Many working Americans find themselves stretched for time in an economy that requires companies to do more with less to stay competitive...

Share story

Many working Americans find themselves stretched for time in an economy that requires companies to do more with less to stay competitive.

And as workers are left with more to tackle, some study the office habits of colleagues to see who is being efficient and who is slacking.

How do the frequent break takers get anything done, and aren’t they slowing everyone else down? Are the workers who look too busy to say hello the top performers?

Maybe not.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The image of a productive employee working long hours chained to a desk is not always the best standard for judging who is getting the most done, experts say.

Improving job performance relies more on organizing your life, getting enough rest and making sure you have good working conditions than on constant back- or mind-breaking work, they say.

“We think of productivity as the ability to do more with less, and that’s really a short-term solution to being productive,” said Rachna Jain, a licensed psychologist and job coach based in Bethesda, Md.

“To be productive, you need adequate reserves and adequate resources to get your job done.”

Taking a minute here and there to stretch, make small talk or walk up the stairs can boost productivity, according to several job coaches.

The value of sleeping well

Good habits such as eating and sleeping well and taking frequent breaks are essential to a productive day, said Carolyn Schur, president of Alert at Work, a human-resources consulting company based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Sleep is one of the main factors in how a person will function, Schur said.

People have different sleeping patterns and, if possible, should structure their work around how they rest.

A night owl is most productive in the afternoon and evenings, while early birds accomplish more before lunchtime.

Schur recommends taking five- to 10-minute breaks every 90 minutes to get away from the task at hand and recharge.

A break is a good time to have a snack that is low in sugar, such as nuts, fruit, yogurt or cheese. Those foods sustain the body longer than a cup of coffee or candy bar, which can provide a sudden jolt of energy that fades quickly.

And breaks can help those who dread their workdays because they consider them one long task to be completed, experts said.

Gina Garcia, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, breaks up her day with different activities, including classes, work and meetings.

“If I know I have an assignment, I start it way in advance,” she said. “I never have to sit for hours and hours. I schedule small work periods, like a few hours. I definitely break it up — that’s just the way I work.”

Organization of time, emotions and duties is critical for a productive life, experts say.

When people can’t balance their personal and professional lives, one side can suffer, whether it’s neglecting family or friends, or letting personal problems affect work performance.

“To get into the mode in which you do things well, you have to compartmentalize,” said John Challenger of the Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Check emotions at the door so you can go to work.”

Time management is a big challenge for many people, Jain said.

“You have to ask, what is the quality of what you produce at the end of the day?” she said.

“You have to shift from the mentality that the more time you spend on something the better it will be.”

Examine your workday

Jain worked with a client who was spending 2 ½ hours a day on e-mail.

It turns out the client wrote essay-length responses to all her messages.

She had to learn to write shorter or use other means of communication such as telephone or face-to-face conversations that took less time.

Jain suggests keeping a time log for a week or two.

That can show what tasks take a worker the longest, and what may need to be reduced or eliminated.

She also suggests breaking down every duty, especially large projects, into small steps and monitoring daily progress of each step.

The idea is to set aside time to focus on one task at a time until the larger project is completed.

“I don’t recommend multitasking — I recommend splitting up your time,” Jain said. “If your attention is split, it’s less efficient.”

Find a good match

Besides good habits, workers need a job that challenges them, because bored people will produce less, Challenger said.

Another factor is working with a manager who is a good match, said Glenn Mehltretter, president and chief executive of People Fit, an organizational-development consulting firm based in Raleigh, N.C.

He said the best match is when a boss can help a worker improve.

“A manager has to create context to show employees, ‘This is how your job fits into the whole picture,’ ” Mehltretter said.

“A manager has to have a greater capacity for the job than you, in order to be effective. You have to have a boss who can add and give you value.”

Another productivity killer is a power struggle.

Workers are more productive if they feel they are in control of their work — they set the priorities, schedule and agenda.

“You can only push but so much if you really want to get good performance and productivity out of people,” said Michael Kahn, a personal coach and psychologist based in Severna Park, Md.

Some employers have unrealistic expectations about how much time and work they can rely upon from their employees, or spend too much time micromanaging their workers, Kahn said.

Those expectations come from employers’ desires to be the best in their field or industry and get the most out of their workers, especially among startups.

Some employers, however, realize they can’t hold on to good employees by working them to death.

“A lot of people just don’t get it,” Kahn said.

“In order to work well, [employers] have got to learn to incorporate these principles into their work routine. Otherwise, you have more resentment and poor productivity.”