14 Tips to Improve Work Performance

(originally published on LifeHack)

I have a friend whose parents can be a little “absent.” They will disappear for months on end – meaning they don’t answer calls or emails and don’t reach out or connect. And then all of a sudden they appear with an invitation to go to dinner at a fancy restaurant and they give him $500 to go shopping. This is what my friend calls The Grand Gesture.

Sure, it’s nice – but it wouldn’t be necessary if there were just some regular check-in’s and opportunities to visit together from time to time.

I see improving work performance and getting a leg up on your career in the same light. It’s the little things that make the biggest difference – and there are a ton of little things you can do, day in and day out, to make that difference you need when promotion time rolls around next quarter, next season, or next year.

1. Set Goals

Goal setting can happen anytime you need it – you can set daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, quarterly goals…shoot, you could set hourly goals if productivity was that important in your work.

We all need something to shoot for, so give yourself that target with your goal setting.

Don’t forget to make your goals as “SMART” as they can be: specific, measurable, achievable, results oriented, and time-bound. Write them down, and get them done!

2. Visualize Your Future

This is just another way of goal setting, but a little more bigger picture.

Where do you want to be next year? In five years? Ten years? Is an advanced degree in your future? Do you see yourself in a President or CEO’s office?

Visualize that future – really see yourself in the position of your dreams! And spend some time writing about it.

Check out this one simple technique to help you better visualize.

3. Know What You Want

This is not the same as knowing what you DON’T want. Do you want to work evenings and weekends? No, that’s something you don’t want. Do you want to be an account executive? Okay, that’s better.

Before I became a mid-level manager, I used to say that I didn’t want to advance in higher education because I didn’t want to be that far removed from students. And that was keeping me in lateral positions, not allowing myself to grow.

Once I reminded myself that I could make the choice to be more connected to students, I gave myself permission to pursue more promotions. And I figured out what I wanted. Then I went out and got it!

4. Invest in Your Own Professional Development

You may work for a company who will pay for you to attend conferences and seminars; and you may be lucky enough to work for a company that will pay for additional degrees and training programs. Or, you may not.

Either way – professional development IS an investment, whether you are spending your own money or just your time. And it’s an investment to consider seriously so that you don’t waste time or money.

What skills do you want to develop? Is there a career path you wish to follow? How and where will you find the information about these things?

Figure out where and how to get it – and if you must develop your own curriculum do get it done, so be it. Equip yourself with these work related skills will get you a successful career.

5. Read more

This is a little similar to the previous point, but reading is something you should be doing more of anyway. Mental Floss cites six scientific reasons why you should read more,[1] including longer life, relieving stress, and helping you transform as a person. More benefits of reading can be found here.

I don’t know about you, but I feel strongly that transformation can help you with that getting ahead in the workplace.

We’re not just talking about non-fiction stuff either. Fiction reading actually aids in that transformation, as you are potentially identifying with the characters and taking yourself to places and worlds you may not see…EVER. Nothing like a little transformation to improve your outlook on life and work.

The flip side of this is also to read more about your vocational field and staying current in your industry. The last thing you want to do when you’re looking to get ahead in your job is to look out of date and unfamiliar with trends and new insights.

Go ask your supervisor which industry journals you should subscribe to and see what she has to say about that. I’m pretty sure you’ll get a positive response.

6. Network Naturally

My former student and good friend Jeffrey Harrington at CSU-Chico started taking Campus Walks when he was still a live-in hall director in his early 20’s. Those daily walks didn’t always have specific direction to them…until they did.

Jeff started making connections all over the campus and people began looking forward to seeing him in their halls. He made connections and friendships that last to this day. And it’s all because he got up from his desk and took a walk.

While you may not have the luxury of a college campus in which to stroll, there should be other options to network naturally and visit other floors, sections, or departmental areas where you can see people and be seen.

You might find a mentor, a new friend, or a different understanding of your organization that will give you a leg up when you are looking for that promotion next year.

7. Ask Questions

You don’t know everything about your job or your company already…do you?

Maybe you do, but if you know everything then you have no need for growth.

That’s not going to help you.

Next big department meeting? Ask about the new project that was just introduced. Next one-on-one meeting with your supervisor? Ask her how she landed in this field. Having coffee with one of your team members? Ask him what he likes most about working here.

There really is no such thing as a stupid question, especially if you ask it with sincerity. Generally speaking, people do like to talk about themselves, especially if they are asked about something they do well.

Be thoughtful and strategic – that’s a ton of free knowledge getting dropped on you so you can improve your performance.

8. Shadow a Big Wig

This one might be a little tricky – but ask your boss if any opportunities exist for you to spend a day with the Big Boss. Or maybe just your supervisor’s supervisor. Or find the time to sit in on the open Board Meeting or Executive Session that no one else from your peer group considers.

Just ask. The worst that can happen is you get told no. Then do one of the other things on this list to improve your performance.

9. Get Outside Your Comfort Zone

One of the most humbling lessons in my early professional years happened when I worked in the Saint Louis area. I was tasked with finding off campus housing for about 20 MBA students from China. For some reason the idea of this project infuriated me, and I was not really motivated to succeed.

I secured the housing and made arrangements for my department to make the deposit payment. I was about to drive over to the complex to deliver the funds when my supervisor called with bad news.

The President of our college learned of the housing location and was beside himself. Not only did the housing I selected not have full kitchens for the students, the complex was more than five miles from the campus and not on a decent bus route. I had created a horribly unwelcoming situation for these students who were paying incredible amounts of money to study in the United States.

All because I had a negative feeling about something and didn’t do my best work. This was no way to improve my performance.

After praying for hours and hoping that I would not get fired, my boss told me a piece of advice I have never forgotten: “Solve the problem first, and have your feeling later.”

So what does all this have to do with getting outside your comfort zone?

I didn’t want to be the housing locator – this was not in my wheelhouse and I obviously didn’t think it was my job. So rather than look at the silver lining – a chance to engage with some international students and give them a welcoming living experience – I opted to kick the dirt and stomp around rather than embrace the chance to learn a new skill or make the college President feel at ease.

So when you have the opportunity to do something different, new, or foreign to your own current experience, jump on it. Make it glorious. And if it’s not, then lesson learned.

10. Ask for More Work

What? Who wants to do more work? I’m sure you probably don’t…but what if asking for more work gets you a prime seat on the next big project that’s coming down the pike? Or volunteering for that extra committee gives you the opportunity to meet the VP from another department? These are small examples that could lead to big things.

Don’t go crazy – pick your extras carefully. And don’t ever shy away from the chance to learn something new to improve your performance.

11. Control Your Calendar

Unless you have an assistant who makes all your appointments and schedules all your meetings, I’m pretty sure that you can go in and hold blocks of work time on your own calendar to get stuff done. Controlling your calendar will improve your performance.

Make time for this at least three times a week and close your door so you can really knock out some important tasks without interruptions. Show your laser focus when you turn in your project one day (one week?) ahead of time and you aren’t having to stay late to get things finished.

12. Get More Sleep

Do I really have to explain this one? Sleep deprivation is bad for your health, which can also be bad for your bank account. Forbes magazine cited research stating that increased sleep led to a 5% wage increase in its participants.[2] Not too shabby.

And if the wage increase doesn’t convince you, consider these other ramifications of sleep deprivation:

  • plummeting memory and productivity
  • learning abilities slow down
  • poor relationships with your teammates

Unless you know something I don’t, these don’t sound like ways to improve your performance. Get some more sleep, already!

13. Exercise

I’ve had 9 different jobs at 9 colleges in 7 states – and the jobs where I felt the most successful were those where I developed a consistent morning exercise habit as part of my daily routine. Whether I was going to the gym, running, or swimming, I felt more energized and much sharper on my exercise days.

Exercise improves your mood, lessens your stress, and can also boost your productivity levels in the work place. Take this to the next level and organize a softball, kickball (yes, this is not just for grammar school anymore) or volleyball league with your colleagues and peers. Or challenge your supervisor to a racquetball game. Or not.

14. Enjoy Your Work…Or Find Something Else

Do you love what you do?

No? Why not?

Then why do you still work there?

Has anyone asked you these questions? If you just asked them yourself and you can’t come to any conclusions, then it may be time for a change.

Take the time to reflect on how you landed in this particular gig. Make a list of pros and cons about the position. Evaluate your real feelings about the work. And talk to someone.

It’s never too late to start again if you are miserable. We have a gosh-darn-rock-and-roll-American right to enjoy our vocation.

Final Thoughts

Advancement is still available through some of the old fashioned ways: who you know or how many hours you work. But any combination of these little things, done consistently and over time, should give you an edge to improve your work performance and get ahead in your career.

Enjoy all the new things you will learn…the new friends you will meet, and the journey that comes with it. Either way, you can’t lose.

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