It’s a typical trap: you come home from work and talk about… work. You get in bed at the end of a long day and check your phone for… work e-mail. You fall asleep and dream about… you guessed it… Work! The traditional structure of nine to five is no more – the average American works 47 hours a week. We’re working over the recommended limit and conversely, sleeping under the 7-9 hours per night that research suggests is optimal for our well-being. While it’s likely that most of us face a deficit regarding our sleep/work ratio Monday-Friday, this does not have to be the norm. Who wouldn’t love a little more time to read, cook, spend time with the kids and play outside before sundown? The goal should be to work fewer hours than you sleep in any given five day work-week. Try these eight simple tricks – one for each precious hour of sleep you’re striving for – that can shift those extra seven hours out of the office and into bed, with plenty more time to spare.
1. Pen, Paper and Priorities
While technology has provided us with enough multitasking tools and digital calendars to schedule and plan the rest of our lives, it can all be a little overwhelming. The key to productivity is priorities. Put away the iCal and put pen to paper. Write down the tasks you need to complete today, and then rank them in order of difficulty. Complete the hardest tasks first (unless something easier must be completed first) when your mind is freshest and your coffee’s still kicking. This list will serve as a focus tool to address only the tasks in front of you, one at a time. Plus, it feels great when you get to physically cross them off the list. By the end of the Friday, my planner looks like one giant Rorschach inkblot, and I interpret that to mean it’s been a very successful week.
2. Give your Tasks a Time-frame
By writing your tasks in front of you, you’ll be able to gauge the amount of time you can spend on each activity and work more diligently to complete quality work in the given time. Next to each task, write down the number of hours that you will spend on that task today. While it may take a while to determine how much time any particular task needs, it doesn’t have to be exact, just relatively realistic. Time-frames are like baby steps. When I know I only have to do my least favorite task from 9-10, it becomes a much less daunting part of my day’s checklist. And more often than not, I finish each task early, leaving myself some time for breaks!
3. Bursts and Breaks
There are many theories out there about the ideal amount of time to focus and reboot. Breaks can be a great way to step away from the desk, clear your mind, and come back refreshed. For me, each day is different and I try to listen to what my body and mind need. If, like many people, you require structure to make this effective, a general ratio of working for 52 minutes and then playing/relaxing for 17, should keep you productive yet relaxed at the same time (these numbers may seem random, but they’re not). If you find your focus waning though, perhaps the Pomodoro Technique will work for you – a cycle of just 25 minutes to focus/work, and 5 minutes to rest. Whichever one works for you, these breaks don’t have to be a waste of time or an excuse to procrastinate. Take these precious minutes to relax your eyes, step outside, stretch or maybe call your mom. Just get your mind off of work every now and then, and it won’t fight you when it’s time to focus.
4. Work to Workout
One of the best breaks you can take is an exercise break. Reserve at least 30 minutes in the middle of your work day to get the heart rate up and the blood pumping to the brain. It will stimulate creativity, relieve stress and increase alertness. You can even invite your colleagues to improve workplace relationships. Wednesday, despite it’s horrible hump day reputation, is actually my favorite day of the week. My boss and I take a long run around the lake nearby, during which we have some of our best brainstorms and take the time to connect on a non-work level. Fitting in exercise is immensely positive in every possible way. After a workout, when you’re back in the work chair, you will be less antsy, less distracted, and more productive than when you started.
5. Eat Well, Hydrate and Meditate
Being focused, efficient, and productive requires being in shape, both mentally and physically. You’ll need stamina and nourishment to make it through an optimized work day, and mental clarity to tackle each task with conviction. Breakfast is an absolute must, and even chocolate and coffee are recommended in modest quantities. Eating healthy food improves focus, and staving off dehydration is a good way to keep energy up (and pee breaks are a good excuse to force yourself away from work momentarily!). Working for a food company, I’m lucky to have ample access to healthy snacks that lend themselves well to a “five small meals a day” method. One thing I’m working on is to be sure that I step away from my desk when it’s meal time so that I can take advantage of yet another break opportunity and truly appreciate what I eat. By taking a bit of that break time each day to reflect and meditate, you will increase your aptitude for mindfulness – an incredible skill both in and out of the workplace.
6. Cater to your Creativity
Don’t let the traditional work hours define you. With the more flexible and remote nature of many careers nowadays, you can set your own schedule. Those 40 hours no longer have to be nine to five consecutively. My most productive hours are actually in the morning, from six to noon, with a late afternoon boost from four to six. Try a broken schedule like this and you might realize you’ve done your exercise during one break, prepped dinner in another, and still have a few hours to spare for relaxation and refreshment before bedtime! This also applies for your location – don’t work from the office just because you feel like you have to, and don’t work from home just because you can. Not every day has to be the same, and changing it up will keep you engaged and help dodge boredom and monotony. When you plan out the tasks of the day, determine which environment will foster the most creativity and efficiency so you can produce your best quality of work.
7. Check Out at the end of the Check List
The above tips should help you to avoid burning out from all that great work you’ve accomplished, but there’s one more essential step – quit while you’re ahead. It’s important to leave today’s work on a high note so that you’re ready to roll tomorrow. When you’ve finished everything you’ve set out to do to the best of your ability, step away and call it a day. Have a bunch of tasks that could come next? Create tomorrow’s list and feel good about having finished today’s tasks and having taken tomorrow’s first step. By the end of the week, as long as I’ve completed all the work I set out to, I can walk away guilt-free.
8. Actually Sleep
If you want to sleep more hours than you work, you should make sure you’re sleeping at least eight hours. But just as you can be creative with your work hours, sleeping hours don’t have to be amassed in the eight-hour blocks that we think they do. All over the world, siestas, repos and nap-times allow adults to reach their full eight hours of shuteye and wake up feeling refreshed and refocused. Even Google offers nap rooms, recognizing it increases techie productivity! If you’re more partial to the traditional nighttime slumber however, try setting a timer rather than an alarm, counting down from an ideally uninterrupted eight hours at lights out. For a fascinating video (it’s a TedTalk) on why sleep is so crucial for our brains and and brain functions, click here.
After trying these steps, you may find you have more time on your hands than you did before — congratulations, task master! Now, channel your inner Frenchman and resist the temptation to do more. Increasing your productivity doesn’t necessarily mean you should put in more work hours. It means you’re now privy to the revered work-life balance. What will you do with your extra third of the day?