I’ve always worked in busy environments with conflicting priorities and quick turnarounds. When I started my career, this reality was stressful—learning a role while managing various projects simultaneously and executing at the highest level was challenging. Thankfully, with a little adjusting and lots of lessons, I learned how to maximize my productivity and reduce stress. Here’s how:
I stopped multitasking.
Multitasking isn’t as helpful as it seems. In fact, research suggests that switching from one task to another too quickly — or working on two tasks at the same time — is both inefficient and ineffective.
For me, multitasking did nothing but remind me of all the looming priorities, and overwhelmed me with the reality of all the work that had to be done.
So, I stopped. Instead of trying to tackle multiple tasks at one time, I started devoting my full attention to one thing. This not only alleviated the feelings of being overwhelmed, it also allowed me the space to pour myself fully into projects in ways that multitasking never afforded me.
But how did I operationalize this?
I responded to e-mails only twice a day—once in the morning and once in the afternoon—instead of allowing e-mail notifications to interrupt my workflow.
I set office hours that allowed people to schedule meetings with me on my time. This drastically reduced walk-in interruptions.
I also began adding tasks to my calendar which allowed me to visualize when I’d work on certain things. It also blocked off that time on my calendar. I even went as far as assigning specific routine tasks to specific days. [Think: budgeting and hiring on Tuesday, event planning on Wednesday, and administrative tasks on Friday.] This helped me organize my time, focus my attention more intentionally, and allowed me to visualize when tasks would be started and completed.
I prioritized time away from my desk.
For quite a while, I worked through my breaks (including lunch). I’d warm up my food and return to my desk to eat and keep working. I forfeited my two 15-minute breaks to send a quick e-mail or calendar invite. This led to immediate burnout. I never had time to do anything other than work at work. And while for some, that might be the point, for me, it was a huge disservice.
To reduce stress and find peace, I needed to know that there were other possibilities available at work, besides work. This meant, going to the break room to make some tea and chat briefly with a colleague; stepping outside for a walk and enjoying the scenery surrounding my job; and taking a moment to stare into space or engage in some ‘color therapy’.
The quick break between tasks helped to refresh my mind and reminded me of all the other things that matter outside of work — like, life and human connection.
I created daily and weekly to-do lists.
When I’m under stress I tend to forget things which, as you can imagine, leads to more stress. Getting into the habit of crafting to-do lists helped keep me aware of my priorities and keeps my mind focused on projects coming down the pipeline. Writing a to-do list also alleviated the pressure of having to do the task when I thought of it and helped to keep me apprised of what is next in line.
Each week I jot down what needs to be done, and each morning I decide which of those items will be done today.
Itemizing your to-do list is more than just writing what needs to be done though, it’s creating a realistic system for when it should be done based on your time and your energy. If you know you are the most thoughtful in the morning, then schedule the difficult tasks for the morning, so by the time your energy weens, all the detail-oriented work is already done.
I realized there will always be work to do.
Truth is, no matter how fast you finish your work there will always be more. As soon as I realized this, I knew that I no longer had to rush to get through things; I didn’t have to cram a million tasks into one day with hopes that at some point I can sit idle.
I learned to extend more grace to myself and to honor the process through which work would be completed.
As I began writing to-do lists, I also started honoring what was on them. If I finished Tuesday’s work early, I would not start on Wednesday’s work. Instead, I would use that time to do something else — again, stepping away from my desk, connecting with a co-worker, scheduling a coffee date with a colleague, meditating, or doing some research about something that might be coming down the pipeline in the future. This allowed a break in my day that was still very productive, very intentional, and catered to my mental well-being.
Work will always be there, so it’s important to not stress yourself out (or work ridiculously long hours) trying to finish it all so quickly.
I gained control of my calendar.
As a young professional it’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting every meeting and event request. I thought I had to accept every calendar invite sent my way. But the more autonomy I found in my roles, the more power I mustered up to take full control of my calendar.
Now, if I receive a meeting request that doesn’t agree with my priorities or my current schedule, I’ll propose a new time. If I receive an event invite that I genuinely can’t make it to—or simply don’t want to attend—I’ll politely decline. If I get asked to volunteer on projects that I don’t have the capacity to effectively serve on, I’ll respond with a respectful denial.
Once I began to understand that my time is my own, I started to set clear, personal boundaries for how I’d respond to requests demanding my time. This isn’t to say that I’m rejecting calendar invites all the time, but I take a very intentional approach to what I’m willing to accept and when—especially on days where my calendar is already overloaded with tasks and/or meetings.
Harnessing my power in this way, has saved me from being overworked and worn out.
Productivity doesn’t always have to be stressful or anxiety-inducing. In fact, when done right, productivity can be seamless. Over time, I’ve been able to maximize my productivity, while decreasing my hours worked and reducing my stress and anxiety. Hopefully these tips do the same for you.