If you’re like me, you might place the line “work smarter, not harder” in the “dad phrases” category of your brain. It’s not a dad joke, exactly, because there is no punchline, but it falls just in line with other expressions like “ready to rock and roll?” and my own father’s personal favorite, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
No matter who’s saying it, though, when you hear “work smarter, not harder,” you might be tempted to brush it off as a meaningless saying. But the truth is, working smarter is something that everyone can and should do. Here are 20 expert-approved ways to streamline your work and maximize your productivity.
20 ways to work smarter, not harder
1. Have a plan
Going into a day with a plan is the most important thing you can do. It’s hard to be productive if you don’t know what you’re going to accomplish. “Going by my definition, the best way to work smarter is to have a clear plan regarding what tasks you have to complete, and when,” says clinical counselor Pareen Sehat.
If you have similar tasks to accomplish every month or week, work those into a schedule. If you have to create social media posts every week, for example, get them all done on Monday. Turn Monday into “social media day,” and you’ll cut out precious time you used to waste deciding what to do when.
2. Create a relaxing environment
It’s hard to feel productive when you’re working around chaos. Even if you’re working from home, try to designate a space that is specifically for work. It’s easy to get distracted if you’re working in the living room in front of the TV, or feel overwhelmed if you’re stationed in a loud common area. Invest in a comfortable desk chair and workplace, and make it as relaxing as possible.
If you like strong smells, add a scented candle or spritz room spray. And if you have room, a plant (real or fake) adds a nice spot of color. A study done by psychologists at Exeter University concluded that employees who work around plants are 15 percent more productive and have an easier time staying focused.
3. Limit technology
Do you struggle to keep your focus with constant iPhone notifications? Don’t feel bad that you can’t resist the urge—our minds are wired to need to look at our phones when they buzz. It sounds counterintuitive to put your phone on “sleep” mode while you’re wide awake working, but unless you need it for work, limit the temptation to take a peek.
4. Take breaks
Nobody can work all the time! To avoid burnout, your mind needs a break, and you deserve one, too! Try out the 90-minute productivity rule. Work on your task for 90 minutes nonstop, and then take 15 minutes off for a break. You don’t have to take a break from work entirely, just focus on another item on your to-do list that’s shorter. This is a great way to make sure little tasks don’t fall by the wayside while you work on larger projects.
5. Prioritize what’s most important
If you have an important project you know you’re going to worry about for days that’s due on Friday, get it done early. Working smarter means causing yourself less stress overall, and you’ll likely save time you would have spent worrying by getting it out of the way early. “The end goal is to be as productive as you can by becoming laser-focused on your most important tasks,” says Sehat. “When you have set clear priorities for yourself, it helps you increase focus and performance.”
6. Try to hyperfocus
It’s easier said than done, but if you can reach your flow state, you’ll fly through your work. What is flow, you ask? It’s the space you enter into when you’re so hyper-focused on a task that time ceases to exist. You can go for hours without thinking about the outside world because to you, the task you’re working on is all-consuming. Entering flow state is commonly talked about in coding and tech fields, but anyone can do it.
7. Space out your work
Establish deadlines, even if you’re the only person who knows they exist. Imagine you're your own boss, and give yourself a limited amount of time to complete each task. Create deadlines that push yourself to be as productive as possible, but are also realistic. “If you want to work smarter, you have to be realistic about the deadline required for each activity and set up your daily tasks accordingly,” says Sehat. “If you give yourself too much work on a daily basis, you won’t be able to work effectively and productively. Sooner or later, it will lead to burnout.”
8. Time block...by hand
You may be like me and are addicted to your Google Calendar. However, writing notes and agendas out by hand increases productivity and creativity. If you have an active brain and need to switch tasks often, try cutting your days into 15 minute increments.
9. Front load your week
After a relaxing weekend, you’ll likely have more energy on Monday than on Thursday afternoon. More specifically, according to Forbes, 11 a.m. on Monday is the average person’s most productive time. Plan your schedule accordingly, and tackle the larger projects when you have more energy.
10. Listen to relaxing music
Music can be distracting, but it can also be calming and help you to focus. It’s all dependent on the kind of music you choose. “It's critical to choose appropriate music for various kinds of employment. Narrative lyrics, for example, may be distracting while doing cognitive work, but cheerful tempos are ideal for repetitive activities,” says psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo. “Basically, you're looking for tunes that are recognizable but not overbearing.”
11. Get moving!
Take advantage of your lunch break and get moving! Whether it’s a yoga class across the street from your office, a standing treadmill desk, or just a walk around the block, taking a physical break will help your mind to function at its best.
12. Focus on one thing at a time
A study by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia discovered that while our brain receives 11 million pieces of information every second, it can only process 40 of them at a time. The more things you’re doing at once, the less productive you are. If you’re the kind of person who starts tasks without finishing them, you likely are wasting more time than if you focus on one thing at a time.
13. Delegate in smart ways
So maybe the intern shouldn’t manage that board meeting you’re dreading, but they might be able to help with the slide deck. Especially if you’re a part of a large team and you’re experiencing a heavier week of work, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. According to Forbes, one of the biggest signs of a healthy workplace is that the “air quality” is good, meaning that employees can ask each other for help when they need it and delegate when they’re overwhelmed.
14. Take advantage of your bodyclock
If you have a workplace that doesn’t operate on a strict 9-to-5 schedule, use it to your advantage. Maybe you’re an early bird, or perhaps you feel your creative juices flowing in the middle of the night. No matter which end of the spectrum you fall on, if your company allows you to take advantage of your natural sleep habits, you might be more productive.
15. Let go of perfectionism
Perfectionism can be stifling. If you feel like you can’t move on from a task unless it is perfect, try to work on changing those unrealistic tendencies. “I have coached clients with a hard work mentality. These clients often berate themselves for even the smallest mistakes,” says executive coach Maxine Attong. “Sometimes this reflects a challenging past or a commitment or promise made a long time ago that is no longer relevant in the present day scenario. The client is often unaware of the impacts of his/her behavior since she believes that she is doing the right thing. As a coach I help the client understand the impacts of her behaviour and how this lines up with the way that she wants to be as a leader or the way that she wants to be remembered as a leader.”
16. Develop standardized procedures
It’s a lot easier to get work done when you know exactly how to handle each situation. If your company has standard procedures, make sure you keep them close by your work space to save yourself time searching. If there aren’t current procedures, develop some for yourself. Putting structure in your own life is key to working smarter!
17. Track your time
Pay attention to how long it takes you to complete tasks and plan accordingly. If you know you hate a certain task and take longer to do it, get it done early, or sandwich it between easier tasks. If you keep a log of your productivity, learning your own patterns will come more easily.
18. Close your tabs
Similar to turning off your notifications, closing tabs will help to streamline your work. It’s challenging to remain focused on one thing when reminders of all your other projects are on your screen, so consider closing (or at least minimizing) your tabs until you need them.
19. Get enough sleep
Seventy percent of American adults don’t get enough sleep, but sleep is one of the most important things you can do to maximize your productivity. Not to mention, it’s pretty enjoyable!
20. Block distracting apps
If you’ve addicted to TikTok (relatable), Instagram, or Facebook, you understand the struggle to be productive during the work day. Luckily, there are apps that limit the amount of time you can spend on each app. Block the apps that distract you until you’re off the clock, and you’ll be much more productive. Plus, you’ll look forward to catching up on the latest news all day, and finally opening the apps will feel like a sweet reward.
About our sources
Pareen Sehat holds the designation of a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. In addition to her practice, she has worked in outpatient mental health clinics with the Health Authority, Adult Day Health Care, and Applied Behaviour Analysis Programs. Her work experience has taken her to Northern Vancouver Island, Silicon Valley, and back to her hometown of Vancouver BC.
A licensed practicing psychologist with a Ph.D. in psychology and a master's degree in physical therapy, Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo helps men and women unlock their own, unique personal happiness code. She has made over 100 TV and radio appearances on shows like Good Morning America, Dr. Oz, The TODAY Show, Steve Harvey, CNN, Fox Business News and others. Dr. Lombardo's expertise contributed to articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, SUCCESS, Fast Company, Better Homes & Gardens, Huffington Post, Forbes and other respected publications.
Maxine Attong is an author, an executive coach, and a Gestalt Organizational Development Consultant. She uses her 20-plus years of organizational excellence to assist leaders navigate and bring positive change to the different levels of systems—individual (self), teams, and the larger organization—that they operate within.