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What Science Can Tell Us About How to Allocate Time to Achieve Highest Efficiency

What Science Can Tell Us About How to Allocate Time to Achieve Highest Efficiency

Although different people may have different working habits, scientists have discovered many key ingredients which everyone can learn to structure an efficient working day. In today’s fast paced, high expectations, profit pressure economy, we all need to be super productive at our work. So, how can we structure our day overall to have the best chance at the highest productivity possible?

Personally, for about a decade of my career I just gave up on sleep. I didn’t see any other way to get all that had to be done completed. I ignored people who told me that I would burnout and couldn’t live like that forever. I was known to get up at 3:00 a.m. and was often living on four hours of sleep during the week. I would try to catch up a bit on weekends by sleeping in until maybe 6:00 a.m. Kids don’t recognize weekend hours! Eventually, I just gave up out of sheer exhaustion. I was miserable. I was unhappy, and it was affecting those around me. The more years that past me by, the more I realized I hated living that way. So I gradually made healthier choices and started sleeping a normal, healthy amount each night. I went to bed even if I wasn’t caught up at work.

What I did do after that change was focus on productivity. I now had less hours to work with, so I became devoted more than ever to making the most of my time.

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Here are some ideas to implement into your own work day and some of the science behind why they are likely to work:

Fuel Yourself

raspberries-423194_1280

    Research has shown that low glucose levels can affect our willpower and that restoring low glucose levels can reboot willpower. Let’s face it, much of our workday involves willpower to stay on task and not let ourselves get distracted with the multitude of other more entertaining options. We can check our phones, check social networking, shop online or visit with our co-workers. Or, we can focus and work on the tasks at hand, getting more done. So, if willpower is highest when our bodies are properly fueled, then the time invested in eating healthy meals and snacks is worth it. There are also good arguments about how proper nutrition can also affect our decision making. Dehydration also has a negative affect on our functioning levels, so make sure you are getting your daily water intake as well.

    Work on the Right Priorities

    to do list

      The Pareto Principle has been applied in many facets of life. The basics of the principal says that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your actions. So, we need to be very sure we are working in our top 20% and doing the right things. Do you know what your boss’s top three priorities are for you? How will you be your job performance be judged? Determine what you have to do to get your next raise or promotion. Those tasks are the top priorities you have for the day. If anything remains undone, they need to be tasks that matter the least to you and your team. It may make you feel good to clean up your stale e-mail, but if it comes at the cost of serving your top client….. well, that’s not a good task to work on.

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      Many of us have a tendency to work from a master to-do list. This technique is not very efficient because it is not designed to identify your top priorities. So while you keep a master list of all your to-do items, you should also have a short list of those items that accelerate your work performance the most. The rest can be set aside for another day.

      Quit All Multi-tasking

      Some people pride themselves, and even brag about, their ability to multi-task. They truly believe they are working through two tasks at once. What science tells us, though, is that the human brain is not well equipped to multi-task. When you multi-task research has shown that it takes longer than if you did the two tasks sequentially, and quality is lost in the process as well. So quit multi-tasking altogether. The only exceptions would be times when your brain is involved in a more passive than active activity. For example, while you wait in the school pick up line, you can listen to audio books or articles. When you are running on the treadmill, you can listen to motivational speeches. When you cook dinner, you can listen to the news on TV. Those types of passive activity tasks can be layered together.

      Eat the Frog

      frog

        “The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex. But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.” ― Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time    

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        In his book, Brian Tracy explains his theory of why we should “eat the frog” first thing. By this he means to pick the biggest, ugliest task on our list that we are avoiding. The task you are avoiding is often the one that needs to be done the most. The avoidance tendency comes from the fact that it’s difficult and daunting. Its daunting because  there are some risks involved or we know its very important. So, the first thing we do every day should be to “eat the frog.” Then the day has to get better!

        Take breaks

        take break

          Although we can’t get more than 24 hours in a day, we can manage the energy that we have during each hour. Many studies have shown that the mind works most effectively when given frequent breaks. One study indicated that the brain requires approximately 20% of our energy to run, using a huge amount of energy for an organ of its size! The brain is even working hard while we are resting, which may explain why sometimes the answers you needed hours before suddenly come into your thoughts when resting or sleeping. Further, our focus can be helped by taking frequent breaks. Some studies correlate our waking cycles to our sleep cycles. These cycles tend to move in 90 minute increments. So, many productivity experts suggest a work period of 90 minutes followed by a significant break of 20-30 minutes.

          Some experts use The Pomodoro Technique , which utilizes shorter work periods of 25 minutes and shorter breaks of 5 minutes. Experiment with what seems to produce the best results for you. One very helpful tool if you have trouble focusing for periods of time is set a timer and don’t change tasks until the time is up.

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          Capture Ideas

          How many times have you had an amazing idea at an inopportune time? Do they actually come at any other time? It may be when you awaken in the middle of the night or during your morning shower, and you think, “I will remember that. That is a great idea!” How many times do you forget what it was later? Our minds hold a miraculous amount of information in very fine detail. The tricky part is accessing it. Science tells us some reasons for why that is so difficult. What if instead of rely on our hit and miss ability to recall our ideas we turn our inopportune times of amazing ideas into more opportune times? Keep a notebook by your bed. Keep a notepad in your car or purse, and as soon as you have something brilliant pop into your head, take thirty seconds to write down as much as you can about it.

          Finding success in our lives is all about working smarter, not harder. Take advantage of the fact that your brain is literally working around the clock for you. Set up tools to gather up those great ideas! These are just a few of the most crucial tools to consider when trying to get more productivity out of your day. Other techniques many experts suggest include the following:

          • Have an end time to your work day
          • Group similar tasks together
          • Done is usually better than perfect
          • Rise early and have a morning routine
          • Exercise daily

          What have you discovered that works for you that has catapulted your productivity? I would love to hear about them!  Everyone can benefit from accomplishing more in less time!

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          Last Updated on April 23, 2019

          How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

          How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

          Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

          While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

          For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

          While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

          I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

          Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

          Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

          Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

          The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

          Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

          What Is a Stretch Goal?

          A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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          In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

          For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

          This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

          It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

          The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

          The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

          I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

          Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

          1. Get Outside of Your Head

          If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

          If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

          I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

          Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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          2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

          When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

          I see this in so many areas of life:

          When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

          In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

          “Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

          Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

          3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

          When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

          The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

          For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

          We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

          From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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          When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

          Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

          4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

          S.M.A.R.T.

          is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

          While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

          Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

          For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

          By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

          5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

          I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

          The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

          When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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          One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

          Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

          I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

          A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

          As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

          From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

          The Bottom Line

          These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

          For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

          Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

          Reference

          [1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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