Productivity Tips for Working Smartly, Not Harder

Working smartly can mean simply looking at things differently

Busy woman working at an office desk
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  Ariel Skelley / Digital Vision / Getty Images

The days when almost everyone worked 9-to-5 schedules are over. Many employers have the expectation that you’ll be connected—and available—even when you’re not in the office. Workloads are heavier, and demands for productivity are higher.

Employees are required to work smarter and more efficiently than ever to achieve all this. It can result in burnout for many, but it becomes an opportunity for others to innovate and stand out from the crowd. You can lower your stress level and improve your work performance if you adopt the right combination of time-management practices.

Set Progress Goals

You'll seldom achieve absolute perfection, and it's almost always unnecessary anyway. Perfectionism can lead to micromanaging, poor relationships with coworkers, procrastination, low productivity, depression, stress, and anxiety.

The most successful people are those who are satisfied when a job's been completed with the best possible effort. They save their need for perfection for truly important things.

Regularly forcing yourself to acknowledge any progress, no matter how small, will help you feel more positive and energetic.

You'll always be more productive if you focus on progress over perfection.

Use Batching

Constantly checking and answering your email, voicemail, and other messages only interrupt your workday and your train of thought. It can hamper productivity, especially in jobs that require creative, innovative, or strategic thinking.

Learn to respond to incoming messages in batches, and consider checking them just two or three times a day—unless, of course, keeping on top of them is integral to your job. Even then, try to schedule times to check in. Stay clear otherwise.

Make use of the "Do, Delegate, Delete, or File" principle for dealing with emails, letters, bills, text messages, voice messages, and other requests.

Integrate Technology You Already Know...

You're probably familiar with a number of computer programs and mobile apps that can cut the time of accomplishing certain tasks in half. Take a moment to see how some of these programs or tools can speed up your professional work or make it better. Much of this software is often underutilized.

Getting used to making technology a part of your workday might feel clunky at first, particularly if you're old school, but your productivity should be much higher when you get used it.

...And Learn New Technology

Search for top productivity software applications and invest a little time on your own to learn them. Many of these programs offer tutorials for free or at low cost. Some companies will pay for you to get certified in certain software programs.

Numerous digital tools can help you organize a wide array of customer and product details, allowing for quick and easy recall. Also consider adopting a personal scheduling program that lets keep and organize calendars, to-do lists, work plans, and contact directories.

Get Help From Your Team

You don't have to do it all yourself. Other people are capable of handling some of the tasks you generally reserve for yourself, particularly if you work on a team. Taking some extra time to discuss with others what needs to be done might reveal that some of your responsibilities fall under a different job description.

Consider which duties you could be sharing with others, then slowly start parceling some of them out. It will allow you to focus on high-priority issues while giving your coworkers a chance to grow and shine.

Don't Be Afraid to Say “No”

Learn to decline politely but firmly whenever possible if someone asks you to do something that isn't your priority. Remind yourself that saying no to one thing gives you the freedom to say "yes" to something else that's more important and worthy of your time and skills.

You're far more likely to let someone down by not finishing everything on your plate than by declining to take on additional tasks.

Take a Break

Even the busiest people need to clear their minds and stretch their legs now and then. Take a five- to 10-minute breather once in a while. Use that time to take a brisk walk outside or even around the office. Do some stretching exercises, or walk up and down the stairs a few times. Drink water. Eat a healthy snack.

Stepping away from your work briefly will relax your body and rejuvenate your mind. You might even find that you're less frazzled when you return home after hours.

Ask for Help

Don't suffer in silence if you're overwhelmed and it's causing you undue stress. Be transparent with your peers and supervisors, at least as much as possible. Untenable work situations can usually be alleviated if you communicate clearly about what's going on.

The sooner you can inform your team members, the better. You should be able to foresee workload issues if you've been at your job for a while. Nothing is worse than realizing you won’t make it just before a huge deadline.

The Bottom Line

Use technology to boost your productivity: Take advantage of productivity-boosting programs and apps.

Ask for help: Don't be afraid to ask if you need assistance with a project or help managing workplace stress.

Take a break: A break of even a few minutes can help you refocus and get back on track when you're feeling overwhelmed.

Talk with a professional counselor: Talk with a professional or therapist if achieving a balanced life continues to be a challenge for you or if you're experiencing chronic workplace stress. If your employer has an employee assistance program (EAP), check to see how the program might help.