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'Vampire tasks' are killing your productivity at work, says workplace expert—how to focus and get more done

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The smallest tasks on our to-do lists can often be the most draining.

Even just looking at the mountain of unread emails in your inbox or files that need to be decluttered on your desktop can trigger feelings of stress or anxiety.

Cecily Motley, the co-founder of Harriet, an AI-powered workplace assistant, calls these repetitive, tedious activities "vampire tasks" — and warns that getting bogged down by admin work is the number one thing that kills people's productivity.

"It's those dull, time-sucking tasks like scheduling meetings and responding to emails that drain your energy and take time away from deep-focus work or higher-value projects," she explains. "That constant influx of administrative tasks can hurt productivity the most."

The average person spends at least 21 hours per week doing admin in their jobs, according to a 2021 report from software start-up Brightpearl. Its researchers polled 2,000 adults and found that nearly 40% of people are "overwhelmed" by the amount of admin responsibilities they have to tackle at work.

Motley recommends three strategies to simplify "vampire tasks" and boost productivity: 

Try timeboxing — but be realistic

Motley swears by timeboxing, or scheduling blocks of time on your calendar to focus on specific items on your to-do list and blocking out any distractions for the time limit you've assigned to that activity.  

That includes scheduling "admin sessions" to create more distraction-free periods for important projects — Motley recommends saving these for a time when you're normally less productive, whether it's when you first log on or at the end of your workday.

Setting clear guidelines for how you spend your time and energy is the easiest and most effective way to boost productivity, recent research from Salesforce subsidiary Slack and research firm Qualtrics has found.

But timeboxing is only effective if you're honest about the time required to complete each assignment, says Motley. You can time yourself completing different tasks to figure out the duration of each one and build a confident framework for your timeboxing schedule from there. 

If your boss is skeptical or unfamiliar with timeboxing, Motley recommends labeling the boxes on your calendar so they know when you might be heads-down on a project or slow to respond to emails. 

Silence notifications 

Notifications can make some administrative duties like responding to emails and calendar invites feel urgent and in need of immediate attention even if such tasks "rarely are," says Motley.

Responding to every notification as it comes in can make it harder to refocus on the work you were previously engaged in. Instead, Motley suggests turning off your notifications at work and checking incoming messages/alerts all at once during your admin period.

You can tell your manager and direct colleagues when those admin periods are, so they know when to expect a response or keep one line of communication open (Slack, phone) for any time-sensitive conversations. 

Set stricter boundaries 

It might seem counterintuitive, but saying "no" to unnecessary tasks or taking on more work doesn't just prevent burnout — it can also help you build trust in the workplace.

"You're showing your boss and co-workers that you're organized enough to understand your workload and prioritize existing commitments," says Motley. 

Of course, there will be times when you can't say no, even if you want to — like working late to meet an important deadline or helping your boss with an urgent request — but Motley says you can minimize the number of vampire tasks on your plate by leaving irrelevant email threads and declining unnecessary calendar invites. 

"Your admin workload will never be manageable if you say 'yes' to everything," she says. "You just have to be polite, but firm about when and how you address those requests." 

Motley also suggests checking out AI tools including Harriet, and Grammarly to schedule meetings, transcribe and summarize meeting notes or draft emails, among other repetitive tasks, to ease the administrative burden.

"No one goes into a role saying, 'My dream is to do admin work all day,'" she says. "But it's an essential, unavoidable part of our jobs, so figuring out how to be more efficient with it can make it less time-consuming or painful than it needs to be." 

Want to land your dream job in 2024? Take CNBC's new online course How to Ace Your Job Interview to learn what hiring managers are really looking for, body language techniques, what to say and not to say, and the best way to talk about pay.

I was fired from Facebook in my 20s—now I make $3.3 million running my own tech company
Fired From Facebook In My 20s—Now I Make $3.3 Million Running My Own Company