first step towards building more productive work habits starts with asking some high-level questions about the work we do. Such as:

What can we measure to find our productivity benchmarks?

What work actually makes us feel good and contributes to a feeling of satisfaction?

Here are a few techniques to help you discover what work is most productive for you:

Develop self awareness of what work drives results

Discovering what work is most productive towards your goals starts with giving yourself the right tools to measure productivity. Because, as renowned consultant and author Peter Drucker puts it:

“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

Fortunately, the most important tool in your toolbox is also one of the simplest: feedback.

Whether it’s your to-do list, time management app, or even just catch-up meetings with your team, you need a tool or resource that provides a tidy way to look at the work you’ve done, measure its impact, and suggest better ways to go forward.

Feedback loops like these are what measure your output and give you the self awareness to make the right choices towards meaningful work. Unlike hard and fast, one-size-fits-all goals that may feel totally unattainable, a good feedback loop tells you where you are right now, and allows you to make small changes towards how you work that lead to big improvements over time.

Here’s a look at how to set up a feedback loop for your daily work. 

Commit to a realistic work schedule

To set ourselves up for a productive work week, we need to know our own limitations.

Despite our best efforts (and the advice of the hundreds of ‘hustle hard’ entrepreneurs out there) we can’t work nonstop. In fact, the more we work, the worse work we do.

Instead, we need to set guardrails of quality by committing to a realistic work schedule. Which naturally begs the question of: “Just how many hours should we work a week?

The answer isn’t entirely clear, unfortunately. While researchers have found working more than 40 hours a week does in fact increases productivity, it only does so to a point.

Once we pass the 49-hour mark, our work quality steadily diminishes. Meaning those 70-hour weeks you’ve been grinding out most likely haven’t resulted in anything better than the average worker putting in 40–50 hours a week.

This isn’t to say you should simply strive for your weekly ’49’.

No matter how many hours you work, it all comes down to your effort capacity—the number of hours you can spend actively working towards bigger goals. Time spent at your desk doesn’t matter if it’s not towards something meaningful. So by all means keep track of your hours, just make sure the results match up to the effort.

Find a supportive environment that doesn’t promote overworking over personal health

Lastly, because we can realistically only work a set number of hours a week and still stay productive, we need to be in an environment that respects those limitations.

In a team or company environment, this means being realistic about deadlines as well as not scheduling work beyond the hours you’ll be most productive for.

If you work for yourself—where deadlines and quitting time can be much more nebulous—this means prioritizing self-care, taking regular breaks, and leaving a daily buffer for the issues that will inevitably come up.

Defining your day: Setting yourself up for productive work

Once you know what type of work moves the needle the most, it’s time to look at how to spend more of your day on those tasks. This means setting up daily routine and scheduling practices that prioritize meaningful work, while being realistic of the distractions that always come up.

Here’s a few strategies to start with:

Test and refine your morning routine

How you spend your morning sets the pace for the rest of the day.

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, famously starts her day with an hour of tennis , while author Haruki Murakami rises sharply at 4am and works for 5–6 hours before going for a run or swim.

However you choose to spend your first few hours, a clear morning routine allows you to start with positive momentum by setting your priorities straight first thing. This not only keeps you motivated, but can help steer you away from distraction and maintain your productivity all day long when you’re tempted to slip into mindless busywork.

To make the most of your routine, make sure to incorporate these qualities into it:

  • Overcome sleep inertia by increasing your morning activity, washing your face, getting outside or listening to upbeat music
  • Start your day with some form of positivity, whether that’s reading something inspiring, journaling about your day or going over your list of goals
  • Get a ‘small win’ on something personal to kickstart your motivation for the day

Go easy on the caffeine

Coffee and caffeinated drinks have been a productivity booster for ages. Just look at nineteenth-century French writer Honoré de Balzac who claimed to consume up to 50 cups of coffee every day just to keep him going.

You probably know someone who could give Balzac a run for his money. However, if your ultimate goal is a productive day, you might want to tone the coffee consumption back.

Researchers studying the effects of coffee on productivity have found that while in small doses, the drink does increase energy and alertness, it is equally good at causing anxiety and jitteriness. While we have a complex relationship with coffee, most studies agree that its effects are best suited for completing repetitive tasks and not work that takes higher levels of insight and creativity.

If your daily hit of caffeine is part of your routine then by all means keep it up. Just don’t expect the stimulant to replace other healthier processes for boosting productivity like getting outside, exercising, or taking breaks.

Managing your time: Staying focused and protecting your productivity

Time is precious sign

It’s probably clear by now that when it comes to productivity and doing meaningful work, time is our most valuable resource. This means not only finding effective ways to manage our time during the day, but also setting up processes and strategies for protecting that time from distractions.

Let’s look at a few ways to keep your productive time sacred:

Block out time for focused, productive work on a weekly and daily basis

Nothing kills your motivation like reflecting at the end of the day and not having anything solid you can put your name on. Yet I’m sure we’ve all been in this position more than a few times.

Busywork is often the culprit stealing away our productivity in the workplace. Simple things like email and chat can take up an estimated 29% of your workday, which works out to almost a day and a half a week.

To maintain a productive work week, we need to learn how to protect our time and use it for the right tasks. As entrepreneur and famed motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You either run the day, or the day runs you.” (and sometimes it feels like the day runs you over with a steamroller).

One technique championed by Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work—a book dedicated to finding focused time in a distracting world—is to use your calendar as a guardian of productive time, by scheduling out your most productive work a month in advance:

“At any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month. This four week lead time is sufficiently long enough that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period.

I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.”

If you’d rather not commit to months at a time, Newport’s technique can also be used on a daily basis by scheduling out larger chunks of ‘maker time’—sections of the day where you focus on projects that depend on dedicated focus like writing, coding, or strategic thinking.

With those ‘maker’ time slots pre-scheduled, you’re free to take on any other tasks in the time that remains.

Create productivity-focused templates for your week

Not all jobs allow the luxury of scheduling long chunks of uninterrupted time weeks in advance. If you’re managing teams or working on multiple projects at once, it might seem impossible to stick to such a rigidly set schedule.

Instead, try creating templates that are rigid in defining how and when we work, but flexible enough to work with your changing schedules.

This way, instead of scheduling work around events and meetings that pop up, you’re working the other way around.

Here’s what SuperBooked CEO Dan Mall’s schedule template looks like with scheduled work, email, and meeting times:

Dan Mall's schedule

See how his day has scheduled blocks for what he knows is going to take his attention away?

You can modify this template for yourself depending on your specific needs, but the goal is to create a template that reflects your ideal work day with reasonable time set aside for meaningful work, calls, and meetings.

Another option which is even less rigid is to create a template for your week. This idea comes from freelance designer Jessica Hische, who keeps Mondays free of deadlines and focuses on admin work only:

“If I give myself one day to do the bulk of my emailing/interview answering/file organizing/scheduling etc, I feel WAY less guilty about ignoring all of that stuff for large periods of time during the rest of the work week.”

Read more on how to manage your day and organize your calendar here.

Use ‘location boxing’ to do the right tasks at the right time

If the idea of boxing out productive time doesn’t seem to fit with you at all (and it is hard to stick to these schedules), a final option is to try ‘location boxing’—a technique that involves doing certain tasks in specific locations only.

Here’s an example: When RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell found that he was having issues switching between coding, designing, and communicating, he decided to experiment with doing different tasks in different places:

“I find coffee shops a little distracting when I need to really focus hard on a single task, but they’re great for a series of short, repetitive tasks. I get to enjoy a latte while I churn through emails that I’d otherwise pick at throughout the day.”

When you can’t physically move to another location, you can also try using a different setup or device for different tasks, as writer Gregory Ciotti does. As a writer and marketer, Ciotti spends a lot of his time reading and writing. But instead of sticking to one device, he ‘boxes’ his work onto different screen sizes:

It might seem simple, but don’t underestimate the power of small changes like this. The practice of tying specific tasks to specific locations is so powerful in building new habits that it’s even been used to help treat people with insomnia.

Staying in touch: Strategies for communicating and collaborating effectively

While meaningful, productive work is very often personal, we can’t deny the importance of communication in the modern workplace. In an office, email, chat, and meetings are how you stay connected and collaborating effectively. While if you’re a freelancer or a remote worker, having clear lines of communication keep you in tune with the rest of your team and working on the right tasks.

Yet, finding ways to maintain your openness and ability to communicate regularly, while also actually doing the work can be difficult.

Whether it’s email, Slack, phone calls, or meetings, here are some ways to maintain your productivity while handling the necessities of communication and collaboration:

Automate as much of your communication as possible

There’s nothing more counterproductive to productive work than the endless back-and-forth emails when scheduling calls or meetings. And while being personal in your communication is a key aspect of successful collaboration, it’s fine to take a more automated approach when it comes to finding a meeting time that works for everyone.

One tip is to use a service like Calendly to automate the process, which solves two major productivity killers:

  1. There’s only one email, which means you won’t be spending unnecessary time on going back and forth
  2. You insulate yourself from making bad decisions on the fly and keep your ‘deep work’ time protected

Setting meeting times isn’t the only part of your workday you can automate to maintain your productivity. Here’s a list of other communication suggestions from RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell.

Use effective note-taking techniques to have more productive meetings

“You can either have a meeting, or you can work. You can’t do both”

While management consultant Peter Drucker might have been right about the above statement, it’s impossible to imagine a life without meetings. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t work towards making them more productive.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply take better notes.

Proper notes let you remember what’s been discussed and decided upon during the meeting so the work actually gets done.

You might think this is a non-issue, but studies have shown that most of our common ways of taking notes—typing them up on your laptop, highlighting sections in documents, underlining important facts—don’t actually work.

Instead, here are a few productive note-taking methods you can try:

  • Handwrite your notes : A series of studies pitted those who took notes on laptops vs. those who wrote by hand and found that using pen and paper increases information recall.
  • Use a bullet journal: To make note-taking useful, you need to be able to quickly find and reference what you’ve written down. The bullet journal method uses a simple set of keys and symbols to categorize and organize what you’ve written.
  • Draw your notes: For those more artistically minded (or prone to doodling), drawing your notes has also been found to help increase information recall. Check out Mike Rohde’s ‘sketchnotes’ method for inspiration.

Tame the constant influx of emails

Lastly, we can’t talk about productive communication without talking about the hulking beast that is email.

Email and other alternatives like Slack or HipChat have become the glue that ties our workdays together. We can connect with anyone we need to, share information and cat gifs all day long, talk about what we had for lunch… you see where we’re going here.

These tools are as much a benefit to productivity as they are a hindrance, which makes them especially dangerous.

Constant context switching, like bouncing between writing code and answering questions in Slack, can cause serious harm to our ability to work productively. One study found that it can take 23 minutes for workers to get back on track and focused after a short distraction.

We’ve written a long list of techniques and tools for dealing with emails, but here are a few simple suggestions to start with:

  • Optimize your inbox to support good habits like only showing you emails that you’ve tagged as important
  • Set up metrics to measure how much time you spend in email/Slack (you can use RescueTime for that)
  • Turn off notifications and only check your email and scheduled times. That means on your phone too.

How to stay motivated throughout the workday

Passion led us here quote

So far we’ve talked about planning and protecting your time for productive work, but what about when it’s late in the day and you feel your focus slipping?

Here’s a few ways we’ve discovered to help keep your motivation up all-day long and fight the things distracting you from being productive:

Beat procrastination with the 5-minute rule

There are few things that kill our productivity more like procrastination. In fact, 95% of the American population admit to falling prey to procrastination. (And I’d bet the remaining 5% aren’t being completely honest).

So, how can we ‘hack’ our way out of procrastination? According to Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, beating procrastination comes down to bargaining:

“If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”

Procrastination is built on fear and conflict. If we’re motivated to finish a task, our fear of failure, criticism, or stress, pits our mind against itself. We fear that the negative outcomes of our work will come true and don’t end up even doing it.

Systrom’s 5-minute rule works because it lowers our inhibitions. We’re not doing the task (and facing the consequences). We’re simply doing 5 minutes of it. And once we’ve started? As writer and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote:

“On a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.”

We often can’t imagine feeling good about a task we were stressing over earlier. But once engaged, that stress goes away and we’re more likely to feel positive feelings about the work we’re doing.

Hang out with high achievers and use positive reinforcement for a quick hit of motivation

While motivation is a complex subject, studies have found a couple interesting and seemingly simple ways to give you a quick boost when you need it. Consider these your lifelines when you want to squeeze out a few more hours of productive work but feel your focus slipping:

  1. Spend time around high achievers: While we don’t all have a competitive nature, spending time around people who have succeeded in areas we want to can still be a strong motivator. Researchers found that what’s even more motivational is the hit of peer pressure we get when we see someone get publicly praised for an achievement we’re close to reaching ourselves.
  2. Reminisce on a positive experience: Studies have found that by reliving a positive experience, you can give yourself a boost of motivation to get through it. While researchers aren’t entirely sure why this works, Wharton professor Adam Grant believes it’s because “a sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work.”

Fight external distraction with website blockers…

One of the easiest ways to fight the distractions that chip away at our motivation is to simply get rid of them.

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, chat—the problem is that nearly everything in the modern world is designed to grab your attention. If you feel like your willpower and focus is failing you, it might be time to use a website blocker to keep you on track during focused work time.

You can read how to use RescueTime’s website blocking FocusTime feature here .

…and internal distractions with self talk and mindfulness

Unfortunately, distractions don’t just come from external sources. One of the main contributors to our distracted lives is our own mind, as Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, explains:

“It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.”

There’s no quick fix for this kind of distraction. However, many people have seen benefits from practicing mindfulness and learning to not get swept away by your own thoughts as well as using positive self-talk rather than obsessing over work that’s been left undone.

Start wearing an isolation helmet

Back in the 1920s, writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback got fed up with the distractions of everyday life and came up with The Isolator—a helmet that plunged you into complete silence and darkness, except for what was visible out of the two tiny eye holes. If that wasn’t enough, oxygen was pumped in through a tube to keep you alert and in the zone.

We’re kidding with this one, of course! But it just goes to show the crazy lengths some people have gone through to stay motivated and do productive work.

Winding down and recharging for a productive tomorrow

Writing in bed

If you’ve done your due diligence setting up your day, protected your productive time from distraction, and stayed motivated, the last piece of the productivity puzzle is to set yourself up to do it all over again tomorrow.

Here’s a few suggestions of ways to end your day, get enough rest, and refuel your cognitive energy stores for a productive tomorrow:

Build a productive end-of-day routine

Studies have found employees who start their workday in a bad mood tend to stay that way.

And one of the biggest contributors to a negative morning is not prepping the night before. Think of it as the difference between cooking with all your ingredients chopped and prepped, versus trying to cut vegetables while pots are boiling over on the stovetop. In productivity, like cooking, prep is key.

Start by putting together a simple end-of-day routine built around writing your to-do list for the next day (or filling out the template we discussed earlier).

For an added productivity kick, have some unfinished task that you can jump right into in the morning. This last step works because of a psychology principle called the Zeigarnik effect, which describes how our brains won’t let something go if we leave it unfinished. That mental cliffhanger is a great way to get over the hurdle of starting work the next day.

Give yourself time to be bored

From movies to apps to games, there’s so many distractions available to us that the very thought of being bored in life seems almost laughable.

However, actively seeking out a bit of boredom can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to preparing ourselves for a productive day.

Instead of filling your downtime with activities, reading, or socializing, set a little time aside to let your mind wander.

This process, known as incubation, is one of the building blocks of creative thinking as it allows ideas that were previously disconnected to come together and form new thoughts, inventions, or solutions to problems.

As Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench explains it:

“Boredom becomes a seeking state. What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged.”

Prioritize getting enough rest

While we’ve focused so much here on ways to get the most out of our work days, we also need to talk about when to stop working.

According to the Institute for Work and Families, fewer than half of U.S. employees take all their vacation days. While workplace satisfaction website Glassdoor discovering that 61% of employees work during vacation.

Rest—whether on vacation, weekends, or just between work days—is incredibly important for maintaining our energy and keeping us productive. Taking time off doesn’t just recharge our physical bodies, but refuels our mental and creative energy as well.

In a study of nearly 1,400 people, leisure time was found to encourage a more positive mindset and decrease levels of clinical depression. While a study from the University of York and the University of Florida found more than 40% of our creative ideas come while we’re indulging in breaks and downtime.

So don’t skip the downtime. It may seem awkward at first, but making sure you let yourself rest rather than constantly work will help your productivity in the long run.

Despite all the research, studies, and anecdotal evidence provided, there’s still no easy answer when it comes to being more productive at work and in life. Finding what works for you takes experimentation and just once you think you’ve got it all figured out, some major change comes along and makes you rethink everything.

Maybe that’s where our obsession with productivity comes from: The fact that there’s no set-it-and-forget-it method, but rather just processes and techniques we develop over a lifetime.

We hope this resource helps you start developing your own productive processes and get closer to spending more time on the projects that matter most to you.

And because the science of productivity is always changing, we’ll be updating this page as we learn more.

What techniques do you use to get the most from your workday or to make sure you’re working on the right tasks? Tell us in the comments and help us build this resource for everyone.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.