Realistic deadlines, frequent breaks, and a flexible to-do list will help you accomplish more.

Whether you're getting back into the groove of things after a long vacation or just going through an afternoon slump, productivity can be a hard thing to come by. While there are plenty of strategies to increase productivity, what works varies from person-to-person, says Melissa Gratias, Ph.D, a productivity specialist and workplace consultant. "Paying attention to my own rhythms and energy levels is so informative and helps me pace my path and schedule my day," she says.

Once you're aware of how your own focus waxes and wanes throughout the day, you'll be able to properly determine the best times to schedule meetings, check your email, and take on your most challenging projects.

woman working at desk with computer
Credit: Getty Images

Set Timed Deadlines

If you always leave tasks until the very last minute, use timers to create small deadlines for yourself in the shape of minutes rather than days or months. "Oftentimes, racing that clock can mimic the deadline-based adrenaline rush that procrastination gives us," says Gratias. "With any bad habit,  like procrastination, find out what it's doing for you, and find other ways to fill that need in your life."

Take Frequent Breaks

Taking a break might feel less productive than actually working, but it's important to step away from the task at hand every so often in order to refocus your attention and maintain mental energy.

Go for a Walk

The type of break you take matters—you shouldn't be switching between your spreadsheets and social every half hour. Instead of swiping on your phone, get out of the office and go for a short walk. Both the exposure to nature and exercise can help relieve stress and refresh your cognitive processes.

Try Meditating

If stepping out for a walk isn't an option, a simple meditation practice can be just as (if not more) effective. The goal is simply to disengage from your work so that your brain has the opportunity to properly shift gears.

Avoid Multitasking

While it may be temping, your brain is simply not equipped to handle more than one thing at a time. "When we think we are multitasking, we are actually rapid-fire task-switching back and forth, which is very cognitively inefficient," says Gratias.

Studies show that multitasking makes you less efficient, less effective, and may hinder your attention span in the long run. If multiple projects have to get done in a day, or if your job requires you to be responsive at all hours of the day, plan when you'll switch your focus in advance. Give yourself space to finish the task at hand, and plan to deal with the other project in the next chunk of focus time.

Make a To-Do List

A to-do list is essential for keeping track of everything your need to accomplish. Every morning when you get to your desk, check your list and decide what tasks you will make progress on for the day. Once you've assessed your goals and arranged your calendar accordingly, then you can check your email.

Most people are at their freshest when they start the day so use that time to actually get work done. Around midday, you can reassess your list. Decide which tasks you can realistically accomplish before the day's end, and which you can save for tomorrow. "Thinking we're going to strike through our entire to-do list in a single day is one of the reasons people feel like they're not accomplishing anything at work," says Gratias.

Don't Work After Hours

A 2012 survey found that 60 percent of the professionals who use smartphones spend about 72 hours a week connected to their work. In addition to being unhealthy, working longer rarely means getting more accomplished.

"We need to be able to say this is where I transition from my work self into my life self," says Gratias. In order to do this, revisit your to-do list. Assess the things you've accomplished, jot down any new tasks that have come up, and make a plan for the following day. Once you've done that, switch off your email notifications (if your job allows it) and give yourself permission to stop.


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