Sunday, August 28, 2011

Be more productive at work

I have learned a few things about enhancing my productivity over the past few years, by observing my own productivity at work. These rules should work for anyone whose work requires concentration, creativity and thought.

Here goes:
  1. Get a quiet room. If your job requires thinking of any kind, it needs to happen in a quiet place. In case you cannot get a quiet room, invest in a pair of good earplugs. I recommend the Howard Leight Laser Light earplugs. At $20 for 200 pairs, it is a steal. If you do get a box, hand them out to your co-workers to improve the entire team's productivity. Even if you think that a noisy room works for you, try out a pair of earplugs first. Chances are that you, like most of humanity, will prefer a quiet room. If you work in an enclosed office: you are lucky! Consider submitting my resume to your recruiters.
  2. No distractions. This is essential to keep you in flow. What works for me is to wear my earplugs and display a sheet of paper that says, "Do not disturb". Yes, you look like a douche-bag and you feel anti-social, but the feeling quickly passes. Additionally, you can indicate that if people drop you an email, you will go by their desk when they are free. This reduces the chances of people mistaking you for a self-important jerk. Apologise in advance, and mention what you are working on. I use an IM status like this "Do not Disturb. Need to finish Project Wallaby. Please email. Apologies :(" I also block off time on my calendar to focus on a single activity. This reduces the chance of someone scheduling you for a meeting when you're in the middle of a task.
  3. Respect people's time. Meeting with people is essential. I choose to meet people in their office at a scheduled time. When I do meet someone, I avoid checking email, and I avoid looking at my phone. If someone is spending time with you, respect their time in addition to yours. Ditto for meetings. If you are checking mail in a meeting: you should consider avoiding the meeting entirely.
  4. Stop when done. I usually set a goal and try to finish the activity as soon as possible. When I am done, I stop and take a break. This is essential to getting a feeling of accomplishment. Plodding through the day is much easier if you get regular shots of satisfaction. Break up work into 2-3 hour chunks, and try to finish a task before allowing yourself to be distracted. Over time, you'll find that your productivity improves, so adjust your expectations. Once you are done, go for a short walk, or look outside. Give yourself some time to relax before tackling the next objective.
  5. Beat inertia with a trivial task. I find it much easier to get back into work if I have something trivial that I can hammer out early. This could be a simple bug or a trivial feature. This allows you to get in the mode of work with minimal hassle and beats inertia. 
  6. Hardest job first. Once you have beaten inertia, go for the hardest task of the day. Concentration, focus, and decision-making are their best in the morning after a full night of rest. Once you've done the hardest task, you have the added benefit of knowing that the remaining day is easy.
  7. Full night's sleep. Research suggests that a full night's sleep is critical to improving your concentration. If you are constantly tired at work, napping might help. Many managers frown upon napping, so exercise caution if you need to go down this route.
  8. Love your work. It is easy to work hard at something when work is fun. It might be too late to change jobs, but try to find interesting projects and interesting people to work with. My productivity is high when I work with peers whom I respect and from whom I can learn.
This wisdom is from personal experience, good books like "Peopleware" and "The Mythical Man Month", Randy Pausch's talk, and many online resources.

Many activities at home require concentration and focus, and work is no different. At home, I love reading a book or playing with computers. I think of the atmosphere that allows me to enjoy my home activities and I try to recreate the same atmosphere at work. You might consider trying something similar. Find an activity you love, and identify what atmosphere allows you to enjoy that activity completely. A similar atomsphere at work might help improve your productivity.