Work Smarter, Not Harder:
8 Ways to Take Control of Your Day
Overworking isn't sustainable and burnout isn't healthy. While working hard is admirable and at times necessary, if you are perpetually overworking, there are things you can do to improve your situation. In the following guide, we've shared eight ways you can take control of your day to work smarter, not just harder.
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When the check engine light appears on your car, you know something could be wrong. So, you stop what you’re doing, take it in to a mechanic, and somewhat begrudgingly say, “Do whatever it takes to fix it.” With cars, it’s obvious. With us humans, it’s much less so.
Humans don’t have check engine lights. Since there’s no bright light flashing for your attention, you need to be able to discern for yourself when an acceptable short-term period of hard work becomes unsustainable and costly. Generally speaking, it is acceptable to go through periods of hard work in order to achieve a goal, fix a mistake, or solve a problem; what is not acceptable is relentless hard work that leads to major mistakes, uncharacteristic drops in performance, burnout, and in extreme cases, health scares.
Once you draw the line in the sand of what is acceptable and what is not, then you can put best practices into place that allow you to work smarter, not just harder. To help you do so, the following guide goes beyond just theory by providing eight strategies that are immediately applicable to your day-to-day life.
Table of Contents
- Overworking Statistics
- 8 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder
- Next Steps
Overworking Isn’t Sustainable: Here Are the Stats to Prove It
We joke about it when things get rough. We brush it off as “this is just the way it is” and tell each other “we’ll make it through.” We drink a few too many cups of coffee and set out to do the best work we can. While our intentions may be good, the fact is, no one can overwork indefinitely. Overworking is not sustainable and at some point, you may just crash and burn as a result of trying to do it all.
Unfortunately, this was already a common experience in the workplace prior to 2020. But then COVID-19 happened and exacerbated the problem. In fact, in an Asana study, 87% of respondents said they work almost two hours later each day [since they started working from home due to COVID-19] and 70% experienced burnout at least once in 2020.
For years, the research conducted has proven that this way of working is not sustainable long-term and that the effects of working too much are detrimental, not just to us as individuals, but to those around us, including our colleagues, direct reports, friends, and family. Here are some troubling workplace statistics from recent research studies and experts.
The Physical Effects of Working Too Much
Those working more than 55 hours per week have a 13% greater risk of a heart attack and 33% greater risk of a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week. - Harvard Health
If you work more than 48 hours per week, you’re more likely to engage in increased risky alcohol use, which is defined as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men. - NewScientist
75.9% of overwhelmed people reported much higher insomnia troubles. This is problematic as a lack of sleep keeps the brain from functioning properly, causing troubles with memory, concentration, and attention span. In fact, Harvard Business Review found that only 1-3% of the population can sleep five or six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off. - PLOS and Harvard Business Review
Burnout, which can be caused by working too much, is significantly associated with higher fast food consumption, infrequent exercise, and more frequent painkiller use. - National Library of Medicine
The Mental/Emotional Effects of Working Too Much
Compared to workers who work less than 40 hours, the mental health scores among workers who work more than 55 hours per week worsens by up to 2.4 points. - Journal of Happiness Studies
Employees who work long hours (at least 60 per week) and have high job demands (defined as "usually" having too much work) are at higher risk of depression and when re-evaluated one to three years later, are found to be 15 times more likely to have depression. - ScienceDaily
Long working hours are associated with stress, depression, and suicidal ideation in young employees, aged 20 to 35. - PLOS
76% of employees say stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships. - Korn Ferry
The Business Effects of Working Too Much
Overwork causes diminishing returns; by reducing the amount you’re working, you can increase output and decrease the chances of expensive mistakes or accidents. - Harvard Business Review
Employees under stress are more likely to make mistakes, have a harder time making decisions, and struggle to communicate. - CultureIQ
63% of workers are ready to quit their jobs as a result of workplace stress brought on by their boss, ineffective communication, a heavy workload, or unclear expectations. - The American Institute of Stress
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8 Ways to Work Smarter and Take Control of Your Day
While working in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world has never been easy, the times we are living right now are especially tough to work and live in. Regardless, the work on your to-do list doesn’t disappear, or even slows down. So, what can you do? In the following section, we have outlined eight ways to work smarter that can help alleviate stress and anxiety, optimize your time, and take control of your day.
1. Make the Most of the Morning
Mornings are the time to set the trajectory of your day off in the right direction. Starting your day with intention and a plan to accomplish tasks are what countless leaders attribute as one of their keys to success.
In a video that went viral, Naval Admiral William McRaven delivered a commencement speech to the graduating class at the University of Texas. In the speech, he shared his thoughts on why small accomplishments in the morning set your day off in the right direction.
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”
Here’s what successful people do in the morning:
Start the Night Before
Create your to-do list for the next day, the night before. As Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics has said, “I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things — not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.” Do this before you leave for the day, while it is fresh in your mind. Also, review that day’s to-do list to examine the results obtained, and if anything has to be moved to the following day.
Eliminate Mundane Decision-Making Tasks
To make the most of your morning, eliminate the need to make mundane decisions. It can be as simple as laying out your outfit for the next day. In fact, this is what President Obama had to say to Vanity Fair about how removing small daily decisions made him more productive: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Review and Break Down Your Daily To-Do List
The first thing you should do when you start your day at work is review your to-do list you created the night before to ensure it is still accurate and nothing has changed overnight. From there, break down large tasks into smaller ones and group smaller tasks together. This will help you as you block out time in your day to complete tasks.
Block Out Time in Your Calendar
The concept of time-blocking is essentially planning your day in a series of time blocks that are dedicated to completing a task or a bundle of tasks. In your calendar, block out times in hour increments and within those times associate a task or multiple tasks to tackle. This method is a great way to see if you’re underestimating how much time a task will take, while also keeping you focused on the task at hand.
Cal Newport, Georgetown University Professor and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, found that giving every hour a task that needs to be worked on makes you much more efficient. He explains that this time management technique is beneficial as “it allows you to schedule work for the time where it makes the most sense - batching together small things, tackling hard things when you have the long stretches to make progress, and so on. The other advantage is that it provides you more accurate feedback on how much free time you actually have most days and how long certain recurring tasks actually take.”
Save Time for Self-Reflection
Self-reflection can set you up for success the entire day. Start the day by asking yourself, what reflections came from yesterday? Are there any key moments or conversations that are worth reflecting on to answer the honest question, “what behaviors do I wish to repeat, and where do I need to change?” This simple, yet powerful question is how self-improvement can thrive. It also allows you to reflect on what type of leader you want to show up as today.
Steve Jobs started his morning with one self-reflecting question, "If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? If the answer is no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something." The question to yourself may not need to be as deep as Steve Jobs’s, but this does illustrate the power of self-reflection in the morning as you have a whole day ahead of you to make your desired changes.
2. Practice Mindfulness
As deadlines loom, emails roll in, and to-do lists grow, it can feel impossible to find time in your workday to practice mindfulness. But here’s why you should, especially when you feel there is no time. In recent years research studies have found the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace to include improved focus, communication, relationships, emotional intelligence, productivity, and mental health.
As the Mayo Clinic explains it, practicing mindfulness in the workplace requires you to “focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” Whether you take five minutes to do so or half an hour, the time you spend improving mindfulness, impacts your well-being, the quality of your work, and even your leadership, all of which is important to working smarter.
So, what does mindfulness actually look like in practice? While it will definitely look different for everyone, here are a few ideas that should get you started and that can be fit into even the busiest day.
Do a Body Scan
Following a guided exercise, such as this one from HeadSpace which is only five minutes, can help you take note of how you are carrying your stress and anxiety physically, which may otherwise go unnoticed until much later.
Listen to a Guided Meditation
Here are a few that are all led by professionals at Harvard’s Center for Wellness and Health Promotion and are different lengths so you can select the one that best fits into your schedule.
Do the S.T.O.P. Exercise
Stop what you’re doing.
Take a breath to bring yourself back to the present moment.
Observe what is going on in your body and note how you’re feeling.
Proceed with your day.
If you’re still on the fence about making the time for mindfulness in the workplace, here’s what Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of Huffington Post, has to say about it: “I wish I had avoided falling victim to the collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success. I wish I’d appreciated just how powerful it can be to introduce just five minutes of meditation to your day.”
3. Plan Your Workday Hour-by-Hour
When you’re working through an ever-growing to-do list, handling unexpected obstacles in a timely manner, and fighting internal and external distractions, it can be all too easy to “lose” an entire day. If you feel like you can never get on top of all the things you have to do and are losing days, then it’s time to schedule your workday on a more granular level. Planning your workday on an hour-by-hour basis is a best practice that can be applied to help your time management. Doing so gives your workday focus and intentionality, while also ensuring it doesn’t get so easily swept off-course by sudden whims or other people’s agendas.
To help you put this into practice, try using our time blocking template, which will prompt you to allocate each hour of your workday to a specific task, project, meeting, or appointment. While you may or may not find this time management process necessary every day, it is immensely helpful when your to-do list or schedule feels out of control. Not only will it help you see where your valuable time is going, but it will also force you to consciously consider the importance, urgency, and impact of your work, and act accordingly.
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4. Set Boundaries and Protect Your Time
Time is your most valuable and finite resource, and so, must be protected. Setting boundaries with coworkers to protect your time comes down to an ability to master decision-making and standing up for yourself at work. Warren Buffett once commented on the topic of protecting your time, “We must choose, with intention, what we say yes to and what we say no to. It all comes down to simplifying, prioritizing, and focusing our attention on what matters most.”
Here’s how to set boundaries at work and protect your time:
There will always be more things vying for your time than time available. Recognizing that you cannot accomplish your goals if you’re overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out makes it easier to prioritize and say no when needed. The one in control of your time is you.
Learn to Say No
We can feel bad when we say no, as it feels like we’re rejecting the person. When we do say no, we do so with an excuse such as, “I want to help but my schedule is full.” This leaves room open for someone to ask, “When is your schedule free?” The next time you need to say no, be assertive but polite, addressing if and when you can help. An example of this is saying, “Sadly, I’m afraid I can’t help with that now but I will let you know when and if I can help."
Book More Than Just Meetings In Your Calendar
When your calendar is open, it is an invitation to book last-minute meetings or have colleagues stop by as they see an opening. Review your calendar and book in blocks where you can have focused time to complete projects, catch up on email, or take your lunch.
5. Be Ruthless Prioritizing Tasks
It has been found that people are more likely to perform unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively better payoffs), when the unimportant tasks have an illusion of urgency. This is called the mere urgency effect. The research states, “It means we perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs, or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later.”
Though in order to work smarter, not just harder, it is important to recognize the difference between urgent and important tasks, and act accordingly. If you are perpetually working on unimportant tasks, you may find yourself without the proper amount of time, resources, and brain space, to effectively and thoroughly complete important tasks. Therefore, let’s review the definition of urgent and important tasks, according to MindTools, as well as how to prioritize tasks using the Eisenhower Matrix:
Urgent tasks demand immediate attention, and may be associated with achieving someone else's goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Important tasks have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
With the differences between urgent and important tasks in mind, you can then run the items on your to-do list through the Eisenhower Matrix to make a decision on if it should be planned into your workday, delegated to someone else, or scrapped entirely. By continuously revising your to-do list and prioritizing your tasks using this process, you will be one step closer to working smarter, not just harder.
6. Meeting Management Matters
If you’re going to work smarter, not harder, there’s no way you can afford to spend up to 31 hours in unproductive meetings every month (this goes for leaders and individual contributors alike). By stepping in and taking control of unruly meetings, you will be able to cut back on the amount of time wasted and ensure important decisions get made, so everyone can return to work.
In order for any meeting management efforts to succeed, you should follow the following steps to conducting a meeting that is effective but efficient.
Define the Meeting Objective
If your meeting objective can be achieved in a quick email, then you don’t need to schedule a meeting. Always ask yourself, “Could this be an email?” Your colleagues will thank you for it and you will be able to move on with your day.
Create an Agenda and Get Everyone Else to Agree to Stick To It
If you don’t run a meeting, then it will run you. In other words, meetings without agendas can quickly get out of hand, thus making them feel wasteful. Agendas give meetings the structure they desperately need. By taking the time upfront to create and send an agenda to attendees, you ensure everyone arrives at the meeting knowing what to expect and prepared if need be.
Tactfully Shut Down Tangents and Off-Topic Conversations
If you want to get time back in your calendar, then personal conversations, tangents, and off-topic conversations don’t have a place in a scheduled meeting. This does not mean that there is never a time and place for team connection and banter, it simply means that in order to manage an efficient meeting you need to know when it’s time to shut down a conversation and bring it back to the outline agenda.
Use Your Judgement to Determine If You Need to Reschedule
Knowing when to attend, reschedule, or cancel a meeting comes down to sound judgment and decision-making. If you’re in a situation where you are set to attend a meeting about an important topic but are in the midst of an urgent problem, first consider the potential consequences, and then if they are not dire, ask your fellow attendees if they mind rescheduling. Ultimately, it doesn’t do anyone any good if you are physically in the meeting but your mind is elsewhere.
7. Take a Break from Work
In a year unlike any other, for many, the idea of taking time off now doesn’t make sense. In a survey by Robert Half, they found that more than a quarter of employees planned to take less time off overall. Also, in 2020 the average workday lengthened by nearly an hour, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Combine the lack of time off with increased workdays and burnout is inevitable.
As discussed earlier, no one can work non-stop and be productive. There is significant research that points to the importance of breaks and vacation time, and how time away from work increases your productivity, creativity, and concentration vs those who forgo these breaks. Here's why you need to incorporate time-outs into your schedule.
First, it helps restore motivation. In a study conducted by the University of Illinois, it was found that even briefly stepping away from a project or task can dramatically improve motivation and focus. There is science behind breaks and increased motivation. Author Nir Eyal explains, “When we work, our prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But for a challenging task that requires our sustained attention, research shows briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on.”
Secondly, it supports better stress management. In fact, eating your lunch at your desk or forgoing vacation can have detrimental effects on your mental health. Overworked employees typically experience higher stress levels, which result in a higher risk for depression, insomnia, weight gain, and high blood pressure. Countless research studies validate the significant benefits of reducing stress when you take short breaks and vacations.
Lastly, it may seem counterintuitive that time away from work can produce greater output than those who do not take breaks, but the research shows that it is true. A study by the Draugiem Group, used computer software to examine the habits of employees. Their findings showed employees who took frequent breaks, 52 minutes of work time followed by a 17-minute break, were more productive than their peers. Why? Those who took breaks were more focused during their work time than those who worked until they finished the task at hand.
So, now that we know the benefits of taking breaks at work, let's review some tips to help you start doing so:
Remind Yourself of the Benefits of Taking a Break
From reducing burnout, decreasing stress and related health conditions, and increasing productivity and performance the case for breaks is clear. Remind yourself of this the next time you tell yourself you do not have time to step away.
Know Your Internal Signs When a Break Is Needed
Listen to your body. Do you have eye strain from being on your computer all day? Is there pain in your shoulders where you hold stress? Are you agitated easily? These are all signs you need time away from work.
Plan In Advance and Make Breaks a Priority
As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Try preemptively setting up blocks in your calendar for breaks, just as you would for meetings or personal appointments, and when the time comes actually take the time. Just because you feel like you don’t need a break, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take one.
8. Measure Your Results, Not Your Time
Measuring the number of hours worked, whether it is yourself or your employees, is putting emphasis on the wrong metric. The number of hours at a desk is unlikely to improve results. In an article by Behance, a social media platform owned by Adobe, their research compliments what we found in producing this guide. They said, “In our research at Behance, we have found that placing importance on hours and physical presence over action and results leads to a culture of inefficiency (and anxiety). The pressure of being required to sit at your desk until a certain time creates a factory-like culture that ignores a few basic laws of idea generation and human nature: (1) When the brain is tired, it doesn’t work well, (2) Idea generation happens on its own terms, (3) When you feel forced to execute beyond your capacity, you begin to hate what you are doing.”
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, reinforces that the importance should be placed on results. It states that for many, “80% of your results will come from 20% of your efforts.” For example in many organizations, 80% of the company’s revenue comes from 20% of the customers.
Now the Pareto Principle is not your ticket to working one day a week as you only need to give 20% effort, however, the principle highlights the importance of focused efforts against the tasks that will have the greatest impact, while conscientiously letting some of the less important tasks fall to the bottom of the list.
How do you put the Pareto Principle into practice? Start by asking yourself:
- What activities or tasks produce the greatest results?
- Is this item on my to-do list in the top 20% or the bottom 80%?
From there organize your to-do list accordingly. Align your personal metrics to key performance indicators of your team, department, or organization to ensure your results are having the greatest possible impact on the results that matter.
It’s not selfish to put yourself first; it's the right thing to do. In order to achieve your goals over the course of the career trajectory of your career, have your desired work-life balance, and be in good physical and mental health, you have to make yourself a priority, even when it seems near impossible. That’s because when you do, you will find you have more time to accomplish what really matters.
So, while this guide has provided many best practices that are immediately applicable, the journey to working smarter, not just harder, is a process. One which can be accelerated and supported with training and one-to-one coaching as both equip you with new tools, techniques, and perspectives, motivate you to push forward, and challenge you to work outside your comfort zone. All of which is important to working smarter and becoming the professional you want to be.
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