by A.J. Hanley | Featured on Pilates Style
Like many Americans, you’re probably going 90 m.p.h. from the moment you get out of bed. Nose to the grindstone, you’re usually tapping away at your keyboard in the early a.m., eager to respond to a few emails and check off some of those to-dos on your list. More often than not, you power through your lunch break, skip get-togethers with friends and find yourself checking e-mail at midnight.
One would think all that diligence would pay off, but your maxed-out inbox says otherwise. Meanwhile, it hasn’t escaped your notice that your co-workers are waltzing out at 6 p.m. with clean desks—and clear consciences. What gives? Did you really have more to do than they did—or did you waste 25 minutes looking for a lost file? Or did you spend half the morning clicking through every single shot of a friend’s vacation photos on Facebook? Whatever the issue, you vow to spend the weekend playing catch-up.
Not so fast! According to experts, the key to being more productive is not to work harder or longer, but smarter. Those who accomplish a lot each day aren’t superheroes; they’ve simply mastered some easy-to-implement habits. Here’s how to get more done in less time.
1. Create an AM Routine. “We make so many decisions throughout the day, it’s nice to have a graceful, automatic resting point, during which you can enjoy and be present,” says Julie Morgenstern, organizing and productivity expert and author of Time Management From the Inside Out (Holt Paperbacks, 2004). In other words, it saves you brainpower for more essential decisions you have to make throughout the day. Try laying out your clothes and preparing breakfast the night before, so you can linger over the newspaper, scroll through your social media feeds or spend some time meditating in the mornings.
2. Do an Energy Audit. “If you’re tired, hungry or stressed, you’re fighting an uphill battle with your attention,” says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style (Penguin, 2015). Be sure to get a good night’s sleep and have a nutritious breakfast. Then eat at regular intervals so you can stay properly fueled throughout the day. Can’t get away from your desk? Tate suggests keeping packets of nuts, protein bars or dried fruit in your drawer, handbag or glove compartment.
3. Trim Your To-Do List. A staple of many productivity guides, to-do lists aren’t quite as simple as just writing down every goal that comes to mind. It’s absolutely essential that the tasks be realistic and doable in the allotted time. “As our responsibilities continue to expand at work, we keep adding tasks and projects to our to-do lists, but we never take anything off the list,” Tate says. And that means you’re bound to feel discouraged when the tasks aren’t completed.
“Take a hard, critical look at your projects and tasks, and ask yourself if each is still relevant, directly tied to your strategic goals and has a significant return on time investment,” she advises. If not, cross them off. And if some of the entries on your list are lofty goals e.g., climb Mount Everest, write a novel—move those to your bucket list, and replace with smaller, more manageable tasks (practice on the climbing wall at the gym three times a week, outline the plot of your book) that build toward your larger objective.
4. Group Like Tasks Together. Switching between your disparate to-dos saps your energy, Morgenstern points out. In fact, research shows it can take 15 to 20 minutes to regain focus. To increase your output, she recommends batching tasks, i.e., dedicating blocks of time to activities that require similar resources. Think of the three to five categories of mental activity—“each requiring a different part of your brain—for example, creative work, networking and administrative tasks.” Then work on each batch at a time of the day that corresponds with your natural rhythms and energy level.
5. Do One Thing at a Time. “When we feel overloaded, our instinct can be to speed up and multitask,” says Kimberly Medlock, a Charlotte, NC-based productivity coach and author of Smarter Work Habits That Matter: Over 50 Simple and Smarter Ideas for Improving Results, Relationships and Reputations in the Workplace (KWM Publishing, 2015). “As it turns out, many scientific studies prove that constant multitasking can actually reduce productivity instead of increasing it.” Cases in point: A 2010 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that multitasking workers were less productive, with a lower quality of work than those who focused on just one thing at a time. And a 2014 study from the University of Sussex in the U.K. found that people who juggle media devices simultaneously have lower gray-matter density in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions than those who don’t. Trying to concentrate on multiple tasks at the same time stresses the body, Medlock explains. “In the short term, confusion, fatigue and chaos hamper our ability to focus and analyze.” Her recommendation? You guessed it: “single-tasking.”
“Whatever you are working on, intentionally commit to doing just that and be fully engaged with the process,” she says. “Push back the temptations to get distracted, and chances are, you will get it done better and faster, and feel better, too.”
6. Take Regular Breaks. When you’re up against a deadline, breaking for lunch or a mid-afternoon cappuccino may seem way too guilt-inducing. But doing so could boost mental stamina, helping you stay on track. In a 2011 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, even brief diversions dramatically increased participants’ ability to focus on the task for prolonged periods.
How often you break is matter of personal preference, Morgenstern says. “You’ve got to know yourself and what brings out your peak performance.” But even taking time off for lunch and then around 3:30 or 4 p.m. can be helpful. “These subdivisions to your day are like mini deadlines, which can give you perspective and motivate you to get things done,” she says.