Working in an office can be a strange thing and full of many annoying little rituals. Like the obligatory how-was-your-weekend-question-session that happens every Monday morning.
It’s safe to assume that most people don’t really care about what you did in the last 48 hours since they saw you last, but they feel compelled to ask, to either be polite or because they really want to tell you about their weekend.
Then of course there are the meetings.
First there’s the brainstorming meeting. Then there’s the follow-up meeting. After that, the discussion goes virtual and everyone meets on email to talk about the meeting. Then you email more to discuss when the next meeting will be. It can get truly ridiculous.
Then there’s the whole always-trying-to-save-your-butt component to working in many offices, where bosses are blindly cc’d, blame is continually passed back and forth, all while your whole department is secretly competing with you for that one higher position.
And if you want to get some uninterrupted work done, good luck, because between shoveling off to meetings, spending much of the day answering emails and being disrupted by that annoyingly chatty co-worker, you’re more likely to get more work done at home or on your public transportation commute than you will at the office.
New ways of working
Jason Fried, who’s the co-founder and president of the Chicago-based company 37 signals, believes the office is probably the last place you’ll be able to be productive, and along with his co-author David Heinemeier, he wrote Rework, a book that talks about new ways of working outside the office.
While speaking at one of his lectures, Fried said the traditional “work day” no longer exists in office settings anymore.
“People go to work and they’re basically trading in their work day for a series of work moments,” he said.
“It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there and then something else happens and you're pulled off your work and you’ve got to do something else, then you have 20 minutes, then it’s lunch.”
“Then you have something else to do, then you’ve got 15 minutes and someone pulls you aside, asks you this question, and before you know it, it's 5 pm and you look back on your day and realize that you didn’t get anything done.”
Fried says that with his company, he makes sure no one physically works together unless they have to, which just about eliminates distractions and allows people to stay within their work zone and be more productive.
So if you can, speak to your boss about having the chance to have a little more "alone time" and say it'll allow you to get more done.
But most of us will undoubtedly have to learn how to be more productive at the office and learn how to navigate with a bunch of people around, so here are a few tips.
Be sure not to let others control how much work you’re going to get done, says Gina Trapini, author of the books Upgrade Your Life and The Complete Guide to Google Wave.
And don’t feel you have to carve out time to answer every voicemail or engage in those time-wastinggossipy conversations.
“In an interrupt-driven culture it’s just too easy to let other people decide how you’re going to spend your next 10 minutes,” she said in a series of informational videos, entitled “Work Smart.”
“If you jump every single time a new email arrives or your BlackBerry buzzes or your phone rings, you’re undermining your most important work and you could be costing your company money. Recent studies show that unnecessary interruptions cost the U.S. economy $650 billion in lost productivity.”
In addition, Trapini says on average, your brain needs at least 15 minutes to really get into your task and properly focus, and once you're interrupted, many times you'll have to start that 15 minutes all over again.
Reserve an hour
She says it’s important to reserve an hour of time for each task where you’re not interrupted, and asking your boss for alone time in a secluded part of the building or in an empty conference room is your best bet to complete your assignment to the best of your ability.
“Even an employee really low on the totem pole can do this,” she said.
Another common mistake people make in the office is trying to multitask too often, says Trapini, and just because we can do it, it doesn’t mean it’s the best for work productivity.
“When you juggle tasks your work suffers and it takes longer, because switching tasks takes time," she said.
"When your brain switches from one task to another, it takes up a whole new train of thought and you lose any momentum you had on the first task, which costs on the next switch.”
Trapini pointed to a study that showed it usually takes people 25 minutes on average to get back into a task once they’ve left it for a moment, so try to focus on one thing at a time.
“Stop juggling and start single-tasking,” she says.
First thing in the morning
Furthermore, Trapini says to do your most difficult or highest priority assignment in the morning when you get to work, as this will prevent you from thinking about it too much, which we all know can lead to procrastination.
The fact that the office will most likely be quieter and not yet filled with the typical distractions of the day means you’ll be able to get more done. Plus, you’re usually most alert in the morning and you’ll be able to stay better engaged, which can set the tone for your whole day, says Trapini.
“By knocking something important off your to-do list, first thing in the morning, you get both momentum and a sense of accomplishment before 10am,” she advises.
And here’s one more tip:
Try not eating your lunch at your desk or even in the building or on the property if you can.
Although many companies today provide cafeterias and other little things to keep you on the grounds during lunch, be sure to get out and do something completely unrelated to work.
In fact, scientists from the University of Sussex did a study about employees’ happiness about their job and found a definite correlation between discontentment at work and not going to another location during lunch, so it’s wise to always go for a walk, take a drive or just go to a nearby park with your lunch.
Either way, you’ll need all the help you can get to survive the office, because many are just full of people who’ve mastered the art of looking productive, but who are really more productive at distracting you and taking you away from your assignment.