The important thing to remember about productivity is that it’s not a sprint -- it’s a marathon. If you’re super-productive for one hour but slack off the next two, you haven’t been productive. (Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.)
Some people are blessed with the power of concentration. But most of us aren’t. Our willpower is a finite resource and steadily decreases as we make choices. By the time the workday is winding down, our reserve of willpower badly needs replenishing. That’s why it’s so hard to finish the day as strong as you started it -- your brain literally can’t handle it.
Luckily, forming habits helps preserve willpower. For example, many executives and leaders wear the same outfits every day so they’re not wasting precious mindspace on relatively trivial choices. (Barack Obama, Elizabeth Holmes, and Steve Jobs all do this.)
And while you can’t ensure that the last hour of your day is always going to be the same, by following a specific routine you’ll be able to get the most out of your last hour in the workday without thinking about it too much. The eight strategies below might seem like a lot to master, but in a few days you’ll have it down pat.
Before the last hour:
About 20-30 minutes before you hit the last hour of your workday, take some time to get your affairs in order so you can spend your remaining time powering through important tasks.
1) Check your email.
Review all your unread messages quickly, then respond to the ones that absolutely need to be addressed before the end of the day.
Move the remaining emails requiring a response into a “Send later” folder, or mark them as unread so you remember to deal with them later. Any messages you don't need to respond to should be deleted or archived.
2) Check your drafts folder.
During the day, distractions often pull us away from emails that aren’t 100% crucial to finish, and we leave them for later. Now is the time to tackle these messages. Finish them up and send them on their way -- and if you’re worried they’ll get lost in your recipients’ inboxes because of the late hour, schedule them for tomorrow morning using a tool like Sidekick.
3) Leave your inbox and other communication channels.
This one’s really important. Closing out of your inbox, removing other distractions as much as you can by setting yourself “Away” on messaging apps, and leaving Facebook and Twitter are crucial to keeping your concentration. Even if you’re one of those people who is completely comfortable with 9,378 unread notifications, they say “ignorance is bliss” for a reason. If you can’t see your notifications, you can’t wonder what they’re about and be distracted. So shut them off!
4) Take a quick break.
Take two to five minutes to get water, grab a healthy snack, go to the bathroom, or do anything that’s not work-related. Just make sure you get out of your chair and stretch your legs, because you’ll want to stay put to ensure your last hour is as productive as possible.
During the last hour:
After you’ve taken your break, it’s time to get down to business. Follow this four-step process to ensure you’re getting as much done as you can.
5) Reprioritize your to-do list.
We all know them -- the colleagues who get in at 9 a.m., whip through their task list, and are out the door by 5 p.m. without breaking a sweat. But most of us aren’t like that. We push to-do items to tomorrow, then the next day, then the day after that …
Use this time to assess your list. Does everything belong there? What’s most important? What can be pushed to tomorrow or next week? Even better, what can be entirely removed from your list? At least once a month I realize that the item I’ve been delaying for weeks just isn’t that important, which is why I never tackled it in the first place.
See if your list could use a similar shuffle, and move items as needed so you know what your true priorities are.
6) Review your schedule tomorrow.
Before you get to work on your last item, make sure there’s nothing you’ve forgotten about. Quickly glance over the next day’s schedule to confirm all internal and external meetings so you have a sense of how busy you’ll be and what priorities you’ll be able to address.
7) Do the thing.
Assume you’ll only complete one more thing today -- after all, an hour isn’t that much time.
If you’re juggling several larger priorities, pick the most important thing on your list and leave everything else for later. Spend your hour making as much progress as you can.
If you’re working on a series of smaller tasks, choose one type of task to tackle. Whether it’s calling prospects, writing call recaps, or making slides, you’ll be far more productive if you batch similar tasks together instead of jumping from one type of activity to another.
8) Check your email again before you head out.
You shouldn’t be sitting back down to write more emails -- this final check is only to make sure you’re not missing anything urgent. Everything else can be left for tomorrow. You’ve already given an entire workday your attention and focus, so walk out the door without feeling guilty!
And there you have it -- a straightforward way to ensure you’re juicing the most out of your last hour at work.
Originally published Feb 29, 2016 12:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017