Work Hard and Work Smart: 3 Tips on How to be More Effective at Work

Most of us have been wired into thinking that working for long stretches of time and putting in relentless working hours is the path to success. While this is not necessarily untrue - truth be told - being busy does not always result in productive work and longer hours don’t always achieve high levels of output.

The combination of hard work while making smart choices sets you up for success.  Working smart involves leveraging time, having the self-awareness of when to cut items off your list, and setting realistic goals.

Here are some insights on how to improve your focus and productivity:

Work in small increments

          Ever notice how a word starts to lose its meaning after you repeat it over and over? Some researchers claim that attention is a limited resource, and continuous exposure to information makes the mind perceive data as unimportant and meaningless. Much like with work, doing repetitive tasks for long periods of time can trigger our minds to go blank and can ultimately be detrimental to our performance and output. A study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that avoiding prolonged attention on a task by taking brief diversions or breaks can indeed boost focus and thus help improve productivity.

          The Muse came up with the 52:17 Rule, claiming that taking a 17-minute long break after an uninterrupted 52-minute work time will keep your mind refreshed and focused. In fact, 10% of its users who followed this work-to-rest ratio proved to be the most productive. In addition, The Energy Project founder Tony Schwartz said, “Humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.” While these numbers may seem odd to some, a 52-minute work time is enough to produce quality results, but short enough not to exhaust the mind.


          According to Warren Buffett’s long-time pilot, Mike Flint, Buffett asked him to list down his 25 career goals and encircle the 5 most important. Flint was then asked to rewrite those 5 goals into one list, and another list containing the other 20 he had written down. At this point, he had two lists. Flint said, “The top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

Buffett replied, "No. You've got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn't circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top five."

Warren Buffett’s 2-List Strategy teaches us that cutting the bad options in our lives sounds pretty easy; cutting the ones that you love is what’s difficult. Time management is discerning which goals and tasks go to the urgent pile and which ones go to the unimportant, but an even better time management exercise is prioritizing less and accepting that we do not need to make time for everything. Flint’s story proves that Buffett has achieved all his success by not working more, but rather by actually doing less. As James Clear writes for TIME, "Spending time on secondary priorities is the reason you have 20 half-finished projects instead of five completed ones. Eliminate ruthlessly.”

Break down big goals

How many times have we felt overwhelmed by looking at our to-do lists only to see big words like conceptualize, implement, discuss, etc.? Now, being ambitious and thinking big are both great things when you are setting goals, but sometimes they can be more intimidating than inspiring when you are actually working on them.

Instead, break down those words into smaller and more achievable steps like schedule, draft, and contact. This does not only make crossing out items from our lists easier and quicker but every small step will build momentum and provide you with the confidence that you’re actually moving closer to your goals.

We can be closer to our goals and still have occasional moments to refresh and relax. Adopting a “less is more” mindset is a powerful way to avoid distractions from our goals. Effort is very important but knowing where, when, and how to put it is what makes us more efficient and productive.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re an employee and working for someone, a freelancer doing your own thing or a business owner scaling a company, productivity is key.  It doesn’t come easy and it is usually a journey rather than a destination, which means that it is a skill that takes time to hone and even changes as your role and duties change .  Regardless of where you are, it takes practice, intention and awareness of what does and doesn’t work for you. Once you start sticking to a plan and your time is managed more effectively, your work becomes more impactful and starts moving the needle from a productivity standpoint.

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