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

By Emily Shwake
October 18, 2019

Whether you're getting back into the groove of things after a long vacation or just going through a slump, productivity can be a hard thing to come by. Dr. Melissa Gratias, a productivity specialist and workplace consultant, explains that while there are plenty of strategies to increase productivity, what works varies from person-to-person. "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.

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While you figure that out, try a few of these research-backed tips to help you get more work done—without leaving you feeling burnt out at the end of the day.

Related: How to Be More Productive in the Morning

Create Tiny 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 our attention and maintain mental energy. That doesn't mean you should be switching between your spreadsheets and Instagram every half hour—the type of break you take matters. 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. If that's not 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.

Stop Multitasking

It's time to face facts: Multitasking has never worked, and it never will. 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.

Set Realistic Goals

A to-do list is essential for keeping track of everything we need to accomplish and ensuring we're prioritizing our tasks in a way that will ensure we're not procrastinating. 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. If you can save them for the point in the day when your energy dips, however, that's probably a better use of time. Most of us are at our freshest when we 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 end of the day, 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.

Stop Working

A 2012 survey found that 60 percent of the professionals (across the hierarchy) 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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