5 Unusual Ways to Start Working Smarter, Not Harder, Backed by Science

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workingOne 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 that 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 to 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 lately. 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 and fitting in time to look after myself as well.

If this happens to you, too, here are five methods to try that’ll help get you working smarter, not harder.

1. Take more breaks: Respecting our natural attention spans

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’d 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 to avoid burnout.

On average, our brains are only able to focus for 90 minutes and need at least 20 minutes rest thereafter, if we consider our natural ultradian rhythms:

ultradian rhythms

Just getting away from work and having a rest can be a good start. Taking breaks throughout the day* can help you to refresh your mind and reset your attention span.

Another way to implement breaks—especially when you’re busy—is to work in small bursts. The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for this. Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, check your email, or just sit back and relax.

Or, if you’re really strapped for time, try switching to a different kind of task to give your mind a rest. If you’ve ever tried the 7-minute workout, you’ll understand how this works. As you exercise your arms, your legs get a break. Then exercising your legs gives your arms a break.

When you have lots to do, you can use small, easy tasks like replying to emails or following up a phone call to give your brain a rest from the hard work that takes up the rest of your day.

2. Take naps: One of the most efficient ways to boost your brain function

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

The improved learning process comes from naps actually helping our brain to solidify memories:

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 to 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:

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.

So when should you be taking a nap? Well, if you pay attention to your body’s natural circadian rhythm, you’ll probably find that you have a dip in energy levels in the early afternoon. This is because we’re actually designed to have two sleeps per day, according to Loughborough University Professor, Jim Horne.

Our bodies are made to sleep for a long period overnight and a shorter stint during the day, which is why our energy levels drop and we felt sluggish or sleepy in the afternoon. Even if you don’t have a nap, this is a good time to listen to your body and have a rest.

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 in his book 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 beinghit by a car), making them less restorative.

Spending time in nature, however, lets our minds fully relax and unwind, helping us to focus for longer when we return to work. Plus, other research has found that for students, motivation to learn is higher when they do so surrounded by nature instead of being inside a classroom. I think I’d probably feel the same if I were allowed to take high school lessons outside.

study outside

4. Move around and work in blocks

I read a blog post by Joel Runyon recently about a method he called “workstation popcorn,” which is pretty much what Buffer’s back-end developer Colin has been doing for quite a while.

The idea is that you set up at various cafés, workspaces (or even pubs, in Colin’s case) to get chunks of work done throughout the day. Workstation popcorn starts with a clear, thought-out to-do list. At each venue, you need to know what you’re going to work on before you get set up, so that you can jump into it immediately.

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.

Workstation Popcorn

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, when you will move on 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 30 minutes.

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

Whenever I’ve tried this in the past, I’ve always found that setting milestones in advance is really helpful. If you’re like me, and you usually have just one or two big projects to work through each day, you might find this useful as well.

If I’m working on a blog post, I’ll often break it into small chunks of work, such as brainstorming the outline, researching and then writing each section, and adding an introduction and conclusion. These smaller tasks help me choose a stopping point for each location I work at, before I get up and move.

Even if you’re staying in the one place, breaking your work into chunks and setting milestones as stopping points can be a good way to work lots of breaks into your day.

5. Check your email first thing in the morning

This one is really counterintuitive, especially if you have read anything online about productivity in the past couple of years. Pretty much everyone says not to do this, but I do it every day and find it really useful. Here are some ways it helps me to be more productive during the day.

coffee computer

If you work in a remote team like we do at Buffer, or a international team, you’ll know what it’s like to have half of your team (or more) working while you’re asleep. Especially 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’ve started working at Buffer, I’ve woken up to emails saying I had typos to fix, I had a new blog post published, and even that Buffer had been hacked. Getting onto those first thing in the morning helps me make quick decisions about whether my day needs to be adjusted to fit in with what everyone else is doing or if I can go ahead with the tasks I already had planned.

Even in my own startup, which is just a two-person operation, checking email first thing in the morning can be useful. My co-founder tends to find his flow late at night when I’m going to bed, so I often wake up to emails about what’s changed in the product overnight, as well as feedback from customers in different time zones to us.

Of course, I could just wait until I get to my desk to check my email. I could even do it while I’m grabbing a coffee before I start my day. I don’t, though. I often check my email before I even get out of bed. Shock horror, I know! But hear me out—I don’t have email notifications on my phone. I don’t have them on my computer, either. And because that means I have to choose when to check my inbox, I don’t like working with my email app open, since I tend to look at it too often.

So when I sit down at my desk to start my day, I’ve not only checked my emails and replied to anything urgent, I sit down at a computer with no inbox open to distract me from whatever work I want to get started on. I can relax, knowing that I haven’t missed anything important and get on with my day, leaving my inbox processing to be done later.

This won’t work for everyone, but I think it’s worth trying if you’re in a similar situation.

What tips do you have for working smarter? Let us know in the comments.

Next: 5 More Unexpected Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

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Image credits: ebayink, m00by, razvan.caliman, Joel Runyon

  • http://peter-rocks.it/ Peter Piskun

    Interesting – first time to read that checking emails first isn’t wrong. Like it because that’s what i did the last ten years ;-)
    I also like the concept of the “Workstation Popcorn” – but this will only work for freelancer or remote workers..or?

    • Belle

      Definitely depends on your setup, Peter. If you’re stuck in an office, though, maybe you could move to a different room or a different desk and try it that way?

      • http://peter-rocks.it/ Peter Piskun

        Same room, but different desk?? I think i’ll give that a try. And pray for being a remote worker some day ;-)

  • http://bebrainfit.com/ Deane Alban

    I, too, check my emails first. I want to approach my creative work with a clean conscience and not be wondering what disaster might be waiting for me to fix!

    • Belle

      haha, exactly! Getting it out of the way means it’s not weighing on your mind while you’re trying to concentrate.

  • http://jessicasheep.tumblr.com/ Jessica Yang

    I check my emails first thing in the morning, too and I find that it helps me organize my day better. I like the concept of “Workstation Popcorn” since I have various breaks throughout the day that I could probably use to get some work done instead of piling my work in one chunk in the evening.

  • Crazy Bill

    Workstation Popcorn… Hey, I’m all for getting popcorn at my workstations!

  • http://workado.com/ Justin McGill @ Workado

    Great points! I also do the email thing in the morning, but my problem is I have it open all day long too lol. I am a big fan of naps though!

  • AndreaLeyden

    Really post Belle! I recently research this area for a blog post on our ExamTime blog about study hacks which are actually quite similar. They can be applied in other ways to boost productivity also. Keep ‘em coming Belle :)

    • Belle

      Thanks!

  • 3upgolf

    I absolutely love plowing through email first thing (after getting a brewed beverage, of course) in the morning at the office. Like the article mentions, it’s a great way to populate your TODO list for the day.

    I’d also like to throw in a vote for the Pomodoro Technique. I used it with great success last year and for whatever reason, fell off the bandwagon. Time to saddle back up.

    • Belle

      Pomodoro can be really helpful. I think, like Joel said in his Workstation Popcorn post, the trickiest thing is deciding what to do and planning out your day. Once that’s done, getting stuck in is much easier.

      • 3upgolf

        The biggest challenge when starting out with the Pomodoro technique is trying to not do TOO much. It’s shocking how much you think you can get done in a day versus reality.

  • ajlovesya

    I used to be anti-checking email first thing, but I find that taking care of simple email requests gives me a nice boost of energy. It feels like a mini-accomplishment.

    Also not all emails are disruptive. Some actually help me work better and give me new ideas. I’ve gotten really good at prioritizing emails based on sender/subject so I know when and how to read and respond.

    • Belle

      Good point there – not all email is created equally :)

  • Tony Yang

    My takeaway from this post – take 20 minute naps every 90 minutes out on the lawn outside our office! ;-)

    • LeoWid

      haha, love it!

    • http://succeedforever.com/ Donovan Dock

      Thats awesome :)

  • Vlada

    I also like checking email while still in bed. It starts the thinking process early and in the background, while getting ready. Just make sure you don’t reply to any message before you are fully awake

    • Belle

      haha, good tip!

  • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

    #3 is a big one for me. I have an awesome park by my office that I often go to for an afternoon walk. Being out in nature really helps me recharge and often helps with a needed perspective change on especially stressful days.

    • Belle

      Glad it works for you! I definitely find that I’m re-energized when I return from a walk outside.

      • rumbleinyourjungle

        It’s definitely effective but the article misses half the point of / reason for this… Vitamin D?

  • Silas

    This is great. …. I mean. Buffer culture is awesome. Keep up the good work.

  • Samantha Owens

    I love these, and some of them I already employ (mostly the taking small breaks throughout the day and checking my email first thing in the morning. Since a lot of my work is a bit reactive I do have my Outlook and Gmail open side by side throughout the day, but I can respond to it immediately if it’s urgent or make a note to come back to it later, then keep going. Since it’s not an auditory interruption, it’s worked pretty well for me so far.

    • Belle

      Getting those quick replies done immediately definitely feels good – no need to leave them sitting in your inbox if you can action them straight away!

  • Andrew McClelland

    I like the emphasis Belle, on ways of working smarter, rather than harder. There is so much research around now showing that robust creativity requires brain down-time, to allow all those creative ideas to percolate. I usually have my best ideas after walking in nature or going to a cafe to sit and read, or in the shower. One thing I find interesting and disturbing about the plethora of info around now on how to work more efficiently is the glaring absence of questioning the societal structures and mindset that demands so much relentless hard work. Krishnamurti nailed it for me when he said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

    • Belle

      Ooh I like that quote! Thanks for sharing.

      • Andrew McClelland

        You’re welcome, Belle. :) I have another one pinned on my wall that I like, but I don’t know its origin: “What are the symptoms of a creative mind? Curiosity. Mischief. Playfulness; Openness; Deviant and divergent thinking. Individualism and rebelliousness. Humour. Courage. Flexibility. Tolerance. Diversity of experiences and friendships. And often, a tendency to leave some things unfinished.”

        • Tony Somervell

          Love that last quote! Because I like to think I’m creative? Or leave a lot of things unfinished?! I guess a lot depends to on what stage you’re at in your career / life. Is there a new personality ‘sorter’ that companies are using these days beyond the ?dated Myers Briggs analysis?

    • JennieO

      I love your writing style, I just got so much out of this one paragraph.

      • Andrew McClelland

        Thanks Jennie. Your comment was a nice surprise.

  • Karl Thompson

    Nap many times a day really does improve life, avoid coffee except once
    in awhile. And the timer yes all habits effective people have. FANTASTIC
    blurb :) NAPS work so well over coffee let alone it’ll throw your brain chemistry out of wack. ;.(

  • Deirdre

    Love the 7 habits and Stephen Covey (RIP). I love that Outlook now lets you schedule your task list and show your daily tasks under your calendar the way his planners and PlanPlus software do. I suspect his company aren’t so pleased about that though.

  • http://programminglife.net/ mcatlett

    I’ve struggled to move my email spree to later in the day, but it just doesn’t work – first thing in the morning, and then all my clients are happy and I don’t get the upset calls an hour or two in. Glad it’s not just me the productivity mantra of “check email after you do your most important work” doesn’t work for.

    Nicely written, thanks – I enjoyed it. :)

  • Ali @ Pickevent

    Love this article! I’ve got to admit, I do not touch my emails before I get to my desk – though admittedly, most of our staff are in the same time zone, so it’s pretty rare I am messaged after 7pm anyway!

  • mario ferenac

    The best way to work smarter and not harder is to get yourself a pet.Cat is a great for this as it can lavish you from all that stress but don’t cuddle them too much as you can fell asleep just like they do after cuddling ;) Plus,did i mention that those animals are excellent alarm clocks as they work much better than the modern ones,they always tend to wake up in same time so you will never get late to work :)

  • Albert Freeman

    Tips 1 to 4: Yes, great advice. I shall be trying these (although there is sadly little in the way of nature near my office).

    But 5: hmm, I’m not so sure about checking emails first thing. Certainly not before getting up! What about the meditation that Buffer is so keen on? ;) I have too admit that before I started to pay close attention to the Buffer blog, I was definitely an emails-first-thing person. But it is other posts on this blog that have made me realise that doing this has actually been hindering my productivity.

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    You’re right that #5 is “unusual.” Most people talk against it. But you give me validation for checking my email first thing. I don’t do it everyday, but sometimes I just gotta get that inbox zero at the start of the day (especially if people are counting on an answer from me). I just make sure I don’t get bogged down in email. Usually 30 minutes or less, and I’m good to go.

    • http://peter-rocks.it/ Peter Piskun

      I spend my first pomodoro on checking emails (for me 21 minutes).
      Works really fine for me!

  • David

    Not going on Reddit usually upgrade my efficiency by 1000%

  • http://praetorlabs.com/ Nicholas Perry ~ ‘Ultim’Ape

    What app is that you are using for the example of breaking work into chunks under #4?

  • JennieO

    Belle, this is exactly what I needed to read today! I love the unconventional advice about setting up shop in various locations i.e. cafes or pubs, since this keeps your brain from getting tired of sitting in one spot. Plus the key here is to define when you are done based on the task, not on the time. Such a great post, spot on for me!

  • http://www.thehealthyeatingguide.com/ Scott Christ

    What tools do you guys use for task management / to-do lists? I still use a paper planner but all my ideas and notes go in Evernote.

  • http://www.markmidwintermusic.com/ Mark Midwinter

    great post – thanks for sharing Belle!

  • http://cbninjas.com/ Naveen Vijay

    take a nap – this is needed for millions to boost the productivity.

  • http://www.myaspergers.net/ steveborgman

    I like your suggestion of working in different locations for different batches of tasks. Unfortunately, I can’t always do that in my corporate workspace :( But I can definitely get out and walk in nature every 90 minutes! :)

  • TourWriter Staff

    love your work. back to chopping trees…

  • Muhammad Khan

    I completely agree, work smarter, not harder. However, how many actually practice it? Those working hard, consider those working smart, to be not working at all! That’s a bit of an issue if you are surrounded by those who working hard, especially when it comes to the corporate world. This needs a whole mindset shift, at a leadership level.