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Work Smarter Not Harder: 26 Effective Ways for Boosting Your Work Performance

Would you like to improve your work performance by overcoming procrastination, improving your focus and implementing new habits?

If so, then this article is for you.

Just implement the advice as-is or make your own variations of them. What matters the most is that you take action.

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​I have divided this article into four categories:

  • ​Focusing
  • Habits
  • Procrastination
  • Tools

In some situations you might argue whether a certain tip should fall under a certain category. Yet, I took the "artistic freedom" to categorize the advice this way. I have tried the tips myself and they have worked well in that particular context.

Finally, don’t forget to look at the nice bonuses I have for you. It includes 17 additional tips that can improve your work performance even further!

Focusing

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1. Use a timer

I have noticed that one of the best ways to improve my focus when doing computer-related work is to work with a timer.

With a timer, you can create “mini-deadlines” and you’ll be compelled get as much work done as possible during this time block.

I tend to work in 50 minute chunks, so I set the timer on, work on my tasks and then take a small break. Although this is similar the Pomodoro Technique, I like my time block length better.

Just turn the timer on and try to accomplish as much as possible. Test different time lengths and see which one works best for you.

Download Alarm Clock 2 for Mac or Free Countdown Timer for PC.

2. Have a task list

The next tip is to plan your day, and you do this by having a task list.

Now, there are some people who prefer having paper-based task lists, but I follow the hi-tech route instead.

Planning a task list shouldn’t be intimidating and really, it isn’t. All that’s needed is 15 minutes of your time before you go to bed (or at the end of your work day).

During that time, jot down at least three important tasks that you’d like to achieve the next day. Then - and if the schedule permits - add some smaller tasks to your list too.

This way you have a mix of tasks which move your project further while taking care of the smaller tasks as well.

Having a list gives you a plan to follow. So rather than just “floating around” during your work day, give your day a clear direction and work on the tasks that need to be worked on.

3. What are your 20% tasks?

You know those important tasks you should be focusing on? I like to call them 20% tasks.

The term 20% task comes from the 80/20 rule which states that you get 80% of the results when focusing on 20% of the matters. In other words, those 20% tasks are the ones which take your projects forward and which help you to reach your goals faster.

Pick your 20% tasks when you plan your task list for the next day and give them a higher priority in your task list.

4. Frogs are actually quite nice (when you get them done)

In this context, frogs are the tasks that you’ll likely procrastinate on. Since you know you’ll put those off, why not attack those kinds of tasks as soon as possible?

When you get the hardest task(s) off your list quickly, you have more time to focus on the other stuff. If you manage to get the “frog” task done as first thing of the day, your day will be much lighter since the most challenging work is done.

5. Saying “no” is not rude

Too often we feel compelled to say “yes” to a request by someone else.

However, when someone asks you to do something, you have the right to decline the request (however, you should help someone in the case of an emergency).

Just make sure to evaluate the request first and then just say “no” promptly, but gently, if this request doesn’t fit into your schedule.

6. Know the tasks that allow distraction

Would you believe that some tasks allow distraction better than others? Yes, I’m serious!

For instance, if you are moderating blog comments, writing simple replies to e-mails or doing anything that doesn’t require much of your focus, you can concentrate on those tasks even if there is some distraction around.

For example in our earlier home, I didn’t always have a chance to use the dedicated work room. In that case I worked at the kitchen table and there was sometimes external noise coming from the TV or my son who was playing next to me.

Even with those distractions, I was able to do certain things just fine without needing to have complete silence.

Make sure to take advantage of this information when you plan the task list for the day. You might have times when you need silence but then again, certain tasks allow distraction better and you don’t have keep the work room door shut.

This is good news especially for those who don’t have a dedicated work space at home.

7. Focus on one task at a time

Keep working on one task and once you have reached your daily goal, move on to the next task. However, try to avoid working on one task then switching to another, then back to the original one.

In order to successfully single task, use these tips:

  • Break a project/task into smaller pieces
  • Create a plan for your task (use the Super Wednesday Method)
  • Use a timer if necessary
  • Shut/quiet down all the extra distractions (e-mail client, instant messaging, phone)
  • Block out time on your calendar just for the task
  • Take small breaks (in other words, don't just sit for hours on your computer)
  • Be unavailable
  • Use a service lik [email protected] to put you in a flow state quickly

One additional benefit of this strategy is that you’ll most likely get the tasks done right the first time, since you are able to focus on them properly.

8. Set the expectations right

Let others know how your business operates.

For instance, you could do the following:

  • Letting others know how often/how quickly you respond to e-mails
  • When you return calls
  • How often you publish content on your blog
  • When you are available on Skype
  • What your working times are and when are you available for your family (when working at home)

With right expectations is you “train” others how you work.(?) When others know these guidelines, they don’t expect you to do something that you are not going to do.

There is also less room for conflicts as everyone has a clear understanding of how you work.

9. Capture everything (a distraction list)

Too often we get distracted by thoughts, ideas and tasks that pop into our mind while we are doing focused work. So instead of letting thoughts pull us away from the important work, capture everything into a simple distraction list.

This is nothing more than just a piece of paper where you jot down any ideas or thoughts worth remembering while they occur.

Then, after the work day is almost finished, you process this list and either:

  • A) Take care of the task right away (if it’s a quick one)
  • B) Schedule it on your task list for later date
  • C) Just dump it. Sometimes the idea doesn't sound that exciting anymore and it's safe to let it go (if it's a good idea, it'll most likely come back to you later).

Habits

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10. Drink water

According to an article by WebMD, drinking water has many health benefits.

Research has also found that drinking water has productivity-enhancing benefits as well.

In a study conducted by The University of East London, they found that drinking water improves your brain performance by 14%.

So stop drinking excessive amounts of coffee and drink more water. Your body and brain will thank you for that!

11. Emulate the routines of others

Let’s say that it takes you one hour to write a report. On the other hand, your colleague or online buddy is able to take care of the same task in half the time.

Why not asking his/her about their way of doing things and then apply his/her practices to your work? This way you could save time on your task and finish it faster.

Perhaps you could even “compare notes” every once in a while, figuring out how other person does a certain task and you could learn from each other.

12. Ask questions

Don’t get stuck with something you don’t understand.

Keep asking questions to solve the issues that you have. For instance, when I’m learning something new and I don’t quite get the concept, I ask the questions like:

  • Why?
  • How?
  • What?
  • Could you give me an example?

Don’t leave yourself pondering open issues too long by yourself. Get past the roadblocks faster by asking questions.

13. Walk away from a task - and then return

Sometimes I face a road-block in my work, and have difficulties continuing. No matter how much I try to find a solution, I’m just banging my head against the wall.

The best strategy (in addition to asking for help) is to walk away, do something completely different and then come back.

Oftentimes I get a solution when I’m exercising. My sub-conscious is working in the background and gives me the solution when I least expect it.

If you have hard time moving forward with your work, just step back for a while and return to it later on. This will most likely speed up the process of solving the problem and getting your work done.

14. Wake up earlier

If you follow productivity blogs or books, you have probably heard about becoming an early riser and its advantages (you get more done, you have more time for yourself …).

If you decide to become one, there are two particular aspects that you should be focusing on: Understanding how much sleep you really need and then deciding to go to bed earlier.

Unfortunately, I ignored these aspects when I become an early riser some years ago. Even when I was waking up early, I was in constant sleep-debt, making my work harder than what it was.

So first, decide the amount of sleep you need.

For instance, I’m currently waking up without an alarm clock and recording my sleeping habits into a spreadsheet (when I went to bed, when I got up, how much I slept …).

After collection some statistics on my sleep (over a 30-day period), it’s easier to re-implement the early-rising habit. Once I know how much sleep I need, it becomes simpler to adjust my bedtimes.

Second, don’t make too many big changes at once.

If your goal is to go to bed one hour earlier, do the adjustments bit by bit. For instance, you could decide to go to bed 5 minutes earlier this week and then yet another 5 minutes the next. Eventually you will hit your target.

With these steps waking up earlier becomes easier.

15. Remember the last task you worked on before your vacation

Sometimes you just want to take some time off and detach yourself from work. However, do you know which task you should start working on when you return back to work?

This is what exactly happened to me: When I got back to work from vacation, I didn’t have any idea of the task I was working on. I wasted a lot of time figuring out the stuff that I was supposed to do.

So instead of falling into this trap yourself, “bookmark” your work. In other words, just leave a note to yourself (for example create a document on your desktop), describing the statuses of the latest tasks you worked on.

This way you get up-to-speed much faster instead of pondering for hours about what you were supposed to do.

Procrastination

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16. Be accountable

It’s a whole different ball game to promise something to be delivered for someone else (your boss, colleague, project members …) instead of agreeing on a deadline you made for yourself.

When you hold yourself accountable towards others, you feel pressure to get the work done in a timely fashion, as promised.

It’s easy to skip the deadlines that you set with yourself, but it’s much harder to do this when other people are involved.

17. Know your why

Do you know the reason why the task on your list exists? Or, why do you the task you are currently doing?

Answering the question “why?” exposes the true motive behind the task.

However, if asking why doesn’t yield any reasonable answer, you might then question if the task is worth doing in the first place.

Be critical towards the tasks you have on your list - especially towards those you can’t justify doing.

18. Plan your week

Spend 15-30 minutes every Sunday for planning the biggest goals for the week. This way you know exactly what you should be focusing on over the next few days.

Make sure to put these important weekly milestones on your task list as well.

19. Phone is your friend

Too often we just send an e-mail when we want communicate with someone. Sure, there is a place for e-mails, but often you get the results much faster by calling someone directly.

If your project is on hold because you are waiting for someone’s input, call the person instead of waiting for an e-mail reply.

20. Don’t let it escalate

Make sure to pay attention to small issues too.

For instance, if you drive a car and you hear a weird sound coming from the engine, you could just ignore it (hey, my car is running fine!). However, what could happen is a sudden engine failure when you least expect.

Too often these smaller things get overlooked until it’s too late. So even if the issue might start out small, it could easily turn into something critical.

Take a note of even the smallest details and handle them as soon as possible. That way you sleep better at night knowing that the “monster was killed while it was still small”.

21. Use checklists

If you are doing recurring tasks (who isn’t?) and you want to make sure you get the same results every time, take some time for creating a checklist out of that task.

That way, when you do the task the next time, you can refer to the checklist and follow it. You get the task done easier, and you could potentially delegate the task to someone else, since you have instructions already in place.

Tools

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22. Attend to meetings online

The purpose of meetings is good, but sometimes you just waste time on them. This is especially true if the meeting requires traveling on your part, so question if it’s necessary to be physically part of it.

If it's not, investigate if it’s possible to attend virtually. This saves a lot of your time and also on travelling expenses.

23. Learn the commonly used hotkeys

I used to control my computer with only my mouse until I discovered the power of hotkeys.

You should do the same: Learn the most common hotkeys in your daily applications and your computer usage will become so much faster.

If you really want to become more effective, download software called Alfred (for Mac). It lets you to start programs from your keyboard very quickly.

24. Use password tools

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the user credentials you use in your everyday work. One way to overcome this is to have a tool for managing your passwords.

Often times, the user credentials are automatically filled in with your information when you login to a service. This speeds up the process of using the service.

The tool I’m currently using for password management is LastPass.

25. Let your waiting time be productive time

Sometimes you’ll have to run some errands outside your home office.

In order to maximise the time you spend outside of your home, use these tips to your advantage:

  • Have a book or an e-book reading device (like Kindle) with you
  • Have pen and paper for jotting down thoughts and ideas
  • If you have an MP3 player, load it up with interesting podcasts and listen to them while waiting
  • You can even carry a table or laptop with you

Finally, stop following others and pick the off-rush times when others are less likely to run errands.

For instance, in Finland it’s pretty normal for a majority of people to take care of their business during the lunch hours (11 am - 1 pm), so that’s when most of the public offices and shops are full of people (and you’ll most likely have to wait).

26. Strive for Tab 0

People often talk about reaching Inbox 0 (=clearing your inbox) and that’s of course a good goal to strive for.

However, your inbox is not the only place where the digital clutter accumulates. Have you noticed that you tend to keep more and more tabs open in your browser?

Not only does this slow down your computer (I noticed this especially when I had a PC), but also, the browser becomes unmanageable.

Enter the One Tab extension for Chrome, which closes the rest of your tabs and leaves just one tab open, listing the URLs of other pages you had open.

With this simple extension, you can cut down on the tab clutter and make your browser more manageable.

Furthermore, if you keep multiple tabs open, you should also …

1. Understand the purpose of the open tab:

  • Is your tab open because you are doing research?
  • Is it open because you want to read the post later on?
  • Is it open because you because it contains a tutorial you are going to implement soon?
  • Is it open because you want to access an online training resource later on?

2. Depending of the answer, create a scheduled task of this on your task list and then close the tab

Try to process all the tabs at the end of the day so that it’s much nicer to start your work again the next day.

Timo Kiander
 

  • Hi Timo, I really love how you still sue and submit your posts to blog engage. thanks so much my friend and all the power to you and your blog. I loved your suggestion on focusing on one task at a time in order to complete it well. I’m a huge multitasker and I can speak from first hand at times it’s over whelming and leads me to shutting down the laptop and doing nothing lol I have to admit as well, at times I can be a huge procrastinator!

    • Timo Kiander

      Hey Brian!

      Great to hear you liked the article :)

      Focusing on one thing is sometimes very difficult (I can definitely agree with that).

      I think that one just needs to practice this trait until it becomes a habit.

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • Hey Timo, this is a great list you’ve compiled here. I’ve been practicing “tab zero” for years, but you’ve did an awesome job at describing it. I’ve got into this habit as I’ve had laptops that were low on computing power, and I knew that less tabs I keep open, the faster my computer will behave.

    It became a reflex, that even today, when I have a computer that has more power, I still don’t care about it, as it is deeply entrenched repeated behavior. But I realize that there are a lot of benefits for it.

    If I accidentally close a tab, I have a keyboard shortcut that brings the last closed tab up, think this is useful for this kind of behaviour, if you accidentally close a window. CMD + SHIFT + T opens up the last closed tab.

    I use this one daily.

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Bojan!

      Thanks for the tip – I needed this!

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • Patricia Vaz

    Hi Timo,

    As a freelance writer I need to deliver my projects in a stimulated time.But I often tend to get stuck once I open the document and start thinking about the content. Your 12th point on Habits has made me think that the ‘what’ ‘ ‘why’ & ‘how’ can help me realise the exact content required without being lost in thought.

    Thanks a ton…it will help me a lot

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Patricia!

      That’s great to hear, thanks!

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • Hi Timo,

    thank’s for your great compilation of usefull tipps.

    To “21. Use checklists” i have an additional tip, that’s very usefull for all kind of routines: Time yourself 3 to 5 times for every subtask of a given checklist, add these estimates to your checklist and sum them up; this will give you an average of the time you will need to get this done. Very usefull for planning in advance and for setting realistic deadlines.

    In addition i recommend the “natural planning process” – in my oppinion the real backbone of David Allens GTD – which contains only 3 questions:

    What is the (positive) outcome you want to achieve?

    What all needs to be done to get there (Step #1, Step #2, …)?

    What is the next (logical) step to get this done?

    This not only will help you to focus on the result (besides a great motivator); first and foremost it will force you to get in action, because now you know what to do next and first. In addition this is a really “smart tool” to overcome procrastination.

    With best regards

    Stephan

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Stephan!

      Thank you for these great tips :)

      Cheers,
      Tmo

  • Hi Timo,
    What a helpful list. I compared these to what I’m currently doing and have to agree almost all the way. My difference is that I’m using the iPad almost exclusively.
    My one difficulty is deciding whether to do the 20% tasks or the hardest tasks first. I also like to rate these as high energy tasks. If I can, I trade off between them. The priority of both also helps make the decision. How do you handle this?
    — SallyE

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Sally!

      That’s a good one!

      In essence, these two kinds of tasks are candidates for doing them the first.

      Still, I would probably work on the hardest task first, then on to the next task.

      At least (and in my experience), when I take care of the hardest one first, I can totally focus on the other tasks on my list.

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • What an awesome list! I just published an article this morning on creating habits and seeing your section on habits is awesome!

    Waking up earlier has been a huge part of adding habits to my life. And I love how you mentioned the habits right before vacation.

    It’s funny how hard we work when we have a deadline set in stone.

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Kalen!

      Thank you :)

      Be sure to check out an interview I did with Stephen Guise, the author of Mini Habits.

      It should come out on November 11th.

      Cheers,
      Timo

  • I really love how you still use and submit your posts to blog engage. Thanks so much my friend and all the power to you and your blog. I loved your suggestion on focusing on one task at a time in order to complete it well. I’m a huge multitasker and I can speak from first hand at times its over whelming and leads me to shutting down the laptop and doing nothing lol.

    • Timo Kiander

      Hi Christina Maria!

      Yeah, focusing on thing only requires some practice.

      If you keep at it, this habit becomes stronger and stronger.

      Cheers,
      Timo