No matter how many hours you work, it’s the productive ones that matter. In addition to the attendant financial rewards, more production generally means better performance for the individual. The goal, then, is to get more done.

There are three ways to increase the productivity: (1) improved skills, (2) increased leverage of others, and (3) better use of the hours you’re working. The first and second come with experience. The third will immediately produce results in hours gained. Since this is the legal industry, let’s look at this in tenths:

0.1 (hours) x 5 (days/week) x 45 (workweeks/year) = 24 extra productive hours

In other words, if you can improve your productivity by six minutes per day, you will do 24 more hours of work per year. That’s three full days!

Here are ways to gain more productive hours in the day, six minutes at a time.

Managing E-mail

The killer application that ushered in the Internet era can be a huge time sink. To gain valuable minutes throughout the day, fine-tune your use of e-mail by taking the following steps.

  • Turn off new message notifications. These notifications are a huge distraction because they create internal noise: “What am I missing?” or “Oh, not another thing to do!” Or worse, you instantly stop to look at the new message and lose focus on whatever else you’re doing. E-mail is an asynchronous communication tool. You do not need to know every time a message hits your inbox. It isn’t going anywhere! Simply triage your e-mail regularly (twice an hour or so) to stay abreast of what’s happening.
  • Remove your work address from personal lists. Keep your inbox tidy and uncluttered to reduce the time wasted culling through it. Get rid of automatic feeds about the local weather report, the special of the day at your favorite online retailer, and the scores in the day’s sports events.
  • Get off unnecessary professional and interoffice lists. These also represent a distraction from your work. Draft a polite, professional e-mail to the list manager asking to be removed if it’s not imperative that you receive certain e-mails. Likewise, unsubscribe from e-publications you don’t read. Most professional purveyors provide a simple Unsubscribe mechanism for this. Take advantage of it. You can always re-subscribe.
  • Spot review your inbox from home. Yes, you’re working away from the office after hours, but this is the new professional landscape. If you can quickly reply to simple requests and handle just a few small items in the evening, they’ll be on someone else’s desk—and not yours—in the morning.

Sequestering

It’s not just for juries, you know. The idea is to find a place or process that provides you with uninterrupted time to get top-priority work done. This doesn’t mean holing up all day, or leaving the country. You’re looking for a defined period each day or week—say one to two hours—when you are able to focus on the tasks of highest concern. Here are some specifics.

  • Privatize your office. Close your door and put your phone on “Do Not Disturb.” If people continue to interrupt you, put a DND sign on your door. You can make it light—“Great Mind at Work, Please Don’t Knock” or “Out to Work, Back at X:XX O’Clock” —but make it clear.
  • Establish a secondary workplace. If your firm has a library, go there. If the firm or office building has a small conference or caucus room, go there. Even an empty office will do. Take only the things you’re going to work on, and sit down and do them.
  • Try some one-hour telecommuting. Consider coming in late or going home early to gain quiet work time one day a week. But remember, if you’re going to do this, you must genuinely commit to getting the work done. Any temptation to dally will undermine your objective of increasing performance, so be very careful.
  • Learn how to say, “No.” Inevitably, you will still be hunted down or interrupted on many occasions. This is when it is imperative that you politely but unmistakably explain that you’re not currently available and you’ll get back to the person posthaste when you are. It’s an opportunity to retrain those you work with—you are enlisting their help to increase your productivity.

Upgrade Your Work Space

There are a number of things you can do to improve the productivity of your physical work space. Most are very simple to implement, but each will pay a large productivity dividend.

  • Do not face the door. Reposition your desk so you are not facing the open door. The problem with facing the door is that you tend to look up whenever someone passes by. That’s a mini-interruption and it’s completely unnecessary. Worse, the person walking by may catch you eye and stop to chat!
  • Identify a designated work area. Pick one area – your desktop, your computer table, the desk return – as your designated work area. This area should be devoid of ALL other working materials. Each file and pile in the vicinity of your designated work area is another distraction – “Oh, I’ve got to do that.” and “Oh, I’ve got to do that too!” Keep the designated work area free of those self-inflicted distractions.
  • Create a filing system for open projects. Most people use the stacks and piles model for keeping track of what needs to be done. These seemingly innocuous papers are either neatly or not-so-neatly scattered about the office. A well organized filing system is easy to maintain and a much more efficient workflow method. Every minute spent digging around in the piles is a lost minute of productivity.

Implementing some or all of these suggestions will definitely increase your productivity. Better productivity will improve your effectiveness and sense of accomplishment. In turn, your increased accomplishment will produce greater career satisfaction.

© 2009, Paul H. Burton. All rights reserved.