Work may be a necessary part of life, but we often spend longer there than we need to, without getting much more done. A recent study showed that British workers have the longest working hours in Europe – with 11% putting in a 48-hour week. Though, interestingly, in Denmark – where working hours are shortest – productivity is 23.5% higher.
Most of us would agree that we want to spend less time at work so we can get out and experience other aspects of life. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do tasks that would normally take us half a day, in just a couple of hours?
While some elements at work are out of our control, the good news is that there are steps we can take to do the same amount of work in less time.
By minimising distractions, working with more focus, and making use of time-saving techniques we can get our work done as quickly as possible, freeing us up to spend time on other important priorities. This can reduce the chances of burnout, improve work-life balance, and boost motivation.
So how can you work smarter, not harder? Here, we’ll take a closer look at what it means to work smarter, and offer nine ways in which you can do so.
What does working smarter mean?
Working hard generally involves putting in long, strenuous hours to complete tasks, while working smart is about streamlining the way that we work to get the same results in less time.
It can be helpful to step back and ask the questions: is the way I’m doing this task the best way, or is it just the only way I know? And is there anything I’m doing that’s slowing me down?
Working smarter is about thinking through what tasks need to be accomplished, in which order, and using effective strategies to get them done them quickly, without compromising on quality.
10 ways to work smarter, not harder
1. Harness your natural energy
The time of day you work on certain types of tasks can impact your productivity. So, before you decide how to organise your work schedule, it can be useful to identify what time of day you’re most productive and energised, to determine when you’re most effective.
According to Daniel Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, most people experience three productivity phases over the course of a day: peak, trough, and recovery.
He suggests that the majority of us are at our most focussed and able to avoid distractions in the morning leading up to our productivity peak at around midday – so, this can be a good time to schedule more complex, deep-thinking tasks.
Then, our performance is thought to decline from early to mid-afternoon during what’s called a trough phase. At this point, our mind is more relaxed and focus may wane.
In the late afternoon, Pink explains that many of us enter a recovery phase, where our mood goes back up but we’re less attentive. At this time, we’ll generally perform best when doing tasks that require a certain degree of mental looseness – for example, a creative brainstorm.
Night owls will likely follow a similar pattern, but each phase will be reached later in the day.
Though, it’s important to remember that maximising your productivity is about more than knowing when you work best. It’s also about knowing when to put down your tools for the day so your mind can rest and be refreshed and ready the next day.
2. Create a work routine
Having a work routine can help to get your day off to a smooth start, and keep you organised. And, taking steps to manage your calendar – such as by blocking notifications, and scheduling focussed time for high-concentration tasks like research, writing, or brainstorming — can help to deal with potential distractions, and limit interruptions.
It can be useful to plan your work several days in advance. For example, at the beginning of each week, you could schedule high-priority tasks that require the most effort and thinking in your most productive hours each day.
If you have a fluid schedule where priorities are constantly changing and new tasks popping up, then another option could be to create your to-do list for the next day each night — and sort tasks into morning, afternoon, or evening. This can not only make you more organised, but also help you start the day with purpose.
3. Do one thing at a time
Having many tasks on the go can make you feel as if you’re accomplishing more, but, in many cases, the opposite is true. Studies show that by multitasking, we can actually produce less, make more mistakes, and even reduce our IQ.
This is because our brains can only pay attention to one thing at a time, and it also takes time to get into the rhythm of doing something.
One strategy to help us overcome our tendency to jump from one task to another, especially when we have a lot on our plate, is time blocking.
This technique involves grouping tasks to tackle them in chunks. For example, you could set meetings back to back to avoid swapping between interactive and head-down tasks. Or, if you have lots of quick, five-minute tasks to complete, perhaps you could set aside time at the end of the day or on a Friday, to blitz through them all at once.
And, as some of the most distracting aspects of work are emails and instant messages, why not schedule time each day to check and respond to them? This can limit distractions and help you feel in more control of the task in front of you.
4. Take regular breaks
When you’re up against a deadline or feeling overwhelmed with work, taking a break may be the last thing on your mind.
However, studies have shown that taking regular breaks can increase productivity and creativity, rebuild energy levels, and reduce stress – and even a micro-break of a few seconds makes a difference. But, what is the best activity to do during our breaks?
Other effective ways to use break times include exercise, which has been shown to increase creativity and focus by increasing blood flow to the brain, triggering the release of feel-good hormones, and helping us to refocus our minds on the present.
Taking a break outdoors can also help to boost concentration, even if you just go for a swift walk around the block to breathe in some fresh air and get your blood pumping.
If you’d like to get into the habit of taking regular breaks, why not try the Pomodoro technique? You simply set a Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes of work, and follow it up with a five-minute break. After repeating four times, you can take a longer (15-30 minute) break. The idea is to focus on a single task intensely, and then relax your mind.
5. Cut down your to-do list
Many of us overestimate what we can achieve in a day. And, starting the day with a massive to-do list can be daunting and unrealistic.
So, instead, keeping your to-do list short and sweet can make it more achievable.
Try to limit yourself to no more than five items, and begin with your most important tasks. That way, you’ll not only be more productive, but you’ll feel more satisfied at the end of the day when those urgent tasks are no longer hanging over you.
6. Turn off your notifications
In order to work smarter, you may need to minimise distractions. One study showed that just having your phone in sight can lower your performance standard by 20%, compared to if it wasn’t there.
If you need to have your phone with you, consider turning off notifications for smartphone apps that aren’t work-related to increase productivity.
Social media can take your focus away from important tasks at work and waste time – and before you know it, you can be deep into scandals on Twitter or cat jokes on Facebook. Plus, waiting for a reply to a personal message can make you less able to concentrate on the task at hand.
Most smartphones have ‘Do Not Disturb’ or ‘DownTime’ functions that limit notifications and can keep you off social media or unproductive apps during work hours. Alternatively, you could try using apps like RescueTime, StayFocusd, or Freedom to block distracting websites or the internet completely.
7. Overcome your delay tactics
According to Piers Steel, the author of The Procrastination Equation, around 95% of us admit to putting off projects. But, in a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, uncompleted tasks tend to clutter our minds and create mental tension, which can only be eased by finishing things – though, this can feel easier said than done.
But, often, the first step in overcoming procrastination is to consider what it is we may be avoiding and why. If you’re avoiding your workload because of the sheer size of it, then this is where breaking it down into smaller, more manageable tasks can come in handy. If the task ahead is inspiring, then perhaps it would help to give yourself a reward to look forward to when it’s finished.
And, if you’re not fully sure about how to tackle the tasks ahead, then a conversation with a colleague or friend could help to offer some clarity.
Once you take the first step to start focusing on a project, the desire to complete it can often take over.
8. Hone your communication skills
Strong communication skills go a long way, whatever your position is at work.
You can start to hone your communication skills by actively listening to people; discussing one topic at a time; and, when sending emails or instant messages, keeping communication short and to the point.
When completing a task, it’s also a good idea to ask clear questions or seek guidance as early as possible, to help identify and solve problems you may encounter later on. By doing this, you’ll not only appear interested and proactive to your colleagues and bosses, but you may be able to work faster.
Other important communication skills in the workplace include learning how to politely say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ in order to prioritise your energy and focus, and how to delegate if you’re managing a team.
9. Make time to let your mind wander
There’s a growing body of research to suggest that allowing our minds to wander may be one of the best things to do if we’re struggling to focus. And doing so may help our brains function better.
If you do spend your time daydreaming at the office, it could be worth scheduling some time for it — such as in your planned breaks or when doing routine tasks that require less thought. Concentration wanes when our energy does, so letting your mind off the hook now and then can be a helpful way to restore it.
No matter how much you may love your work, staying focused on complex tasks requires willpower. And, while funny cat videos can be a time-waster, one study showed that having a laugh can energise us and put us in the right frame of mind for working — so much so that we should encourage a playful work culture to help our productivity.
So, the next time you’re wondering about sending that silly YouTube video or email joke to your colleagues, your boss may even thank you. Though, we’d suggest keeping it PG!
When you’re working late, or skipping that lunchtime yoga class to stay at your desk, perhaps you can ask yourself, is there something I can do to work smarter? Using the ideas above as inspiration, are there any small changes you could make to your work habits to make life easier?
It takes time to build new habits, so you may need to spend a while experimenting with different strategies for smart working, to find what works best for you.
The benefits of smart working extend beyond having a lunch break and getting home on time. It can also give you more time to spend on other important things in life, while improving your health and wellbeing.
For more advice on creating better habits at work, you can head over to the career advice section of our website.