Six months ago I wrote an article with the title "Want to Increase Productivity? Stop Working". In essence, it addressed the problem of getting caught up in the 'day-to-day' of our work; in doing so, we neglect the need to analyze and self-reflect. When we take the time to stop and think, we learn worthwhile lessons--and add value to our productivity.

As we head into a new year, I revisit four of the principles I highlighted in the original article, along with some new insights and a survey that can help you (and your employees) apply the lessons to your own business.

So, how can you stop working, start thinking, and add value to your productivity?

1. Learn from your mistakes.

Why do we see companies or individuals make the same mistakes, time and time again? We can usually boil this down to two reasons:

A. No one correctly identifies a problem, and thus no adjustments are made

B. The problem is known, but no one makes the effort to address it

Could Zara have avoided all this? (Maybe they could have brought in a middle school history teacher to facilitate some workshops.) More importantly, can you avoid repeating major mistakes that are costing your business?

Stop and take the time you need--not just to identify your mistakes, but to learn from them.

2. Learn from your successes, too.

What's going right? Correctly answering that question can help you determine where to focus your efforts in the near future.

Any business analyst (or 'Shark Tank' aficionado) can tell you: Trying to do too much, too soon is business suicide. It's not just start-ups; in 1998 LEGO suffered its first loss in company history. Why? Too much innovation. Wharton professor David Roberston, who studied the company for years and even wrote a book on the topic, reports that LEGO tried to keep their growth going by tripling the number of new toys that it offered between 1993 and 1998, but sales didn't go anywhere.

How did they get back to form? A return to the core values of the company.

As time moves forward, so must your business. But identifying what you're doing right can help guide decisions on what to do next.

3. Listen to your employees.

Nobody likes a complainer; that's why we often see problems go unreported. The American Get 'er done mentality serves many businesses well on the surface, and yeah, it can be advantageous--at times. But when that mentality is combined with an atmosphere in which employees can effectively communicate problems (and potential solutions), companies can experience the best of both worlds.

I suggested the following process in my original article:

When employees encounter a process or problem they feel is damaging to the company, they should make a note of it. Then, at a set time each month (for about an hour or two), they should consolidate these thoughts into a document, complete with answers to the questions: Why does this bother me? How does it negatively affect the business? How can we change it? Then, they should send it to a responsible person for review and consideration.

Many companies have some sort of 'suggestion box' in place, but they often miss out on the thoughts of valuable employees--namely those who are introverted, or those who have great ideas but lack confidence. Following the suggestion above can help foster a culture where all employees feel encouraged to analyze, speak up, and become proactive in solving problems.

4. Take a break.

We live in a world where we're always connected. Always communicating. Always 'on'. No wonder burnout is a severe problem in many countries.

So how do you break the cycle? Start with small, sustainable changes. For me, it means taking a full hour for lunch every day. That's doesn't mean an hour where I'm checking my email every 10 minutes--I turn off my phone, enjoy my food, and call my wife to check on her and the kids. Nothing wrong with reading a good book or magazine--but make sure it's not related to work.

When you've reached one goal, work on the next one: If you have to work from home, set some boundaries. Or try to give some structure to your breaks, to make sure you stay fresh. You'll find that doing so makes you more productive in the long run.

I still remember what I learned at an early age from good old Scrooge McDuck: Work smarter, not harder.

Building and maintaining a business takes hard work--but you already knew that. The real key to increased productivity is smarter working--and that means you need to stop working, first.

***

As promised, here's a brief survey I designed if you need some help getting started: Stop Working Survey. Feel free to download and try it out (also with your employees).

And I'd love to hear how it works for you! Please leave a comment below, share the conversation, or tweet me. You can also send me a message here.

Published on: Dec 30, 2014
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.