Editor's note: This blog was originally published in March 2022 has been updated for accuracy.
Are you one of those people who put “staying productive at work” as their New Year’s resolution each year? If so, 2023 is probably no different, but as the year goes by most of us tend to get off track. Here are 10 tips that will inspire you to keep going. Follow them, and you’ll be able to cross it off your list for good!
10 tips to make sure you stay productive at work
1. Use a time tracking tool to understand how you work
To become more productive at work, you need to spot where you can make any improvements in the first place! Back in the olden days, when I worked as a full-time project manager, I used Toggl to clock in and out of specific projects, and it helped me improve my productivity a lot.
All you need to do is hit “start” and “stop” when you begin and finish each activity, like, say, a team meeting or UX design work. By the end of the week, you’ll see how much time you’ve spent on each. For example, you might notice that you have way too many calls in the morning and end up doing most of your project work in the afternoons. And by then, you’re already worn out and everything takes you twice as long. One potential improvement here would be blocking your meetings calendar so that you’re only available for calls in the afternoon. Pretty cool, right?
2. Set statuses on Slack
How many times have you found yourself working on something complex and important, and suddenly getting distracted by a Slack message? You can’t resist checking it, and responding to it, which kills your workflow. I’ve been there plenty of times! If you want to stay productive at work, then remember to set a status on Slack. If you’re busy then put “don’t disturb” or “out for lunch”. This will not only help you better manage your time but also stay fair to others. They won’t get upset when you don’t respond immediately, as they’ll know from your Slack status what you’re currently up to.
3. Eat that frog
According to Associate Management Professor Maryam Kouchaki, people tend to drift towards simple, easy-to-do tasks and postpone the difficult ones for later. This is not only counterproductive but even harmful in the long term. What you should do instead is just eat that frog, or tackle the most complex tasks first. Why is that? Well, the answer is simple, they require much more brainpower and motivation! If you find a task too big or too overwhelming then split it into a few smaller ones, so they’re easier to deal with. Keep in mind that it’s better to fail at smaller assignments, as they won’t impact your end results as much as failing at bigger, more challenging tasks.
4. Set boundaries
Do you know the saying: “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”? It’s also true of freelance work! If you want to stay productive at work, you need to draw a line between doing your clients a solid every now and letting them constantly affect your work process or schedule.
In the past, I’ve worked with a client on a monthly content marketing retainer. I priced the package based on a very detailed, closed list of tasks and responsibilities. Everything was perfect at first, but after a couple of months, they started asking me for – seemingly small – favors, like adding image ideas or summarizing key findings in bullet points. I’m sure you can already see where this story is heading! Fast forward half a year, I ended up spending an additional 10% of my time on completing the project, all without extra remuneration. Eventually, when I felt that the line has been crossed, I reached out to the client and we sorted out a new, more flexible arrangement.
You need to do the same if you feel like any extra favors and requests are draining your productivity.
Things like these might also come in the form of an extra call each week, or your client now expecting an answer to messages sent after hours (just because you’ve answered their late-night email once or twice in the past). Make sure you recognize how much you can offer as a sign of goodwill, and where you start sacrificing your comfort or work-life balance.
5. Plan time for deep work
Another tip to stay productive at work is making sure that you have enough time for deep, uninterrupted work. As human beings, we’re only able to fully focus for up to 4 hours a day, so we should make sure to use this time wisely! Whenever I have to write an article or plan some strategic work I block this time in my calendar – this is when I am not available for meetings or chitchats. If you know that you’re most productive between 8 am and 12 pm, then use this time for deep work. You can also split it into 2 slots, like 8 am – 10 am and 12 pm – 2 pm, that’s entirely up to you!
6. Speak up
Ideas and project concepts tend to change. If your client or colleagues have a vision that you disagree with, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. You’re an expert after all, and your ideas should be heard and valued – you weren’t hired to stay silent, were you? I am sure, your client will appreciate a fresh perspective, especially if you spot a problem or an opportunity that they haven’t thought of. Speaking up will help you do two things:
show your expertise which will have a positive impact on extending your cooperation
stay productive at work by making the project idea bulletproof. If you spot an issue with a client thinking early on and voice it, then you’ll avoid any project disruptions or changes in concepts.
7. Decide on your working hours
If I were to name one factor that positively affects productivity in freelance work, it would be discipline. If you’re the type who tends to start work while still in your pajamas, then somehow find yourself watching Netflix, and get back to work late in the afternoon, then you’re not doing yourself a favor. Now, don’t get me wrong. I realize that one of the perks of freelance is deciding on your own schedule – just make sure that it truly serves your productivity and work-life balance! The last thing you want is to log on at 8 AM and stay semi-engaged at work till 9 PM.
Instead, decide on your working hours, say, 8 AM and 4 PM. This way, you can stay focused and plan your life after hours. And if you’re part of a team, others will also know when you’re available for a call or quick question. I’d say that’s a win-win-win.
8. Create to-do-lists
Oh how I love the feeling of ticking tasks off my to-do list, don’t you? I list all the tasks that I need to complete in the upcoming month in Trello. You don’t have to plan for the entire month, you can do it on a daily or weekly basis if it works better for you.
It will give you a lot of satisfaction and a massive motivation boost, as you’ll be able to see how much you’ve achieved over time. Also, if you’re procrastinating (which we all do sometimes), it will show in your to-do lists as your tasks will keep growing, or stay the same. This should push you to start working harder!
9. Plan your upcoming week on Friday
One thing that has helped me hit off Monday in style and be productive at work is planning tasks for the next week on Friday afternoon. Before I call it a day and close my laptop, I look at my Toggl board and see which tasks I’ll be able to complete in the upcoming week. After shortlisting them, I go to Google Calendar and fill it with tasks for at least 3-4 days ahead.
This way, I avoid sitting down on Monday morning and staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out where I left off.
10. Use story points to estimate your work
This one here is pretty unusual, but it might do wonders for your productivity AND client relationships. Particularly if it’s hard for you to estimate project delivery in hours/days, or if your work depends on others’ tasks (for example, if you’re a front developer and need to receive designs and specifications to complete your work).
Consider going with a popular Scrum practice – i.e., using Fibonacci sequence (also known as story points) to estimate your work and delivery timeline. In a nutshell, you use Fibonacci sequence numbers – 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on – to give others a sense of how big of a task you’re working on. Saying that a quick tweak of the website layout will be a ‘2’ and a major webpage update will be an ‘8’ is more relatable to everyone on the project than trying to measure in on a linear 1-10 scale. Plus, over time, everyone knows what a 3-story point task usually looks like compared to an 8-point assignment. Or, how many story points you can usually complete in a monthly view.
Knowing the story points, you can plan your work better without the pressure of a risky, artificial deadline you were forced to add to the calendar. And the best part is, you manage your clients’ expectations, deliver on your promises, and keep everyone happy!
The art of staying productive at work
Being productive at work, especially when there’s no manager to keep you accountable, is a skill you need to teach yourself in your freelance career. On top of the tips I’ve shared above, there’s also one more thing you can do – join a community that will partner you up with the best-fitting projects!
At Match, we connect professionals all over the world with some of the leading, hyper-growing companies out there. You get to choose if you’d like a full-time, part-time, hybrid, or remote project – all so you can stay most productive and find a job arrangement that will work best for your time availability and working style.
Ready to make 2023 the most exciting year in your career? Join us!