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5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Try one. Try them all. They work. Science says so.
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You work really hard. In fact, you might not be able to work any harder. But you can still work smarter.

Here are five ways anyone can work smarter from Belle Beth Cooper, content crafter at Buffer, the social media management tool that lets you schedule, automate, and analyze social-media updates. (She's also co-founder of Exist.)

Here's Beth:

One of the things I love about the culture at Buffer is the emphasis on working smarter, not harder. Our team is all about getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and recreation time, so our time spent working is as productive as it can be.

Working harder can be an easy habit to slip into, though. Sometimes it's hard to switch off at the end of the day or take time out on the weekend and stop thinking about work. With a startup of my own to run, I find this even harder to manage. Whenever I'm not working on Buffer I'm working on Exist, and it's easy to fall into a pattern of "always working" rather than working smart.

Here are five ways to avoid that trap:

1. Take more breaks. In one of my favorite books, Stephen Covey tells a story about a woodcutter whose saw gets more blunt as time passes and he continues cutting down trees. If the woodcutter were to stop sawing, sharpen his saw, and go back to cutting the tree with a sharp blade, he would actually save time and effort in the long run.

The analogy is an easy one to remember but harder to put into practice. Here's what Covey says about sharpening the saw in our lives:

Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have--you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Sharpening the saw is a great habit to get into in all areas of our lives, but I think it can be especially beneficial when it comes to work and helping us avoid burnout.

On average our brains are only able to remain focused for 90 minutes; then we need at least 15 minutes rest. (The phenomenon is based on ultradian rhythms.) By taking period breaks roughly every 90 minutes you allow your mind and body to renew--and be ready to fire off another 90-minute period of high activity.

For some people, 15 to 20 minute breaks might be tough to pull off, but taking short breaks throughout the day can still help you to refresh your mind and reset your attention span.

2. Take naps. Research shows naps lead to improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking, and memory performance. In particular, napping benefits the learning process by helping us take in and retain information better.

The improved learning process comes from naps actually helping our brain to solidify memories. According to Max Read, "Research indicates that when memory is first recorded in the brain--in the hippocampus, to be specific--it's still 'fragile' and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping, it seems, pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain's 'more permanent storage,' preventing them from being 'overwritten.'"

One study into memory found that participants did remarkably better on a test following a nap than those who didn't sleep at all.

Not only are naps beneficial for consolidating memories and helping us remember new information (handy if your job includes a lot of research during the day!), they're also useful in helping us to avoid burnout, since research shows burnout is a signal that says you can't take in more information in this part of your brain until you've had a chance to sleep.

3. Spend time in nature. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, suggests spending time in nature to help us reset our attention span and relax our minds.

One experiment he mentions tested how relaxed people were when taking a walk down a city street versus in a quiet park. The study found that the level of attention needed to navigate a busy city street is high enough that the walk doesn't let the brain relax enough to reset our focus levels:

Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.

Spending time in nature, however, allows your mind to fully relax and unwind and helps you focus longer when you return to work. Plus, other research has found that for students, motivation to learn is higher when they are outside instead of in a classroom.

4. Move and work in blocks. I recently read a blog post by Joel Runyon about a method he calls "workstation popcorn" (which is basically what our back-end developer Colin does.)

The idea is that you set up at various cafés, workspaces, or, as in Colin's case, pubs to get chunks of work done throughout the day. Workstation popcorn starts with a clear, thought out to-do list: you create a plan for what you will accomplish at each location so you can immediately jump into those tasks.

Joel breaks up his to-do list into sections--one per café that he plans to visit--and each section into three clear tasks. Once he gets through the group of tasks he has set, he moves on to the next café on his list.

Of course, you can sort out your task list however suits you best, but the important part to note is having a clear finishing point based on your task list rather than the time you will move to a new location. And when you move, cycling or walking is a good way to go, according to Joel:

Use this time to practice your Zen, take a break from your screen, and get some movement into your day. Keep your phone in your pocket, and move. Take a break away from work for at least thirty minutes.

I know Colin often finds this break period helpful for thinking through what he's working on or what he will do next. Joel also noted in his post that he has been more productive, more active during the day, and is working fewer hours since he started this process.

5. Check your email first thing. This one is fairly counterintuitive; basically everyone says not to check email right away, but I do and find it extremely useful. Here are some ways checking email first helps me to be more productive during the day.

If you work in a remote team like we do at Buffer, a business trend that is increasingly more common, you'll know what it's like to have half of your team (or more) working while you're asleep. If you need to work closely with others, it's important to check in before you start your workday and make sure you're on the same page as everyone else.

Since I started working at Buffer, I've woken up to emails saying I had typos to fix, a new blog post published, and even that Buffer had been hacked. Dealing with important issues first thing helps me make quick decisions about whether my day needs to be adjusted to fit in with what everyone else is doing or whether I can proceed with the tasks I already had planned.

What tips do you have for working smarter?

(If you like this post, check out Belle Beth's 10 scientifically proven ways to be incredibly happy.)

Last updated: Mar 4, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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