Work Smarter, Not harder is a dream that every hard working individual wish could become true. It might not be possible to enjoy every day to the fullest (such as finding time to travel, spend time with the family, cultivate hobbies etc…) but at least, it is possible to apply some tweaks to make our daily routine a little more pleasant and productive and finally find the extra time to enjoy all those little things that make us happy. Here are few:

1. Make a Plan

A planned start is the best start. You can start by outlining the tasks you want to perform the evening before by writing down a list of high priority tasks that you want to get done. To start with, make sure to include some extra time for completion and include also some easy, low-priority tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed or depressed if all the tasks written on your list do not get ticked. On the day try your best to stick to your plan and do not let mess around with your schedule. To avoid stress, do a little preparation the day before, such as making sure that everything you need (documents, notes etc) are ready at hand or by communicating to your boss, colleagues, family members what you will be focusing on the day after.

2. Wake up early for some “me time”

In addition to get your schedule ready the day before, try also to wake up 30 min before your alarm goes off and use this time for yourself. Daily life can make you forget about yourself as it is dedicated to others, from family members to work colleagues. Cutting out some time for yourself is a great boost for your mental balance and happiness. You can use this time to meditate, read your favorite book or do anything that makes you feel better. In order to feel more productive, you could set yourself a task that you want to achieve by using this time, such as learning a new skill.

3. Avoid distractions

Despite all our efforts to be more productive, we often fail to perform all the tasks we planned to focus on, due to continuous distractions, such as colleagues requests, constant noise or simply our wandering mind. In the first instance, avoiding colleagues could be quite tricky, in particular if it is part of our job. However, we could implement some strategies; for instance, you could select a time of the day when you are most likely able to finish off your tasks without interruptions or, more simply, you could kindly ask your boss/colleagues to agree on a specific time of the week/day dedicated to “task-completion”. If you can, change location and find a nice quiet spot. In the second instance, you could isolate yourself from distracting noise with headphones while listening to an “increase-energy” music. To get even more of a positive vibe, surround yourself with a clean, clutter-free desk space. Finally to keep your mind from wandering, prevent yourself from doing “something else”, set yourself a timer for a break during which you could, for instance, read your Facebook board or check emails. You could set a 10 min break every 30-60 min work. Even better, go for a 10 min walk, get yourself some fresh water, exchange few words with a colleague.

4. Set High and Low Priority

After setting your goal, you are more aware of which tasks have higher priority. For instance, if you are running a research project, you are required to read scientific literature, plan and perform experiments, attend meetings and conferences. In order to finish off your project you know that literature reading and experimental planning are high and long term priority, while meetings and conferences are low and short term priority. Therefore, your energy should be focused on the high and long term priorities; however you should also be able to re-arrange them when short term priorities come up. For instance, attending a meeting ensure that people are on the same page, can share ideas, concerns and progresses, while conferences allow you to showcase your work. Therefore, focus your energy on your high priority, long term tasks but be flexible to re-shuffle your schedule when short term priorities come up.

5. Perform similar tasks together

When tasks of similar nature come up, try to perform them in batch. For instance, you could combine all the emails, phone calls or several 5 min meetings into one longer task. You could dedicate 1 hour of your day to send all the emails at once, dedicate a specific time of the day to phone calls or creating one long meeting instead of a series of short ones. You could even organize your tasks based on locations or time of the day. People organize their tasks based on their commute or at low peak times.

6. Know your rhythm and take breaks

According to several studies, the body works in cycles during which we can work effectively. At the end of the cycle our body needs to re-energize by taking a break as this point our focus decreases making our work less productive. In terms of cycles, there are different proposed models, however the rule of thumb is to take 20 min break every hour or a 30 min break every 90 min. Even if you are not allowed to take such long breaks, you can still move away from your task by taking a coffee, or catching up with a colleague. These micro-breaks do you wonders for improving your productivity. First, because your mind and your body need a break and second because quite often the solution of our problems come up as soon as we step away from them.

7. Focus at one thing at the time

Multitasking can be a good idea in certain instances, for instance, when we are dealing with minor tasks where little focus is required. However, most of the times, multitasking can add more stress and diminish the quality of our performance. Therefore, the best approach is to make a list of our daily tasks in a manner that we focus on one task at the time. If one task feels even too much to handle, divide it in sub-tasks.

8. Don’t be afraid to delegate

At times the workload can be just too much to handle. Therefore, delegating in the right way is a good skill to learn. First, you need to select the right person to delegate part of your workload, then you need to show them how to handle your task (for instance, they can follow you while you perform that specific task). After showing them the task, send detailed written instructions of what they are required to do; for instance, you can even add more details about specific steps that are more difficult to perform or require more attention. Finally, agree on a follow up meeting to check the progresses. Remember to state the requirement and the deadline clearly and set them up in a way that each step can later be followed independently.

9. Keep your workflow under control with checklists

To help you maintain your workload a little less stressful you can take advantage of electronic shareable lists. The idea behind these lists is to help you remember every step required to complete a specific task before you can delete it your to-do list. In case you need to perform a task such as filling in a tax return form, you might be required to complete several documents. Therefore, to make sure that every form is correctly handled with, you can write down a “Do-Confirm” list. In addition, you can also write down a “Read-Do” list where you explain in details how each form needs to be completed. In this case the list is a sort of cooking recipe where you indicate “How” the task need to be performed, while in the previous case, you tick each step after completion.

10. Keep an eye on your diet and drink plenty of water

A good healthy diet and plenty of water are great ways to make our body and mind work effectively. If you are not sure on how to start, you can begin by introducing more fruit and vegetables in your daily diet. Give new fruits and vegetables a chance and you will soon discover new flavors. Open up to tropical fruits, smoothies, Asian soups and everything green and fresh you have not yet tried! You can find indulging recipes on Pinterest which are easy to follow. Finally, do not forget to remain hydrated throughout the day to avoid migraines and loss of focus. Keep a bottle next to your desk and take few sips throughout the day.

11. How to process your emails

The best way to process emails is to dedicate a specific time-set throughout the day, usually of 30 min.; for instance, you could dedicate 30 min to email processing one time in the morning and one in the afternoon. First, delete all the unnecessary messages and/or archive newsletters and all those emails that are not needed to be deal with immediately. Reply to messages that take short time to respond, however, if they require longer replies you can opt for a phone call instead (which could better clarify your point in a shorter window of time). If they are task-related, add them to your to-do list (if you want to know more on how to create your perfect to-do list, check my two previous posts).

12. Questions before a meeting

Meetings can be a great tool for sharing ideas, update people on your progresses and better organize future projects. However, they could also be time-consuming and add little value. To avoid finishing in a drainage-type meeting ask these questions. First, make sure that you are indeed required to attend that specific meeting. To do this simply contact the organizer, ask what the meeting is about and decline politely if you consider your attendance is fruitless. When you contact the organizer, ask if there is an agenda, if not ask them to email one in order to avoid people going off topic. Third, require the organizer to set a time limit depending on the agenda. Make sure the meeting gets a reasonable time depending on the topic and the number of people involved (there is no point in having 2 hours meeting if people re mostly up-to-date).Forth, make sure that the required equipment is working before the meeting takes place: Is the room available? Is the WI-FI accessible from that room? Do we have a projector for presentations? Finally, consider the option of attending the meeting virtually if you need to spend unnecessary time travelling.

13. Take care of the worst, first

The sooner we deal with the worst task ahead of you, the sooner you’ll start feeling better. You will start using those energy wasted on worries for something more productive. You will definitely feel liberated with an entire productive day ahead of you! There are few tricks you can implement to mentally prepare for the scariest task (such as dealing with a difficult boss or client) by going through the meeting in your mind, or mentally rehearsing what you want to say, even practice with one family member. I personally love listening to self-hypnosis music for confidence boost or reading self-improvement books.

4. Pre and Post Vacation Tips

We all know how returning from a holiday can be a challenging time. Our mind and body need to readjust to the old routine and face again all those tasks that our job entails. However, there are few organizational tricks you can implement to make your return smoother. We could call these tips pre-and-post vacations tricks. First, before you leave for a vacation period, let people know how long you are going to be away and who to contact in case of emergency or who is going to cover your role during that time. You can even set an out-of-office reply with these information for people contacting you while you are away. Second, clean your desk and write down a list of all the things you have just accomplished (pre-vacation) and what needs to be done at your return (post-vacation). During your vacation, remember to switch off completely, this will make your return an even more productive one. If you have implemented the pre-vacation tips you should be all set for a stress-free holiday. When you are back, start in middle of the week to make your transition easier, 3 days should be plenty for setting up all the post-vacation tips. First, dedicate your first day to catching up with colleagues and going through all your emails (as outlined before). Second, go through the pre-vacation notes to mentally refresh yourself what you completed just before you left and what needs to be done as follow up according to your post-vacation notes. Finally turn these notes into a to-do list in which you also include any task communicated to you via email.

15. Know your Tools

Nowadays there are many tools that you can learn to use to make your tasks a little less stressful; for instance, Microsoft Office has many features that can help you formatting documents, analyze data or even create visually stunning images. One example is setting up the style of your Word document so that every time you write down a title, a paragraph of a list your chosen style is already in place. You can even cross-reference captions and update all numbering with a simple mouse click. Learning how to use Excel can save you hours of data analysis. Every-time you’d like to know how, take advantage of Google search or easy tutorials on YouTube. You don’t need to become an expert, but at least try to learn few tricks to make your daily life a little more efficient. You can also take advantage of mobile apps to set yourself on the right path to achieve career goals or help you remember important dates. Few ideas include setting reminders on your Google Calendar, using apps that track your fitness regime by calculating how many calories you consume, or that send you daily inspirational quotes or newsletter on your favorite topic. Just look around and get inspired!

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