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10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Productive

Everyone wants to work smarter, not harder. So here’s how.


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I absolutely believe in the power of hard work. Like Jimmy Spithill, skipper of Team Oracle USA, says, "Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy."

That's basically my mantra: I may not be as talented, or educated, or experienced as other people...but I can always try to outwork them.

But we can all work smarter, too. That's the real key to success: working harder and smarter.

Fortunately, working harder is easy (kind of). You just have to, well, work harder. But how can you work smarter? That's a lot tougher. And that's why I got the following tips from Belle Beth Cooper, co-founder of Hello Code, which makes Exist, a cool app that connects all of your services to turn that data into insights about your life.

Here's Belle Beth:

1. Rework Your To-Do List

One of the most counterintuitive but effective methods I've found for increasing productivity is to limit how many items you add to your to-do list.

One way to do this is by choosing one to three most important tasks, or MITs. These are the big, tough tasks for your day that you really need to get done; the ones that will keep you in the office past the time you planned to leave, or working after dinner if you don't get through them.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits advocates doing these before you move on to other tasks:

"Do your MITs first thing in the morning, either at home or when you first get to work. If you put them off to later, you will get busy and run out of time to do them. Get them out of the way, and the rest of the day is gravy!"

The rest of your to-do list can be filled up with minor tasks that you would do as long as you complete your MITs. Make sure you work on those before you move on to less critical tasks and you'll find you feel a whole lot more productive at the end of the day.

Another to-do list tip that can reduce work anxiety is to write your to-do list the night before. I often end up in bed not only thinking about what I need to do the next day but also planning the day; obviously, that makes it difficult to sleep. Writing my to-do list before I go to bed helps me relax and sleep better.

And rather than wasting time in the morning because I don't know what to work on first, I can jump straight into my first MIT the next day.

One more to-do list tip: Focus only on today.

My most recent and favorite change to my to-do list has been to separate my "today" list from the master list of everything I need to get done.

I often feel anxious about all the things I know I need to do at some point. I need to write them down somewhere so I don't forget them, otherwise I worry about when or if they will get done. But I don't want those items cluttering up my list for today; that will just make today seem even busier than it already is.

My solution is to make a big list of everything I need to do. Then, every night, I move a few things to my to-do list for the next day. (I use one big list with priority markers, so that anything "high" priority moves to the top and becomes part of my "today" list.)

That lets me focus on what I must do today, but it also gives me a place to dump every little task I think of that someday must get done.

Take it from David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: "Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them." Park your ideas on your to-do list, but make sure you create a "today" list and a "someday" list. That way, you won't waste energy trying to remember important ideas and you'll ensure today won't feel overwhelming.

2. Measure Your Results, Not Your Time

The whole idea of working smarter rather than harder stems from the fact that many of us put in more and more hours only to find we don't get more done. That's why we want to find methods to be more productive in less time.

One way to do this is to adjust the way you measure productivity. If you evaluate yourself by what you actually get done rather than the time it takes to get something done, you'll start to notice a difference in how you work.

For example, if you have a big project to complete, try breaking it down into "completable" sections. For instance, I like to break down my blog posts into sections and small tasks like adding images. With a set of smaller tasks making up a big project, I can check off what I get done each day, even if it takes me many days to finish the whole project. I get a nice little rush every time I check off a task within a blog post, even if it was just a 200-word section. It helps me maintain momentum and keep going until the whole post is done.

Another way to measure what you get done each day is to keep a "done list," a running log of everything you complete in a day. Lots of companies use "done lists" to share what each individual has done each day using tools like iDoneThis.

If you start keeping a list of everything you get done in a day, you might be surprised how much more motivated you are to do work that matters and stay focused so you get even more done.

Focus on measuring by results, not by time on task, and you'll definitely get more done.

3. Build Habits to Help You Start Working

If I don't have a plan for what to work on first, I tend to procrastinate and waste time in the mornings. You might have a different danger time for procrastination, but getting started seems to be a hurdle for most of us.

One way to overcome this problem is building a routine that tells your brain and body it's time to work.

Your routine could be something as simple as your daily commute or grabbing a coffee on the way to work. I usually sit at my desk with my coffee and check up on my favorite sites to see if there's any news. Once my coffee is finished, that's my cut-off point: It's my trigger to start working.

Other ways to get into a working mindset can include sitting down at your desk or workspace, turning off your phone or putting it away, exercising, stretching, or eating breakfast. You could even have an album or playlist that gets you in the mood to work and listen to that as part of your routine.

The same technique works on weekends, too. Although you might be tempted to let go of your routine entirely on your days off, many people find that maintaining a weekend routine that doesn't differ too much from their weekdays works well: The more they let go of their routine on the weekends, the longer it takes them to pick it up again during the week.

Routines aren't a sign of boring, regimented people. Routines are a sign of people who have goals and have found the best way--for them--to actually accomplish their goals.

4. Track Where You Waste Time

If you're struggling to be productive, it's tempting to change your routine or try new solutions before you uncover the real problem. (I've done this in the past and found it never leads to a long-term solution.)

The first step in becoming more productive is to identify your regular time-sucks. Start by tracking what you do every morning to get ready for work. You might find you're spending time on things such as choosing your clothes, something you could do the night before. (Or like Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, you could just wear jeans and a white T-shirt every day.)

Then, keep going: Track how you spend your time during the day and look for patterns. A tool like RescueTime can help. Maybe you'll find you're getting caught up on Facebook too often. Or that what should have been a two-minute work conversation regularly turns into a 10-minute chat session.

Once you know what takes up your time or leads you to procrastinate, start making specific changes around those habits.

I used to waste a lot of time in the mornings checking out my favorite sites for news or updates. Now I factor it into my routine; as I mentioned, I do it while I drink my coffee, and when the coffee is gone, it's time to start working.

5. Build Habits to Help You Stop Working

This one might seem a bit strange, but it really works. Some of us struggle to stop working, rather than (or as well as) start working.

It's easy to just keep going for another hour, or to get your computer out after dinner and work until well after bedtime. The worst thing about these habits is that they encourage us to put off our MITs; we figure we'll be working long enough to be sure to get them done. (But, of course, we don't.)

Here are a few ways to switch on at-home time and leave work behind:

Quit while you're ahead. Take it from Hemingway: "The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day...you will never be stuck."

His advice can apply to all kinds of work. Stopping in the middle of a project can work well: You know what you've done, you know exactly what you'll do next, and you'll be excited to get started again.

Set a firm cut-off time. Sean Ogle wrote a great post about this. Most days he has a (pretty extreme) strict cut-off time of noon. You could make this work with an evening cut-off time to get you out of work by, say, 5 p.m.

Ogle gets up early, so he has five to six hours of work time before his midday cut-off point. But because he's strict about stopping work at noon, he still needs to be ruthless in prioritizing his tasks.

Another benefit of a strict cut-off time is you'll be a lot more motivated to complete your MITs first; the pressure of a looming deadline will help keep you focused.

Another way to limit your work time is to unplug your laptop power cord. Then you can only work as long as your battery lasts. It's great motivation to get important things done more quickly.

Plan something cool after work. Another tip from Ogle is to plan an activity or event for after work. In Ogle's case, he plans to catch up with friends or attend events around 12:30 or 1 p.m., which helps reinforce his noon cut-off time.

If you want to get out of the office around 5 p.m., you could set up a dinner date, a quick after-work drink with a friend, or a family visit. External forces and peer pressure can give you motivation to get things done within the time you have.

Create a wind-down routine. Having a routine to help you wind down from work can be helpful if you often struggle to switch off. Light exercise works well for me, so I like to walk home from the office or take a walk after work. Many people go for an evening walk as part of their going-to-bed routine because it's such a good winding-down activity.

Journaling can be really relaxing, as can talking through your day with a partner or friend. Something Benjamin Franklin used to ask himself every night, "What good have I done today?" Writing about your day can be a good way to reflect and keep a log of what you've done, as well as to transition out of your work mode.

If you're getting into the habit of planning your day the night before, this can be a good way to cap off your workday: Pick out your MITs for tomorrow and create a task list, so you can relax once you leave work.

6. Take More Breaks

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about a woodcutter whose saw gets more blunt as time passes and he continues cutting down trees. If the woodcutter were to stop sawing, sharpen his saw, and go back to cutting the tree with a sharp blade, he would actually save time and effort in the long run.

The analogy is an easy one to remember but harder to put into practice. Here's what Covey says about sharpening the saw in your life:

"Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have--you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual."

Sharpening the saw is a great habit to get into in all areas of your life, but I think it can be especially beneficial when it comes to work and helping you avoid burnout.

On average, your brain is able to remain focused for only 90 minutes, and then you need at least 15 minutes of rest. (The phenomenon is based on ultradian rhythms.) By taking breaks roughly every 90 minutes, you allow your mind and body to renew--and be ready to fire off another 90-minute period of high activity.

For some people, 15- to 20-minute breaks might be tough to pull off, but taking short breaks throughout the day can still help you to refresh your mind and reset your attention span.

7. Take More Naps

Research shows naps lead to improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking, and memory performance. In particular, napping benefits the learning process by helping you take in and retain information better.

The improved learning process comes from naps actually helping your brain to solidify memories. According to Max Read, "Research indicates that when memory is first recorded in the brain--in the hippocampus, to be specific--it's still 'fragile' and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping, it seems, pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain's 'more permanent storage,' preventing them from being 'overwritten.'"

One study into memory found that participants did remarkably better on a test following a nap than those who didn't sleep at all.

Not only are naps beneficial for consolidating memories and helping you remember new information, they're also useful in helping you avoid burnout, since research shows burnout is a signal that you can't take in more information in this part of your brain until you've had a chance to sleep.

8. Spend More Time in Nature

Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, suggests spending time in nature to help you reset your attention span and relax your mind.

One experiment he mentions tested how relaxed people were when taking a walk down a city street versus in a quiet park. The study found that the level of attention needed to navigate a busy city street is high enough that the walk doesn't let the brain relax enough to reset your focus level:

"Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative."

Spending time in nature, however, allows your mind to fully relax and unwind and helps you focus longer when you return to work. Plus, other research has found that for students, motivation to learn is higher when they are outside instead of in a classroom.

9. Move and Work in Blocks

I recently read a blog post by Joel Runyon about a method he calls "workstation popcorn."

The idea is that you set up at various cafes, workspaces, or, as in Colin's case, pubs to get chunks of work done throughout the day. Workstation popcorn starts with a clear, thought-out to-do list: You create a plan for what you will accomplish at each location so you can immediately jump into those tasks.

Runyon breaks up his to-do list into sections--one per cafe that he plans to visit--and each section into three clear tasks. Once he gets through the group of tasks he has set, he moves on to the next cafe on his list.

Of course, you can sort out your task list however suits you best, but the important part to note is having a clear finishing point based on your task list, rather than the time you will move to a new location. And when you move, cycling or walking is a good way to go, according to Runyon:

"Use this time to practice your Zen, take a break from your screen, and get some movement into your day. Keep your phone in your pocket, and move. Take a break away from work for at least 30 minutes."

Many people find that break period helpful for thinking through what they're working on or what they will do next. Runyon also noted in his post that he has been more productive, more active during the day, and working fewer hours since he started this process.

10. Check Your Email First Thing

This one is fairly counterintuitive; basically everyone says not to check email right away, but I do and find it extremely useful. Here are some ways checking email first helps me to be more productive during the day.

If you work in a remote team, a business trend that is increasingly more common, you'll know what it's like to have half of your team (or more) working while you're asleep.

If you need to work closely with others, it's important to check in before you start your workday and make sure you're on the same page as everyone else.

Dealing with important issues first thing helps me make quick decisions about whether my day needs to be adjusted to fit in with what everyone else is doing or whether I can proceed with the tasks I already had planned.

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This post originally appeared on Inc. and was published October 11, 2016. This article is republished here with permission.

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