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.

How to Become a Morning Person: 8 Steps to Kickstart How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity 7 Best Free Scheduling Apps That Make Scheduling Easier Why You Need Intermediate Goals And How To Set One 6 Golden Rules to Make Progress Towards Achieving Goals

Trending in Focus

1 The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work 2 The Careful Art of Delegation: How to Delegate Effectively 3 How the Flow State Helps You Stay Productive and Concentrate 4 What Is A Flow State And How To Achieve It For Productivity 5 The Truth About the Value of Time in Life

Read Next


Last Updated on September 9, 2021

The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

Everyone has their favorite habits for boosting productivity. Your desk setup, morning routine, and diet all play a role. But there’s one thing that everyone agrees can make a difference: focus music.

Soothing beats can keep distractions at bay, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Whether you’re trying to drown out mowers or simply get into a groove, put on a pair of headphones. Music can make all the difference in your focus.

With that said, not all music is equally conducive to productivity. You need to be careful about what you listen to. Getting work done calls for very different sounds than getting a workout in.

If you need a little more help to get rid of distractions, check out Lifehack’s free guide End Distraction And Find Your Focus. In this guide you’ll learn the simple techniques to stay focused and boost productivity. Grab your free guide here.

This article will walk you through selecting the best music for productivity, as well as a list of tunes to help you get started.

How to Pick the Best Focus Music For Yourself

With so many genres and artists out there, there’s a lot of music to choose from. Before you press play, keep the following guidelines in mind:

1. Stick With Instrumental

Songs without words in them make it easier to focus. Lyrics can distract you from what you’re trying to accomplish because you might get the words mixed up with what you’re trying to read. If you’re writing something, you might find yourself typing the lyrics instead.

Intelligence and instrumental music are correlated, perhaps because instrumental music is less intrusive.[1] Instrumental music tends to fade into the background, giving you a rhythm without pulling your mind away from the task at hand.

Stay away from instrumental versions of songs you recognize. It’s easy to fill in the blanks with the lyrics if you’ve already committed them to memory.


However, some exceptions can be made. Creatives who produce videos or audio might prefer tracks that get their creative juices going, lyrics and all. However, if you find lyrics to be distracting, switch back to instrumental tunes.

2. Take It Easy

Not all instrumental music is calm and relaxing. Focus music should be, however. So, beware of instrumental songs that are too loud and stimulating. High volumes and tempos can work you up when you need to stay calm.

Again, some roles can make exceptions. Physical laborers can use more rambunctious tunes to keep them energized. While calm tunes work best for those in desk-based roles, don’t go too extreme. Something that’s too soothing might make you feel tired, and yawning all day isn’t exactly the path to productivity.

3. Pick Music You Enjoy

At the end of the day, the best focus music is what you enjoy. If you hate classical music, don’t put together a classical playlist just because you stumbled on a study about its benefits.[2] Your dislike of the music will take away the productivity you’d otherwise get out of listening to it.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’ve never worked while listening to jazz before, why not? Save songs you like for later listening. Over time, you’ll build a playlist of tried-and-true focus music.

4. Update Your Setup

Before jamming out to your productivity tunes, make sure you have the right equipment. Invest in a music streaming service so you don’t have to listen to ads. Purchase noise-canceling headphones to avoid distracting your co-workers.

Focus music is all about ambience. Anything that interrupts your flow—whether that’s poor sound quality or glitchy streaming—needs to go.

Expect to spend at least $100 on headphones or speakers. For the streaming service itself, Spotify Premium is the standard at $9.99 per month. Slacker, Apple Music, and YouTube Music are also popular.

Building Your Perfect Playlist of Focus Music (With Recommendations)

Now that you know what to look for in focus music and how to listen, it’s time to build your playlist. Get started with these smooth, instrumental genres, artists, and songs.


1. Chillhop Music

This YouTube channel has almost 3 million subscribers. Its music videos run 24/7 and feature driving yet relaxing beats.

Most songs on this channel fall into a category called “lofi hip hop,” a type of electronic R&B. Unlike traditional hip hop, lofi hip hop songs follow a slow, steady pattern that induces focus and relaxation.

Chillhop playlists can also be streamed on Spotify, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. Popular artists include nymano, No Signal, and Sleepy Fish.

2. Andy McKee

Andy McKee is an acoustic guitarist who became famous after “Drifting,” one of his early songs, went viral on YouTube. “Drifting” exemplifies the creative, quiet guitar techniques found in the rest of McKee’s music.

Today, McKee has six albums of primarily acoustic guitar. One of McKee’s most popular pieces, “Rylynn,” is a perfect example of his soothing yet upbeat sound.

3. John Butler Trio

The band John Butler Trio became popular after releasing “Ocean,” a 2012 hit with more than 50 million listens on YouTube.[3] Heavy on acoustic guitar, “Ocean” is an intricate ballad that ebbs and flows like the ocean itself.


Known for flowing changes in key and mood, the John Butler Trio proves that fast songs can stand in as great focus music. The group’s long songs—“Ocean” is 12 minutes long—are less disruptive for long projects. Two other favorites by John Butler Trio are “Betterman” and “Spring to Come.”

4. Classical Radio on Pandora

Classical music has long been a staple for music lovers looking to get work done. Pandora’s classical station features a great mix, from Beethoven to modern artists like Maria Callas and Jorge Bolet.

Pandora has radio stations for every genre imaginable. You can generate playlists based on genre, artist, or even a specific song.

Other music apps offer similar playlists and radio stations you can turn to for your classical music fix. From piano-heavy tunes to violin concertos, you’ll find plenty to perk up your ears.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean Soundtrack

Movie soundtracks are full of amazing focus music. One of my favorites is the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is lively and adventurous but not in your face.

If you like what you hear, Hans Zimmer, the mastermind behind the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, has worked on a huge array of films. Zimmer also put together the soundtracks for The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Inception.

One thing to watch out for with cinematic music is associations. As iconic as the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack is, if you’re thinking about Jack Sparrow instead of balancing spreadsheets, you should probably switch to a new song.

6. Legend of Zelda Soundtrack


Another hotspot for instrumental music is video games. If you’re not sure where to start, check out selections from The Legend of Zelda.

Anyone who’s played The Legend of Zelda games will immediately recognize what they hear. The soundtrack is light, airy, and full of awe. Keyboards, harps, and flutes feature prominently.

Although you could spend hours listening to The Legend of Zelda music, don’t forget about fan-produced songs in this genre. The video-gaming community is robust, and instrumental re-creations of your favorite games’ soundtracks can be found all over the internet.

7. Nature Sounds and White Noise

This genre may be too relaxing for some, but others prefer less structured focus music. Sounds like thunder, wind, and rushing water can transport you to a quiet, idyllic place to get work done.

One type of white noise to avoid is city-related sounds. Even without lyrics, honking horns or chattering crowds can be distracting.

An advantage of this type of focus music is that it can be set on a loop. If you find a track you like, go ahead and put it on repeat. When it starts over, you won’t even notice.

Ready, Set, Play

The best part about focus music is that nothing is off-limits. Some people work better listening to Tom Petty tunes than instrumental music, and that’s okay. What’s important is that it’s motivating without being distracting.

To unlock your next tier of productivity, spend a couple of hours clicking around on your favorite streaming music site. You’ll get more done, and best of all, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

More Tips to Improve Your Focus

Featured photo credit: Lala Azizli via



[1] New York Post: Smarter people listen to instrumental music: study
[2] Forbes: Does Classical Music Help Our Productivity?
[3] YouTube: Ocean – John Butler – 2012 Studio Version

Read Next