10 Strategies for Working Much Smarter Hard work is overrated unless you're getting lots done. Science is telling us how to get more results for the same effort.
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Whether you're in Australia, England, or America; blue-collared, white, or pink, we've all got 24-hours to work with. Success comes down to what we're able to do in those hours. No entrepreneur can keep the sun from setting or add hours to their day, but there are strategies that will help maximize work habits and productivity.
Here are 10 strategies for efficiency and effectiveness:
1. Parkinson's Law
"If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do,"observed Cyril Northcote Parkinson. We've all experienced Parkinson's Law. We struggle for a month to finish a project, then magically get it done in the final week. Or, the house is a mess for weeks, then spotless within a few hours of the in-laws showing up.
The law provides great leverage for efficiency: imposing shorter deadlines for a task, or scheduling an earlier meeting. Find the sweet spot for productive hustle. Rushed work can be a recipe for reckless work.
2. Finding your flow
For athletes, it's called being "in the zone," where you're so focused that you're numbed out to any distractions. It's a state we can all tap into: writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs.
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's research is focused on these flow states that optimize our performance by finding that balance between challenge and skill. If the task is too challenging and beyond our skill, then we go into anxiety and frustration, but not challenging enough and we fall into boredom.
Stretch yourself, but don't snap. We're at our most efficient when in the zone.
There's many compelling cases against multi-tasking. A study found that even folks walking while talking on a cell phone run into people more often and were so distracted, many failed to notice a clown riding a unicycle.
Telling an entrepreneur not to multi-task, however, is like telling a pig to stay out of mud but the truth is, multi-tasking a misnomer better termed "task-switching." We don't juggle so much as we jump around. The problem is ending up with too many open projects, and spreading yourself too thin. A good quote on scaling back is by Alexander Graham Bell: "Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand, the sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."
4. The 2-Minute Rule
From David Allen's Getting Things Done, he explains that the most productive people capitalize on the little windows of time opening up during the day. Having an inventory of two-minute tasks on hand whenever windows appear will increase productivity. Cleaning out the inbox, checking voicemail, approving a request, all in brief openings in the schedule, builds our efficiency muscles and gets the ball rolling for bigger tasks.
A major cause of procrastination lies in overthinking the next step. Allen says it takes less time to do the action than the time spent thinking about it.
5. Working to circadian rhythms
Nerve cells in our brains control our circadian rhythms, which influences sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, emotions and energy levels. Constant operation outside circadian rhythms (e.g. international pilots) creates fatigue.
Efficiency lies in synchronizing specific work with these biological peak times. Dr. Steve Kay says analytical work is best within a couple hours of waking, when the morning rise in body temperature increases blood flow to the brain.
Alertness slumps after lunch as the digestive process saps energy. This analytical disengagement is the best time for novel and creative thinking, according to Professor Mareike Wieth.
Exercise increases efficiency. Dr Gerard Kennedy notes more Olympic records are broken in the late afternoon than any other time. Muscle strength, lung capacity, eye-hand coordination and joint flexibility peaks between 4pm and 6pm.
Three sweet spots for maximizing your efforts: the morning analytic spike, a creative spike after lunch, and a physical spike in the afternoon.
6. Reverse engineering
Most commonly applied to industrial machinery and computer software, reverse engineering can be applied to different fields, products, and strategies.
It is disassembling and analyzing the components that make up the whole. Efficiency comes not only with seeing how parts relate, but being able to work on aspects out of order. Tim Ferriss notes his rapid mastering of the tango through deconstructing the dance, and learning the female role along with the male.
Expert linguists do the same, breaking a language into pieces and having a bird's-eye view of the most common grammatical structures.
7. The Willpower trinity
Stanford Professor Kelly McGonigal says the key to hitting goals is understanding the three powers of willpower: I will power, I won't power, and I want power.
• I "won't power'' is resisting temptation, such as saying "no" to social media.
• I "will power'' is to choose an alternate behavior -- sending a social, but networking email.
• I "want power'' is remembering your why, your goal, be it expanding your career, business or profits.
Willpower is like a muscle. When we fail to reach goals, it's due to solely relying on I won't power, but we can only say "no" so many times before we crumble. However, bringing in backup, and using all three aspects of willpower, will triple the likelihood of success. Resist, replace, remember.
8. 57 on, 17 off
The entrepreneurial hustle makes breaks non-existent. Recent studies show only one-in-five employees take lunch breaks, despite clear cognitive benefits for our fatigued brains.
So what's the perfect work/rest ratio? DeskTime App played Big Brother, monitoring employees' computer use. They found the most productive 10 percent worked hard for 52 minutes, then took a break for 17. It's backed by scientists, pointing to the natural rhythms of our attention span. Our brain can focus for up to 90 minutes, then needs roughly 20 minutes of rest. Strategic breaks equals efficient work.
9. Power poses
If it weren't true, it'd be preposterous to think simply changing your posture affects productivity. Professor Amy Cuddy's Ted Talk highlights the psychosomatic and neurological responses caused by our posture. Taking a high-power pose causes an increase in testosterone (confidence, assertiveness, energy) and a decrease in cortisol (stress, anxiety, nervousness). A confident, testosterone-perked person is much more productive than a cortisol-crippled, stressed person.
Our brain is wired to respond to certain physiologies. A forced smile will still release endorphins. Pulling yourself out of a figurative slump is as simple as pulling yourself out of a physical slump.
10. Validated progress
A good warning from Eric Ries: "If we're building the wrong product really efficiently, it's like we're driving our car off a cliff and bragging about our awesome gas mileage."
Along the same stream of the Sharpe ratio's risk/return measures in finance, and the "minimum viable product" in the tech world, the strategy is about being calculated and conscious in our efforts, with a flexible, rather than fixed process and goal. It's being productive and ready to pivot, rather than simply charging full-steam ahead.
A case-in-point is Nick Swinmurn's startup of Zappos. He validated his idea without blowing cash by first going to a shoe store, taking photos and posting them online. When sales came in, he went and bought the shoes. He didn't need to pivot, just perservere.
Related: Desk Yoga to Improve Your Posture