Productivity techniques support the effective processing of tasks. The techniques themselves are often easy to explain but hard to master. In day-to-day work challenges often arise that make implementing techniques by the book difficult or even impossible. This article describes basic techniques and the challenges that arise.
General information on productivity
Productivity describes the relationship between an achieved output of work and the working hours required for this. In other words, the better the result achieved in the same amount of time or the less time required to achieve the same result, the higher the resulting productivity is. 
Productivity techniques are actions and behaviors that have the aim of increasing or maximizing productivity. This includes issues that relate directly relate to work, such as creating periods of time when you will not be interrupted. But it also includes issues that are very much in the private sphere, such as getting enough sleep. There are productivity techniques that require special accessories, but also many that can be performed very simply.
Productivity techniques are not limited to particular sectors or professions, rather they can, to a certain extent and with adaptations, be used generally.
The concept of productivity techniques is a very broad subject area, from which some basic techniques are presented and described in practice below. These basic techniques include:
- making a to-do list
- planning and prioritizing tasks
- processing of tasks in a focused manner
The first step along the way to increasing productivity often involves producing an overview of pending tasks and prioritizing their completion.
Many different tasks, large and small, originating from a wide range of sources often build up at work, and must be processed over the course of the day.
WORKING WITH A TO-DO LIST
A to-do list contains all pending tasks and ideally also sorts them by priority and/or by completion date. Whenever a new task comes along, it is added to the to-do list. Once a task is completed it is crossed off the list.
POSSIBLE WAYS TO MAKE THE LIST
The medium used to create the to-do list is not crucial. Depending on personal preference, a sheet of paper and a pen or digital lists can be used.
A digital list allows you to re-order tasks as soon as is necessary and is virtually endlessly extendable. It is also possible to call up a digital to-do list on various devices (e.g. PC, laptop, smartphone) and, therefore, have constant access to it. An example of this is the Any.Do service, which enables a to-do list to be created and maintained online and via a smartphone app. However, any service that enables a list to be created is suitable, e.g. Evernote or Google Docs.
The challenge in using a to-do list does not lie in how the list is made, rather in actually using and continuously maintaining the list: a to-do list that is not up-to-date will not improve productivity at work.
In order to keep the list clear and up-to-date, despite its increasing length, a regular time for updating the to-do list and arranging/rearranging the tasks by priority can be established.
Planning and prioritizing
The theory behind daily planning assumes that a workday is divided into blocks based on pending tasks. Tasks are processed and completed in these blocks.
Planning a workday is simple: blocks of work are entered into the calendar as appointments with a specific duration. Ideally, the principle of timeboxing is used for this.  Daily planning is a form of psychological crutch and the resulting structure helps new tasks to be arranged appropriately.
In order to be able to react flexibly to new tasks, the whole workday should not be planned. In the event that a critical issue arises that must be processed immediately, it is essential that the daily plan can be adapted. Including buffer periods enables the daily planning to be adhered to, even if interruptions occur. This ensures that important planned matters can still be processed. If there are a lot of small tasks for a single subject, these can also be combined within a block of work and processed immediately one after the other during this period.
It is also important to schedule short breaks between the blocks of work as a certain amount of time is required to conclude a matter mentally before starting a new one. Ideally, these breaks will last 10 to 15 minutes. Planning your workday and adhering to this plan make the difference between working and getting work done.
During day-to-day work, priority is given according to the situation. The most important matter appears to be either the last one to have come in by e-mail or the one brought to you by the colleague who is currently standing at your door. Your own work (on the to-do list) is often neglected as frequent interruptions prevent effective processing.
Processing tasks in a focused way
To complete tasks effectively, it is essential to process tasks in a focused way. It is often underestimated how many interruptions disrupt concentration during everyday life at the office. Besides obvious distractions, such as colleagues, phone calls, e-mail notifications, meeting reminders, and various chat applications, there are also open browser windows, incomplete documents, other open applications, and system alerts that demand a large or small amount of your attention. For this reason, focused working needs to be facilitated first of all. A possible technique is working with timeboxing.
WORKING WITH TIMEBOXING
Timeboxing is a project planning technique.  It involves using a previously determined period of time to work on a dedicated matter. When the time has expired, the work is stopped, irrespective of whether the task has been completed or not.
This has the effect of lending a certain degree of time pressure to complete tasks within the time limit, which in turn facilitates greater concentration.
It also lowers the psychological barrier that causes one to avoid processing larger tasks as there is not enough time to complete the task in a single stretch. Through consistent use of timeboxing, you achieve the completion of a task bit by bit.
The decisive factor when working with timeboxing is focusing on the tasks to be processed. A short period of focused work contributes significantly more to the resolution of a task than unfocused processing over a longer period.
According to fastcompany.com , there is a maximum time of approximately 90 minutes, in which a task should be processed in one go. This time can be reached in increments by first creating blocks of 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes and during these periods, avoiding the previously mentioned distractions in order to work on a specific task.
If you have a laptop, it is also often advisable to leave your own office and look for a quiet working space where it is possible to work undisturbed. It can also be helpful to deactivate the computer’s Internet connection to remove the distraction of e-mail notifications or chat windows.
If is not possible to find an working environment free from disruptions, the aim should be to at least establish one where as few distractions as possible occur. For example, before working on a task, close all open (or unnecessary) programs, deactivate any notifications, and switch the telephone to silent.
Even basic productivity techniques that are simple to implement can considerably improve productivity. The techniques mentioned become even more effective when applied in combination. Using them makes it possible to organize the workday efficiently and productively.
[Expert article by Julian Hofmann, IT project manager]
This article is also available to download as a PDF: