Updated May 1, 2019

23 Research-Driven Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Everyone is putting pressure on you to do more with less. With these tricks up your sleeve, you can work more efficiently — without burning yourself out.

Many of us get squeezed at work to do more with less. And by less we mean less time. That means we're spending much of our precious "me time" at the office, feeling resentful and burned out. You could cut back those overtime hours and still make yourself more productive with a few changes to your routine — and you can do it without having to use any extra energy.

The subject of how to work smarter, not harder, is a hot topic among researchers, and there's a huge body of scientific evidence that challenges many of the notions we have about what the typical workday should look like. CreditDonkey has tracked down some of the most fascinating findings from the different studies floating around.

© Didier Baertschiger (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

1. Stop multitasking

When you've got several balls spinning in the air at one time, you may feel like you're accomplishing more, but in reality, you're only hampering your productivity. In fact, research from the University of Michigan suggests that multitasking decreases your efficiency by as much as 40%. The reason: When you switch between tasks, you're spending time getting up to speed or reminding yourself of where you had left off — that in-between time cuts into your productivity and efficiency.

2. Make breaks a part of your routine

Taking regular breaks can keep you from losing focus when you're working on one project for a long period of time. A well-known study of violinists found that the players who consolidated their workday into distinct 90-minute blocks with a break in between performed better than those who worked continuously throughout the day.

3. Take naps (yes, really)

Settling down for a nap in the middle of the afternoon may seem like waste of time, but it's actually the best way to recharge those overworked brain cells. Researchers from Harvard University have shown that taking a 90-minute nap can improve problem-solving skills, while a 45-minute nap can boost memory. If you can't block out that much time in a single sitting, closing your eyes for just 10 or 15 minutes at a time can still be enough to give you a brain boost.

4. Get outside

Spending time enjoying nature can provide some much-needed mental stimulation in the middle of a busy workday. In fact, taking a 20-minute walk through the park has been linked to improved memory and a more focused attention span. If you're going to head out, be sure you go somewhere quiet. Research shows that you won't reap the same benefits if you're cruising down a city street.

5. Don't aim to be perfect

Perfection is a myth. If it's something you strive for (or your boss demands), you're only setting yourself up for disappointment. In a Canadian study of 1,258 college professors, those who exhibited higher levels of perfectionist tendencies were less likely to produce publications, get their work published in high-profile academic journals, or have their research cited by others.

6. Take a mental time-out

If you deal with complex concepts at work all day, sometimes letting yourself space out a little can actually help you do your job better. Japanese researchers found that after viewing images of cute animals, test subjects performed at a higher level when given a specific task to complete. Just make sure you fill your boss in so you don't get in trouble for watching YouTube cat videos on the clock.

7. Match your workflow to your energy level

Your body's circadian rhythms dictate when you have the most energy during the day, and scheduling your work tasks accordingly can ensure maximum performance. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults' strongest sleep drives occur between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and again between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. If you know what your individual patterns are, you can adjust your daily routine to make sure you're working only when you're most alert.

8. Have a laugh

Laughter is a known stress reliever — and a key one to tap for coping with a high-pressure job. Having a laugh in the middle of a hectic day improves your mood and can make you better equipped to do your job. In fact, workers who rated higher on the happiness scale were 12% more productive, according to a University of Warwick study.

9. Ditch digital distractions

If you're constantly checking your email or scanning your cell phone for new messages, you could be sabotaging your productivity without even realizing it. A study from Hewlett Packard and the Institute of Psychiatry in London found that being frequently distracted by email or texts can cause your IQ to drop by as much 10 points. Putting your phone away could make you smarter.

10. Meditate

Taking some time out of your day to get a little Zen could bring huge rewards in the workplace. Researchers at the University of Washington studied a group of human resource managers by splitting them into three groups: the first received mindful meditation training, the second were trained in body relaxation techniques, and the third received no such training at all. The ones who were taught how to meditate — and did so each day — reported feeling less stressed and better able to concentrate when asked to perform specific tasks during the study.

11. Pare down your to-do list

According to iDoneThis, a productivity software provider, we never get around to 40% of the tasks we set for ourselves. Narrow your to-do list to just the 3 most important things you need to do for the day, and you'll up the odds that you'll actually be able to accomplish them.

12. Automate whenever possible

If your typical workday involves doing a lot of the same tasks repetitively, finding a way to automate them can significantly reduce the load. In one study, using productivity software to automate certain process cut down the amount of time workers were spending on repetitive actions by as much as 60%.

13. Wake up earlier

Research shows that if you can get up in time to catch the worm, it can boost your output through the day. A survey of 367 college students found that those who got up earlier performed better academically overall and reported feeling more productive during the day.

14. Set your work to music

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of listening to music while you work, but your choice of tunes can have a direct impact on how productive you are. According to a British study, music featuring 50 to 80 beats per minute is the most conducive for helping you to stay alert and focused on the work you're doing.

15. Stay on your feet

Sitting behind your desk all day can dull the senses and make your brain feel more sluggish, but standing has the opposite effect. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that standing while working on a particular project resulted in employees being more excited about what they were doing and feeling less defensive about their ideas. Either get one of those standing desks or make a point to walk around the office as much as possible.

16. Ditch unproductive habits

Approximately 40% of the things we do in a given day are out of habit, rather than need, according to researchers at Duke University. By taking yourself off autopilot and making small changes to the way you approach your day, you can cut into your biggest time wasters and get more done.

17. Get moving

Exercise isn't just good for your physical health; it can also help you get ahead at work. A group of Swedish researchers conducted an experiment that required workers to self-assess their overall productivity. Workers who exercised for a minimum of 2.5 hours per week reported feeling like they got more done and that they could handle a wider range of tasks. Plus, they got sick less often than their couch-potato counterparts.

18. Work by hand

Pecking away at a keyboard all day can leave you feeling disconnected from your work, and the final product may suffer as a result. A research study of note taking among students found that those who wrote their notes by hand versus typing them on a laptop were better able to remember what they'd learned when questioned about the material later on. We're not saying to ditch the computer, but every once in a while pulling out the notebook could give you a new focused perspective.

19. Reflect on what you've accomplished

Harvard researchers found that when workers took the time to reflect on what they'd learned throughout the day, their performance increased by nearly 23%. Among those who shared their reflections with others, performance jumped by 25%.

20. Collaborate with others

Keeping to yourself can be a detriment to your productivity. Research has shown that there are some benefits to collaborative efforts. An extensive study of the steel manufacturing industry found that when companies tapped workers to join problem-solving teams, productivity and efficiency improved substantially.

21. Eliminate interruptions

When you're hard at work, losing focus for even the briefest moment can completely derail your train of thought. In a study from Michigan State University, participants who had their work interrupted for 2.8 seconds committed twice as many errors when they got back to their task. The error rate tripled among those who were interrupted for 4 seconds or more.

22. Don't overdo it

Working longer hours doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to get more done each day. In fact, it can have the complete opposite effect on your productivity. A European study observed that when workers' overtime increased by 10%, their hourly output decreased by 2.4%. That's something to consider if you're working 12-hour days but you don't feel like you're getting ahead.

23. Learn to say no and frame it just right

According to the Pareto Principle, 20% of your efforts will produce 80% of your results. If you're constantly saying yes to everything, you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin. But how you turn down a request affects how successful you'll be in rebuffing work that's more than you can handle.

A 2012 study found that people have more luck by saying "I don't" versus "I can't." Keep that in mind the next time your boss comes by with a crazy request. "I can't" will give him or her an in for persuading you to take on the extra work, but "I don't" will show you are serious and assertive. And if you've been following this list and have become more efficient recently, the boss will just have to walk away and let you do your job.

Rebecca Lake is a journalist at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Rebecca Lake at rebecca@creditdonkey.com

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