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 minimize distractions and concentrate.
The more I pay attention to these short bursts of productivity, the more I realize working smarter, not harder, is the secret to efficiently getting work done. Keeping my health in check, planning my work in a way that makes sense, and testing out new ways to approach my tasks makes me both happier overall and more productive.
So here are 16 of the best ways I've learned to start working smarter, not harder.
1. Stop multitasking
If you didn't get the memo yet: multitasking is a myth. It's simply impossible for us to truly focus on multiple tasks that require real brainpower. And when you try to do it, you risk sacrificing your mental health.
It can feel like you are successfully managing all of these moving pieces, but switching between multiple tasks makes it harder to get tasks fully completed. Stop letting your work suffer, and instead, single-task your way through the day.
2. Take more breaks
Taking breaks is one of my favorite ways to work smarter. Without real breaks, our brains get tired, and we get distracted. Once you've given up multitasking, try taking a break between each task you focus on.
You could try something like the Pomodoro Technique or Flowtime to make sure you're taking breaks—and use any of these science-backed ways to take better breaks to make sure you're making the most of them.
3. Front-load your week
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. Set yourself up for success by front-loading your week.
This is kind of a version of Eat That Frog, a productivity method that suggests doing the most important or impactful thing first every day—to be sure it gets done. Learn more about front-loading your week and boosting productivity in Zapier's post about creating your optimal work environment.
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).
Plus, you can be intentional about blocking off time for the things that distract you—such as answering text messages or checking your social feed. You can even chunk small tasks together and get them done between meetings.
5. Schedule tasks based on your energy levels
We tend to ignore our energy levels when planning our work, but it's a major player in productivity. Everyone's energy spikes at different times—we each have our own built-in body clock called a circadian rhythm.
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 most challenging work during the time periods when you've got the most energy—and save easy tasks for when you're dragging. For other suggestions on how to listen to your personal internal clock, read Zapier's post about how to find your chronotype and schedule your productivity.
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) and limit the list to three items, a productivity tactic popularized by blogger Leo Babauta.
"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)
Naps can do wonders for your memory and help 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 quick nap for the biggest energy boost.
It takes about 20 minutes to feel the physiological effects of caffeine consumption, so downing a cup and then hitting the sack (assuming you fall asleep right away) is a great strategy for feeling even more refreshed when you wake up.
8. Turn off notifications
When I'm writing, I close my email and other tabs. I don't have any notifications showing up on my computer at all so that I can focus on the task ahead. Try turning off all notifications while you're working, or if that sounds too extreme, only turn them off during the periods you need to be most focused. Or you can figure out which notifications you actually need and do something to separate them out.
Whitson Gordon offered a guide to this latter practice back in 2012, but it's just as applicable 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
I mentioned the Pomodoro Technique earlier, but it's worth its own entry. 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. There are even Pomodoro apps that can help you get the job done.
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 fewer and fewer ticks.
"Then you'll start thinking about productivity in your life as how many Pomodoros that you got done in a day," Hanselman says. "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
It's easy to get caught up in tools and apps 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.
Also, consider using pen and paper when taking notes during a presentation—by taking notes via pen and paper, you're less likely to be distracted by the constant pings of notifications (or just the potential for distraction) that come from your computer.
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 of what you do during the day and how long it takes. I've 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 month to go over what you completed. Also, take note of what you struggled with. I do this monthly, and I've found it's an excellent way to have an honest health check on my productivity and my priorities.
You can use a time-tracking app to take care of the heavy lifting for you, and you can even automate the process, so you can start and stop your time tracking whenever things happen in the other apps you use most.
For some real inspiration, take a look at how Erin Greenawald time-tracked every minute of her life for 30 days.
12. Automate what you can
Take note of the repetitive tasks 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. Not sure when to automate a task? Start here.
Zapier lets you automatically send information from one app to another, helping you reduce manual tasks. Learn more about how Zapier works.
13. 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 while also improving 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.
14. Get up early
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. 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 9 a.m. 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 straightforward that doesn't require much brainpower, pump up your favorite tunes to get you in the mood. Research shows we perform better on tasks when we listen to music and that it can help minimize stress.
It's essential to choose the right music for different types of work. For example, narrative lyrics can be distracting for cognitive work, while upbeat tempos work great for repetitive tasks. Essentially, you want songs that are familiar but not distracting.
16. Set a start date for tasks
To radically reduce the stress I felt about upcoming deadlines, I 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 not to be scrambling to meet deadlines at the last minute (as much) anymore. Lots of to-do list apps offer a start date feature or something similar.
You might need to bookmark this list and come back to it—there's a lot to choose from. The good news is, you don't need to do them all: most of us can find one or two methods in the list that will help us shape up our working habits.
Credits: Coffee drinker courtesy Eneas De Troya. This article was originally published in September 2014 and has since been updated by Ellie Huizenga.