Focus and prioritization are key to protecting your time and avoiding burnout. In fact, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport — author of the new book Digital Minimalism — recently told The New York Times about his term “deep work,” explaining that it’s “the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It describes, in other words, when you’re really locked into doing something hard with your mind,” adding that this requires “zero distractions.”
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We asked members of the Thrive Global community to share the simple strategies they use to focus, prioritize, and work smarter instead of harder.
Tune into your “why”
“If doing something doesn’t connect back to your ‘why’ in life, say no — and don’t feel guilty. It just wastes more time. Focus on what connects you with your purpose, values and mission instead.”
— Mim Senft, founder, CEO, Blooming Grove, NY
“Eat that frog”
“I use Brian Tracy’s ‘eat that frog’ method. I tackle the tasks I don’t like — but are still important — first thing in the morning. I leave the easier tasks for left for later in the day, when my mind begins to wander and focusing takes effort, and refuse to multitask. For me, multitasking means doing many things poorly. I single-task so I can do things well the first time. Keeping my ‘must-do’ list to three items or less helps a lot.”
— Cyash Gathinji, freelance writer, Nairobi, Kenya
Answer these three questions about meetings
“Answering three simple questions has helped me tidy up my calendar, work smarter, and give me more breathing room. Look a few weeks ahead and ask these to see if you need a specific meeting, or can delegate it to someone else:
1. If I’m not leading the meeting, can I delegate it and more wisely invest my time elsewhere?
2. Does my presence add (or subtract) value to fellow team members also in the meeting?
3. Is a role in this meeting a better development opportunity for someone else on my team?”
— Kelli Thompson, life and leadership coach, Omaha, NE
Make a flow chart
“Whether it’s a work process or a daily lifestyle process that you want to streamline, make a flow chart of the steps involved. If you’re not into flow diagrams, simply list the steps. Then, determine which can be streamlined or eliminated. You’ll save time and money and stress follow your analysis. And, you’ll avoid the mistakes of the past.”
— Dr. Marlene Caroselli, author, Pittsford, NY
Tap into the power of prep
“One way working smarter and not harder can be achieved is by focusing on preparation. There is still a lot of investigation, planning, and implementation or ‘work’ that exists in preparing well. However, preparation helps to avoid things such as unnecessary rework, poor impressions being made by seeming unprepared, unforeseen mistakes, or additional amounts of unhealthy stress due to not being as confident as possible in your deliverable our desired outcome. In this way working harder not smarter extends beyond the result of physical and mental exertion, but also includes quality for the experiencer and the doer.”
— Tiffany N. Spearman, creative professional, Washington, D.C.
Be open to shifting priorities
“Tim Ferris’ words, ‘Focus on being productive instead of busy,’ are posted on my office wall for my daily reminder to work smarter instead of harder. Setting my weekly goals and priorities has always been very helpful, but understanding that I need to be flexible when priorities change (on a daily basis for most of us) was a game changer. Continual priority setting, re-evaluating and resetting is key staying focused and avoiding burnout.”
— Carrie McEachran, executive director, Sarnia, ON
Know your prime time
“The night before, I make a list of the top things I need to work on the next day. I also pick the time of day that my mind is the sharpest and full of energy to work on specifically what’s on my list of things to do and I try not to deviate away from my most important work. Working at a time of day when I have no focus or am the most tired is a waste of time and nothing gets accomplished. I get more work done working four hours a day when I’m at my best versus working a full eight hours and dragging through the day. Being organized is the key to working smarter and not harder.”
— Kiki Dahlke, author, Tampa, FL
Differentiate “deep and shallow work”
“Knowing when to prioritize deep and shallow work allows me to work smarter. By being aware of how my energy and focus fluctuates throughout a typical day and week, I’m able to identify when I’ll be able to work most effectively on complex or simple tasks. This enables me to dedicate my most energized, focused time on complex tasks that require deep focus, while the times that I might feel less energized or focused, can be used to take care of smaller, less demanding tasks.”
— Andrew Gobran, people operations, Minneapolis, MN
Count on your calendar
“I use a calendar to stay on track. If it isn’t on the calendar, it does not happen. The top of the calendar are goals for the week: Family, My Business, Money, etc. The middle part are things that pop up that need to be fit into the week. The bottom is time segments to schedule actions. Things do move. I jot down to do’s as they pop up so that I can deal with them later. Seeing the days on paper help me to be realistic with what I can accomplish each day.”
— Lisa Handt Fagan, marketing professor and writer, Atlantic City, NJ
Take breaks for your body and brain
“I take regular breaks to rest my brain and move my body to release any built up tension. Our brains work more effectively when we’re moving — a throw back to hunter gatherer days. I also find setting mini-goals helps me to stay focused in each working period as I’m motivated to get them done.”
— Samantha Toon, business owner, Leeds, England
Practice the Pomodoro Technique
“I follow the Pomodoro Technique, which means I group my activities into 25 minute chunks.
During each chunk, I focus on one type of activity ONLY and shut down ALL notifications and distractions. For example, if I am sending multiple messages or emails, I complete all of the intended messages before circling back to responses that have come in during that 25 minutes.
At the end of 25 minutes, I take 5 minutes to stretch and re-center before moving on to my next activity. After four-to-five Pomodoros, I take a longer break say 15-30 minutes. Taking breaks and spending focused time has been a game changer for my mental health and business.”
— Erica Martinez, nurse and wellness enthusiast, Fullerton, CA
Plan, do, review, and adjust
“In order to work smarter than harder, I simply focus on doing the important, urgent things first. I set up a monthly strategy. But on a weekly basis, I define priorities for my tasks on the app Asana, to fulfill the strategy. Then I focus, making sure that’s what I complete first every day. I even block my calendar for the things that can’t be postponed to avoid meetings being scheduled at that time. By the end of the day, I always analyze what wasn’t accomplished and how I can reorganize my schedule to make it happen. Getting the right things done makes you feel like you’re not losing time. So to avoid frustration, make sure you plan, do, review and adjust every day.”
— Luciana Paulise, agile business coach, Beaumont, TX
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