“Being busy means doing stuff, but being productive means getting stuff done.” Wiser words may never have been spoken, despite the anonymous origins of that inspirational quote. As a leader, I believe it more than ever—although I did not fully understand it early in my career. In fact, I spent years trying different strategies aimed at maximizing my productivity. And I continue to learn more; it’s been a lifelong experiment.
I’ve looked high and low for answers, but a key solution was literally right in front of me: My desk was a mess. That matters because not only do you lose time sorting through clutter, but an unorganized space creates negative energy. Sure, I got things done, and I continued to learn and grow in my career, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I finally figured out what works in regard to maximizing my workspace.
Now that I’ve fully implemented the formula, I’m much happier and infinitely more productive. My desk is now my oasis. Adopting these seven habits made all the difference:
1. Clean up your space.
Simplifying often means cleaning up. Some people are naturally more orderly, but research makes it clear that a tidy, simplified workspace promotes productivity for everyone. It also impacts your relationship with co-workers, as many people assume co-workers with cluttered or dirty work areas are lazy or unorganized.
Think about first impressions you’ve had. When you walk into a clean restaurant, hotel, restroom or store, you notice. And, consciously or not, you believe that the establishment cares about the details and takes pride in the work. I’ve always felt that taking a few minutes to make sure your workspace is neat and tidy will allow you to focus on the bigger things and will make you look more competent in the process.
2. Create the right energy.
Your workspace reflects who you are, so make it welcoming, calming and focused. The formula is fluid, but incorporating a few personal touches—a picture or two, a small potted plant, a Rubik’s cube—with a lot of open desk space will do wonders for your mental focus. Quality lighting that’s not too glaring and not too dim is also vital for optimum productivity.
I prefer minimalism when I organize my workspace—free from distraction. And I believe positive energy makes you more productive. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it; it’s definitely not the same for everyone. But it’s important that you surround yourself with the pieces, furniture and people that create positive energy for you. For me, that means neutral colors, great lighting, plants, access to natural light and (of course) amazing co-workers.
3. Turn off your notifications.
You’re watching someone give a presentation, and alerts keep popping up on their screen. They act like it’s not a distraction, but they have to pause and close the notification before moving on. We’ve all seen it; it happens all the time. Chances are, it’s happening at your desk, too.
One of the best things I’ve done for my productivity was to shut off my notifications. Absolutely nothing pops up on my computer screen, and no one buzzes through on my phone except my family. The idea that being constantly available makes you a better worker is a myth. Shut off your alerts, establish time blocks for checking messages, and watch your productivity surge.
4. Cut down on paper.
Clutter on your desk and in your workspace slows you down, distracts you and increases your stress. You probably don’t need most of the stuff on your desk, and any papers you may need later can be filed away. Overall, though, searching through electronically stored documents is far more efficient than digging through mounds of paperwork.
5. Make a stack.
I admit it—I’m a stacker. As clear as I keep my work area, I always have a single stack of papers on one corner of my desk, ready for my attention. I make my stack throughout the day and clear it before the end of the day or first thing in the morning. I also cover my stack so I am not distracted by what’s on top. This way, I know what needs my immediate attention and can stay focused on more timely tasks.
6. Keep a notebook.
It may seem archaic, but research has shown that writing notes by hand creates better retention. Scribbling down a list or agenda each day allows you to sort and prioritize activities in your head, so that you enter your day with more clarity and focus. I always keep a notebook open on my desk, beside my paper stack, and take it to all my meetings.
The idea was validated when I read that Sir Richard Branson has years’ worth of notebooks filled with countless ideas and thoughts. I’ve tried lots of notebooks over the years. For me, it’s blank white pages without lines. This simple, clean layout allows me to sketch an idea, write some words, make a list, etc. It’s free flowing, which works for me.
7. Plan people time.
Every job requires face time with colleagues and vendors. Whether it’s checking on employees you supervise, answering customer emails or listening to calls about your product, people take time. I used to overlook this, back when I scheduled tasks to fill every minute of my workday.
Now, I try to save roughly 30 percent of my time at the office for people-related tasks. Knowing that I have that time set aside allows me to be present with them. I’m not supposed to be doing anything else with those minutes—and knowing that makes a huge difference.
In school, it was taught as MBWA: management by walking around. As a kid working in my mom’s hair salon, it was watching her take care of her personal clients, but also watching her mentor fellow cosmetologists and talk with their clients. As a waiter in college, it was observing all the moving parts. Here at VARIDESK, it allows me to fly at 30,000 feet while also experiencing what’s going on with my team on the battlefield of business.