How to actually work smarter, not harder (13 tips for making it real)

January 20, 2022 - 15 min read

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I work hard, but how could I work smarter?

The bottom line

You put in hard work each day, and you know it. Your body knows it, and most certainly, your mind knows it. Maybe you've thought about how many projects you're taking on or how long your commute is to work. Maybe you're getting things done, but it’s taking all your energy. 

You aren’t afraid of working hard. But, you aren’t sure if you can keep finding ways to work even harder. 

But have you wondered if there’s a better or more effective way?

If you want to get somewhere without going down the path of burnout, it might be time to consider if you could be working smarter, not harder. 

I work hard, but how could I work smarter?

Most of us could be more efficient. Over time we develop bad habits or keep doing tasks one way even though we have the tools to do them an easier way. 

But when you think about working smarter, before you jump to efficiency, pay attention to effectiveness. What is the outcome that you are trying to achieve and is there a better way to get there?  

Depending on your role, you might not have control over the best way to get to an outcome — maybe your manager requires you to fill out an overcomplicated form every day instead of sending a quick IM. Even if you don’t control all of your work, to work smarter, you should periodically at least ask the questions: Is there a better way? Is there anything I can stop doing?

A coach can be a great asset to work with you to discover what strategies work best to help you meet your goals, eliminate unnecessary tasks, and optimize your workflow. In the meantime, we’ve compiled these 13 tips on working smarter for you to try.

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1. Say goodbye to multitasking

Having too much on the go can make it seem like you're accomplishing a lot, but it also spreads you too thin. You won’t be effective if you can't devote enough focus and energy to each task. When you find yourself jumping from one task to another, try slowing down with some deep breathing.

Make a deliberate decision to focus on just one task at a time and resist the urge to bounce to another mid-stream. This takes practice. Understand that you’ll work more efficiently when you focus on one task at a time. 

2. Complete tasks in batches

Tackling your tasks in batches can keep your momentum rolling. This way, you'll be focused on one task at a time. Try to be proactive and schedule parts of your day for repetitive tasks. For example, answer all your emails during the scheduled time of day instead of whenever they arrive in your inbox. It’ll limit interruptions during your important tasks, and you'll find a rhythm in your structured workflow. 

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3. Take breaks

Even if you're feeling overwhelmed with everything on your to-do list, it's still important to take breaks. Your attention span wears out after focusing for too long, so make sure you schedule downtime in your workday. During your breaks, make sure you get up to stretch, drink water, and have a snack. 

This type of scheduling requires good time management skills, too. It can feel stressful to set time limits on how long you’ll work on a specific task and pre-schedule breaks, but boundaries will benefit your productivity. Different breaking techniques exist, like the pomodoro technique — 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break.  Regardless of how long you pause, you’re doing your performance and your well-being a favor. 

4. Block your calendar

Carving out time in your day to dedicate to work keeps you organized and limits distractions. Be mindful of how you schedule your day and any possible distractions that could come your way. Are you a morning worker, but a daily meeting interrupts your flow? Do your coworkers come to you with questions while you’re in the middle of something? Make use of one of the many tools for managing your calendar, scheduling focus time, and blocking notifications. Then, honor your calendar.

5. Start tracking your time

It's a good idea to get to the root of when and where your productivity plummets. Spend a few days tracking your time with apps like Time Doctor or Reporter to review what sites you visit when you wander off. Moving forward, this will help you see what apps you need to silence notifications from and stay away from while working. 

There might also be a pattern in your distractions — like when you’re trying to work through lunch — that might motivate you to adapt your schedule. Once you see patterns in your time, you can try substituting other habits, like a quick stretch or a glass of water, that gives a mini-break without derailing your productivity.

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6. Schedule tasks based on your energy levels

Figuring out when you're the most productive and energized to work is an effective way to work smarter. Forcing yourself to work when your brain is tired won't produce good work. It'll only make you dread your tasks even more. 

If you work better in the morning, try scheduling important tasks that demand a lot of energy at that time. Working to your strengths and not against them will help you get more done and feel more motivated.

7. Turn off notifications

You don't need to have your Facebook or Twitter notifications coming in while you’re trying to work. It only takes your focus away from the important tasks at hand and wastes time. Turning off notifications to apps that aren't work-related increases your productivity. 

Most smartphones have Do Not Disturb functions that limit notifications or DownTime, which keeps you off social media or unproductive apps during selected hours.

8. Enjoy the outdoors

When you find yourself at a standstill with work, it's helpful to have a change of scenery. You can't do your most important work if you feel trapped inside. Getting outside for some exercise relieves stress, calms you, and centers your focus. If you have some extra time over your lunch break, try walking to the nearest park and breathe fresh air. Your well-being will thank you.

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9. Adjust your attitude

We all have bad days. Focusing too much on the negative aspects of work can distract you from being productive. It's important to pick yourself up and remind yourself what you're here to accomplish. Thinking about the positives in your day-to-day life can give you a better attitude when working. What are you grateful for today? 

10. Make a routine and stick to it

Getting into a good groove of working each day is easier if your day starts smoothly. If your morning routine simply begins with making your bed and washing your face, you're still preparing yourself for a day of smart working. Create a list of things you want to get done the next day each night, and organize it by morning, afternoon, and evening. On average, it takes 66 days to form a habit. 

11. Enhance your communication skills

Strong communication skills go a long way, whether you’re an independent contractor, an entrepreneur, or a CEO. A coworker or boss who can communicate effectively saves everyone time, including their own. Start by actively listening to people and sticking to one topic at a time.

When you're sending emails or instant messages, keep your information short and to the point. With less time spent answering or asking questions, you’ll accomplish more.

12. Keep your to-do list manageable

Adding an unrealistic amount of daily tasks to your to-do list can lead to disappointment if you don't finish them all. Keeping your list short makes it more manageable and more useful. Try to prioritize no more than five tasks that you need to complete. Anything after that is a bonus. This way, you'll finish your day satisfied that you've finished all your important tasks. 

It also helps to plan your work several days in advance. Schedule important tasks that require more effort and thinking in your most productive hours. Save the less demanding routine tasks for the rest of the day. Your prioritized tasks will receive your best energy. And, remember, those busy, routine tasks might be candidates for elimination if there is software or automation that can handle them.

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13. Do work that you enjoy

It may be stating the obvious to say, do work that makes you happy, but it makes all the difference. Choosing projects that you feel passionate about motivates you to do your best. It also makes work feel less effortful.

Of course, not every job can be your favorite, but adding in work you love will give you something to look forward to each day and positively impact your mental health. Reflect on what aspects of your work empower you and make conscious choices to pursue them.

The bottom line

Remember: implementing these tips to work smarter won’t change your life overnight. Practicing these smart working strategies takes time, and you have to experiment to find what works for you before sticking to it. 

Maybe you'll try a few of these tips and find they don't work for youand that's okay. You've recognized what doesn't work for you, and you're leaving those working habits behind you. BetterUp can help you identify the best habits for you to work smarter, not harder.

At the end of the day, remember that you're growing, and that's something to be proud of.

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Published January 20, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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