Admit it — you feel a sense of pride when you fill up a calendar, overschedule your Google Hangouts, and can’t even wade through all your emails because you’re catching up with your iPhone notifications. You have more than enough stuff to do, and not enough time to do everything.

First, breathe. Then, use these tips to work more effectively throughout the day.

Slow down

We’ve all heard the statement, “Stop the glorification of busy,” tossed around on social media; it’s a catchy phrase and looks cool on a T-shirt. Basically, it comments on our stumble into the busy trap and how what we value is out of sync with how we live our lives.

However, it’s a call to action backed by fact. The graph below by The Economist displays the correlation of hours worked and productivity. It’s a pretty obvious downward slope as consecutive hours worked increase, meaning that you do your best work at the outset of your effort. (Is it a coincidence that’s also when your coffee is hottest? We think not.)


Source: The Economist

Escape the effort trap

Despite this evidence, the pressure to work hard and stay late mounts and mounts — especially when you know nobody else is going to get things done if you don’t. So it may come with some surprise when Oliver Burkeman tells us, “Nobody cares how hard you work.”

To this point, he writes, “We chronically confuse the feeling of effort with the reality of results,” putting us at “the constant risk of frittering time and energy on busywork, instead of the work that counts.” And pouring so much time trying to juggle several tasks at once can drain our focus. Wait, did someone say apple fritters? Ahem.

“Psychologists have long noticed what’s sometimes been called the ‘labor illusion:’ when it comes to judging other people’s work, we might say we’re focused only on whether they did the job quickly and well — but really we want to feel they wore themselves out for us.”

If you’ve slaved away for hours on a task, burning the midnight oil, you must have done the job as thoroughly and as well as you could have. Right?

This is exactly where the “glorification of busy” has led us. When we’re faced with this much demand (even if we ourselves are the source of said demand), being encouraged to “avoid burnout” isn’t all that useful, nor actionable, and taking a digital detox is only a temporary solution to a deeper problem.

Work smarter

The busy trap, the effort trap, the labor illusion — how can we actually decouple our depiction of busyness with productivity and maximize what seemingly little time we have? A better question is how can we do so without freaking out and devolving into a bleary-eyed binge session of Stranger Things and salty snack food?

Well, Further proposes a simple three-step process to increasing productivity.

  1. Identify. Ditch your standard to-do list and tackle problems in order of importance.
  2. Sprint. Block off time on your calendar and barrel through the singular task.
  3. Break. Now stop. Nap, walk, doodle, read. Just do anything but your work.

But you may not agree with this rinse-and-repeat series of sprints and rests. You can still encounter burnout if you have a hard time balancing big pushes and hard stops. At Gusto we often remind ourselves that building a business, and even accomplishing smaller tasks, should be a marathon, not a sprint. You wouldn’t eat the entire carton of fries all at once, would you?

A “work smarter” approach from Jeff Haden via Inc. offers these more rest-oriented tips to relieve yourself of the busy trap and make the time you do spend at work more impactful.

  1. Take more breaks.
  2. Take naps.
  3. Spend time in nature.
  4. Move and work in blocks.
  5. Check your email first thing.

Okay, so this seems more sustainable — but wait, that last tip seems kind of counterintuitive. Haden writes, “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.” It’s the same step as Further’s “Identify,” but by prioritizing rest periods and steadier work blocks, you’re likely to get more done before encountering exhaustion and going in for your fourteenth cappuccino.

And on that note, one more energizing tip is to create, modify, reuse, and automate wherever you can. Reworking what we’ve already done “gives us speed and efficiency without reinventing the wheel every time we want to create [something new].” That’s definitely a sustainable approach.

Step back

At some point in your career, you may simply hit a wall and a more serious consideration may be necessary, which is why Elizabeth Grace Saunders of the Harvard Business Review recommends that you take time to wholly rethink your current work ethic and — getting drastic here — give yourself permission to work fewer hours.

“Begin by evaluating how you currently decide when to stop working. People often stop when they feel too tired to continue or they observe their colleagues stop. But these signals aren’t helpful. […] Basing your hours on a colleague’s is dangerous because you’re putting your time in someone else’s hands (someone who may or may not be working effectively).”

To completely revamp the way we work, Saunders urges us to observe how we work. Identify problem areas or common interruptions. Ask for more resources. Revisit your planning. And finally, make the emotional commitment.

No one but yourself can release you from the busy trap. Investigate what effort traps may lay in your own office, and encourage your team to reevaluate what constitutes productive time spent. Remember to allow yourself to rest.

I mean, wouldn’t you rather have the whole wheel of cheese rather than just the crumble left on the trap?

Your reading list for working smarter and staying happier at work:

Got a topic you want us to dive in on? Suggest a topic by tweet to @GustoHQ!

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Kira Klaas Kira Klaas is a brand marketer who enables customers to learn, share their stories, and be a part of the business community.
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