The secret to productivity isn’t doing more. It’s simplifying—clearing away obstacles to make the most of every day. “Becoming more efficient frees you up to do what makes you happy,” says Michelle Gielan, the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research in San Antonio. Amen to that! Here are seven ways to maximize your time so you can stress less and soak up what really matters.
Whether your goal is to score a promotion, run your first 5K or learn to speak Italian, you often don’t know where to begin. Your move: “Identify the smallest, most manageable and meaningful task, do it, and then expand from there,” Gielan says. That could simply mean making a list of all your on-the-job accomplishments in preparation for a meeting with your boss or signing up for a race or a language class. As clichéd as it seems, every journey begins with the first step. Take yours!
If you dread it, do it.
You know that difficult conversation, tedious work report or fill-in-the-blank you’ve been putting off? Move it to priority numero uno pronto. “Once you take care of that terrible task, you’ll feel as if you can do anything, which can be a huge energy boost early in the day,” says Martin Bjergegaard, a coauthor of Winning Without Losing: 66 Strategies for Succeeding in Business While Living a Happy and Balanced Life. This approach is actually less painful than you might imagine.
In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, people had to choose one of two seven-pound buckets to carry to the end of an alley. One bucket was located near the starting line, while the other was closer to the endpoint. “We figured that everyone would pick up the bucket at the end because they’d have to carry it a shorter distance,” says study author David Rosenbaum, Ph.D., a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.
Instead, nearly all the participants chose to lug the bucket that was near the starting line. Credit a phenomenon Rosenbaum and his team call “pre-crastination”—completing a task as soon as possible to get it off your plate. Mulling over things you need to do is stressful, so you’re willing to go out of your way to get them done, he explains.
Toss your to-do list.
Instead, create a “today list” with no more than three to five items that you’ll be able to finish by end of day, Bjergegaard says. It sets you up for success because it’s actually possible to do it all, which gives you the sense of accomplishment you don’t get from an endless to-do list. Make a separate list of long-term projects or goals, and move specific tasks to your daily agenda as needed.
For example, if you want to land a new position, add “Revamp résumé” or “Have lunch with person in dream job” to the docket. To keep your today list short, don’t fill it with smaller chores like emails you have to send or phone calls you have to make. “Pick up the phone and get it over with,” Bjergegaard says.
Be a unitasker.
Until cloning becomes widely available (we’re not holding our breath), multitasking seems like the best way to accomplish as much as you possibly can. Except that it’s not. People overestimate their ability to multitask, according to a University of Utah study. “When you switch from one task to another, it takes time and effort to refamiliarize yourself with what you’re doing,” says study author and psychologist David Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D. “You don’t always get more done, and your most important tasks may suffer.” His research also found that impulsive people are the most likely to multitask. Sound familiar? Close Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign out of email until you finish what you’re doing.
Quit working all the time.
To bring more balance to your life, Bjergegaard suggests abiding by the 8-8-8 principle. “You have 24 hours in a day that you can divide between eight hours of business, eight hours of your own time and eight hours of rest,” he says. “Without a hard cutoff from work, you allow it to jeopardize your own time and sleep, both of which you need in order to be most effective.” Case in point: A recent University of Florida study found that employees who used their smartphones for work after 9:00 p.m. got less sleep, felt more tired the next morning and were less focused the following day than those who powered down earlier.
Decide on a stop time for work each day—stick to it!—and put job responsibilities aside until the next morning. And be sure to do something stimulating with your personal time. Creative activities, such as writing short stories or even playing video games, help you recover from your workday, increase your sense of control and develop new skills that could be useful at the office, research shows. “You come back to the daily grind with a renewed perspective,” Gielan says.
Get your sh*t together.
“When you’re disorganized you waste a lot of time looking for items you’ve misplaced,” says Donna Smallin Kuper, a professional organizer and the author of How to Declutter and Make Money Now. The prospect of decluttering may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Getting organized is really just a process of sorting,” Smallin Kuper says. Whether you’re cleaning out your closet, desk, garage or all of the above, use a three-box system. “Put the things you really love and use—the keepers—in one box, and the things that need to be archived or saved in another; use a third box for stuff you can throw out, shred, donate or sell,” she says.
Starting with the keepers box, create a system to make those items easy to find any time you need them, such as a series of folders or bins for projects you’re currently working on or things you need to keep readily accessible.
As for the items you need to save, such as seasonal workout gear or tax returns, place them out of the way on a high shelf or in your basement or attic and sort through them every few months to get rid of anything you no longer need.
It takes commitment for organization to become a habit, but Smallin Kuper has a plan for that, too. Pick something you’re already programmed to do, like shutting down your computer at the end of the day or loading the dishwasher, and piggyback onto that activity 15 minutes of organization (sorting through papers on your desk, mail on your counter or clothes on your floor). Dedicating some time every day to maintaining an organized life will help break the clutter cycle.
Make a bucket list with your beau.
Include fun activities (a trapeze lesson or a wine tasting, for instance), vacations you hope to take, places you want to live and other big-picture endeavors (like starting a family) that you and your partner hope to achieve over the next one, five and 10 years. Dreaming together makes you feel as if you’re going somewhere, which gives you a sense of purpose and direction.
“When you accomplish something on your list, it buoys your relationship and moves you on to the next adventure,” says Les Parrott, Ph.D., a coauthor (with his wife, Leslie Parrott) of Making Happy: The Art and Science of a Happy Marriage. That momentum extends to other areas of your life, which in turn boosts your happiness. In fact, in a study from the University of Warwick in the U.K., the group of people who were happier were 12 percent more productive at work. So you’ll mix business and pleasure—literally.
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