5 habits that will make you more productive at work (without trying harder)

When most of us brainstorm how to improve our performance at work, we think of trying harder and putting in more hours. But the truth is, our productivity is also affected by habits we never stop to consider — habits that sometimes seem to have nothing to do with our jobs.

In this post, I’ll point out five areas you should be focusing on if you want to get more done in less time at work, set yourself apart as a top performer, and accelerate your career.

1. Schedule your day around your energy levels

Many people simply write out their tasks on a to-do list and attack them one by one. Others start their day with easy projects to build momentum. And some people “eat their frog first” — which means trying to get your most important task out of the way in the morning. But bestselling author Dan Pink has a different approach to scheduling. Pink explains that our bodies follow unique biological rhythms that affect our energy levels and mood. Generally, your energy will peak and dip at roughly the same time every day, and if you schedule around these cycles, you can accomplish more work in less time.

According to Pink, we should schedule analytical work, projects require focus and attention to detail, when we’re most awake and alert. Administrative work, like responding to emails, is a smart choice for the hours when our energy dips. And creative work is great for the times in between, when we’re a bit less focused and alert than our peak, which helps our minds consider out of the box ideas.

2. Be intentional with how you spend your downtime

Whether it’s a vacation, a weekend, or just the hours after you go home from the office, what you do during your downtime can have a big effect on your performance at work.

Make sure you spend this time intentionally, prioritizing healthy sleep and activities that help you relax and recharge, so you can come back to work refreshed.

3. Be discerning when it comes to who you hang out with

It was Jim Rohn who famously observed, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Even if you’ve heard that saying before, take a minute to ask yourself, “Who are the five people I currently spend the most time with? What are some of the habits each of those relationships inspires in my life? Who are some people I would be smart to spend more time with? Is there anyone I should consider spending less time with?”

It’s worth noting, this proximity effect doesn’t only apply to friends in your personal life. Studies show the people you sit next to at work have a big impact on your performance too.

Researchers from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management analyzed the performance of employees at a large technology firm. They found that workers who sat within 25 feet of a top performer we’re 15% more effective than those who worked farther away.

4. Pay attention to what you eat

Professional athletes are strict with what food they put in their bodies. They recognize that the wrong meal could have a big impact on their performance. Surprisingly, the same is true for those of us who work at a desk. The food we eat can fill us with energy and focus or leave us feeling drowsy and distracted.

Dr. Ron Friedman, Author of The Best Place to Work, offers two actionable suggestions to help us eat for productivity. First, consider eating smaller meals throughout the day to avoid the highs and lows of energy that follow big, spaced-out meals. Second, be careful with highly processed foods (pasta, cereal, soda, etc) which lead to a short burst of energy followed by a slump.

If you’re looking for ways to make eating healthy foods more convenient, smoothie subscription services like Green Blender, Daily Harvest, and Sub-Zero Superfoods are great options because they send you easy-to-prepare ingredients for tasty superfood smoothies you can sip at your desk.   

Or if you find yourself relying on drive-through dinners because you’re still learning how to cook, meal delivery companies like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh can be a huge asset because they send you pre-portioned ingredients and clear instructions to help you start preparing healthy home-cooked meals.

5. Set aside time for reflection

Some of us are so busy working in our jobs that we forget to pull back and invest in our own development. Elite performers accelerate their careers by working smarter than everyone around them. And since each of us is unique, different strategies will work for different people.

That’s why it’s so important to schedule time at least once a month to pause and reflect on how your work is going. Consider giving yourself a performance review where you ask the following questions:

What was my most productive day this week? Did I do anything differently that day?

What’s an area of work that drains my time and energy? How can I do this smarter?

What’s an area of work where I’ve been trying to improve? Am I seeing progress?

Each of these questions is powerful, but it’s the second one that’s been having a big impact on my life lately. It helped me realize just how much time I was spending in my inbox — not really getting anything done, just maintaining the status quo. This led to several changes in my life. A simple one was installing Grammarly to review my emails for me, which cut my proofreading and editing time down significantly and helps me reply to emails faster.  

You don’t always have to put in more hours or even try harder to improve your performance at work. Each of the 6 strategies I’ve shared can help you become more consistently productive, and the most customized insights will come from this final approach — learning from your daily experience through intentional, consistent reflection.

Kyle Young is helping creative people achieve big goals that matter.