Regardless of what you do or the industry you work in, we can all relate to this sentiment. That feeling when obligations creep up, and we struggle with completing our to-do lists. And what do we do to solve the problem? We work more.
Our society often equates free time with laziness. We believe that to be successful means you're productive. And to be productive means you're always busy. Sadly, we continue to perpetuate and promote this idea and use the number of hours we work in a week as a barometer for success. We display our busyness like a badge of honor as if to say, "Hey, I work harder than you and I have the receipts to prove it."
I get it. It can be hard not to think about work even after the end of a workday. I'm one of the biggest offenders of always being "on." Still, according to a research study, employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour workweek. After 55 hours, there's a drastic decrease — so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours! 🤯
In a time where our homes have become our offices, and the lines between work-life balance blur, it's become easier to work well into the evening (more about that here). But giving yourself a chance to breathe will do far more for your productivity than you think. The key to success isn't about working harder but working smarter. Here are some tips to help.
Knowing where to begin when you have a lot on your plate is an overwhelming feeling. Everyone always says, "just prioritize what's most important!" But how do you do that when everything you need to accomplish feels equally important? How do you start tackling your day when the thought of prioritizing your to-do list alone gives you anxiety? Try The Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix helps the decision-making process by sorting out less urgent and important tasks which you should either delegate or not do at all. The matrix is broken down into four quadrants, each with a numerical value of one through four, based on their priority. Along the axes, you have tasks sorted by Importance and Urgency.
Tasks that are both "Important" and "Urgent" will fall into quadrant one, which has the highest priority level. On the other hand, tasks that are "Not Urgent" and "Not Important" wall fall into quadrant four and have the least priority. These tasks can be removed from your list and set aside for another time.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a simple framework that helps remove the emotional load involved in the decision-making process. By sorting your tasks based on two very tangible values, you can better understand what requires your attention and what can wait.
We're enamored by the ability to multitask. When we think of highly productive people, we conjure up images of someone doing ten things at once — a superhuman power that only a few possess. And when I get asked how I'm able to accomplish so much in a week, I daydream of being able to coyly smile and say, "I'm good at multitasking." But the truth is I'm not and that's okay.
Disruptions and interruptions as you work actually slow you down and increase the chances of mistakes. It takes time to develop a rhythm as you work. By stopping and restarting the process, you waste time trying to catch up where you left off. David Meyer from the University of Michigan published a study that showed switching what you're doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%.
Instead of focusing on multitasking, try grouping similar activities together and completing them in batches (also known as "time batching"). Time batching is a productivity system that allows you to focus on a set of similar tasks without interruptions that break up your workflow. By allowing yourself to get into a rhythm, you increase concentration and become more efficient in your work.
David Meyer from the University of Michigan published a study that showed switching what you're doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%.
In the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey tells the story of a woodcutter whose saw gets blunt after continuously cutting down trees. He says that if the woodcutter had taken a break to sharpen his saw, he would have saved himself time and effort by having a sharper and more efficient tool. Sharpening a saw is a great metaphor and visualization for our minds. We work more efficiently when we're focused and our thinking is sharp. And just like any other tool, they need to be sharpened from time to time.
But I'm too busy to take a break!
We've all said that before. But pushing yourself to work over extended periods can cause fatigue. And when we're tired, we make more mistakes, work less efficiently and become less engaged with the task at hand. Taking a break allows you to regain focus and recharge.
Routines, in general, offer a lot of benefits. Research has found that routines can have extensive psychological benefits, including alleviating bipolar disorder, ADHD, and insomnia. When it comes to maximizing work efficiency, they can be instrumental. While the idea of a routine may sound dull and repetitive, they empower you by decreasing the need to make decisions and avoid decision fatigue. It provides structure and consistency, freeing up time you may otherwise spend planning and thinking. As a result, you become more efficient.
Research has found that routines can have extensive psychological benefits, including alleviating bipolar disorder, ADHD, and insomnia.
Easier said than done? To help get you started, complete recurring tasks at the same time each day, week or month. Put it on your calendar and block out a designated amount of time. That will help keep you accountable while you develop more efficient habits.
If you're anything like me, you live by your calendar. Meetings, appointments, brainstorms, events, lunches – you schedule your entire workday, so why not schedule in some downtime? No, really. Put it on your calendar. It's easy to say tonight is a Netflix night, but there's an unspoken power to writing something down and setting it in stone. Using your calendar to block out personal time is a great way to develop a better work-life balance and better manage your time both in and out of work.
I used to have a bad habit of burning the midnight oil and not knowing when to call it quits. "Just one more hour" turned into a couple of hours. While I imagined I was more productive, I was tired, disengaged, and spent more time staring blankly at my screen than actually doing work. Fellow workaholics can feel my pain.
What better way to call it a day than having plans to get to. Scheduling things at the end of my day was a tactic that helped me get out of work-mode and build a better balance. Dinner with a friend. Yoga. Spin class. We hustle to make it to meetings on time; why not hustle to get to that happy hour you planned to go to?
Setting aside time for yourself is crucial to not only work-life balance but also your own mental health. Giving yourself time to focus on yourself will make you happier and increase your overall mental capacity. I found that the need to end my day at a set time also helped me remain more focused throughout the day. Micro deadlines, like a hard stop to your day at 6 pm, put a little pressure on you and can help motivate you to get your work done on time.
Whether you dread getting behind on emails or you're a zero-inbox devotee, refreshing your inbox is a tempting but dangerous habit. The average professional spends an estimated 28% of their workweek managing their email. According to another study, 80% of emails are a complete waste of your time; and you can lose up to 25 minutes every time you respond to an email! When you consider how precious your time is, that adds up.
Employ some of the tips I've already shared to help minimize your email time. If you need to respond to an email, add it to your to-do list and then prioritize it accordingly. And reduce the number of times you check your email and set aside designated blocks of time for going through your inbox.
If you need more time-saving tips, try organizing your email between two folders instead of 37 folders — Archived & To Read. There's a psychological principle (Hick's Law) that describes the mathematical relationship between the number of choices and decision-making time. It tells us that a 37-choice decision is five times slower than a two-choice decision.
What about checking email after hours? Unless you're anticipating an urgent response from someone or working with a colleague in a different time zone, stop checking your emails at night. It may seem harmless to pick up your phone and take a gander at your inbox but it's just as easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of "just one more email to send." Those emails will still be in your inbox in the morning. It can wait.
It's tempting to put in the extra hours when you're trying to climb that ladder. But working TOO hard can lead to diminished creativity, lack of motivation, and irritability – and no one wants to work with someone like that. Take it from Scrooge McDuck: work smarter, not harder. It's all about creating a healthy work-life balance, and often times your best ideas happen when you're not thinking about them.
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