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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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

More by this author

Carl Pullein

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

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Last Updated on March 4, 2021

7 Ways to Concentrate Better in a Toxic Work Environment

7 Ways to Concentrate Better in a Toxic Work Environment

Many of us have had the misfortune of working in a toxic work environment, where the atmosphere in the workplace is filled with negativity and politics. It’s unpleasant and can lead to stress, anxiety, and a more negative outlook on life.

Many years ago, I found myself working in a small country house hotel and restaurant with a team of great front-of-house people who worked well together, but with a newly installed kitchen team that saw front-of-house employees as the enemy. They wanted to create conflict where there previously was none.

The kitchen team was led by a highly respected head chef who was a minor celebrity TV chef, and when he joined our hotel, he insisted on bringing in his own team. This meant the existing kitchen team was fired, almost without notice, and overnight we were dealing with a team of strangers.

At first managing this negative work culture was easy; we just stayed out of the kitchen as much as possible. But then one day, the general manager of the hotel left, and he was replaced by the head chef. From then on, it felt like open warfare.

In less than a week, a workplace that was a pleasure to go to turned into a nightmare. I remember driving to work with a feeling of dread, bordering on fear. I wasn’t sleeping well, I smoked a lot more, and I had this constant, horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, even on days when I was not working.

I remember one evening after we had finished a shift, and all the customers and kitchen team had gone home, sitting down with a colleague to talk about the situation. I was fortunate as my colleague was a little older and wiser than I, and he had a forward-looking, philosophical attitude to life. He taught me that no matter the environment you are working in, if you focus on doing your best work every day, and avoid getting caught up in the politics, you can rise above it.

Looking back now, I am glad I experienced this culture. I learned a lot about how to deal with negativity in a toxic work environment, and the lessons I learned then still help me today.

What Causes a Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic work environment can come about in many ways, but poor communication is often at the root of it. This may include a lack of communication between the boss and the employees regarding roles and expectations, or a lack of communication between coworkers that leads to misunderstandings and resentment.


Poor leadership is another common culprit. If a workplace lacks a good leader, it can lead to a chaotic workplace or one where everyone looks out for only themselves instead of working together. In my case, the head chef favored one set of employees, making it difficult for the other set to enjoy their work.

If a workplace has little opportunity for growth or learning, it can also turn toxic. When workers feel stagnant, they can experience the effects of burnout and boredom, which can cause other coworkers to feel less motivated to do their work well.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage your mindset in a toxic work environment.

How to Concentrate in a Toxic Work Environment

Here are seven lessons I learned from experiencing two years of working in a highly toxic work environment.

1. Don’t Get Sucked in

We are faced with a choice in a toxic work environment. You can react to the negativity and become part of the problem, or you can rise above it. Rising above it involves not being provoked. Allow the negativity to pass over you.

Instead, focus on doing the best work you can. When you arrive at work, start your day.

If you are in sales, focus on being the best sales person. If you are in administration, focus on making sure you do your work accurately and in a timely way. If you are a bar manager (as I was), make sure your bar is clean, stocked, and open for business when the first customer comes in.

Don’t give the negative influences and passive aggressive coworkers an excuse to attack you. When you see negative energy coming your way, pause, identify the emotions that are surfacing, and let them pass.


This, of course, can be easier said than done. For a little extra help, check out Lifehack’s free guide: End Distraction And Find Your Focus.

2. Become a Beacon of Positivity

Often a toxic work environment is caused by workplace bullying. When you see this happening, become a rock of support for the person or people experiencing these attacks to help them feel safe and heard. Be nice, attentive, and understanding. If you see your colleague make a mistake, quietly fix the mistake or gently point it out.

Never attack or be negative. Instead, be a good listener, offer support, and take your attacked colleague out for lunch and give them the space to talk things through.

If there are signs of a toxic workplace, having a non-judgmental colleague who offers support, an ear to listen, and kindness applies an antidote to the stress, upset, and fear[1].

Surviving a toxic work environment

    3. Have a Plan

    The best way to stay away from the negativity is to have a plan for the day. How will you start the day? What tasks will you accomplish by the end of the day?

    Having a plan for the day takes your focus away from the toxicity around you and puts your focus on doing your work.

    For me, I made sure the first task I did when I arrived at work was to clean my bar and make sure my fridges were stocked. I did not want to give an excuse to the unpleasant members of the team to attack me. My purpose every morning was to set an example, to be ready for when the diners came in. And when the diners did come in, I gave them my full, undivided attention.


    This focus on my plan for the day kept me away from the politics. It gave me a positive purpose and enabled me to stay above what was going on around me.

    If you’ve lost your motivation while working in a toxic environment, you can check out this Lifehack Fast-Track Class to get back on track: Activate Your Motivation

    4. Stay Away From the Toxic People

    This is often easier said than done. Sometimes, the toxic people in your organization are your bosses and are unavoidable. However, in most workplaces today, there are quiet corners where you can get on with your work when you see the red flags of a hostile workplace.

    Working in an open-plan office can leave us at the mercy of disruptive colleagues and bosses, but if you can find yourself a quiet corner where you can get your head down and do you work, you will, for the most part, stay away from the negative forces working around you.

    When you “hang out” with the toxic people, they will drag you into their toxicity. Quietly and calmly explaining you have a lot of work to get on with and moving to a different place leaves you less vulnerable to their negative influence.

    5. Talk to Your HR Department

    This is one where you need to be careful. You do not want to make accusations or get involved in a blame game when you’re in a toxic work environment. Instead, you want to explain to your HR department that you find it difficult working with a particular person or team[2], and that it’s beginning to negatively affect your personal life.

    Where possible, make it out that this is your fault, not theirs—you do not want to make things worse for yourself. Explain that for you to do your work, you need to be moved somewhere else so you can concentrate and be more focused.

    In a toxic work environment, you will find your HR team is likely fully aware of the problem and will understand your request and do whatever they can to accommodate you.


    The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem. If the situation is preventing you from doing your work, you need to have that conversation with HR, or if you do not have an HR department, your boss.

    You can learn more about when to go to HR or your boss here.

    6. Listen to Music

    Buy yourself some headphones, not earphones. This is a trick I use on airplanes. Sometimes I want to be left alone to think, read, or just be left with my thoughts. Having my headphones on stops my fellow passengers from interrupting me with questions about what I do, where I’m from, and where I’m going.

    In a toxic work environment, wearing headphones achieves the same result. When we see someone with a pair of headphones on, we automatically leave them alone unless we urgently need to ask them something.

    Whether you actually listen to music or not is less important. The wearing of headphones prevents interruptions and allows you to quietly get on with your work.

    7. Work From Home

    With the current global pandemic, the ability to work from home is more accessible than ever before. Being able to stay outside your toxic work environment will allow you to focus on your work and not on what is going on around you.

    If you do have the option to work from home, then do so for your mental and physical health. One thing I learned is that the people causing the toxic environment do not last long in a company, and the turnover rate is quite high. They either move on by their own accord or are fired or moved to another position where they can cause less harm.

    Final Thoughts

    I have intentionally not suggested that you leave your job, but if you do find yourself feeling stressed and fearful, then the best advice would be to find another company. Nobody should work in a toxic work environment, and if you have taken all the necessary steps to resolve the issue with your company and nothing changes, then you should take steps to leave.

    I understand this can be very difficult, particularly with a complicated job environment and toxic employees around you, but the harm to your health and wellbeing is not worth it. If you need the income, then start looking for a new job and work life. The good news is most companies do not have toxic work cultures, and with a little effort, you should be able to find a new job.

    More on Dealing With a Negative Workplace

    Featured photo credit: Siavash Ghanbari via


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