Do you keep getting overlooked for promotions? Does your manager not seem to notice you?
If so, then the issue could be your work performance. And this is understandable. School focuses a lot on enabling you to get a job, but it usually doesn’t delve into how to get better at it.
This is a shame, as life doesn’t stop when you get your first job. Rather, your first job is the beginning of your career. If you never improve from there, then at best you’ll end up stuck in a dead-end job. At worst, you could find yourself without one.
To ensure you don’t get stagnant, let’s look at some practical ways to improve your work performance. If you put just a few of these into action, your boss is bound to take notice. And many of these tips will improve your life overall, potential promotions aside.
Before we even discuss what happens at work, we need to start with the most fundamental aspect of work performance: sleep.
No matter what you do for work, you’ll perform better if you’re well-rested. Despite this reality, however, most of us are terrible at sleeping.
It’s not entirely your fault. The modern world is full of bright screens, highly caffeinated drinks, and artificial lighting. All of these can conspire to keep you from getting your best sleep.
You’re not powerless, though. There are many things you can do to improve your quality and quantity of sleep. These include:
- Getting a better pillow and/or mattress
- Blocking light with blackout curtains
- Using a white noise machine
- Avoiding caffeine in the evening
- Not looking at screens at night (or at least, using an app or glasses that block blue light)
- Having a wind-down routine to prepare your body for sleep
And this is just the beginning. For more detailed advice on sleeping better, check out these articles:
- Optimize Your Sleep: 5 Tips for Falling Asleep Faster and Sleeping Better
- How to Get to Bed on Time and Stop Losing Sleep
Along with getting enough sleep, you also need to ensure that you’re fueling your body for optimum work performance. If you eat nutritious food, you’ll have sustained energy throughout the day and power through tasks. Whereas if you eat junk food (or don’t eat enough), you’ll have a lot of trouble focusing.
Additionally, be sure you’re drinking enough water. While it’s a myth that coffee dehydrates you, coffee alone won’t give your body enough fluid to function well. Plus, consuming an excessive amount of caffeine (more than 400 mg per day) can cause unpleasant side effects and disrupt your sleep.
To ensure you’re prioritizing hydration, we recommend drinking a glass of water before you have coffee. And then throughout the day, keep a glass or bottle of water next to you as you work. This way, water will always be in reach.
Now that we’ve gotten past the fundamental issues of sleep, nutrition, and hydration, we can discuss things to improve while you’re actually working.
One of the biggest areas most of us could improve is communication. Particularly in an era when more people are working remotely, clear communication is essential.
To communicate clearly, you need to focus on two main things.
First, make your messages as clear as possible. Whether you’re writing an email or Slack message, take an extra couple of minutes to read it over before sending. Ask yourself if the message would make sense to the person receiving it, or if you need to provide more detail.
On the other side, always ask for clarification if you don’t understand a task or project. It’s better to ask clarifying questions upfront than to get hours into a project before you realize you’re doing it wrong.
Communicating clearly can take some extra time in the moment, but it will save you lots of time in the long run. Plus, it will lead to better relationships with your coworkers, managers, and clients.
To learn more about how to communicate better at work, read our guide to professional communication.
Odds are, you’ve heard that it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver. But how many of us actually apply that principle to our work?
Often, we’re tempted to overpromise. It’s easy, for instance, to tell your manager that you’ll have a project done within 24 hours. It’s just idle talk at that point.
But if you know that it will actually take you several days to do it correctly, say that upfront. Worst case, your boss gets the project on time. And if you get it done early, they’ll be delighted.
Unless you own your own business, you probably report to some sort of boss or manager. Theoretically, it’s part of your boss’s job to help you improve your work performance. But they can’t do this if you don’t communicate with them regularly.
Therefore, we recommend talking regularly with your boss about your work. Depending on your company, you may have regularly scheduled performance reviews already. But you don’t have to limit discussions of your work performance to that. You can also ask for help improving things you’re struggling with on a weekly basis.
Of course, don’t take this too far. No one wants a needy employee who takes up all of their time. But asking for help when you need it is essential to getting better at your job. Plus, being engaged with your work is likely to improve your boss’s perception of you.
If you want to stand out among your coworkers as some insanely productive superhuman, then stop multitasking. When it comes to most types of work, multitasking is simply ineffective.
For instance, you may feel like you’re getting more done when you have Slack open while you’re writing a marketing plan. But you’re actually just doing both tasks slower and at lower quality.
Instead, embrace single-tasking. Start a task, work on it until it’s finished, and then move to whatever’s next on your to-do list. This can be a challenge in our hyperconnected work culture, but the improved performance is worth it.
Whether in a conference room or over Zoom, meetings remain a part of work across organizations. But how often do you take the time to prepare for a meeting?
Many times, it’s tempting to use the meeting to figure out what you want to say. But you’ll have a much more productive discussion if you prepare beforehand.
Usually, all you need to do is jot down some notes about what you want to discuss. Or, you may need to read some emails, reports, or other documents to make sure you’re on the same page as the other meeting attendees.
Not only will this ensure that you come across as competent and prepared, but it will also avoid aimless meetings that accomplish little.
College is supposed to help you become an organized professional, but it rarely lives up to that goal. Therefore, aside from whatever training you receive when you start your job, you’re largely left to organize yourself.
This is no excuse to be disorganized at work, though. You can still develop your own organizational system and astound your boss with how on top of things you are.
To get organized at work, I recommend starting with the system your company already has in place. Ask your boss and coworkers what they do to coordinate with each other and stay organized.
Beyond that, however, do what works for you. We recommend reading these guides for more specific guidance on developing a system to organize both your work and personal life:
Ever spend 8 hours at work, only to realize you’ve accomplished nothing? It happens to the best of us at times, but planning your day can make it happen less.
Specifically, you should plan how you’ll spend every minute you’re at work. Meetings and directions from your boss probably dictate this already to some degree, so start there.
Beyond your existing obligations, try to plan your schedule around your energy levels. If you’re most alert when you get to work, for instance, then try to do your most mentally intensive tasks then. Save lower energy tasks for the afternoon when your focus is lower.
Without regular reflection, it’s hard to know if you’re actually making progress. This applies to your personal goals, of course, but it also applies to your work performance.
Therefore, we recommend sitting down at the end of each workweek and doing a weekly review:
- First, review what you intended to accomplish.
- Then, compare that to what you actually did.
- Finally, ask what you can do to close the gap.
If you do this every week, then each week should go slightly better.
Note: There’s only so much you can control, so don’t beat yourself up for tasks that you didn’t do because of outside factors. For example, you might have planned to meet with a prospective client, but then your boss told you to train a new hire. Focus on improving what you can.
In some ways, this is a subset of avoiding multitasking. But because checking email is such a part of work culture, it deserves its own section.
Checking email is a particularly bad task to mix with others because it’s inherently distracting. There are the momentary distractions of newsletters and ads. And then there are the more derailing distractions of emails that require action on your part.
Ideally, we recommend checking work email no more than twice per day. And whatever you do, don’t check it first thing in the morning. Save email for the end of the day, when your energy is probably lower and you’ve already done more important tasks.
And if you do encounter an email that requires you to take action, get that task out of your inbox and onto your task list. Don’t use your email as a to-do list, or you’ll always be completing someone else’s agenda.
Note: I recognize that some virtual assistant and administrative roles require more regular checking of email and other inbound communications. But the above advice still applies to most jobs.
For more help taming your email, check out our guide to reaching inbox zero.
You’ll be much better at your job if you learn to use your computer to its fullest. Not only will improved computer skills save you time, but they’ll also free you to focus on your work instead of your tools.
At a minimum, you should:
- Learn keyboard shortcuts for programs you commonly use.
- Learn to touch type (if you don’t already)
- Learn to use video call software (so you aren’t the one fumbling around trying to share your screen)
- Learn how to use rules to process email automatically (Here are guides for Gmail and Outlook)
And beyond these recommendations, make sure you understand how to use any specific software that your job requires. You won’t be very effective at customer support, for example, if you barely have a grasp on Zendesk.
I’m willing to bet that you determine your wake-up time based on when you have to get to work. You get up early enough that you have time to get ready and start your commute (or wander to your computer, if you work from home). But do you leave any time in the morning for yourself?
Rushing to work right after your alarm goes off isn’t a great way to start the day. You begin work frantic, stressed, and maybe even resentful. This is hardly a recipe for success.
That’s why instead, I recommend planning your bedtime and wake-up time so you can get up an hour earlier.
If you do this, you’ll get the obvious benefit of being less stressed when you start work. But you can also use that extra hour for things that improve your work and life overall. With an extra hour in the morning, you could:
- Take a relaxing walk around your neighborhood
- Make pour over coffee
- Write in a journal
- Cook a healthy breakfast
- Read a nonfiction book
What could you do with an extra hour each morning?
We’ve talked a lot so far about how to do a better job when you’re at work. But when work is over, leave work at work.
Keeping work and home separate is essential for your mental health. If you bring work home with you, then you’ll find it hard to relax. You’ll be disconnected from your family. And you won’t have the time and mental space to recharge before the next workday begins.
These days, it’s more difficult than ever to maintain this separation of work and home. For many of us, the office has become wherever you can take your laptop. But just because you can work from anywhere, doesn’t mean you should.
Instead, you need to set boundaries. We have an entire article about maintaining work-life balance when you work from home, which you can read for more details. But if you’re in a hurry, then at least keep these tips in mind:
- Set defined work hours, and don’t look at work outside of them.
- Have a specific room (or portion of a room) that you use for work.
- Don’t respond to work communications outside of work hours.
“For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.”
– Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism
If you’re like many people, you probably don’t spend your leisure time truly relaxing. Sure, you might do something to distract yourself or blow off steam. But that’s not the same as doing something that de-stresses and restores you.
Finding such activities is critical for your work performance. Otherwise, you’re basically alternating between the screen you use for work and the screen you use to waste time. Kind of sad, isn’t it?
So what should you do to relax? Here are some ideas for activities that are truly relaxing (not just distracting):
- Taking a warm bath or shower
- Getting a massage
- Sitting in a sauna
- Going for a long walk
- Playing sports
- Reading fiction
- Watching a great movie
- Cooking dinner
- Making music
When you spend your off time relaxing, you’ll be prepared to really turn it on at work.
I’ve saved one of the most obvious (but difficult) tips for last. If you really want to improve your work performance, you need to study your craft. You need to learn how to get better at what you do and then start making gradual improvements.
How you learn more about your field, however, depends on both what you do and how you learn best. You could:
- Attend a conference or training (even if it’s virtual)
- Read books about your field (ask your manager for recommendations)
- Watch educational videos about your field
- Listen to industry podcasts
- Work on side projects to learn new skills
- Take a relevant class on Skillshare
- Find a mentor
If you’re making a continuous, systematic effort to get better at your job, then you’ll outshine your peers. You’ll have a better future both at your company and at any jobs you pursue in the future. It does take extra time, but the payoffs are worth it.
To make a lasting improvement in your work performance, good habits are essential. To learn how to build lasting habits in and outside the office, check out our free course:
Building habits isn’t just about discipline; there are real-world steps you can take to set yourself up for success! In this course, you'll learn how to set realistic goals, handle failure without giving up, and get going on the habits you want in your life.
Image Credits: woman using laptop while sitting on couch