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We all want to be more productive at work—but what are the secrets to being more productive with less effort? The challenge we have as project managers comes from feeling like we have way too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Parkinson’s Law —that work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion—means that if we give ourselves a week to complete a two hour task, then (psychologically speaking) the task increases in complexity and become more daunting so as to fill that week.

There are lots of things we can do at work that feel like being productive, but they are actually just filling up time. This includes things like checking email, chatting in Slack, and going to meetings—it all fills time. It may even be important, but it’s not actually productive work.

I tend to be pretty optimistic. By nature, I’m a “just wing it” kind of guy. So when I first started my career as a project manager and relied on my natural instincts, perhaps unsurprisingly, projects kept going over budget and slipping past their timelines. Clients got mad when they didn’t get what they thought they had paid for.

It was soon brought to my attention that the way I was managing projects wasn’t really managing at all. In fact, I was just letting projects happen around me, hoping that everything would work itself out in the end.

Lesson learned? We need to focus on doing important, relevant tasks that actually manifest the outcomes we’re going for.

We need to learn how to be more productive at at work. One way I achieved this is by leveraging resource management software tools that help in prioritizing and allocating resources efficiently.

How To Be More Productive At Work With No Effort

Figuring out how to be more productive at work is harder than it sounds…or is it? It’s always going to feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it—but that’s doesn’t mean we are really getting the right things done. If we were to create a list of the tasks you do while at work that make you “feel” productive but aren’t, it would be a long list including activities like checking Slack, digging through files, and checking your phone.

We hear a lot about becoming more productive, and we’ve written quite a bit on productivity hacks for project managers. That said, the following productivity hacks won’t tell you how to increase productivity by focusing on getting more tasks done in less time. Instead, we’ll talk about how to be productive by learning to prioritize activities that are truly productive.

Read on to discover some of the best productivity hacks I’ve learned to get more positive results out of yourself while expending less effort.

1. Tame Your Notification Overload

Back to that email inbox you’re checking 18 times a day (I’m willing to bet that you just checked it—am I right?). Was there anything truly significant in your inbox that wasn’t there 10 minutes ago? My guess is that none of the new items arriving to your coveted inbox were really important.

What if, instead of checking your email every 10 or 15 minutes and getting nothing done, you check your email just a few set times per day? If you want a quick productivity improvement, checking your email less frequently is an easy change to make.

As soon as you get to your desk in the morning, give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to check and do quick responses. Then give it a quick check again around mid-morning (just in case an important late morning email has come in). Check it again just after lunch, and then for the final time in, check it about an hour or so before it’s time to head home.

I am sure at this point you are asking yourself how on earth am I supposed to NOT check my email numerous times of day. The pings and beeps and other noises that alert you to any new incoming emails can be a constant source of interruptions. And interruptions, as you well know, reduce focus and productivity. The easiest, most effective way to avoid this is to close out of your email program completely. Not having email open will make it harder to peek at email constantly and make it easier for you to concentrate on one thing at a time.

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2. Focus And Follow Through

Put down the smartphone. While it’s super tempting to check your phone for text messages, FB, Twitter, SnapChat, and the like, work isn’t really the time to do that. Give yourself a little break from the social cyber world for a few hours. Harness your energy for a few hours and put that into your task at hand.

There are loads of great software and apps for effectively managing tasks. Take advantage of these tools to easily view and prioritize tasks. Maybe you prefer a paper list, but whatever you choose, don’t lose time digging around for your list—it is supposed to be there to help save time and stay focused!

My advice is to put absolutely every task onto the list. This will help you avoid multitasking by having a clear idea of exactly what you’re trying to work on at any given moment. While multitasking at home is often a necessity—you’re helping the kids with homework, doing laundry, all the while cooking dinner and answering a phone call—it is not great for higher-order thinking. Especially for knowledge workers, multitasking at work is not usually the best answer and can ultimately render you less productive than if you just tackle one task at a time. Does that mean you shouldn’t answer the phone? No—but it does mean that you should try to make it brief, just to get the necessary facts. You can call back to have a more leisurely conversation after your task is completed.

3. Start With The Hard Stuff

Do you put the most difficult or intense tasks at the top of your list and try to complete them in the morning hours (after at least a cup of coffee, of course)? It seems counter-intuitive for people who want to “ease into” the day. But it’s easier to focus and complete harder tasks before your lunch break, while your mind is still fresh. If you’re like me, once those mid-afternoon hours roll around, your eyes have a mind of their own and all they want to do is close and rest! Leave the daily tasks that require less self-control for the afternoon hours.

4. Take Brain Breaks

Remember, though—just because you’re doing the hard stuff doesn’t mean you should press on until you’re drained. While it doesn’t seem like it’s productive, taking breaks can increase the quality of your work and improve your mood, stamina, and health. Don’t forget to get up from your desk a few times in the morning as well as in the afternoon and give yourself a “brain break”. Just a short 5 minutes will do the trick to refresh your mind and rejuvenate your energy. Those 5 minutes will more than pay for themselves in higher quality thinking down the road.

5. Use The “Do It Now” Rule

If you see a task that will take 2 minutes or less to complete, do it now. Why 2 minutes? Because a task this short would consume more time to add to your to-do list and prioritize than to simply get it done right off the bat. If you can get on top of the small tasks as soon as you see them, your to-do list will be less clogged up, and so will your brain.

As project managers, it’s critical we don’t become a bottleneck for the project. Because of this, we’ve often got a continuous cycle of thoughts going “Oh, I need to remember to move that spreadsheet to the other folder”. Unfortunately, these types of nagging thoughts are taking up space in your brain that could be devoted to more important work. For quick tasks, just “do it now” and pat yourself on the back for checking it off your to-do list before it even got there!

6. Run Fewer, More Focused Meetings

The dreaded office meeting! The email (that you are now only checking 3 or 4 times a day) landed in your inbox on Monday afternoon: “Office meeting to be held on Wednesday at 1:30pm”.  Immediately you think, “Well, there goes my entire afternoon”. If the moderator of the meeting doesn’t know how to properly run a meeting, then you are correct.

If you are the meeting organizer, consider using a productivity tool like Slack if the result of the conversation does not require immediate action. But if you do need to hold that meeting, here are a few simple ideas that you can employ to make your meeting run smoothly and quickly:

  • Keep meetings small and short—only invite people vital to the meeting.
  • Pick a single topic for the meeting and don’t get sidetracked.
  • Consider holding the meeting in a space that allows everyone to stand—that will help keep it as short as possible.
  • Start and adjourn your meetings on time.
  • At the conclusion of the meeting, make sure that there is a plan of action for the day, week, or even month.

In order to make meetings as quick and productive as possible, the items that you cover have to be documented and useful to your team. I recommend managing timelines and tasks set in your meetings with any number of project management software tools making them easy to modify and share. Some of you might be familiar with standard project management tools like Microsoft Project, but there a number of great MS alternatives out there as well.

7. Set Boundaries

If you feel like you have too much on your plate and you simply can’t focus, it’s time to set boundaries with coworkers who are distractions. This is especially true when you’re trying to be productive while working from home. Stand up for your productivity, and politely and firmly decline work with coworkers who distract you.

Likewise, don’t agree to take on work if you look at it and know that you won’t be able to contribute positively to the project. As a manager myself, I’m happier when team members say, “You know what? I just don’t feel like I am going to be an asset on this project and here is why…” instead of wasting their time (and the company’s resources) because they were afraid to set boundaries.

What Do You Think?

In my experience, this is how to become more productive at work with very little effort. In fact, most of these productivity tips are about doing less, not more. It’s all about prioritization and focus.

Ben Aston
By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. I'm a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut!