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Working smarter, not harder: 15 tips for making it real

January 20, 2022 - 18 min read

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I work hard, but how could I work smarter?

Why working smarter is a good idea

15 tips to work smarter, not harder

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. 

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 you’re 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 question: Is there a better way? Is there anything I can stop doing?

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Why working smarter is a good idea

Your time and energy aren't things you should waste. Working smarter values your energy and optimizes your time. It helps you spend less time burning your energy and more time saving it for other important things. 

Plus, it makes you a more efficient worker. You know what tasks need to be accomplished in what order and the best strategies to use to complete them. 

Here are four other benefits when you start working smarter, not harder:

  1. It makes time for more rest: When you work smart, you rest smart, too. It gives you more time for all sorts of types of rest. That might involve meditating, practicing mindfulness, or even taking a nap. Short naps have been found to strengthen your memory, improve your mood, and boost your creativity.
  2. Helps to reduce or recover from burnout: Burnout zaps your energy levels and harms your mental health. But working smarter enables you to be mindful of your energy to recover or reduce burnout. Working smarter shows you how to connect with your values, what's meaningful to you, and your goals. 
  3. Improves your work-life balance: Rather than work longer hours and be consumed by your professional life, working smarter carves our time for your personal life. Working smarter is a great time management practice that allows for more balance in your life and hitting deadlines on schedule.
  4. Boosts your work motivation: After a few days of working smart, the difference will be hard to ignore. Your motivation will increase because you'll be more productive and feel positive about your work. You'll see what this new strategy is doing for you, motivating you to set new goals and continue your growth.

15 tips to work smarter, not harder

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 15 tips on working smarter for you to try.

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. Your cerebral cortex only pays attention to one thing at a time. Multitasking strains your cortex as it tries to focus your energy and attention on too many different things.

Abruptly switches tasks away from the quality of your work because you're too busy changing to focus on new things. You won't as 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. Deliberate decision-making will allow you to focus on one task 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, even if it feels like you’ll accomplish more.

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. 

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. A strategy to use to help you with this is time blocking, which involves dividing your day into smaller blocks of time.

That way, you'll know when you have time to answer emails or organize yourself. When you receive an email, you can know it’ll be handled later in the day. This will limit interruptions during your important tasks, and you'll find a better 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. Setting time limits on how long you’ll work on a specific task and pre-schedule breaks can feel stressful, but these boundaries will benefit your productivity.

Experiment with different breaking techniques until you find what works for you, 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 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? Use 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 good 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, schedule the important tasks that demand a lot of energy. 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. And if you’re waiting for a response to a message, you might have more difficulty concentrating.

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 extra time over your lunch break, try walking to the nearest park and breathing fresh air. Your mental 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 begins with making your bed and washing your face, you're still preparing 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 build 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. Improving your communication skills won't just benefit you, either.

A coworker or boss who can communicate effectively saves everyone time, including their own. You pay more attention to clear and concise communication, which also helps your decision-making abilities.

Start by actively listening to people and sticking to one topic at a time. When 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 when they go unfinished. 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. Plus, making your to-do list more manageable allows you to slow down and be more purposeful with your work. You won't need to take shortcuts or rush to accomplish an impossible list.

It also helps to plan your work several days in advance. At the beginning of each week, look at what’s coming up and make a plan. Schedule important tasks that require more effort and thinking in your most productive hours each day. Save the less demanding routine tasks for the rest of the day. Your prioritized tasks will receive your best energy. 

And those busy, routine tasks might be candidates for elimination if there is software or automation that can handle them. Consider investing some time into improving those processes.

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13. Do work that you enjoy

It may be stating the obvious to say do what you love, 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. If that means changing jobs, it might be time to make the switch. 

14. Learn how to say "no"

Are you a people pleaser? Do you love to help people every time they ask for it? Sometimes when you always say yes to others, you put your own needs second.

Learning how to say "no" or even "not right now" will help you prioritize your energy and focus. If you have a tight deadline, you must put your work before supporting others. This isn't to say you should never help your coworkers, but recognize when your work takes priority.

15. Ask questions early on

Rather than wait until the last minute to ask your questions or seek guidance, jump on it as early as possible. It helps you identify and solve problems you might encounter later on.

Plus, you don't want to exhaust yourself trying to solve it alone if you know your manager could help you with it. That way, you'll complete tasks faster and not waste time trying to find solutions. If it’s a question about a repetitive task or something you often do, it’ll also help your future efficiency.

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 you—and 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 healthy habits to start working 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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