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16 of the Best Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Productivity tips

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16 of the Best Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

By Belle Cooper · September 18, 2014
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When I really focus on what I'm doing and work hard, I'm usually surprised at how much I can get done. Something that should take half a day can be done in a couple of hours when I'm truly focused.

The more I pay attention to these short bursts of focused productivity, the more I've realized working smarter, not harder, is the secret to having more of them. Keeping my health in check, planning my work in a way that makes sense, and testing out new ways to approach my tasks has made me more productive and happier overall.

I've collected 16 of the best ways I've found to start working smarter, based on my own experience and research.

1. Stop Multitasking

If you didn't get the memo yet, I have to break the bad news to you: multitasking is a myth. It's simply impossible for us to truly focus on multiple tasks that require real brain power at once.

"Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, tells NPR. "You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly."

Stop letting your work suffer, and instead single-task your way through the day.

2. Take More Breaks

ultradian rhythm

This is one of my favorite ways to work smarter, because it's so counterintuitive. But without real breaks, our brains get tired and we get distracted. Once you've given up multitasking, try taking a real break between each task you focus on, or after each 90-minute block of focused work to reset your attention span.

Why 90-minute blocks? This in part comes from psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie who found that our energy during the day follows natural cycles, which he called "ultradian rhythms."

"Longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day," Greg Ciotti explains Lavie's experiments on his blog, Sparring Mind.

3. Front-Load Your Week

"Front-loading gives you the ability to stay on top of projects that take longer than expected without getting stressed or working into the wee hours of the night," Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a self-described "time coach", writes on 99U. "Since all of your must-do’s are taken care of at least a few days in advance, you can easily move would-like-to-do’s to the next day."

Planning your schedule ahead of time helps you avoid missing deadlines and getting snowed under. When planning ahead, put the bigger, harder, more pressing tasks at the start of the week (or day) so you can knock them out first and relax more as the week goes on.

4. Chunk Similar Tasks Together

Batching similar tasks can help you be more efficient because you're not switching back and forth between different types of work. This is especially useful for small tasks, because you can knock out a bunch at once (and get a nice kick of productivity).

Dawn Foster, former consultant now director of community at Puppet Labs, writes on Gigaom how she uses this technique to chunk everything from exercise to meetings to email.

"Think about those tasks that seem to take forever because of the crowds of people (groceries, errands, etc.) and find a time to fit those in when you can complete those tasks more quickly," Dawn says, noting she accomplishes these activities over her lunch hour. "Make sure that you can fit them together into a chunk of non-work if possible."

5. Schedule Tasks Based on Your Energy Levels

Energy Level

We tend to ignore our energy levels when planning our work, but it's an important aspect of how productive we can be. When we have energy isn't the same for everyone either—we each have our own built-in body clock called a circadian rhythm.

"The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day," reports the National Sleep Foundation. "Adults' strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 a.m. and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 p.m., although there is some variation depending on whether you are a 'morning person' or 'evening person'."

If you know you're most productive right before lunch, for instance, don't plan meetings or email catch-up time then. Instead, put your hardest work in the time periods when you've got the most energy, and save easy tasks for when you're dragging.

6. Cut Down Your To-Do List

A smaller to-do list is less intimidating and more achievable. There's nothing wrong with having a short to-do list if you're getting real work done. Start with your Most Important Tasks (MITs), a productivity tactic popularized by bloggers Leo Babauta and Gina Trapani, and limit the list to three items.

"Do I get a lot more done than three things? Of course," Leo writes. "But the idea is that no matter what else I do today, these are the things I want to be sure of doing. So, the MIT is the first thing I do each day, right after I have a glass of water to wake me up."

Focus on just getting three tasks done, and let anything else be a bonus.

7. Take an Afternoon Nap (with a Cup of Coffee)

nap and cup of coffee

Naps can do wonders for your memory and helping you solidify things you've just learned. Perhaps more importantly, a short nap is the best way to improve your energy levels when they're low. Try drinking a cup of coffee just before a short nap for the biggest energy boost. Though it seems counterintuitive, a study by the Sleep Research Centre of Loughborough University in the U.K. showed otherwise.

"Since it takes nearly 20 minutes for the body to feel the physiological effects of caffeine consumption, a short nap during that time period allows an individual to receive the best of both methods," reports the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science.

8. Turn Off Notifications

When I'm writing, I close my email and Twitter clients. I don't have any notifications showing up on my computer at all, so I can focus on the task ahead. Try turning off all notifications while you're working. If that sounds too extreme, only turn them off during the periods you need to be most focused or sift through your list of notifications to identify the essential ones.

Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon offered a guide to this latter practice back in 2012, but it's just as applicable two years and thousands of new notification choices later.

"If you really want to make your life easy, you can give each app its own notification tone," Gordon suggests for your mobile device. "That way, when you get a notification, you know exactly what kind of alert it is without even looking at your device."

9. Put a Pomodoro Timer to Use

Pomodoro Timer

For short tasks, or big ones that you want to chip away at in short bursts, try a Pomodoro timer: Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work until it's done. When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break and then repeat the process.

To ensure this method works for you, Scott Hanselman, a program manager at Microsoft and avid blogger, suggests tracking the technique's effectiveness with an accompanying notebook. Each time you're distracted during the 25 minutes, put a tick on a piece of paper. Over time, the pages of the notebook should contain less and less ticks.

"Then you'll start thinking about productivity in your life as how many Pomodoros that you got done in a day," Hanselman says in a talk on productivity. "You'll say, 'Man, that was a four Pomodoro day, I got a lot of work done.'"

I've found that you can also use real-life events as work timers. For instance, work until the end of the album you're listening to, then take a break.

10. Switch to Pen and Paper

pen and paper

It's getting easier every day to get caught up in tools, apps, and processes for managing our workload. To help you get your focus back, go back to basics with pen and paper, and make a simple list of what you need to work on. There aren't any settings or tags to play on paper, so once your list is done you'll have to start working.

Also, consider using pen and paper when taking notes during a presentation. Doing so results in a higher retention of what's been shared, concluded two university professors who compared lecture notes of two groups of students.

"In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand," says a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer. "We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers' tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

11. Track Your Time and Review Your Productivity

If you don't know how and where you're wasting time, try tracking everything you do for a few days. This can be as simple as keeping a running list on paper during the day of what you do and how long it takes. I used the Reporter iPhone app, which randomly polls you during the day to see what you're up to. It didn't take long for me to identify the trends in what I was doing more often than I'd like.

Reviewing your progress often will help you identify what's working and what's not. Set a reminder for each week or each month to go over what you got done in the previous period and what you struggled with. I do this monthly, and I've found it's a good way to have an honest health-check on your productivity and priorities.

Author and world traveller Chris Guillebeau takes this a step further by doing a personal review every year. He says, "Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously."

Most importantly, Chris points out that reviewing your progress helps you focus on the things you can control, and put your achievements into perspective. He says his annual review process is "all about changing things yourself instead of waiting for change to suddenly show up one day."

12. Automate What You Can

Take note of the little things you do over and over that could be automated. Save time by using Zapier to cut down on copy-and-paste routines, or use a tool like TextExpander to type out snippets of text you use a lot.

Here are three Zapier automations that could start saving you time this week.

13. Spend Time in Nature

spend time in nature

Spending time in nature is an easy, free way to improve your ability to focus and lower your stress levels. Studies have found that spending time in a green area like a park or forest can reduce stress and blood pressure, increase activity of antiviral cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins, and improve attention span.

Even just viewing photos of nature scenes has been proven to increase positive emotions, and improve reaction times and accuracy on cognitively demanding tasks.

Try to get to a park or another calm, green area for a break during your workday. A walk down a city street will do you good, but it can't compete with being surrounded by greenery.

Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale, told Laura Smith at The Atlantic that zoos are ironic because we consider it "inhumane" to keep animals in concrete, indoor environments that don't resemble their natural habitats, and yet we do this to ourselves all the time. "The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature", he says.

14. Get Up Early

Although night owls are in the lead for tests of intelligence, getting up early gives you a head start on your day that can't be matched.

Many productive writers, artists, and executives are known for getting up early. Even Hemingway supported this idea. In an interview, he said of working early in the morning, "There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write."

Some writers even squeeze "two mornings" into their day—getting up super early to write, then going back to bed until 8 or 9am when they wake up and get ready for "busy" work.

If you're not an early riser already, Zen Habits author Leo Babauta suggests moving your wake time back gradually. "If you get up at 8 a.m. normally, don’t suddenly change it to 6 a.m. Try 7:45 a.m. first," he says.

15. Set Your Music to Match Your Task

If you're working on something that's fairly easy and doesn't require much brain power, pump up your favorite tunes to get you in the mood. Research shows we perform better on repetitive or easy tasks when we listen to music.

For work that requires creative thinking and new ideas, music within the range of 50-80 beats per minute is your best bet to improve concentration and keep your mind alert.

Dr. Emma Gray, who led the Spotify-commissioned study that found this beats-per-minute result, told Digital Trends that beats per minute matters more than the genre of the music you choose. "Music with no lyrics or familiar lyrics is always preferable and music should always be played in the 'background'," she says.

16. Set a Start Date for Tasks

start date

I recently found a way to radically reduce the stress I felt about upcoming deadlines. I now set a start date for all my upcoming tasks so they're on my radar well before they're due.

I still have alerts set up for my due dates so I don't miss them, but starting a task days before it's due lets me relax and get it done well ahead of time. It's a huge relief to not be scrambling to meet deadlines at the last minute (as much) anymore!

Lots of task managers offer a start date feature or something similar. If you use 2Do, Asana, Wunderlist, Finish, Omnifocus, or Pagico, my previous post explains how to set up start dates in each of those.

You might need to bookmark this list and come back to it—there's a lot to choose from! The good news is, most of us can find one or two methods in the list that will help us shape up our working habits. If you have a favorite that's not included, please share it in the comments.

You might also enjoy this article: "How to Find Your Optimal Work Environment and Boost Productivity".

Credits: Header photo courtesy Julian Ortiz. Coffee drinker courtesy Eneas De Troya. Ultradian Rhythm graphic from Sparring Mind blog. Nap photo courtesy Megan Barton. Pen and paper photo courtesy Lucas. Music graphic from the Crew blog.

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Belle Cooper picture

Belle Cooper

Belle B. Cooper is the co-founder of Exist, a personal analytics platform to help you understand your life.

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