5 Hacks for Working Smarter
I’ve tried to resist writing a ‘productivity hacks’ post. I’d thought maybe instead I’d contribute to the myriad of scholarly work and thought pieces about how our cultural obsession with productivity is an internalized capitalist construct. It’s obscured our values, taken away our ability to be present in the moment, and has let peace and contentment slip out of the picture of success.
But, then again, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I like being a productive person. I like to set goals and I like to get sh*t done.
Whilst I believe that ‘hustle culture’ is harmful and we need to reclaim our time, I also believe that most of us need and want to be productive. To make money and achieve goals whilst still finding the time to stay happy and healthy and live in the moment. Because life is a bit of a juggling act for everyone. We all have more than one place or person that requires our attention and energy, we’ve all got to allocate our energy in a way that means none of our ‘juggling balls’ are dropped, and, most importantly, we all need to keep ourselves up, running, and motivated to cultivate the energy to juggle in the first place.
I have three big ‘juggling balls’ in my life: studying for my master’s degree, my part-time job as a tutor, and my freelance writing work, alongside those every day commitments we all have. I know that to have the motivation and energy to juggle these things I have to get exercise, socializing, self-care, and room for spontaneity in there too. So, inevitably, nothing in my life is getting 100% of my time and energy. And that’s fine, my life isn’t just one thing. But it does mean I’ve had to find ways to productively and efficiently use every minute that I put into each of these things to do them well and have time to just ‘be’ without any ‘doing’ at all.
From experience, working longer and harder hasn’t got me there. All it’s got me is stressed, anxious, and unhappy, and the work I produce suffers because of it. I’ve found that managing my time, energy, and level of focus is the best way to find a balance, and these are 5 small things I do when I’m working that help.
A little disclaimer before I begin: I’m absolutely not the most productive person, and I don’t strive to be. What I aim for is to be balanced, and, if anything, sharing these tips is an incentive to practice what I preach because after all it’s about intention, not perfection!
1. Use a timer to prevent dragging tasks out
You may have heard of the Pomodoro technique — the popular, researched, tried and tested strategy of breaking down work into 25-minute intervals with short breaks. This is my adaptation.
If you feel like your attention is slipping think of something you really enjoy and want to do in your day and set a timer for a chunk of time to get work done before you do that thing. Decide on the amount of time based on factors like the your energy level, how distracted you are, and the length of your to do list.
And here’s the key part: as soon as you get distracted, and your mind starts to wonder, restart the timer. Whether it’s been 15 second or 15 minutes, hit restart. Keep restarting until you get the full, undistracted, chunk of time (start small and achievable!), and train your brain to know that every second counts. By having a ‘reward’, and it has to be something good enough to be an adequate motivator, you’re ensuring you bringing something fun into your day too.
2. Turn your phone off and put it in another room
It may seem extreme to do both but hear me out: if you turn your phone off and put it next to you, let’s be real, you’ll see it there and turn it back on. If you put your phone in another room and you go to make a cup of tea and walk past it, the temptation is there to have a ‘quick glance’ that turns into a long scroll. If you turn it off and put it in another room its quite a lot of effort to get up, go to it, and wait whilst it turns back on, so you’re much less likely to do that. By turning it off and putting it in another room you can put the attention-draining device out of your mind and focus better on the task at hand.
(if you can’t part with it, at least go for ‘do not disturb’ mode!)
3. Always return to the big picture
Whatever you’re working towards — for me that would be an essay, commission, or a final lesson — think about the end goal.
For example, at university, and especially in Arts degrees, there’s a lot of things we could do, and maybe feel we ought to do, that aren’t necessary. It’s very possible to do a hell of a lot of work we’re going to get no credit for. Whilst grades shouldn’t be the sole incentive, and you’re probably going to want to do more than just the bare minimum, it’s good to always keep in your mind what is going to count to avoid being overwhelmed. Picture the goal and focus on what’s actually going to get you there, before you try and do it all.
Continuing the University example, you can plan your semester from week one. For my degree, you can look at how the modules are going to be assessed, find out a bit about the topics, and keep in mind a very vague idea of what you might like to write on throughout the course. You can check when the deadlines are and when that means you will need to start writing, and by keeping the final project in mind the entire time, you’ve already done a lot of the background work when it comes to writing.
4. Use your language to be ambitious rather than self-defeatist
Okay, you might think this one is silly and it’s not so much a ‘practical’ tip like the rest, but I’m a big believer that the way you speak to yourself changes the way you think and act. When you speak about things a certain way, you’re framing the way you think about it, and you can use this to your advantage to habitually take a proactive attitude to tasks and cut out the deliberation time.
Extreme version: sweat rolling down your face as you scream at yourself in the mirror that TODAY WILL BE A GOOD DAY. My version: say a big (even if it’s ironic) ‘easy’ every time you think of something that’s going to take a lot of effort. A couple of essays to write? Easy. The deadlines tomorrow? Easy. Three novels to read for next week? Easy. Oh, a little dissertation? Easy.
It may seem stupid, and it is definitely a matter of lying to yourself, but this helps you to just ‘crack on with it’. Saying to yourself you don’t have enough time, or you don’t think you can do it, is self-defeatist, not to mention having that whole argument with yourself just cuts into your time.
It’s about replacing ‘I can’t do it’ with ‘just do it’.
5. Always Keep a Notepad Near
This hack is good for two key things: getting rid of distractions and clinging onto ideas.
Starting with the first; if you can’t stop thinking about something, and it’s getting in the way of what you need to do, then put it down of paper. Whether it’s a bullet point list or a Virginia-Wolf-style stream of conscious passage, once it’s down on paper you can take it out of your mind.
The second is about knowing where your work is going. Anything you read, see, talk about, or wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about — if it sparks an idea for whatever you are working on, get it down fast as possible. Then come back to it in your allocated slot for working on that thing. This means you’re not dropping everything you’re doing to chase an idea, but equally, you’re not letting a good thought go. You’re writing it down to come back to when it’s time for it to be used.
And there you go! 5 hacks that have helped me work more efficiently.
It’s definitely no ‘Forbes Under 30’ or ‘Business Insider’ level of hustle hacks, but these are things that have helped me balance all the things I want to do. I find the main thing is to visualize what matters to you, your goals, and what brings your joy and keep returning to that ‘big picture’ to use your time and energy intentionally.