You know that mysteriously efficient, productive brand of colleague that every office in the UK fosters (the one you secretly hate but also envy)?
Their ability to churn through activities and achieve tangible results with factory-like precision - all while maintaining a breezy, calm demanour - is no accident. It's not a matter of luck, or good working genes.
These people employ specific weapons in their armoury. They've trained themselves up in effective habits and disciplined ways of working that, over time, have moulded them into the very definition of productivity.
So if you're fed up of schlepping your way through the working day or are forever disappearing under a mountain of tasks, take the load off by checking out these top five rules every efficient person lives by:
Organise your work place
Efficient people are always organised, starting with their work space. If your desk is overflowing with dirty mugs and a chaotic pile of folders, it's hard to focus and set yourself up for the day ahead.
"It’s difficult to think clearly, easy to forget important reminders, and just plain stressful if you feel you’re fighting the battle and the tornado of mail or paper is winning," Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, tells Forbes. "While most communications are through e-mails and texts, if your boss or co-worker stopped by looking for you and left a sticky note about a last-minute meeting occurring in ten minutes, and it’s sitting on a mound of mail or papers, you’re already behind."
Laura Stack, MBA, president of the consulting company The Productivity Pro, agrees.
Successful people "have systems in place to find what they want when they want it, and can quickly locate the information needed to support their activities," she tells Psych Central.
It may seem like less of a priority to clear up the space around you when you're on deadline to file a presentation - but it will save you plenty of time and headspace in the long run.
Stacks says that by taking time to chase down a misplaced memo, or even to find a pen, "you to relinquish your focus. Once it’s gone, it takes a while to get it back - and that’s where the real time is wasted."
How to stay organised:
- Get into the habit of clearing your desk at the end of every day: no matter how tired you feel. Throw away rubbish and delegate anything that doesn't belong on your desk elsewhere. Get rid of any un-needed clutter - if you haven't used it in the past month, you don't need it. Keep only what is essential on your actual desktop: your phone, your computer and your notebook or files.
- Put 10 minutes aside every day to file your paperwork: and sort through your post, so it doesn't pile up. Create in-trays for urgent tasks and longer-term projects and label every last folder, drawer and plastic wallet to remind yourself what is where.
- Pay attention to your workspace as a whole: go for a breathable, padded chair that is adjustable and supports your normal spinal curvature. Make sure you are sitting in relaxed posture, with your feet flat to the floor and a straight back. Clear the underneath of your desk of wayward shoes and bags and check you have the right lighting.
Stay focused on results
Productive workers make a habit of task completion and always prioritise. They don't compulsively check their phones every five minutes, they don't get distracted by emails and they don't get snowed under by a steady stream of Things To Do.
Instead, they methodically pick out what tasks need doing first and maintain a laser-like focus in getting them done.
"Prioritizing is the answer to time management problems," says C. Ray Johnson, author of CEO Logic. "You do not need to do work faster or to eliminate gaps in productivity to make better use of your time. You need to spend more time on the right things."
Pete Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done thinks the key here is to scale back on multitasking.
"We've lost the luxury of doing one thing at a time," he says. "We need to try and recapture that."
How to stay focused:
- Remember the 80:20 rule of workload: 20 percent of our work contributes to 80 percent of its value. Identify what that 20 percent is and make it the focus of your output - everything else goes on the back-burner.
- Don't be ruled by your inbox: it may help to turn off your email completely while you get a particular task done. The same goes for switching off your phone. Even if you see your emails come through, have a strict procedure in place that means you only check messages at certain pre-set times and not at random. The same goes for checking news websites, social media accounts or anything else that might get in the way of the task at hand.
- Keep multitasking to a minimum: If you try and do too many things at once, it just means you'll end up doing more less effectively. Make a list of what needs doing every day and split your list into A,B and C priorities - then make your way through them.
- Say no: Accept you won't have time to do everything, or please everyone. Push back on work requests to create the space you need to get the most important things done. Delegating tasks is also important - make sure you save your energy for the tasks that need your personal expertise the most.
Plan every hour of your time
A key part of both staying organised and focused is to plan every hour of your day. This is your game plan: the architecture that will see you through your day productively and ensure that you get things done.
It's a good idea to scope this plan with a view to how productive you will be in the morning, the afternoon and so on.
"Determine your peak working time and plan your schedule accordingly," says careers coach Anita Attridge. "Use your peak time each morning to do the most important tasks."
"Recognise that ability alone is not enough," adds Australia-based Career Consultancy director Catherine Cunningham. "Make sure that you are efficient in tasks that will help your manager the most."
How to plan:
- Write down exactly what you want to get done, and by when: Make your deadlines realistic. There's no point creating an endless list of tasks which you will never achieve in one day. Review the list as you go to make sure you're on task and make alternations if needed.
- Make time for interruptions: You will inevitably come across delays, difficulties and interruptions that get in the way of whatever it is you're doing. Allow some leeway for this in your master plan, but also be aware of any repeat interruptions (like phone calls or emails) and work out how to minimise them.
- Don't procrastinate or put off tasks: Get your most difficult or unwanted tasks to do out of the way first thing, so they're not playing on your mind.
- Make a log of your working week: To work out what exactly you're doing when. This way, you can identify and cut back on unnecessary or time-wasting activities.
- Remember to take a break: Taking time out will keep you alert, fresh and ready to go.
Speak up and pitch in
You won't get anywhere by blending into the background at work. Productivity comes from action, which comes from ideas, which come from discussion and communication.
In order to thrive, you need to surround yourself with brilliant people and make sure you contribute at every opportunity with your thoughts and opinions. Don't worry too much if your ideas don't work out; just by putting them out there, you help generate a dialogue which will push your company forward with new ideas and perspectives.
"Honest and open communication is an essential ingredient in maintaining a successful company that can quickly respond to fast-changing market conditions and agile competitors," says management expert Peter Economy. "If you want to create a work environment that is united and focused on meeting challenges effectively, you need your people to speak up."
"Your voice defines the value you bring to the organization," says motivational speaker and entrepreneur Glenn Llopis.
"The next time you are in a meeting, ask yourself, 'Who is really adding value to the goals of the conversation?' In a meeting of five people you are lucky if more than two consistently deliver."
By pitching in, you ensure you're right there with the action, helping things get done.
How to speak up:
- Make your voice heard at every meeting: Get into the habit of always saying something, even if it's just to ask a question or back up another employee's point of view. This is a matter of progression, not perfection so don't beat yourself up if your point isn't always well-received; it's the saying of it that counts.
- Come prepared to brainstorms: Do your research and compile a list of ideas and discussion points. Highlight areas you're unsure or need clarification on - never brush over them. This is your opportunity to get your facts straight in the most direct way possible.
- Speak to the listeners: be aware of how you are putting your point across. In order to persuade someone around to your point of view, avoid speaking in absolutes and keep any criticisms you have constructive and non-personal.
- Be aware of your body language: Non-verbal cues are very important in putting your point across. Maintain eye contact, don't forget to smile and stay relaxed and open in your posture - don't fidget or use "comfort gestures" (touching your hair as you speak, folding your arms).
- Don't avoid small talk: If you're stuck in a lift with your manager's manager, use that opportunity to highlight who you are and what you do. It will help get you noticed and build your profile as you progress on up the ladder.
Be a problem solver
Productive people aren't intimated by looming deadlines or unexpected challenges - they respond positively to pressure, because they are problem solvers.
Instead of merely flagging up an issue or worrying over it, they jump ahead to providing a potential solution, recognising that challenges often bring with them the potential for development and new ways of thinking.
"Highly productive people respond to barriers, problems and challenges with much more of a problem-solving orientation," says productivity coach Hillary Rettig.
Becoming a problem solver may involve a degree of lateral thinking, says Miami-based careers expert Craig Robins: "It takes looking at things differently and perseverance to come up with a solution that’s better than what’s currently contemplated."
It's a process that requires "not being consumed by conventional thinking or process."
Central to all of this is the ability to step up; by tackling problems head on, you may encounter issues or tasks that aren't necessarily part of your job description but which need to be addressed. You can't be afraid of this.
You also need to embrace the possibility of failure, as problem solving is a process that often implicates an element of risk.
How to be a problem solver:
- Own up to your mistakes: If you're the source of the problem, it's important to admit it. But don't over-apologise and do come up with a solution as quickly as time and initiative allow.
- Define the challenge: Before you decide how exactly to tackle a problem, take a moment to understand it. By evaluating the facts of the case and recognising the problem for what it is, you will be able to think much more clearly in terms of how to solve it.
- Think creative: A tricky issue often involves something a little offbeat to neutralise it. If others have failed to solve the problem, you need to come at it from another perspective and try to avoid following the obvious thought process in exploring your options.
- Don't over-complicate the issue: If it's a simple problem, use the easy solution. There's no point spending hours dwelling over a different route if the obvious one will work. And you also need to reign in your expectations: you may not be able to solve all areas of a problem, but rather tackle the areas that matter the most.
- Look for opportunities: The best problem solvers spot opportunities in the challenges that face them. Always have an eye for the lucky break or new avenue of thinking that may come from confronting a challenge.
Photos: Getty Images and Rex Features, words: Anna Brech