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What to Do When You’re Not Feeling Productive?

Not even productivity tools seem to help you. Are they helpful at all?

A big part of American culture is the concept of working hard and being productive. Ask someone in the office how their day or week is and more often than not they’ll complain about their crazy schedule and how busy they are before rushing off to the next meeting. Just decades ago, leisure was reserved for the highest classes. Today, we too often celebrate an absence of work-life balance.  Magazine headlines celebrate CEOs who get four hours of sleep. Friends tweet about the deluge of email they get. Hands-free headsets and time-saving meal delivery services are status symbols in the U.S.

The stats back this up and show the effects all this activity has on people. The Staples Advantage Workplace Index found that half of Americans feel overworked and employees who feel burned out are less creative and productive and more likely to quit. Another survey found that 95 percent admit that employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention, with nearly half saying it’s responsible for 20-50 percent of the turnover each year. The list goes on…

Productivity tools aren’t the panacea 

To solve the busyness problem, people have turned to technology, but with limited success. There has been an explosion in productivity tools all promising to make us more efficient and productive. Tools like Trello help you organize your tasks, and apps like Slack, which recently surpassed 6 million daily active users, create chat rooms where you can talk to your co-workers about what needs to get done. But neither reduces the amount of work you have, or changes the way you actually complete that work. Spending the day getting your inbox to zero doesn’t add value to your business, or improve your work — it’s just time-consuming. 

So it’s not surprising that despite this influx of supposedly helpful tools, we aren’t becoming more productive. In 2016, U.S. labor productivity dipped three quarters in a row at one point, the longest streak since 1979. We’re all learning that these tools can quickly become yet another firehose of content that we need to sift through and manage.

Fix how we work, not necessarily the tools we use

What can be done about this? We can start by fixing our systems of work. Instead of praising and rewarding employees for staying late, enable them to be productive without adding to their workload and stress. We need to reinvent the way they work. This can happen with the use of new approaches that emphasize problem-solving mindsets and offer direct solutions to inefficient work habits and processes. Here are some solutions:

Find easy, low-tech ways to save time at work, such as simply cutting down on meetings. Too often people add team aliases and bigger groups to meeting invites without thinking carefully about who really needs to be there. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently pointed out, employees should be strategic in the meetings they organize and attend to save everyone more time.

Use collaboration tools that cut down on emails and other communications. For example, cloud-based services like Google Drive allow people to work on documents simultaneously. People can easily see what changes others are making or have made within a document and don’t have to wait for copies to be emailed around as attachments. This means there’s no need to spend time hunting down the latest version of a document or resolving discrepancies when people inadvertently work on different versions of the same document. Reevaluating your approach to email can help cut down on interruptions and distractions as well – one method is to block out time at the beginning and end of each day to work on and address emails, avoiding them in between. In addition, think about the length of each email and how much detail is required for a project; if it requires more than 5 sentences, consider calling the person or flagging them down face-to-face.

Empower employees to expand their horizons rather than relying on other departments to provide the tools they need. For instance, instead of asking the IT department to build apps that make everyday work easier, workers can use no-code platforms to build their own customized apps in a matter of hours/days. In one example, The Spur Group reinvented its HR operations by using a no-code tool to automate hours of manual work involved in onboarding new employees.

Evaluate and understand your priorities for the day, as well as the best approach to cover them off – sometimes it is necessary to multitask on a number of projects, but other times, it is better to hunker down on a singular task. In those cases, make your priorities clear.     

Minimize distractions to able to focus and get the most out of the workday. This can include turning off non-essential notifications like text, email, and voicemail; closing the door to your office; using ‘do not disturb’ mode on your smartphone; or putting the smartphone screen out of eyesight or face down. All of these are important for setting boundaries and increasing productivity. For those of us who sit in open office floor plans, wearing headphones or sitting facing a wall helps to cut the noise. One study found that it takes 23 minutes on average to recover from an interruption, while an efficiency expert estimates that workers end up wasting 40-60 percent of their time as a result of interruptions.

Technology isn’t always the enemy, as you can see in some of the examples above. But it’s important to recognize when a technology is a burden rather than a help. For those who turn to technology, there are solutions that help automate mundane, time-consuming task and allow us to focus on more strategic tasks — and there are also some that just give us another thing to manage. Rather than adding a new type of mouse wheel, let’s rethink the wheel altogether. 

(A version of this article originally appeared on Glassdoor.)