Key Ways to Working Smarter...Not Harder
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Struggling to stay productive while social distancing? Whether at home or at the office, small but important improvements in how you work can enhance your productivity regardless of where you work.
As a professional coach, one of the top goals identified by many of my attorney clients center around enhancing their overall productivity. This has been especially true during this COVID-19 era when many of us are struggling to stay focused on producing high quality work while also working from home, or in situations where our daily routines have became less structured and the boundaries between work and home seem suddenly blurred. Even under normal circumstances, how can we remain optimally productive while finding time to also enjoy the things that make life worthwhile?
A faulty assumption that continues to persist is that to be more productive, we just need to work more. However, the key to true productivity is not always working harder, but rather working smarter. In other words, it's about being more intentional and purposeful about how we structure and complete our work so that we can accomplish more in less time and with less effort. Understanding how our brains work best can help you leverage your mental energy more effectively and efficiently. Here are a few suggested tweaks to your daily routine that could very well enhance your productivity no matter where you are riding out this pandemic.
Prioritize Your Mornings
How do you typically start your workday? Do you spend the first few hours of your morning tackling your most important priorities? Or do you spend it on less important tasks such as watching the news, checking social media, or cleaning out your inbox? If it’s more the latter than the former, consider changing up your morning routine.
For most of us, mornings are when our mental horsepower is at its peak and when we have the greatest bandwidth to stay focused on the more complex and challenging projects and decisions of our day. Recognizing this, most successful people don't spend their mornings completing routine tasks or giving their best self to other people’s priorities. Rather, they prioritize their mornings to focus on their most important activities that will ultimately help them achieve the future they want for themselves.
Our brain is a lot like a cell phone battery in that we function best in the morning when it is fully charged. However, over the course of the day, our mental batteries become depleted and less effective.
Mornings may be the best time to focus on your most critical career-enhancing activities. For many attorneys, this may involve prioritizing your workload or brainstorming business development strategies to identify potential sources of client work. It may also be the ideal time to schedule that important or difficult discussion with your boss or co-worker because this is when you are more likely to be mentally sharp and more “even-keeled” emotionally. Because our mental energy naturally ebbs and flows throughout the course of the day, recognizing and planning our work to coincide with these peak energy periods will help you accomplish your most challenging goals more easily and effectively.
Schedule Recharging & Creativity Breaks
Where are you when you have your most creative ideas? I'm guessing it’s rarely in front of your computer. If you are like me, it's more likely in the shower, informally connecting with others, or simply being outside and enjoying nature. It’s during these type of moments that your mind is less encumbered and your creative juices flow more freely.
This happens because your brain routinely switches into different modes based on the activities you engage in throughout your day. When you are focused on identifying problems and making decisions, your brain is in executive mode, which also tends to be the most mentally draining. Conversely, when you engage in activities such as walking, sleeping, listening to music, socializing, or making things with your hands, your brain switches into creative mode. This is an energy enhancing state where your brain operates most creatively.
If you've ever woken up in the morning with an epiphany to a problem you've been struggling with, then you've experienced just how effectively our brain's creative mode works at generating solutions during a period of rest. This is a common experience and also why we need regular breaks throughout the day to stay energized and solve problems more naturally and creatively.
Because of current workplace norms and taboos against taking rest periods throughout the day, many attorneys find themselves constantly in executive mode struggling to stay focused beyond the point where their mental batteries are depleted.
Are you attending meetings all morning, grabbing lunch on the run and then diving into a challenging project in the afternoon with no breaks? Most of us can only maintain focus on a task for about 90 minutes at a time. This explains why those of us who go all day without reenergizing our brains struggle to stay focused and productive as the day wears on. We seek out less optimal ways to recharge throughout the day including an overdependence on caffeine, sugar, and other unhealthy habits in an unsuccessful attempt to stay productive. In addition to experiencing burnout, forging through our day at full throttle doesn't allow the brain enough time and space to give rise to the creative and innovative insights that are essential to solving complex problems, which is a critical requirement for most attorneys.
Realizing that breaks enhance your productivity and creativity, endeavor to incorporate a few well-placed breaks throughout your day to sufficiently disengage and recharge. This can be a short walk outside with a friend, 20-minute meditation, or even a short mid-afternoon nap whenever possible. In fact, a nap of about 20-30 minutes is one of the success secrets for many busy leaders because it can almost fully recharge your mental batteries without disrupting your regular bedtime sleep cycle. Whatever options work best for you, treat these scheduled breaks, not as an occasional guilty indulgence, but as a critical component of your long-term productivity enhancement strategy.
Have you ever found yourself working hard on several different projects simultaneously only to realize that you've fallen short of your goal or, worse, generated work product that’s not up to snuff? While we may feel more productive because we’re juggling several balls in the air at once, the reality is…as humans, we really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Even if you think you are the true exception to this, you’re fooling yourself. Rather, what you are doing is sequentially switching your focus and energy back and forth between the different tasks, which is very inefficient and ineffective use of your mental energy and focus.
Many of us feel that multitasking is the key to higher productivity, but it can actually cost you twice as much time to complete a task with significantly more errors and higher stress.
Instead, try single-tasking, which is really about fully focusing on one task at a time for a predetermined duration or level of completion. This may translate to working on a brief for 25 minutes at a time without opening up another tab on your computer or sneaking a peek at your incoming emails or texts. This can be challenging at first, but try to pay attention to what tends to interrupt your focus on a particular task and take steps to eliminate these noncritical distractions if possible.
One of the biggest distractions that affects productivity for attorneys is the constant pull of their email notifications throughout the day. It isn't just the frequency of actually opening emails that is a problem (36 times a day on average) but if you stop what you are doing to read and respond, it will take you about 25 minutes to become reabsorbed in the previous task. The opened, yet not responded to, emails also create an open loop in your brain, so even if you don't take the extra time to respond immediately, you still won't be able to fully concentrate on the matter in front of you.
A better way to handle this is to “batch” the process of checking emails and other similar tasks into specific time periods during the day. For some it may be setting aside blocks of time to check and respond to all incoming emails or other routine requests 3-5 times a day. The key isn’t so much frequency as is intentionality. This can be a more challenging habit to develop because the brain loves novelty and we get a dopamine hit from the allure of a new notification or unopened email. One way to minimize your tendency to respond to these triggers is to disable or suppress notifications during your focused periods. If you find the process of checking your email just too irresistible, you can also use an app like this to schedule your emails to download from the server during specific times of the day.
Many attorneys are concerned that less frequent response times may negatively affect client relations. The reality is that most clients may actually develop an appreciation for more predictable and structured response times over those that are erratic or overlooked. Finding a frequency schedule that works well for you and your clients may provide a win-win solution so that you are making progress toward your highest priorities and clients are receiving the most value for their investment.
These are just a few small ways to work smarter so you can be more productive with less effort regardless of where you find yourself working. If you’d like more information on how I can help you enhance your productivity or make better progress toward some of your other career-related goals, please contact me or schedule a complimentary coaching session to experience the how coaching can help you get out of your own way so that you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Watch the Online Webinar of this topic HERE.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Consultant