People spend half the day on unproductive tasks—here’s how to fix it

You might put in eight hours a day at the office, but how much of that time is really spent on productive work? According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, only 39% of an employee’s time is spent on role-specific tasks. The other 61%? Slogging through email, trying to find a missing file, or syncing with co-workers. How do you save what time you can, and make sure the remaining moments count?

1. Cut as many meetings as you can

According to an Opinion Matters survey, employees spend four hours per week in meetings, and they consider more than half of those hours a waste of time. Studies suggest you should start by cutting status update syncs, a common—but unpopular—type of meeting where little actual work gets done. Among rank-and-file employees, it’s often voted the worst sync of the week.

Next, think about meeting participants. Do you really need three representatives from Sales and two from Marketing? Resist the temptation to invite extra co-workers “just in case.” More often, your team members will be better off using the time to work on their own projects. One-on-one check-ins can be a good alternative in many cases—an opportunity for two key representatives to hash out details before the full group weighs in on a final decision.

Finally, think carefully about what information you need to communicate before scheduling (or attending) a formal meeting. Many times, key info can be communicated in other ways, like in shared online documents, with chat software, or even at the coffee maker. Each of these methods allows employees to receive and respond to information within their own workflow, rather than making them drop their work and sit in a conference room.

2. Change how you interact with co-workers

Collaborating with co-workers can greatly increase productivity. But there are better and worse ways to go about it. According to a Time Magazine report, the average employee gets interrupted seven times per hour—and 80 percent of those interruptions are trivial.

Instead of asking each question as it comes along, try making a list of queries, then asking them all at once when the right co-worker is available. Oftentimes, employees will stumble across the answer they need on their own, or else realize their first four questions were really just stepping stones toward a larger fifth question.

Suppose, however, that you’re the one getting interrupted. How can you send the right message to well-meaning co-workers without being rude? Instead of establishing an elaborate communication policy or schedule, most people find simple, human signals work best. Try putting on headphones when focusing to communicate “do not disturb.” Consider changing work spaces if the problem persists. Even if some of these strategies might seem passive, most colleagues will gradually adapt to your signals, whether consciously or not.

3. Phase out email as much as possible

In a 2012 UC Irvine study, 13 employees went without email for five days. The results were positive: the participants were able to increase focus and meaningfully reduce stress.

Email itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we’re using it in today’s workplace. Where emails were once information-rich messages, they’ve started to become more like text messages. A Yahoo Labs study found that the most typical email response is between five and 43 words—in other words, quick acknowledgements and simple follow-up questions. Unfortunately, messages like these can multiply quickly, drowning employees in a swamp of unread emails.

Instead of funneling everything into your inbox, make use of new, modern software designed specifically for light-touch communication. Chat applications allow employees to send and respond to one-off messages, without the formality of an email. Comments on files and documents let multiple people weigh in on an evolving idea, rather than adding to an endless string of email threads.

Before sending an email, take an extra second or two to consider whether a different medium would be more appropriate. Pretty soon, you might find you’re able to phase out almost all of your daily email activity. Best of all, you’ll dodge the daily stream of spam, unwanted promotions, and unsolicited emails.

4. Work from home (and get more sleep)

Many of the productivity problems in the office start at home. Sleep deprivation costs US businesses more than $60 billion per year. A well-rested employee working six hours will often beat a sleep-deprived person working 10.

Longer commutes don’t help. According to the Washington Post, American commuting times have increased about 20 percent since 1980. As people spend more time in a car or on a train, they spend less time recharging in bed or getting actual work done.

One solution is to work more from home. With modern collaboration tools like video chat and shared documents, being in the same room is far less important today than it was 20 years ago. In a survey of call center employees, Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom found at-home employees were happier, less likely to quit and more productive. Without having to battle the daily commute, it’s also likely these employees had more opportunities to relax and sleep.

While some jobs require more collaboration than call centers, even designers and marketers might benefit from one or two days per week working from home. An occasional day away from the office can help you focus on an individual project or catch up on that lost hour of sleep. Just don’t spend so much time at home that you sacrifice at-work relationships. The key is finding a weekly rhythm that works for you and your team.

5. Take breaks

Counterintuitively, taking more breaks can ultimately make you more productive. Mindless distractions—like bad meetings, trivial interruptions, and unnecessary emails—are worth eliminating, but smart, healthy breaks are as important as real work.

Career coaches suggest that simply switching work tasks is often not enough. In order to cognitively recharge, you should step away from your desk at least once every 90 minutes. Particularly for creative roles, more significant breaks—like lunch out with friends or taking a walk around town—can be the difference between an unproductive afternoon and an innovative breakthrough.

Here, being intentional about your breaks is key. If you’re simply distracting yourself in two- to five-minute bursts every 20 minutes, you’re less likely to find breaks refreshing. But stepping away for 10 minutes or more—a few times a day—is critical. Even if breaks like these bring down the number of hours you’re actively working, what matters is the work you produce. Remember: time spent recharging is what ultimately allows you to get things done.

In the end, being more productive is less about forcing yourself to concentrate, and more about making smart adjustments to your day. By cutting down on emails and meetings, rethinking how you approach co-workers, and giving yourself permission to take breaks or work from home, you’ll put yourself in a better place to be creative, thoughtful, and focused throughout the day.
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