Work

An MIT study reveals 5 things highly productive people do every day—and you can start doing them today

Thoughtful businesswoman brainstorming at whiteboard in office
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If you're like most office workers, odds are you get sidetracked by distractions, meetings, emails, staff chatter, lunch and other tasks that don't necessarily contribute to the work you've been hired to do.

In fact, Americans say they only spend about 40% of their workday on their primary tasks. That's equal to a little over three hours of work per eight-hour shift, according to a recent survey of 2,010 workers by Workfront, a project management software company.

Where do the other five hours go? Well 16% of our time is spent on email, 12% on administrative tasks, 10% on useful meetings, 8% on unhelpful meetings, 8% on interruptions and 6% on other stuff, the Workfront survey found.

Despite such time-sucking events and unplanned activities, there is always that one person in the office who seems to cross everything off their to-do list each day and doesn't even have to stay late to do it. They just seem to be more productive than everyone else.

@criene via Twenty20

To get at the heart of what makes these workers able to accomplish so much more each day than the rest of us, Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, created a survey that asked professionals to assess their own personal productivity.

Almost 20,000 people took that survey across six continents, with more than half of respondents residing in North America, and, from their answers, Pozen identified clear patterns.

"Working longer hours does not necessarily mean higher personal productivity. Working smarter is the key to accomplishing more of your top priorities each day," Pozen writes in the Harvard Business Review, where he publicized his findings.

Professionals with the highest productivity scores tended to be better at planning their work based on their top priorities, had developed techniques for managing a high volume of information, and they understood the needs of their colleagues.

To get good at those three broad things, highly productive workers formed the following simple daily habits:

  • Revise your daily schedule the night before to emphasize your priorities. Next to each appointment on your calendar, jot down your objectives for it.
  • Before writing anything of length, compose an outline with a logical order to help you stay on track.
  • Check the screens on your devices once per hour, instead of every few minutes.
  • Skip over the majority of your messages by looking at the subject and sender. Respond right away only to messages from people who are important to you.
  • Send out a detailed agenda to all participants in advance of any meeting, limit meetings to 90 minutes at most, but preferably less, and end every meeting by delineating next steps and responsibility for those steps.

Make these five simple changes to your own office routine and you'll soon be in the ranks of the highly productive too.

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