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8 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder
8 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

It’s not even Wednesday afternoon and you’re already exhausted and pining for the weekend. What’s more, you’re not even sure what you’ve accomplished since the week began.

It doesn’t matter if you work for yourself or someone else: without a solid time management strategy, it’s far too easy to let the week slip away from you.

As a long-time writer of workplace and entrepreneurial tips, I’ve spent countless hours reading time management books and interviewing high achievers for silver-bullet productivity tips. Here are the strategies I’ve found most effective.

1. Inventory your work habits

If you’re like many workers, you have no idea how long it takes to perform most tasks associated with your job. To remedy this, use a time tracking tool like Toggl or RescueTime to monitor your workdays for two to four weeks. Don’t just record what you work on each day and for how long. Also pay attention to when you’re most efficient and when you’re more sluggish and foggy.

Moving forward, limit work on tasks that require more concentration to when you’re most energetic and alert. Make a point to complete these tasks as early in the week as possible so you’re not scrambling to finish them on Friday afternoon. Save lighter tasks for those times of day when your focus starts to wane. For me, this often means writing and editing in the morning and researching, invoicing and returning messages in the afternoon.

2. Stop multitasking

Thanks to ever-growing workloads and technical distractions, the idea of completing one task at a time has fallen to the wayside. Keeping 19 browser tabs open while trying to simultaneously complete a report, presentation and handful of emails has become the norm. Yet dividing your attention this way depletes both your productivity and energy.  

In fact researchers found that each time you halt a task in progress, it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to it. Better to complete one task at a time. Yes, workplace “emergencies” arise, but if someone doesn’t need your urgent help immediately, put them off a few minutes or hours until you’ve finished the task at hand.

3. Embrace well-timed breaks

Research shows that we need breaks throughout the workday to stay focused and motivated. If you have trouble peeling yourself away from your workstation, there’s no shortage of phone and computer apps to tell you when it’s time to stretch, meditate, exercise or simply turn away from the screen throughout the day.

My favorites are the Pomodoro timers, which remind you to take a 5-minute break every 25 minutes, with a slightly longer break after every four work periods, also known as “pomodoros.” If you’re dreading diving into a hefty project, using a Pomodoro timer can make it less daunting by breaking it down into bite-size pieces.

4. Wrangle your meeting schedule

Meetings held scattershot throughout the day or week make getting meaningful work done more difficult. If you have any say in your meeting schedule, avoid setting them during your peak concentration times. Instead, cluster them into one or two mornings, afternoons or days a week. If you don’t have control over your meeting calendar, try suggesting that schedulers corral frequent confabs into a recurring time slot.

5. Maximize found time

At some point this week, someone’s bound to keep you waiting, whether it’s on hold, in a conference room or at a café. Rather than squander the time watching cat videos or reading celebrity gossip, use it to whittle down your to-do list. I never leave my desk during the workday without an article to revise or a beefy client email to write should I find myself with a spare 15 minutes. Do this regularly and you just might find yourself clocking out earlier.

6. Honor the law of diminishing returns

After working a certain number of hours each day, we grow tired, unfocused and fairly useless. We may try to eke out another hour or two of work, but in all likelihood, we’ll work at a fraction of our usual pace. Even worse, our work may become sloppy and error prone.

I tend to reach this point after about seven or eight work hours in one day. For you, it may be nine or ten. If you want to optimize your work schedule, you have to recognize when you’re spinning your wheels and need to call it quits for the day. The number of hours you spend tethered to your desk per day is nowhere near as important as your output. “Working late” to finish a big project only to wind up mindlessly staring at Facebook defeats the purpose.

7. Plan the next week ahead of time

If you typically show up Monday morning with no clue what you’ll be working on that day, it’s time to break the cycle. Set aside a few minutes each Friday afternoon or Sunday evening to map out the top items you hope to accomplish the following week. If new priorities arise as the week progresses, update the list as needed. Otherwise, you’re liable to spend much of the workweek reacting to whatever crisis lands in your lap.

8. Make sleep non-negotiable

I’m a big Russell Wilson fan, but I don’t subscribe to his “No time to sleep” mantra. Studies show that skimping on sleep slows you down, messes with your memory and otherwise degrades your cognitive abilities. That’s hardly a recipe for peak performance. If you often find yourself dragging at work, try prioritizing sleep for two weeks. (Not sure how? Try these suggestions.) Besides feeling better during the workday, you’ll get more done.

Sure, creating new habits requires a bit of effort.  But once you notice yourself working more efficiently, you’ll wish you had tried some of these tactics sooner.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Michelle Goodman

Guest writer Michelle Goodman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Seattle. Her books — The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life — offer an irreverent twist on the traditional career guide. She specializes in writing about work, entrepreneurship and career change.

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