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What about the productivity mantra: Work smart not hard. Sounds like a good way to go. But how do you do that when you’ve got demanding clients, an overflowing inbox, and whiplash from watching so many deadlines whiz by? Add family obligations and Spartan race training, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate to productivity.
Therein lies the problem, says Christine Carter, sociologist and best-selling author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. We’re culturally programmed to think smart equals speedy. But smart, she says, is about quality.
If you increase the ways you can do less better—rather than doing more badly—you’ll add hours to your day.
Here are five ways, says Carter, you can do your day differently to get everything done with time to spare.
5 Productivity Hacks to Crush It in Life
#1: Take Some MEDs
Minimum effective dosage (MED) is a medical term meaning the smallest dose that produces a desired outcome. “There’s a dosage limit with most things,” Carter says. “And when you find that you’re not doing what you want to do, applying a MED can help you overcome that resistance.” In other words, doing something, however small, is better than doing nothing.
Want to train for a Spartan Sprint? Do a burpee in the morning and once you’ve got it down pat, add one extra every day. Fancy running a marathon? Stop writing I.O.U.s to your unused sneakers and get out and run around the block. One block will quickly become one mile.
“If you break your task down into something you’re not going to resist, there’s an automaticity that comes with that,” explains Carter. “That helps build a habit.”
So how do you find your MED? Experiment with how little is too little, she suggests. One burpee may be too easy for you. Three might be better than nothing. Five is fine, but 10 is best. So start with three and go from there.
#2: Find Freedom in Routines
There’s a reason the world’s most successful people swear by their morning routines. Establishing habitual activities frees up time and energy, claims Carter.
“Your willpower is like a muscle; it will fatigue,” she says. “But if you’re making a decision one time to do something every day, that’s it. You don’t have to work up the willpower to think about doing it every morning. It’s a done deal.”
For example, few of us need willpower to brush our teeth when we wake up. If your morning meditation or breakfast with your kids becomes routine, then you don’t have to exercise willpower to reach these daily goals. “That frees up your time and energy for other big decisions that come up during your days,” she says.
Routines don’t have to be perfect or unchanging; they provide a game plan for completing certain tasks. And so, while others are flitting from project to project and getting little done, you’ve been racking up results before the day’s barely begun.
#3: Decide to Decide Less
“Western culture is so obsessed with more,” says Carter, “but more is often toxic.”
To cut back, she suggests limiting particularly time-consuming tasks each day. Can’t stop checking your smartphone? Leave it in a charging station during your morning routine and let people know you’re not available until after a certain time. Is it the same with email? Decide on two to four times a day when you’ll check and respond to messages.
“Compulsively checking your emails increases your workload,” Carter says. “Research has shown that reading emails at specific times of the day enables people to answer more of them and write higher-quality messages.”
Apply the less-is-more rule in other areas of your life too. “Define what you’re aiming for,” says Carter, “and don’t do more than that. You can set the bar really high, but don’t go any higher than what success is for you.”
#4: Slack Strategically
Downtime can be the difference between a ridiculously successful or overly stressful day. Whether you’re taking a coffee break or the dog for a walk, a rested brain will ready you to tackle the tasks ahead.
“Breaks reenergize you,” says Carter. “It’s also during these times that other wonderful things happen—memories are consolidated, connections are drawn, and we come up with our most creative ideas.”
We all have eureka moments in the shower, Carter says, because it’s one of the few places we let our minds wander aimlessly. Paradoxically, taking a break is good for productivity because it allows us a moment to refocus or shift perspective.
How do we get the best from our breaks? Carter claims mini-recesses like daydreaming or fetching a glass of water can reignite your energy. A lunchbreak is necessary to decrease afternoon fatigue and keep you focused, and if you can take it outdoors, all the better. Enjoying nature is scientifically proven to lower stress levels.
And if you only have 10 minutes to spare? “Remember, something is better than nothing,” she says. “Step back from your work, put down all devices, and take a real break during that time.”
#5: Gang the Hard Stuff Together
Finally, Carter suggests designating time for “think work.” This is your most difficult work—the proposal you have to write or the budget you have to draw up—and it must be done without interruption or distraction. “Late morning is often best for think work,” she says, “as this is when you’re at your most alert and your willpower has not yet been depleted.”
Carter herself organizes her think work into three 50-minute blocks. She turns off all electronic alerts, and uses a computer that doesn’t have an email application. She programs her noise-canceling headphones with her “listen while writing” playlist, giving her brain a cue that it’s time to shrug off any stress and sink into serious working.
“These are the moments when you can drop into a state of flow and achieve so much,” she says about productivity. “We think we need constant stimulation to be productive, but the opposite is true. Your brain can stimulate itself and be creative. And then, before you know it, your work is done.”