5 Strategies for Your Most Productive Workday

UPDATED: April 12, 2018
PUBLISHED: April 11, 2018

Andy Grove, former CEO and chairman of Intel, used to arrive at work at 8:00 and leave by 6:00 every day. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, leaves the office by 5:30 every evening so she can have dinner with her kids at 6:00. VMware’s CEO Pat Gelsinger is awarded “points” by his secretary for arriving home by 5:00.

Regardless of whether you are a high profile business leader or a freelancer in charge of your own hours, it can be a struggle to fit in a productive day’s work and shut down your computer at a reasonable hour. However, turning your working day around might be as simple as changing just a handful of behaviors.

Related: 3 Mind Tricks to Make You More Productive

1. Get focus fit.

We are living in a world of distractions. Some of them are inflicted upon us through notifications that pop up on our devices. Others are self-imposed, like when Jenny checks Facebook for the 53rd time today, just in case that cute photo of her Labradoodle has another like.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that because of the distractions technology imposes on us, we spend the majority of our time doing “shallow work”—work that is non-cognitively demanding. Because of the constant distractions, we have forgotten how to truly engage in “deep work”—that is, focused thinking where we make meaningful progress on our most impactful projects.

What we need to do is get focus fit. When we start a new exercise regime, we don’t start by bench pressing 100 pounds in our first session. So when it comes to (re)building your focus muscle, build up slowly. When I began retraining myself, I started out by doing just 30 minutes of focused work where all notifications and distractions were switched off. And I simply built up from there.

2. Take frequent breaks instead of one long one.

If you are in a busy job and already working long hours, you may be someone who can easily get consumed with your busyness and “forget” to take a break. Or perhaps you believe you simply don’t have time to take a break. Unfortunately, this puts us in a constant state of poor cognitive performance.

One study showed that the most productive performers worked solidly for 52 minutes and then had a break for 17 minutes. Other research has shown that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.

To help make this happen in my own working life, I have banned 60-minute meetings from my schedule. Instead, I make what would have previously been 60-minute meetings as 50 minutes. This gives me time for a quick walk and a few minutes to get ready for my next meeting or activity.

3. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.

Did you know 62 percent of Americans eat lunch at their desk? While I am not American, I am ashamed to admit that I most definitely fell into this category of people. Surely I was being more productive by eating and working at the same time. Multitasking, right? Wrong.

Research has shown that the simple act of eating our lunch anywhere but at our desks leads to us being better able to cope with workplace stress and also gives us greater energy for the afternoon. Real estate company CBRE has even gone so far as to ban desk lunches in their Toronto office.

4. Park on a downhill slope.

If you are human, there is a good chance that when you have sat down to start or even continue work on a project, you have felt overwhelmed, not knowing what to do first. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get started.

Even writers such as Ernest Hemingway are not immune to this issue. To find motivation and flow in the morning, Hemingway used to end his writing sessions mid-sentence. It allowed for an easy start the next day, because he could simply complete the sentence and keep on going.

Hemingway’s technique is the writing equivalent of parking on a downhill slope. It tricks our sometimes lazy brain into starting, because it’s starting from an easy base.

5. Shut down your day.

It’s so easy to leave the office, only to get home and start working again. And even if you are not engaged in this pattern, it’s very easy for work and stresses from the day to linger in your mind well beyond 5 p.m.

To help reduce stress and provide closure on your day, author Dan Pink suggests developing a mental shut down of your day. Specifically, he recommends spending two to three minutes writing down what you have accomplished that day; feeling a sense of progress has been shown in research to be the most powerful motivator at work. Then spend two to three minutes planning the following day, which helps provide a sense of control, another great motivator, and mental closure. 

If you have a spare minute left, express gratitude for someone, in the form of an email or a text message. Gratitude has been shown time and time again to be an effective mood elevator. 

Related: What 30 Days of Productivity Taught Me About Finding Time

Dr. Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, Australia's leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organizations can create a culture where innovation thrives.