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How To Work Faster And Smarter

How To Work Faster And Smarter

As the old saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.” But what does that really mean? When there are deadlines looming, bosses looking over your shoulder, and clients ready to launch, how do you stay focused, and get everything done efficiently? How do you produce effective results, even when you’re under the gun?

Sometimes we know what to do, but we get distracted, or over-commit, only adding more onto our already full to-do lists. Everything soon feels like a priority, and it is unclear where to start and when to take a break. Going at that rate, burnout, sickness, and exhaustion occur, and then we are useless and can’t get anything done.

It will take will power, fortitude, and laser sharp focus to work more efficiently, but avoiding time-wasters can leave you with more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. These 10 things will help you to work faster AND smarter:

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1. Structure

Planning, using productivity tools, and scheduling tasks on your calendar can help. Set yourself up to win by breaking tasks down into manageable chunks, so you can know what is most important to do first, and still have time to take care of yourself, such as eating well, exercising, relaxing, etc. Without self-care, you lose efficiency due to being overworked.

2. Don’t multi-task

There is an illusion that doing many things at once is productive. Instead, it leaves you half-focused, and constantly switching gears. You may have a sense that nothing ever really gets complete this way. Set a timer, and work in 90-minute increments. Focus on that one task either for 90 minutes, or until it is complete. Then, take a break, and move on.

3. Urgent doesn’t necessarily mean important

What someone else thinks is urgent can create a sense of people-pleasing induced panic. If you know it is not important, then prioritize, and do what is most important first instead. You know best how to set your priorities and get your work done. So listen to yourself.

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4. Turn it off

Power down those phones, turn off notifications. Set up an autoresponder if you need to, but disconnect in order to avoid distractions. You will get more done, if you focus only at the task at hand and answer to all missd calls and notifications once you’re done.

5. Take breaks

Get up. Move around. Shake it out. Eyestrain and headaches can happen if you look at a computer screen for too long. Get outside for a quick stroll and come back feeling refreshed and energized.

6. Closed door policy

Hunker down and hibernate. People popping in and out of your office creates stops and starts in your productivity and you have to keep starting over again each time. Create true office hours and stick to them.

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7. The eye is on the prize

Keep the end in mind – the big picture. Focus on how great it will feel to accomplish the task. You are on your way if you are taking action. Staying focused on the end result can remind you of the big picture, so that unimportant pieces, or your perfectionism, can’t stop you from getting it done.

8. Celebrate the little victories

Projects take many steps until completion. Break down your project into these steps, and then do a little happy dance each time you complete a step. Rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t done yet, taking time to pat yourself on the back as you go along, can give you the confidence to see it through to the end.

9. Say “no”

Don’t over-commit: When you are already on a tight deadline, don’t take on anything else. Put a moratorium on saying “yes,” to anything new until you complete this project. Don’t leave people hanging, but say you will contact them when you are finished. Stepping outside of the task at hand has you lose focus, and makes you feel overwhelmed and scattered.

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10. Stop saying “I’m so busy”

It is complaining, and complaining only makes you  – and everyone around you – feel worse. Instead of saying “I’m so busy”, say “I have already come so much closer to my goal”. This will encourage you to keep going.

Featured photo credit: VIKTOR HANACEK via picjumbo.com

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Bridget Baker

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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