Productivity improvement is more than reducing waste. Understanding how routines and environment affect our physical and mental states can help you and your employees get the work done more efficiently and accurately without spending a fortune or revamping your organization.


Motivation and mental state


For some people, beginning a task is the battle. For others, staying focused and motivated to finish is hardest. With a little effort, we can change the patterns that keep us from doing our best work every day. Richard Bandler and John Grinder created neuro-linguistic programming in the 1970s as a way to use the connection between neurological processes (the nervous system), linguistics (the mechanics of language), and programming (the behavior patterns we learn from our experiences) to help individuals reprogram their thought and behavior patterns. 


For example, you prime your mental state by remembering the last time you were really productive. How did you feel? Were you stressed out by a looming deadline instead of looking at the big picture? Now, remember three times when you felt confident and highly focused, and dwell on those memories for a few minutes. How did you feel about the work? What were you thinking about? What messages were you receiving through your senses?


This intense focus brings you to a peak state of emotion. In that state, you create a physical cue, such as snapping your fingers and perhaps listening to music you associate with high energy and focus. Now, you visualize working on a specific project for 90 minutes each day, imagining the progress you will make and how you will feel. Extend your vision to the days and weeks ahead and beyond the deadline to savor the feeling of accomplishment. Mentally rewind and visualize the same process again. Then, you work for 90 minutes on that project. Each day, you snap your fingers and trigger the vision and work for 90 minutes.


Quit looking busy


How do you recognize when someone is doing busywork instead of actually being busy with work? It’s busywork if you have no clear goal or objective to guide your actions and exert more effort than the outcome is worth. Your team is running in place, missing deadlines because of inefficiencies in your process, such as regular meetings with no purpose or too many long emails that fail to get to the point.


Reducing busywork requires focus and planning. What is the purpose of the meeting, task or email you are working on? How important is it to your priorities and goals? If you cannot explain the objective of an assignment to your employee, it is probably busywork. Prioritize tasks and projects, and keep two lists: tasks that must be done and a wish list of tasks that can wait. Break larger projects into steps that can be done in shorter time intervals. Get rid of the things that don’t align with your strategic objectives.


What your body needs


The human body is designed to seek balance, and it uses environmental cues such as light and darkness to trigger sleep and the functioning of specific organ systems at particular times. Sleep is necessary for cellular and tissue repair, and it allows the brain to store and purge information. If you are tired during the day, a short nap can revitalize you, but you might also be dehydrated. Drink water instead of sugary or caffeinated beverages.


Our bodies are not designed to sit all day. Try working at a variable-height desk, or stand up and walk during phone calls. Keep your blood sugar steady by eating some protein every couple of hours instead of large meals that redirect oxygen from your brain to your digestive system and put you into a “food coma.” Try to deliberately produce a good mood. For example, listen to music, spend a few minutes meditating or take a whiff of peppermint oil for energy.


If you really want to get creative, look at the environment in your office. Replacing bright overhead fluorescent lights with localized task lighting reduces eyestrain. The colors and textures of walls, floors and furniture can calm or energize. Trusting employees to alter work schedules or even bring their pets to work also improves productivity.


Most important, encourage everyone to take mental and physical breaks. What might appear to a waste of time can actually be a few minutes of exercise and social interaction that stimulates new ideas and reduces burnout.


Productivity improvements come in small steps and in many ways. When you set the example and trust your team to take care of themselves, the work will take care of itself.