Working harder can be an easy habit to slip into. Sometimes it is hard to switch off at the end of the day or take time out on the weekend and stop thinking about work. With a startup of my own to run, I find this even harder to manage. Whenever I am not working on creating new sessions for my clients I am working on writing blogs for my websites and another one for which I also write. All of that makes it easy to fall into a pattern of “always working” rather than working smart. If this sounds a little or a lot like how you operate, you may want to read the tips below to find out how to work a little smarter.
Here are five ways to work smarter but still get what you need to do done:
- Take more breaks. In one of my favourite books, Stephen Covey tells a story about a woodcutter whose saw gets blunter as time passes and he continues cutting down trees. If the woodcutter were to stop sawing, sharpen his saw, and then go back to cutting the tree with a sharp blade, he would actually save time and effort in the long run. This analogy is an easy one to remember but harder to put into practice.
Here is what Covey says about sharpening the saw in our lives:
Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
Sharpening the saw is a great habit to get into in all areas of our lives, but I think it can be especially beneficial when it comes to work and helping us to avoid burnout.
On average our brains are only able to remain focused for about 90 minutes; then we need at least a 15-20 minutes break. By taking period breaks roughly every 90 minutes you allow your mind and body to renew and be ready to effectively produce another 90-minute period of high activity.
For some people, 15 to 20-minute breaks might be tough to fit in, but taking those short breaks throughout the day will help you to refresh your mind and reset your attention span.
- Take short naps. Research shows that naps lead to an improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking, and memory performance. In particular, napping actually benefits the learning process by helping us take in and retain information more effectively. The improved learning process occurs because naps actually help our brain to solidify the memories. Research indicates that when a memory is first recorded in the brain–in the hippocampus, it is still ‘fragile’ and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping, it appears, pushes memories to the neocortex, which is the brain’s ‘more permanent storage,’ and this prevents them from being ‘overwritten.'”
Not only are naps beneficial for consolidating memories and helping us to remember new information (which can be very handy if your job includes a lot of research during the day), they are also useful in helping us to avoid burnout, since research shows burnout is a signal that says you can’t take in more information in this part of your brain until you’ve had a chance to sleep. This also indicates just how important good sleep is for everyone as that is when memories are consolidated and also when your body recovers and does whatever healing it needs to do.
- Spend time in nature. Spending time in nature can help us to reset our attention span and to relax our minds. One experiment using this idea tested how relaxed people were when taking a walk down a city street versus in a quiet park. The study found that the level of attention needed to navigate a busy city street is high enough that the walk doesn’t let the brain relax enough to reset our focus levels.
Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.
However, spending time in nature, allows your mind to fully relax and unwind and then helps you focus longer when you return to work. In addition, other research has found that for students, the motivation to learn is higher when they are outside instead of in a classroom.
- Move and work in blocks. Starting your day with a clearly thought out to-do list means that you create a plan for what you will accomplish at each location where you choose to work so that you can immediately jump into those tasks.
You can break up your to-do list into sections–one per location (either within your workplace or outside of it) and for each section, you can assign three clear tasks. Once you complete the first group of tasks, you can move on to the next location and carry on with your to-do list.
Arrange your task list however it suits you best, however, the important part to note is having a clear finishing point based on your task list rather than the time you will move to a new location. When do you move, cycling or walking is a good way to go as it adds some exercise to your day as well.
Use this time to practice your Zen, take a break from your screen, and get some movement into your day. Keep your phone in your pocket, and move. Take a break away from work for at least thirty minutes.
If you create this process you will likely become more productive, more active during the day, and could actually end up working fewer hours by using this process.
- Check your email first thing. This one is fairly counterintuitive; basically, everyone says not to check email right away, but doing so could prove extremely useful. If you work in a remote team, you know what it is like to have half of your team (or more) working while you are asleep. If you need to work closely with others, it is important to check in before you start your workday and make sure that you are on the same page as everyone else. You might wake up to emails with typos to fix or a new blog post published. Dealing with those important issues first thing helps one to make quick decisions about whether the day needs to be adjusted to fit in with what everyone else is doing or whether one can just proceed with the tasks already planned.
If you employ these five methods regularly you will definitely be working smarter and still be productive, creative, and efficient. In the end you will likely create a better work/life balance for yourself as well and this is a much healthier way to manage your work and your life. Finally, if you follow this pattern you will much less likely to experience burnout.