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.