Work Efficiency (What it Is and How to Improve It)

Work efficiency is the ability to get your work done and accomplish your goals by using as few resources as possible. The most common resource that’s considered in a work efficiency equation is time. Doing more in less time makes you more efficient.

Work Efficiency: How Much Time Is Wasted at Work?

The average employee works for five hours in an average eight-hour workday. They spend the rest of their time:

  • Surfing the internet
  • Socializing
  • Zoning out
  • Looking for other jobs

Almost 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds say that they would quit their jobs if their companies banned Facebook use at work.

Employees say that they waste time at work because they:

  • Are underpaid
  • Don’t have enough work
  • Get distracted by coworkers

But increasing an employee’s pay doesn’t necessarily motivate them. Research shows that employees who earn higher salaries are not necessarily more engaged than those who aren’t paid as well. Some experts say that money actually reduces motivation because it’s an extrinsic reward.

One of the best ways to improve work efficiency is to help employees find intrinsic motivation in everything that they do. That’s not always possible, though. Sometimes, we have to do data entry or other mundane tasks that aren’t particularly rewarding.

How can you stay motivated during the workday even if you’re not thrilled with every task that you work on? Here are some strategies.

1. Start With a Plan

It’s tough to be efficient if you don’t have a plan for your day. You might not be able to forecast everything that’s going to happen, but you can prepare for each day by writing down the things you have to do and scheduling them as best you can.

Keeping a to-do list for work helps you stay focused amid distractions. If someone interrupts you mid-project, you can get back to what you were doing more easily when you’ve detailed your task in writing.

Also, you likely have downtime during the workday. You might be waiting for your boss to respond to an email or killing time before a meeting. When you have a list of things to accomplish, you can usually complete and check off a few items as you wait.

Keeping a to-do list takes some of the pressure off of you for the day. It allows you to spend a chunk of time making decisions and prioritizing in the morning. Once everything is written down, you can operate on autopilot.

Humans have limited self-control resources. As each day progresses, most people have trouble maintaining their willpower. That’s why it’s so much easier for people to stick to their diets during breakfast than after dinner. Therefore, making important decisions in the morning can guide you later on in the day when your mind is exhausted. All you have to do is look at your to-do list and take action.

2. Make Your To-Do List Effective

To-do lists don’t always make you more efficient. If you load them up with tons of tasks, you might end up feeling paralyzed by the sheer number of obligations that you have.

On the one hand, spending some time “brain dumping” every idea that you have in your head can prevent you from getting stuck in cyclical thoughts. But don’t expect your brain dump to become your to-do list for the day. It’s probably too long, and you’ll end up overwhelmed.

To write a useful to-do list, keep it short. Consider writing only three items on your main to-do list. These should include:

  • The No. 1 thing that will make you feel the most accomplished today
  • An urgent task that you must complete today
  • A progress task that gets you closer to a larger goal

Anything else should be written on an overflow list. The overflow list shouldn’t be the same as your brain dump list. It might contain five items that could be completed today but aren’t crucial or urgent.

Another way to keep an effective to-do list and boost your efficiency is to make each item extremely specific. After you write something down, ask yourself, “What is the first thing that I need to do to achieve this?” That should be what you jot on the paper. If a task includes multiple steps, break it down as much as possible so that you don’t have to go through this process later on.

“Do SEO research” could become several steps, including:

  • Search for the keyword “how to use SEO in my blog.”
  • Read about 5 SEO strategies.
  • Make notes for my boss about the five approaches.
  • Write down how to apply the techniques to the company blog.

Some experts recommend looking at only one to-do at a time. If you have spent some time scheduling each item on your to-do list at the beginning of the day, you shouldn’t have to look at the entire list again. Sometimes, something comes up and requires you to rearrange your plans. That’s ok.

If things change, make some notes for tomorrow. Try not to scrap something on your to-do list unless it’s necessary.

3. Finish Your Tasks

That brings us to the next step to improve your work efficiency. Finish what you start. If you’ve broken down each item on your to-do list into small segments, this shouldn’t be hard. Anything on your list that will take more than one hour to complete should probably be segmented out. Once you get into this habit, you should have no problem crossing three tasks off of your main list every day.

You should also keep an outline of the larger projects that the smaller tasks lead up to. At the beginning of every day, reference your calendar or project sheet to remind yourself of the bigger vision. Make sure that your to-dos are contributing to your larger goals and you’re not starting new projects unnecessarily.

When you complete a task, you release a rush of endorphins. These feel-good neurotransmitters improve your mood and motivate you. As you finish your to-dos, you’ll be more likely to take on more projects and remain productive.

4. Log Your Time

Most people spend more time planning ahead than tracking the hours that they spend working. Planning is crucial for efficiency. But you may never get a handle on time management if you have no idea how long your work takes you.

To be able to plan effectively, you need to be able to estimate how long certain projects, tasks or actions will take. We are all familiar with those people who underestimate their time. It has probably happened to you before.

You think that a project will take an hour, and you’re frustrated and irritable when you’re still working on it three hours later. This will continue to happen if you don’t get a handle on your time.

Periodically, spend some time monitoring and logging how long you spend on different tasks. You might want to assess the time that you spend doing repeat tasks, such as:

  • Answering emails
  • Checking social media
  • Chatting by the water cooler
  • Holding team meetings
  • Responding to voice mails

You’ll be able to plan your day much better when you have these numbers written down. Moreover, tracking your time allows you to improve your efficiency. If you spend an hour every day gossiping in the break room, you can set a goal to cut that down so that you can improve your workflow and leave work on time.

5. Understand What Helps You Focus

When you’re in the zone, you can bust out tasks faster than when you’re distracted. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to this as a mental state of flow. This type of focus makes you forget about the world around you. You harness all of the necessary skills to complete the task. The more you can achieve a flow state while you’re working, the more efficient you’ll be.

Some ways to get into this optimal state of consciousness include:

  • Setting clear goals about what you want to accomplish
  • Doing an activity that you love
  • Choosing a task that’s significant and challenging but not too complex or difficult
  • Working during a peak energy time
  • Removing distractions

When you’re in a flow state, you don’t just get things done. You also feel less stressed, enjoy your work and become more productive and creative.

If you have trouble deep-diving into one activity for a significant period of time, you will need to practice. Gradually work up to work periods of one to two hours by starting with shorter intervals. If you notice that you get antsy after sitting still for 20 minutes, begin there.

Decide what you’re going to work on, and estimate what you will accomplish within 20 minutes. You might aim to write 500 words of an article, proofread a document or make a list of the people you need to network with this week. Write down your goal, set a timer and begin to work. When the timer goes off, cross the item off of your list if you completed it. Take a 5-minute break. Then, repeat the timed work.

With practice, you’ll be able to extend the timed work periods. When you’re working with this exercise, you should also ensure that the work that you complete during the timed intervals leads up to a larger goal.

6. Take Breaks

When you’re trying to get more done in less time, you might avoid taking breaks. The busier you are, the less likely you are to enjoy some downtime.

But our minds are wired to need breaks. On average, the human brain can only focus for about two hours. After that, it needs a 20 to 30-minute break.

If you want to be efficient, trying to plow through a workday without giving your brain time to rest isn’t going to help you get more done. In fact, you might burn out to the point where everything takes longer than it should.

In one study, researchers found that repeatedly disengaging and reengaging your goals kept you motivated to achieve them. Resting your mind during the day gives you a chance to consolidate memories and store information that you’ve learned. You’ll return to work refreshed and better able to work efficiently.

Ideal activities to do during your breaks are those that don’t require critical thinking. Some ideas include:

  • Walking or exercising
  • Spending time in a different environment
  • Connecting with nature
  • Meditating
  • Drawing, doodling, playing an instrument or doing creative writing
  • Eating a snack

Experts have different ideas about the perfect amount of time for breaks. The Pomodoro Technique specifies that people should work for 25 minutes, taking 5-minute breaks. After four work/break sets, they should take 25 to 30 minutes away from their project before returning.

But a 25-minute work period might not be ideal for every person or task. The people at DeskTime took a look at the most productive people that used their employee productivity software.

They found that the most productive employees worked for 52 minutes and took 17-minute breaks. These employees were also efficient. Most of them didn’t even work for eight hours a day, but they still completed all of their obligations.

7. Tighten Your Deadlines

If you give yourself a full day to finish a project, the task will likely take that long. But have you ever waited until the last minute to complete a relatively complex task and completed it done in time? According to Parkinson’s Law, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”

When you set a longer deadline for a task, the complexity of the project grows. On the other hand, if you reduce the amount of time that you have for a project, the activity becomes simpler. Problems become easier to solve when you have less time in which to decipher them.

People who procrastinate often may have too much time available to them. The answer is to shorten deadlines. If you’ve followed the steps that we’ve described so far, you’re heading into work with a plan that corresponds to your goals. You’re also breaking down complex tasks into smaller chunks.

Now, set deadlines for each of your to-dos. Respect the time limit. If you keep extending the deadline, then you might have to rework your schedule. However, ask yourself if you’re making the activity more complex than it has to be.

8. Create Space

While a cluttered desk can make you more creative, it also detracts from your efficiency. Instead of spending time searching through piles of paper, you can locate documents in seconds when you file them in alphabetical order. Even just looking at a messy desk can overwhelm you to the point where you have trouble focusing on the task at hand.

As you clear clutter, your energy levels will rise. You’ll be able to tackle projects more efficiently when you’re not sluggish.

If you’re telling yourself that you don’t have time to declutter, you’re just giving yourself excuses. Keeping a mess around is a way to avoid making decisions. When you start to eliminate excess stuff, you take control of your life. This sense of control makes you more efficient in everything that you do.

Physical clutter is often a metaphor for the mental clutter that you keep in your head. If you can’t decide which pieces of mail to toss when they come in, what else are you clinging to? Practicing decluttering gives you the tools to make swift decisions and clear out anything that’s holding you back.

9. Take Action

Most people waste time thinking about what they’re going to do. It can take longer to contemplate a task than to get up and do it.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to do some prep work. Setting goals or scheduling your day requires you to do some thinking. But the time soon comes for you to put away your planner and get to work.

Mel Robbins says that when you feel the instinct to take action toward a goal, you have to move before the motivation disappears. She says that you typically lose the impetus within five seconds if you don’t get started. Getting into the habit of acting before you have time to think allows you to get things done.

Instead of wishing, daydreaming and hoping, start doing. When you feel the urge to do something, count backward from the number 5. By the time you get to 1, you should take action.

This strategy applies to any impulse that you know you should be doing. It’s a technique for combating procrastination. When you feel a spark, don’t let your mind turn it off. Get moving, and you’ll likely create momentum that will make you want to continue.

10. Stop Holding Meetings

Research shows that meetings waste $37 billion a year. Idle chitchat, latecomers and a lack of an agenda can make these sessions useless. You can often accomplish more by brainstorming alone, via email or using project management software than in a meeting. If the gathering is informative, ask yourself if you can send out a memo with the information instead of calling employees together.

If you must hold a meeting, make it more efficient by:

  • Spending twice as long on the agenda as you think you should – Be clear about your objectives, and stick to your outline.
  • Consider who must attend the meeting and who can receive the notes via a brief email summary – Cutting non-essential people out of the meeting allows them to continue working and making money for the company.
  • Cut the meeting time in half – Parkinson’s Law applies to meetings as it does to projects.
  • Start on time – When you wait for latecomers, you penalize the people who show up on time.

11. Optimize Your Lifestyle Outside of the Office

The things that you do when you’re not working can affect your work efficiency. If you go home, flip on the TV, grab some convenience food and a beer, you might not wake up refreshed and fulfilled. Working without doing much of anything else is a great way to burn out and move even more slowly at work.

Some habits that can boost your energy in the office are:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Pursuing your hobbies
  • Socializing and connecting with others
  • Eating healthfully
  • Getting enough high-quality sleep

You might not be motivated to bring home a paycheck if you only use it to pay your bills. Consider setting goals outside of the office that gives you a focus on spending your hard-earned cash. Plan a vacation, or treat yourself to a shopping trip periodically. Using your time in fulfilling ways outside of the office can make you more excited to do your job efficiently.

12. Don’t Get Involved in Office Drama

Office drama can get in the way of productivity. If you’re not working or doing something constructive, like taking breaks, you’re not going to be very efficient.

When tempers flare in the office, try to avoid the drama. Keep your nose to the grindstone, and you’ll likely get your work done ahead of everyone else.

Try to avoid playing the role of the mediator too. Even if you’re not in the line of fire, you shouldn’t step in to diffuse the situation. That just detracts from your focus and puts more on your plate.

Improving Work Efficiency Among Teams

The self-development strategies listed above are ideal for enhancing personal efficiency. But when people come together to form teams, all of that can go out the window if one individual isn’t pulling their weight. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider how to enhance work efficiency within a team or department.

1. Clarify the Purpose

It’s hard to be efficient if you don’t know what you’re doing. Teams and departments should agree on goals so that they can work with the same objectives in mind. Setting a purpose allows team members to assess their progress and make the most of the feedback they receive.

Treat goal-setting for teams the same way that you do for an individual. Create a broad vision and work backward from there. Divide complex projects into smaller action steps.

Then, you must delegate those action steps adequately. Every member of a team needs to know what they’re doing and when it needs to be accomplished.

2. Streamline Communication

Communication within a team is a tricky thing. Without it, efficiency goes out the window. However, someone who needs to talk everything over before taking action can hold up the group.

Is there ever a point where communication becomes inefficient? Holding in-person meetings or chatting by phone can take up valuable time. Streamline messages by using a voice mail app, text, instant messenger or email.

You should also make sure people know what their roles are. Assign a point person and someone who can make a final say when members haven’t agreed on a decision.

There are many project management apps that can make easy work of team communication. These are often more efficient than emails. You can attach messages to files and direct discussions to specific team members so that everyone stays on the same page.

3. Keep Teams Small

Teams of four to six people are often the most efficient. Larger groups are difficult to coordinate. If you’re having trouble coordinating a large department, consider splitting it up into mini-teams. Each should have a leader and a clear purpose. Members should know their roles and goals.

4. Ask for Progress Reports

Teams that are required to report on their progress perform better than those that work for rewards or incentives. People are driven by emotion. Small wins make them feel like they’re doing meaningful work.

Asking team members to document their progress can prevent them from focusing on stagnancy or setbacks. Research shows that people are in better moods when they feel as though their projects are moving forward.

You don’t have to reach a major milestone to feel like you’re making progress. Big wins are rare. Keeping track of incremental progress can help people concentrate on what’s going well so that they’re more intrinsically motivated to do their jobs.

5. Get Together Outside of the Office

When possible, socialize with members of your team. This may seem counterproductive to efficiency. It requires employees to expend effort on something that isn’t necessarily moving their project forward.

However, just like you get great ideas in the shower, you can enhance team morale by getting out of the office. Even if you don’t talk about work, you might come up with creative ideas the next time that you’re together.

If your days are filled with boring work, you might have a hard time being efficient. Consider looking for a job that’s better suited to your interests and skills. But don’t get caught up seeking out something better. The grass is always greener.

Find ways to enjoy the advantages of your current job. Maybe it’s monotonous, but it doesn’t stress you out. Challenge yourself by taking continuing education classes or training that will help you excel in your work. You might learn something that keeps you motivated and energizes you to work efficiently.

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