Written By: Mo Elhammady @the_business_lounge_ @moelhammady
Lead Photo: http://hatchsquare.com
Working smarter is the ability to be productive and efficient when working towards your goals, rather than looking and feeling busy, and out of time. We all have the same hours in the day, but it’s how we prioritize our time and energy that dictates if we’re able to execute our tasks efficiently. It can be easy to fall into the habit of “working harder”, and it’s sometimes hard to switch it off at the end of the day. With a startup of my own to run, it’s harder lately to manage. When I’m not working on The Business Lounge and writing articles for YV Magazine, I’m working on my contracting company and other small projects. The problem is it’s easy to fall into a pattern of always working instead of working smart and actually taking the time to take care of myself. If you feel like this happens to you too, here are a few tips and tricks I try to use to make sure I’m always working smarter.
#1 TAKE BREAKS
We need to respect our natural attention spans. In one of my favorite books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about a woodcutter whose saw gets blunter as time passes and he keeps cutting trees. He explains that if the woodcutter were to stop sawing, sharpen his saw and go back to cutting the tree with a sharpened blade, he would actually save more time and effort in the long run.
This is an easy analogy to remember, but actually pretty hard to put into practice. Here’s 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.
Doing this is a great habit to try to instill in all areas of our lives. It’s especially beneficial when it comes to work and helping you avoid burnout. On average, our brains can only focus for about 90 minutes, where afterwards a 20-minute rest is required. Taking a break and just walking away from your work can be a good start. It helps you refresh your mind and reset your attention span.
Another way to do this is implementing the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in small bursts of time. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and every time it goes off, take a short break. Stretch out a bit, grab a coffee, check your email, or just chill back and relax.
Another tip you can try is to switch between a different kind of task to give your mind a rest. Have you heard of the 7-minute Workout? The idea is that while you’re working out your arms, your legs are resting. When you’re working out your legs, your arms are taking a break. When you have a lot to do, you can do small, easy tasks like replying to emails or following up a phone call to give your brain a rest from all the hard work you have to do throughout the day.
#2 TAKE POWER NAPS
Now remember, working when you’re overly stressed and tired won’t lead to more productivity, and it definitely shouldn’t be a badge of honor. I see too many people that actually boast about all the hours they’ve been putting in all through the night and being totally burned out to do anything else. It never seems like they’re winning.
Some of the most influential people of our time, who are winners, like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, make it a priority to sleep for 7 hours a night. You need to try to establish a sleep routine by going to bed and waking up every day at the same time. If you’re able to give yourself enough time between work and sleep, it’ll be easier for you to turn off your brain and relax when needed.
Another great way to boost productivity is taking an afternoon nap. A quick 20-minute nap can help reduce your stress, increase memory, and reduce your mental fatigue. In a nutshell, you’ll be setting yourself up for a successful afternoon when you’ve reached your after-lunch productivity slump. If you’re feeling stressed out, remember to hit that pause button, and take a time out for yourself. When your body releases cortisol due to stress, it more than likely leads to reduced cognitive functioning, decreased performance, and a lack of productivity. Make sure to give yourself the time to go on a walk, practice some deep breathing, and meditate.
There’s research that suggests our brains use this downtime to make important connections that ultimately shape our identity and social behaviors, so it’s absolutely crucial to give your brain the rest it needs!
#3 SPEND TIME IN NATURE
Spending time enjoying nature can provide you with some much-needed mental stimulation in the middle of your busy workday. In fact, studies show that taking a 20-minute walk through a park or somewhere quiet has been linked to improved memory and a more focused attention span. Make sure you go somewhere quiet though, as research suggests you won’t reap the same benefits if you’re taking a stroll down a city street.
#4 FOCUS ON ONE THING
Most of us like to believe that we’re multi-taskers when in fact human beings just aren’t capable of doing multiple things at once. When people say they can multi-task, they’re actually deluding themselves, in my opinion. The brain is really good at doing that; deluding yourself. I was guilty of this all through my years at University. What we’re actually doing is simply shifting our attention from one task to another very quickly. You may think that you’re actually paying attention to everything around you, all at the same time, but you’re actually not. In fact, researchers have found that they can actually see the brain struggling when multi-tasking.
The next time you have an urge to multi-task, don’t do it. Take a little break and then go back to the one thing that needs your attention to get done right now. When you’ve finished it, move on to something else.
#5 ENJOY THE PROCESS
So, obviously not everyone is blessed and privileged enough to enjoy doing what they love for a living. However, even if you’re chasing your dreams and following your passion, there will always be tasks that you’re not too excited about getting done. Either way, you need to focus on the work that you actually enjoy doing.
Take a chef, for instance. Obviously they have a love for cooking, so instead of occupying his or her time doing administrative tasks for example, they can outsource or delegate those tasks so their able to spend more time in the kitchen, or at the market buying fresh ingredients. When you do this with your work, you end up feeling fulfilled, inspired, challenged, and productive.
#6 HAVE A CLEAR VISION
If you don’t have a clear vision, you’re going to find that you’re working circles around yourself. You’ll be doing a lot of “busy work” and other work that will most likely end up being thrown out because it’s not aligned with your bigger vision or ultimate goal. What you should first do is take a few hours over a couple of days to really understand and get to the core of what it is you’re doing, where you’re going, what you want, and how you’re going to get there. Having this basic road map in hand, if you will, will give you direction and the ability to focus on the work that really matters and is most important. You’ll be working smart.
There are lots of other things you can do to increase the effectiveness of your time and the efficiency with which you do things. This hopefully will leave you with more time to enjoy the benefits of your hard work rather than getting stuck on the hamster wheel of always needing to do more.