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Published on December 22, 2020

6 Ways To Work Smarter And Unleash Your Productivity

6 Ways To Work Smarter And Unleash Your Productivity

A common phrase heard these days is “work smarter not harder,” but what does that really mean? Surely working smarter is still working hard, right?

In a way, you are right—to be able to work smarter, you do need to put in the hard work first. You will need to make sure you are on top of your calendar, your email, your task list, and your projects. There’s so much that needs managing that the work required to work smarter can seem daunting.

But when you do get these areas of your life under control, you will soon find you are not having to put as much effort into your work as you did before. Your work will feel seamless, and there will be a wonderful flow to your day that leaves you feeling fulfilled and mentally satiated at the end of the day.

So, how do you achieve this state? Here are 6 tips that will help you work smarter and set you up for peak productivity.

1. Plan Your Day the Day Before

If you do not plan the work you need to do, the day will dictate what you do. This is never a good place to be in as you will find yourself dealing with fires and other people’s urgencies all day, leaving your work neglected. When you neglect your work and work on other people and their emergencies, your work soon builds up and you work for longer hours, leaving you no time for yourself.

To plan your day, all you really need is a piece of paper and a pen. I advise my clients to use a method I call the 2+8 Prioritisation Method. Below is a video explanation.

Basically, what this means is you write out the ten most important tasks you have to do, and then select two of them as your two objective tasks—or “must-do” tasks for the day. The remaining eight tasks are your “should-do” tasks, and you will do whatever you can to complete those.

Now, the key here is not filling these with just work tasks. Remember, you have a life after work! So, you may decide to have one work objective for the day and one personal objective.

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For example, today, my two objectives are to write this article and to exercise. As long as I get those two tasks done today, I will be happy. Of my eight other tasks, six of them are work-related and two are personal tasks.

Planning the day only takes around five to ten minutes, but it leaves you feeling a lot more relaxed than you would if your had not planned the day because then your brain will not be reminding you of a work task at 11 pm when you are trying to enjoy time with your friends and family. It also gives you a focus when you start the day and a list of ten tasks, which is not overwhelming.

2. Schedule Your Work for the Week, Not the Day

Until a few years ago, I always saw my task list as a list that needed to be completed every day. The trouble with this approach is it does not consider new inputs that will inevitably come in each day. It is also impossible. You will never be able to completely clear your task list. There are always more tasks than time available each day.

Instead, choose your tasks for the week. What tasks would you like to get completed by the end of the week? This means that if you don’t have time to complete some tasks on Monday or Tuesday, you still have three more days to complete them.

Not everything you do will have a hard deadline. Allowing some flexibility in your schedule takes a lot of pressure off you.

The problem is we are humans and not machines. Our ability to focus and concentrate is dependent on so many things—the amount of sleep you got last night, whether you feel unwell, if you argued with a loved one or a colleague, etc.

All these factors will affect your work output. Taking the pressure off yourself you complete everything in one day frees you up to work according to your physical and mental state.

3. Never Allow Others to Control Your Calendar

This one is a big one. These days, it is easy to allow our assistants, bosses, and colleagues to schedule meetings on our calendars. And it does seem like a good idea because all we need to do is look at our calendars and see what meetings and events we have for the day.

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The trouble with this is that your assistant, bosses, and colleagues do not know what work you have to do. They do not know what deadlines you have that are approaching and whether you need to leave early to collect your kids from school. At the very least, set your calendar so you can accept or decline events.

If you really want to work smarter, you need to be in complete control of your calendar, which nicely leads us to the next one…

4. Block Time Out on Your Calendar

Time blocking is a great way to get control of your time and allow you enough time to get on with your work. Time blocking does not mean you schedule every minute of the day. What it means is you block out two or three hours each day for focussed work.

Now, there is a special trick to making this work. You need to know when you are at your most focused. For example, I am at my most creative and focused in the morning. My best time is between 8 and 11 AM. After that time, I find it more difficult to concentrate for long periods and my creative juices struggle to flow.

Knowing this means, where possible, I block 8:00 to 11:00 AM for focused work each day. Doing this allows me three hours each day to work on my most important work for the day. Now, it could be that you work better late afternoon. If that is the case, try and block times later in the day for your focused work.

Obviously, you cannot do this every day. Often in our companies, we have weekly meetings on a Monday morning or you may have client meetings at these times. But if you can get two or three days each week to block out time to get on with your work, you will be surprised how much more productive you become.

If you cannot block out time for yourself, create a fictional meeting with yourself so if your boss can see your calendar, they will see you are not available at those times. It’s up to you what you call this time.

5. Use a Task Manager

I know many people create random to-do lists on bits of paper and in notes apps on their phones. The problem with this randomness is that it is easy to lose the list. Instead, set yourself up with a task manager. You can choose a fully-featured task manager such as Todoist or Trello, or you can simply use the built-in apps such as Apple’s Reminders or Microsoft’s To-Do.

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By using a single digital task manager, you have all your tasks in one place. This makes planning your day easier—you can see what you have to do in one place—and it stops you from trying to remember everything in your head.

As David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, says,[1]

Your head is a terrible office.

If you are not collecting everything into some place you trust, you will revert to trying to remember everything—and you will not. You will forget something and often, that something is important.

Don’t trust your head to remember everything. Collect it into a task manager’s inbox and give yourself a few minutes at the end of the day to organize what you collected.

To help you, I created a free online course called “Collect, Organise, Do”. It’s a simple system that shows you how to collect everything that matters and then organize it so you can spend more of your time doing the work and a lot less time trying to remember what to do.

6. Create a Workflow

If 2020 has been about time blocking, 2021 will be about workflows. What are “workflows”? I hear you asking.

Workflows are a sequence of steps you follow to get your work done. A simple example would be a morning routine. While we might call this a morning routine—wake up, make coffee, do some stretches, write your journal, etc.—a routine, what it really is is a workflow.

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Bringing this concept into the way we do our work means we begin the day in the same way, and we end the day in the same way.

For example, you start the day with a two hour focused work session. This is where you do the work that requires the most brainpower. You then do your email, reply to messages return calls, etc, then, perhaps you do another hour of focused work. Likewise, when you get to the end of the day, you spend around fifteen minutes reviewing your task list and planning your day for tomorrow and then close down the day.

The brilliance of creating workflows is you can customize them to fit your way of working and the type of work you do. If you are in sales, for example, you may have a two-hour session of calling prospects or talking to your customers.

Workflows also create momentum towards achieving your goals and completing your projects. Over time, your workflows become habits and while you may adjust your workflows from time to time, developing them means you get your important work done on time every time.

Final Thoughts

While these 6 tips are not exhaustive, if you follow them, you will soon find yourself working a lot smarter and finding your work a lot less stressful and you will feel less busy. When that happens, you free up yourself up to spend more time doing the things you want to do.

More Tips to Work Smarter

Featured photo credit: ConvertKit via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: The Resistance to To-Do Lists

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Carl Pullein

Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

How To Protect Your Focus From Being “Robbed” By Notifications and Social Media

How To Protect Your Focus From Being “Robbed” By Notifications and Social Media

Between a cell phone that’s always ringing, a plethora of social media apps vying for your attention, and a steady stream of text messages, it probably feels like you can never get a moment of peace.

Think about how many times you’ve been working when a notification pops up on your screen. The message might be important, but more often than not, it’s just spam that pulls your focus away from your project.

Imagine all the times you’ve been in a meeting and felt the distinctive buzzing of your cell phone. Putting a smartphone on vibrate doesn’t make it any less disruptive for its owner. You instantly divert your attention from the other human beings in the room to the device in your pocket.

Distractions make you work harder

Studies suggest that the average American worker is interrupted every three minutes and five seconds.[1] An estimated 6 hours of productivity are lost every day to distraction. When someone is interrupted, they not only have to deal with the disruption, but then they have to use even more time and energy to get back into their work.[2]

It’s not only annoying to feel like you can never situate your mind on one task, but it also keeps you from doing your best work. The greatest ideas require time for mental processing. You have to do research and dig deep to come up with exciting ideas. If your focus is shallow, your ideas will never be able to develop to their fullest potential.

Our concentration naturally fluctuates

It would be nice if you could simply disconnect from the internet and have a consistent ability to concentrate, but that’s not how your brain works.

If you were to visualize your concentration throughout an 8-hour work day, it might look like this graph.

Throughout the day, you will experience peaks and valleys in your energy levels. You might feel a jolt of productivity after you go for a walk or have a cup of coffee, but there will also be points in the day–like right after lunch–where you’ll feel sluggish. You create your best work during periods of high energy and focus.

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Protecting those peak periods ensures that you can maximize your work time. When you constantly shift your focus back and forth between your work and distractions, your brain has to work extra hard to get back on track. Opening your Facebook page or replying to your friend’s What’s App message is almost never worth the productivity cost.

You will still have peak moments of productivity when you face interruptions, but the peaks will not be as high. This is because jumping between items wears you out. You lower your potential productivity every time you give in to distraction.

To be successful, you have to root out anything that stands in your way. The inability to concentrate will affect your work performance, but you can take control of the situation.

How to maintain focus in a sea of disruptions

Being able to give your best at work doesn’t mean that you have to disconnect from the world entirely. You can still enjoy the connections you have through technology, but there are a few ways that you can keep them from having a negative impact on your work.

One of the first things that you can do to minimize your distractions is set aside a time for them. Give yourself windows of time when it’s acceptable to look at Facebook or respond to messages.

Start by listing out the things that most commonly distract you. Maybe you get sucked into the rabbit hole of Facebook if you get a notification. Perhaps you find that your friends texting you throughout the day pulls you from work. Whatever it may be, write it down.

Then, set aside a time slot in which you are free to use the apps as you please.

Plan to use your distracting apps during times when you need to restore energy. As you can see from the graph, times when you need to restore your energy are also times when you may not be as productive.

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Instead of giving up peak energy times, sacrifice the time when you aren’t working well to engage with technology. When your recovery time has ended, jump right back into your work.

It might seem counter-intuitive to make time for these distractions during your day, but if you create a schedule that protects periods of peak energy, you will actually boost your productivity. Instead of being inundated with notifications or thinking about the next time when you are allowed to check your messages, you’ll have designated times for that.

Rather than shift your attention at random, you can focus fully on the task at hand until it’s your time to play on social media or check messages. Using this approach can help you regain a lot of your brain power because you won’t have to waste it on refocusing. You’ll simply do less important tasks during natural breaks in your day.

Set up a system to limit distractions

Just because you vow to check your messages and look at social media during certain times doesn’t keep distractions from happening. You’ll need to set up a system to keep disruptions at bay.

You can’t always control when someone is going to send you a message or when you’ll get a notification. You can start by adjusting your settings. Most apps allow you to opt out of notifications. Stop push notifications from non-essential apps.

For everything else, you need a different plan. We may be able to avoid opening social media tabs, but sometimes the messages still pop up on our phones. At the same time, most of us want to continue to use social media to stay connected and receive important information.

Try planting some trees with your concentration

The Forest app helps you train your brain to avoid distractions during work time. You can use Forest on your desktop or smartphone. The app works by enabling you to establish an amount of time during which you do not wish to be interrupted. You can adjust the amount of time from 10 minutes up to several hours.

Refer back to the list of distractions that you made earlier. You can take the websites and apps that drain your time and add them to the Forest’s blacklist.

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    The amount of time that you wish to stay off of distracting websites and apps is called a “planting session.” When you decide that you want to “plant a tree,” the countdown timer starts. If you access a blacklisted website during the time when you are supposed to be working, the app will remind you that your tree is still growing. You will have to decide whether or not you want to kill your tree, which is harder than you might think.

      When you can successfully stay off of distracting sites for the allotted time, your tree grows, and you get coins. The coins will allow you to unlock other types of trees.

        As you continue with your work session, you can see a countdown timer and an animation of a tree growing from a seed to its full splendor. Usually Forest also includes an inspirational saying to keep you on track if your focus starts to drift.

          To make the impact of your efforts even greater, success in Forest also gives you the option to plant a tree in real life.

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          This simple visualization can help you break the bad habit of checking your phone or accessing websites that disrupt your thought processes. When Forest asks you if you would like to “give up” and kill your tree, most often you will realize that the reason you were heading to the blacklisted website wasn’t that important anyway.

          Sometimes you just need a small reminder to stay on task. Use Forest during your peak productivity times so that you don’t waste the most valuable parts of your day.

          You have to identify the distractions before you can stop them

          You may be wondering how much of your peak productivity time you are losing to mindless distractions. The only way to find out is to take a closer look at your habits. Notice the times when you seem to do your best work. Name the sources of notifications and interruptions that decrease your attention. After you have done this, use an app like Forest to cut out the distractions.

          Using Forest will not prevent you from being tired, and it won’t keep you from staring off into space, but it will make you think twice about wasting time on sites that distract you.

          When you are able to experience a distraction-free work environment, you’ll recognize how much more you are able to accomplish. You’ll be able to do your work more efficiently, and you won’t feel the fatigue of constantly re-centering yourself. Soon, your desire to stay focused will be stronger than the temptation to click on your notifications.

          Featured photo credit: Viktor Hanacek/ Picjumbo via picjumbo.com

          Reference

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