Learn how to be more productive at work by breaking these 4 habits

You don’t have to pull long hours, answer all your emails or be constantly connected to be productive in the workplace

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Do you keep your cellphone faceup on your desk? Do you respond to emails while you’re in the middle of a meeting? If you want to learn how to be more productive at work, research shows you should start by breaking the following habits that have a negative impact on performance.

Before downloading the latest productivity apps and tools promising to keep you focused, take some time to reflect on what’s actually getting in the way of work.

Bad habit No. 1: working long hours

Going home to burn the midnight oil might allow you to cross a couple things off your to-do list, but the risk of burning out is high. As Barron’s editor Sarah Green Carmichael points out, productivity doesn’t actually increase if we put more time into our work.

In the Harvard Business Review, Carmichael breaks down a study by Boston University professor Erin Reid revealing that managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours per week and those who didn’t. Essentially, there was no evidence that overworked employees knew how to accomplish more.

How to break it: make a schedule and stick with it

Start by identifying when you naturally gravitate toward doing certain tasks. If you’re doing intense, focused work at home because your days are filled with meetings, look for ways to preserve your time. Schedule periods to do deep productive work, and honor those holds in your calendar so you can save your evenings for other things you love doing.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is a big proponent of time-blocking. “High-quality work produced is a function of two things—the amount of time you spend on the work and the intensity of your focus during this time,” he told Fast Company. “If you can increase your focus, you’ll get more done in less time.”

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Bad habit No. 2: keeping all your notifications turned on

A study by Larry Rosen, a psychologist and the author of iDisorder, shows that people check their phones at least once every 15 minutes and feel anxious if they aren’t able to do so. Now add a bunch of notifications to the equation—pings for texts, emails, social media, task management apps, etc.—and it can get downright stressful.

If we don’t take proactive measures to manage these notifications, we’re at risk of being interrupted constantly. In his book, The Rise of the Humans: How to Outsmart the Digital Deluge, Dave Coplin explains that an interruption takes at least 15 minutes to recover from—and it doesn’t take long for those minutes to add up to hours of lost productivity.

How to break it: change how you use your mobile devices

Putting down our phones is one way for us to learn how to be more productive at work, but we don’t have to boycott them completely. Deloitte’s digital detox, for example, isn’t designed to reduce time spent on your mobile device, but to help you have a better relationship with it.

The global consulting firm suggests trying the following over the course of a week:

  • Unsubscribe from email newsletters you don’t read
  • Move apps into folders, or delete unused ones
  • Turn off app notifications, including badges—those little dots that indicate how many unread messages you have
  • Charge your phone outside the bedroom to avoid late-night scrolling
  • Turn your phone off for eight hours straight (and no, overnight doesn’t count)

Bad habit No. 3: saying yes to everything

In most circumstances, optimism is a positive trait—except when it comes to time management. In a recent New York Times article, productivity expert Julie Morgenstern describes two types of people: time optimists and time realists. Time optimists, Morgenstern says, are likely to overcommit, which “leads them to overstuff their days and become frustrated when their list of to-dos doesn’t get completed.”

How to break it: assess a project’s scope and say no if you have to

Morgenstern’s time realists are those who fully consider what they’re being asked to do before committing to a project. And yes, that sometimes means they choose not to take on something new.

It’s not going to be easy—after all, no one wants to look like they aren’t a team player. But learning how to be more productive at work will require some changes. The key is to be straightforward and explain why you’re saying no. Try these tactics from business journalist and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch:

  • Prepare a list of respectful, friendly and bulletproof lines (e.g., “Thanks for thinking of me, but I think someone else might be better for the job.”)
  • Be simple, diplomatic and candid with your explanation
  • Negotiate and suggest an alternative that you can say yes to
  • Be gracious and end the conversation on a positive note (e.g., “Thanks for understanding.”)
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Bad habit No. 4: constantly checking your inbox

We all know (or can imagine) the satisfaction that comes with having an empty inbox, and we work hard to get it down to zero. But reading, replying to and managing emails and messages requires a huge amount of our time.

In a survey of 1,500 people across six organizations, Carleton University researchers found that workers spend one-third of their workday answering emails. And 30% of the time, these emails aren’t urgent or important.

How to break it: check messages only at certain times of day

Think of your inbox as an actual mailbox. It doesn’t make sense to walk to the front yard every 15 minutes, so why do we let ourselves check emails or direct messages so frequently?

Productivity expert Jocelyn K. Glei says there are two types of inbox managers: “Reactors who rely on notifications and near-constant monitoring of their inboxes, and batchers who set aside specific chunks of time to power through email so they can ignore it the rest of the time.” You can probably guess that batchers are less stressed and know how to be more productive at work. Rather than immediately reading and responding, Glei suggests that you dedicate two 30- to 60-minute blocks of time to email per day.

If you truly want to know how to be more productive at work, reframe your thinking regarding the habits many of us have gotten so used to. Adopting a more relaxed but methodical approach could be exactly what you need to take your productivity to the next level.

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