Working smarter – how to be more productive
(and work less)

Written by Beate Oera, Head of Operations - UPDATED JULY 2020

I recently read a LinkedIn update on how to find a good work-life balance. One of the points on the list was to work hard when working. The author’s experience was that many people only cram 6 hours of work into a 12 hour work day. That might sound like an exaggeration, but studies have actually placed the figure as high as 3 wasted hours per day. However, if we add the amount of time wasted flitting between tasks, dealing with interruptions and handling unnecessary emails, meetings and phone calls, the figure will be a considerably higher.

Meanwhile, work can easily eat into our private lives at the same rate. Modern technology has ensured that emails are at our fingertips at all times, and it is hard to ignore the pull of the phone when new emails seemingly arrive by the minute. We take work home with us, adding to our stress and preventing us from enjoying our time off. It’s there during family dinners, on holiday or on nights out.

The result is that we never truly get the most out of either the working day or our time off.

The good news is that creating a better work-life balance, whilst progressing with your career and achieving success, actually go hand in hand. The key is to use your time efficiently and maximising productivity whilst you’re working. And then, learn to switch off.

Happy people are more productive

Considerably so, in fact. Economists from the University of Warwick conducted a study titled ‘Happiness and Productivity’, published in 2015, and found a clear link between the two. The study was based on four different experiments with 700 participants, all showing the same pattern. In one study, one half of participants were either shown a comedy or given a treat, whilst the other half were asked about family tragedies, such as bereavements. The first subsequently performed better to a tune of 12%.

Dr Sgroi, one of the economists who lead the research, said: “The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.”

Many firms invest a great deal in employee satisfaction and well-being for that reason, but home life plays into it as well. In other words, working on your overall happiness, and improving your work-life balance, will make you more productive (and successful) at work as well.

The ‘busy fool’ – the dangers of multi-tasking

It is tempting to put in long hours to get more done, or to demonstrate your commitment, but there is actually no direct correlation between hours put in and productivity. It is easy to be a ‘busy fool’, as one CEO I know puts it, juggling numerous projects and tasks at the same time, whilst emails, social media and calls constantly distract from each one. Working hard, in other words, but achieving very little.

We are used to thinking of multi-tasking as a good skill to have, and it frequently shows up on CVs as selling points. However, the ability to zone in on one task at the time is a far more important skill. Frank Wedde, author and founder of Memolife.no, says that you lose on average 23 mins just by switching from one task to another. Work is much like sleeping; if your sleep is regularly interrupted, you will have to start again each time, and will wake up feeling you haven’t slept much at all. The same is true of your time at work.

Adding to this, is the danger your phone represents. A study by Clifford Nass et al at Stanford has shown that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to distraction, and have impaired ability to pay attention and control their memory, than people who prefer to focus on one thing at the time. The study set out to look at what multi-tasker excelled at, but failed to find it. Multi-tasking leaves you unable to ignore the irrelevant and unimportant. It makes you less productive.

Rise & shine

In between going to work and collapsing on the sofa when you get home, do you ever wonder how successful people manage to work so hard whilst still looking fit and fresh-faced, with family and social lives intact? Laura Vanderkam, author of «What the Most Sucsessful People Do Before Breakfast», points to the morning hours.

When researching for her book, she found that 90% of leaders and high profile business people get up before 6am every day. They use the early hours to work out, spend time with the kids, pursue personal interests of all kinds, before heading to work. They are early in there too, and so have peace and quiet for important projects before the interuptions begins. They also use breakfast as networking time. Many successful people do their emails and admin at the end of the day, or in the evenings.

In other words, they do things in reverse of most other people: they start the day doing things they enjoy, begin their workday by focussing on the big, heavy projects, and finish the day with the one thing the rest of us tend to get distracted by in the mornings – emails.

A student of both the Stoics and Montaigne, the Count’s father believed that our Creator had set aside the morning hours for industry. That is, if a man woke no later than six, engaged in a light repast, and then applied himself without interruption, by the hour of noon he should have accomplished a full day’s labor.
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Top ten tips to increase productivity

1. Remove unnecessary distractions
Could you reduce time spent on unimportant emails, unconstructive meetings, overlong phone calls, or tasks you could have delegated to others?
What about things that aren’t work related? Do you constantly check social media? Read papers online? Get distracted by irrelevant things?

2. Quit multi-taskingMulti-tasking - work life balance
It’s easy to become stressed by thoughts of our mounting workload, thoughts flitting from one thing to another. However, to be productive you need to concentrate on the task at hand, rather than the ones still left undone. Focus your mind by writing down a list of the things you need to do, prioritise the list, and then give your attention to one thing at the time. A physical archive allows you to declutter your mind and focus your energies better.

3. Structure your inbox
Responding to emails takes up a great deal of time in a modern work environment, and can be a great distraction. These tips might help: respond immediately to anything that only requires a short reply, delete irrelevant emails, archive those you need to keep into folders, and set future reminders for things that need to be done at a later date. Ideally, you should try to clear your inbox every day to create space and calm in which to get on with other things.

4. Make time for breaks
If you need to keep up with industry news as part of your job (or like to do it as a break from your job), set aside time for it. Don’t visit websites whenever the urge hits you, or read newsletters as they appear in your inbox, but dedicate time to the task. Again, it’s about uncluttering your mind and helping you focus. The same thing goes for social media, or anything else you do to give yourself breaks from work.

5. Turn off your phone
Having dealt with your emails and your phone calls, and set aside time for news and media, it’s time to turn that phone off for a bit. Now focus on that project/report/task in uninterrupted peace. Nothing provides quite as much distraction as our phones.

6. Eat lunch and move around
Food is fuel, and both your body and brain need energy in order to perform at their peak. I won’t go into nutritional advice, but suffice to say that sugar and caffeine are not good ideas – go for food that gives energy over time. Moving around is equally important – indeed, a study published in the Annals of Modern Medicine found that sitting still for excessive periods is as dangerous as smoking. Take breaks where you can stretch your legs, get some fresh air and get some movement back into your body.

7. Decide when you’re available and when you’re not
If your employer allows you to work remotely, or you have access to an office where you can close the door, do it from time to time. Offices, particularly the open plan versions, are full of distractions, questions, requests, meetings and general chat, and all will break your concentration.

8. Variety is the spice of life
In between the big, heavy tasks, complete some smaller, friendlier ones. It’s important to feel that you’ve achieved and finished something, and a change of pace will help keep your brain agile.

9. Don’t put things off
if there is something on your to do list you are particularly dreading, do that first. Putting things off will add to your stress levels, whilst getting it done will energise you and give you a nice sense of satisfaction that the worst is behind you. If happiness is an important part of productivity, think how much more you can get done!

10. Rewards
Changing habits can be difficult, so give yourself little treats for completed tasks and productive days. You don’t have to go wild and buy a Ferrari with each finished report, but do think of little things to reward yourself with.

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