productivity tips

Stop Working Long Hours: 10 Simple Ways to Maximize Your Productivity

Many of us live in a culture, where working long hours has become an expectation.  We are made to believe that if we’re not working long enough, then we’re not working hard enough.

In this tough economic climate, a lot of us feel under pressure to work long hours just to keep our jobs.  And even worse, there are some people, who are actually proud that they work 60 hours or more every week.

But whether you work long hours out of pressure or out of choice, you should consider some of potential negative effects on your life.

According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people who work more than 11 hours a day, have a 67 percent higher risk of heart disease. Another study of about 2000 British civil servants found that working more than 11 hours a day doubled your chances of developing depression. Aside from your health, working long hours can also have a negative effect on our relationships and personal life.

And does working longer hours actually improve our productivity?

According to The Economist, the most productive country is France where the average person works less than 40 hours per week. And yet, the typical worker in France creates almost as much wealth per hour, as the leading economies in other countries.

Business leaders are also acknowledging that working long hours doesn’t necessarily make us more productive.  Steven Sinofsky, a former president of the Windows division at Microsoft, once wrote in a blog post that “to be blunt, there is no way you can do quality work if you do not give your brain a break. If a company is driving you to work crazy hours like this, either because you want to or they want you to, it is just uncool”.

So is it possible to work less and still be productive?  The short answer is yes.  And it’s not about having an intricate ‘productivity system’ that lets you manage your to-do lists and get more done.

The key to being more productive to do less and focus on what really matters.  It’s also about finding a better balance between your work and personal life.

Here are some of my favorite tips to help you get started:

1. Focus On Your Top 3 Daily Priorities

Having a to-do list can be great for remembering that you need to buy milk, but it doesn’t help much when it comes to being more productive. Start each day, by taking a few minutes to think about and write down your top 3 priorities for the day.  Then focus your efforts on getting those 3 things done before anything else.  This simple, but powerful habit will significantly boost your productivity.

2. Exercise for 30 Minutes Every Day

We all know that exercise is good for our health.  But did you know that exercise is also good for our brain?  According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, John Ratey MD and author of the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, exercise will not only make you healthier, but it will also help to reduce stress, improve your learning and think more clearly.

3. Start Work Early & Leave On Time

Ask any ‘successful’ person and the chances are that they start work early. You are less likely to have distractions earlier in the morning and can focus better on your top 3 daily priorities.  But in order to be productive, you also need to give your brain a rest, so strive to leave the office on time every day.  You’ll not only feel better, but will be more energized and productive the next day.

4. Stop Checking Your Email

We all know that constantly checking our email is a bad idea, but many of us still continue to do it.  According to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine and the U.S. Army, taking a break from email can reduce your stress levels and help you to concentrate more.  So schedule 2 or 3 times in the day when you will deal with your email.  And the rest of the time, turn it off and forget about it.

5. Set Limits for Everything

According to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.  Give yourself too much time to complete a given task and there is a good chance you’ll find a way to use up all that time.  So try giving yourself less time to complete tasks e.g. give yourself an hour to write that report instead of 2 hours or give yourself 15 minutes to check your mail instead of 30 minutes.

6. Apply the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule simply states that in many situations, about 20% of the effort will drive 80% of the results e.g. 20% of your customers drive 80% of your business.  We can apply this rule to improve our productivity by focusing on the 20% of tasks, projects, emails, meetings etc. that drive 80% of the results.  So focus on the activities that really matter and spend less time on everything else.

7. Stop Multitasking

Multitasking does not make us more productive.  In fact, splitting our attention has an impact on our productivity, concentration and energy.  “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes”, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist that the University of Michigan.  So if you want to be more productive, then focus on doing one thing at a time.

8. Attend Fewer Meetings

Most of us would agree that business meetings are one the biggest time wasters.  So if you want to more productive, attend fewer meetings.  Firstly, check to see if the meeting is actually needed.  Could you resolve the matter over email or with a quick 5-minute chat?  If you do need to attend, ensure that there is a clear goal and agenda for the meeting e.g. make a decision, brainstorm a problem etc.  And then ensure the meeting starts on time and finishes on time (or ideally earlier).

9. Start An Information Diet

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information these days.  Tim Ferris, the author of “The 4 Hour Work Week” recommends going on a ‘low information diet’.  Do you really need to read all those emails, blogs, newspapers, magazines etc.?  And do you really need to spend all that time on Facebook or watching TV?  So spend the next week on your own low information diet.  Cut out as much unnecessary information as you can and watch your productivity skyrocket.

10. Create Thinking Time

Getting out of work and into different environments also helps to improve our productivity.  Some people think best going for long walks; others think best in the shower; others like to go to art galleries or museums etc.  According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the moderate sound levels in coffee shops actually promote more cognitive creativity than the quiet of a library.  Everyone needs a place to think.  And if you don’t already know your place, then you should seek it out and spend time their regularly.

So what’s the best way to get started?  Well, I wouldn’t recommend trying to apply all these 10 tips at once.  Just pick one tip at a time and put it into practice each week.  And most importantly, make use of the extra time that you create to do more of what you love.

Omer Khan is a husband, father and creator of the Relax Focus Enjoy blog. He’s passionate about personal productivity and helping people to create more time to do what they love. He lives with his family in the ‘sunny’ Seattle area.  Pick up your free e-book “Recharge Your Life” when you visit Relax Focus Enjoy.

32 Responses to Stop Working Long Hours: 10 Simple Ways to Maximize Your Productivity

  1. Getting the most important task done first thing in the morning is great for productivity. That way it can’t steal your focus from other less important tasks, you can’t procrastinate on it and it also sets the tone for the rest of the day. Awesome, actionable tips. Thanks for sharing, Omer!

  2. The last one is my favorite. By structuring thinking time into my day, I can really make progress on my big goals. Without it, I’m usually spinning my wheels.

  3. Ntathu Allen says:

    Excellent tips, especially reminder re 80/20 and set limits…when I work with a timer and set myself blocks of time, i do achieve more. Thanks for reminders!

  4. omerkhan says:

    Thanks Patrik. You’re right — get your most important task done early in the day and you’ll probably feel pretty good at the end of the day.

  5. omerkhan says:

    I’m just like you Caelan — without some daily thinking time, I’m all over the place. I also find that aside from doing a ‘braindump’, I can usually make better use of my thinking time if I have a list of problems/questions to address.

  6. omerkhan says:

    You’re welcome Ntathu!

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  9. cant think of a clever name says:

    Although I like all of these in theory, they are not quite applicable to a project oriented workplace where something pops up and everything else needs to stop until it’s fixed.

    It wasn’t a priority in the morning but now it is and it’s 10 minutes before you workday was set to end. It’s gotta be done because that’s your job.

  10. Hi Omer
    I really like this post of yours. I could relate to many of the points that you made. Personally, I tried out setting daily priorities in the beginning of the day and set about doing them. I tend to set goals to accomplish during the day but without being rigid about it, ie I allow room for change. I absolute agree on setting off limits and information diet. As you mention, I don’t have to read all the information in the newspaper, email etc. Instead, I just picked up those information that I would like to read about and don’t worry about the others. I find that I am less flustered, more focus and yes more productive this way :)

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  12. Romane says:

    Wonderful tips Omer,I enjoy them all and I do include some of them in my daily living and surely it makes me more productive while doing less.Thanks for sharing.

  13. Christy King says:

    Great post. I’d add that I feel more productive since implementing my physical therapist’s advice (for a shoulder problem) to get up and walk around for a couple of minutes each hour – get a cup of coffee or whatever. Just a little downtime helps reboot my brain.

  14. Lana James says:

    Wonderful! Thanks for sharing these tips. I somehow realize that working longer hours doesn’t really make us more productive. It’s with the things that you really accomplish at the end of the day.

  15. Ryan Henry de Roxas says:

    thanks for these! would definitely try to practise one for each week! Need to start with the information diet!

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  19. I can relate. Great tips, I’ll keep these in mind and probably will stick a note in from on my screen to remind me. Funny sometimes I forgot to track the time, aren’t we all sometimes skips meal?

  20. Colin Bain says:

    80/20. Sometimes the problem is identifying the 20% that is really important!

  21. tactiks says:

    On point! Nice article!

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  23. Amelia says:

    What I think is personally ‘interesting’… is that the books chosen to give scientific evidence, were either a Harvard psychiatrist, or from the University of Michigan… when in 2008, John Medina (wherever he is from) had written a book saying the same things these above reputable people are saying. He says it brilliantly & concisely, with all the scientific research online, for those who want to see the scientific research too. What is important is what is being said ! All in all, brilliant article. Now the next thing is to read the Power of Habits. Note: What is good for you is not that easy to implement !

  24. Great tips indeed! I am a big believer in quality over quantity and focusing on priorities is key for me. It’s also important not to get affected by everyone around, who seem to be doing so much with their multitasking, but rather stay focused, do your thing and then observe the results.

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  29. billy massie says:

    I am a52 year old who have worked 12 hour slave type shifts for a mismanaged racist company who had me doing back–to back to back shifts that gave me leg and groin problems until I was dropped over petty violation that only a valid 4 day without pay punishment should have been done. I have noticed a load of jobs are over punishing great workers and keeping the ones who are always late or always ”sick” and sleep 40 of 48 hours each week and GM KNOWS this is a fact. in closing I do miss the great co- workers I got along with but the HYPOCRITES CAN GO TO HELL AND WILL BE DEALT WITH IN DUE TIME. LORD WILLING. I AM LOVING LIFE AND SO GLAD I WAS TOLD BY MY LATE MOM WHO DIED OF LUNG CANCER ON JUNE 13, 2001 TO ALWAYS SAVE MONEY BECAUSE YOU CAN BE THE BEST WORKER AT YOUR JOB AND YOU HAVE A SHADY . QUEER , EVIL MANAGEMENT THEY WILL AND CAN DROP U FOR HARDLY NOTHING . I AM ENJOY ALL OF MY SPORTS EVENTS AND LIVING A GOOD CLEAR MIND FREE LIFE. ONLY THE LORD KNOWS WHAT LIES ABOVE FOR ME BUT I WILL NOT TAKE 2 STEPS BACK , I WAS NOT RAISED THAT WAY . I WAS ALSO RAISED TO SPEAK UP AND NOT BE TREATED LIKE TRASH OR A YO- YO. ON THE SCHEDULE LOADS OF HOURS THEN GM;S CHOICE NOT ON THE NEXT . [[THAT;S CRAP]] . WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND AND KARMA IS A BITCH. OF NOTICE; TO ANY GM;S WHO DO PEOPLE WRONG PLEASE KNOW JUST LIKE IN THE NFL BOUNTIES ARE ACTIVE.

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