10 Best Ways to Work Smarter Not Harder

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a woman struggling to push a square and another woman pushing a ball

It’s common for dedicated employees to get into a rut at work, putting in long hours and coming home exhausted every night.

Whether you’re facing another unexpected deadline, overachieving to impress your boss or just trying to keep up with new responsibilities, there are several ways to make your life easier.

Be prepared to reorganise your workday, shift your priorities and rethink the ways you were taught to be productive. Read on for 10 helpful tips and tricks to break bad habits, navigate the modern working environment and work smarter – not harder – to achieve your goals.

1. Stop multitasking

Imagine a heart surgeon checking his email during a medical procedure or an air traffic controller participating in a Zoom meeting while on duty. Most people would consider these concepts ludicrous, yet many still think that multitasking is a more productive way of working. Yes, the stakes are much lower in an ordinary office or retail job, but decades of research show that our brains work better when focusing on one thing at a time.

In fact, the American Psychological Association reports that ‘shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time’, particularly with complex and unfamiliar tasks. Juggling several things at once causes your brain to struggle unnecessarily and can even lead to workplace stress and burnout.

The way to work smarter is to slow down, take a breath and focus your energies in one direction at a time.

2. Remove distractions

Distractions can come in many forms. The easiest ones to eliminate are things like social media, emails and your personal phone. Unless you’re expecting a crucial call or message, silence all notifications to keep your focus on the task at hand.

It can be more difficult to handle the workplace distractions that are out of your control, like chatty coworkers or the dull roar of office machinery. That said, you could invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or try relocating to a vacant office or meeting room.

One distraction you might not expect is the mental interruption from new ideas and inspiration. Rather than abandoning one project to pursue a potential new one, quickly outline your latest brainstorm and then set it aside. Whether it’s a notebook or a file on your phone or laptop, keep all your project ideas in one place that you can easily find later.

3. Get the right training

Employers aren’t always the best at training their new hires, preferring to immediately throw them in the deep end. That doesn’t mean you have to accept a situation where you spend too much time ‘learning on the job’ and not enough actually getting your job done.

Look into training opportunities provided by your company, industry organisations or local universities. If you do the legwork, your boss will often agree to give you paid time off and cover expenses for your supplemental training.

This also applies to everyday tools like a new phone or tablet. Moritz Arendt, product owner at Open Social, notes that all users assume that either experience or common sense will guide them through using new software or devices. ‘This doesn’t just lead to errors,’ Arendt says, ‘but also to users who maintain ineffective usage patterns by keeping themselves from learning and limiting their ability to achieve the goals with their new tool.’

Getting training is the most useful, but even taking the time to read the online manual can reveal shortcuts and features that will improve your efficiency at work.

4. Delay perfectionism

While being a perfectionist can ultimately lead to an exceptional final result, it can also be a real productivity-killer. Whether you’re writing a novel or putting together notes for a business meeting, it’s easy to get hung up on a perfect sentence or tracking down an obscure fact. Pursuing every small detail is distracting and continually halts your momentum.

Plow ahead with a project even if you don’t have every aspect of it perfect or complete. Mark any problematic sections for later review. Once you’ve got the bulk of the work done, then take the time to sort out any remaining issues. You may often find that something you would have spent an hour labouring over wasn’t even necessary to the overall project.

5. Team up

One of the most common interview questions is ‘What is your greatest weakness?’. If you answered this honestly, it’s good to remember that answer when you’re confronted with a mountain of work. Every employee has aspects of the job they excel in, so seek help from colleagues or subordinates who have the skills you’re lacking.

Just because you can figure something out yourself doesn’t mean you have to. A coworker with that expertise can finish the task more quickly, and you’ll have time to work on something else. This is also one of the useful tips for stopping procrastination. Sometimes just brainstorming with another person can help you kick-start a project you’ve been stalling on.

6. Streamline your email

Despite the evolution of communication into texts and videoconferencing, email is still a frequently used tool in the workplace. Unfortunately, it’s also a huge time suck that can prevent you from completing other essential tasks and assignments. The first step to working smarter is clearing your inbox regularly.

Every email you receive should be answered, deleted or moved to a folder. Create folders that are specific to your job, such as client or project names. If you use Outlook email (or a system with similar search features),Microsoft consultant Joanne Klein suggests setting up folders for frequently used searches: ‘A great use-case for a Search Folder is to see all of the mail you’ve flagged for follow-up in one place!’. It creates a one-click solution to sort emails usefully without moving or deleting them from their permanent folders.

Remember that email is only one communication tool at your disposal. Skip it altogether when a two-minute phone call to your boss or a quick visit to a cubicle mate can easily resolve the issue.

7. Focus on your results

Knowing you put in an eight-hour day doesn’t tell you much about what was actually accomplished. One of the ways to work smarter is to catalogue each day’s tasks. An event planner, for instance, might note that they reviewed hotels for a meeting, selected the best option, cleared it with management, negotiated a great price and booked a block of rooms for the event.

Seeing that list of accomplishments and checking them off your to-do list is more motivational than thinking ‘I spent three hours just to get hotel rooms’. Focusing on specific results also keeps you organised and on task, offers guidelines for planning the next event, and reveals areas where you can boost your efficiency.

8. Check in with your boss

Many employees are used to working autonomously, getting the job done without a lot of input or oversight from management. While it’s good to show initiative, effective communication with your boss is still important. A project you’ve been diligently working on may have changed focus or been pushed to the backburner in favour of something else.

Check in with your supervisor periodically to make sure you’re not wasting your time on the wrong things. This is also a great way to keep them updated on what you’ve accomplished, which will come in handy when it’s time for them to write your performance review.

9. Schedule around your energy levels

The best way to work smarter is to capitalise on the times of day when you have peak energy levels. If you feel sharpest after that first morning cup of coffee, schedule your most complex tasks for that time of day. Save more mundane activities for that mid-afternoon lull in your attention span.

Keep other factors in mind as well. If your energy is affected by weather, health issues or whether you got to the gym that morning, take advantage of the days you feel the best. A little overachieving on good days keeps you on schedule despite any setbacks you may experience later in the week.

10. Combine your productivity tactics

There are many techniques to be more productive at work, including taking regular breaks, creating a motivational reward system and keeping energy levels high with exercise. Combine those tactics in way that multiplies the benefits.

For example, one key to productivity is breaking a big project down into smaller tasks. Map out those smaller tasks and then reward yourself with a break after each one is completed. You might finish the preliminary budget for a project, then go for a walk outside. A fortifying snack and some exercise can help clear your mind, and you’ll be more productive when you return. You’ll also be motivated to complete another task to get to that next reward.

With a little discipline and planning, you can work smarter (not harder) to be successful at your job. It may take a little extra effort at first but redirecting your energy more productively will pay off big in the long run.

What techniques do you use to work smarter? Join the discussion below and share your story!