5 Psychology Hacks to Help You Work Smarter

by Corey Pemberton 8 Minutes

Work SmarterYou aren’t afraid of long hours.

That’s what it takes to get a business off the ground.

Most of us work hard.

But we let precious minutes slip away during our work days. Minutes that we could have spent resting, relaxing, and enjoying our time with family and friends.

If you’re you’re working hard and still feel overwhelmed, you aren’t alone.

Let’s talk about how to work smarter.

That will boost your productivity, lower your stress, and free up time so you can enjoy life.

You can have those things… if you’re willing to apply some simple psychology hacks to transform the way you work.

Keep reading to see how.

Mistakes That Turn Our Brains Against Us

Ever have days when you shoot out of bed in the morning ready to work?

Or those other days when it takes everything you have just to get moving?

This problem – the uneven nature of motivation – affects even the most disciplined people. Fortunately, you can take action to even out high motivation and low motivation days, ensuring your output stays consistent no matter how you’re feeling about work that day.

A lot of us make the same mistakes over and over again that eat into our productivity. We might not realize it, but the way we work turns our brains against us. Psychology hacks, on the other hand, allow us to use our brain as a productivity engine.

When you get your brain working for you instead of against you, it’s much easier to produce quality work faster – without feeling so overwhelmed.

Using Psychology to Make Your Brain Work for You (Instead of Against You)

These five psychology hacks might seem like subtle changes to your workflow, but they can have a huge impact on your output and efficiency:

5. Don’t Multitask

Are you that person who’s playing on your tablet, texting, and flipping through your calendar at the same time?

There are a lot of these people in the business world – and there seem to be more every day! They talk about multitasking and how it supposedly frees up so much time. It’s easier to do it now than ever before thanks to all the new devices and apps.

That doesn’t mean multitasking is the smartest way to work. There’s a huge difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re feeling like you’re always behind and can never catch up, maybe you’re trying to do too many things at once.

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that young adults lost efficiency by repeatedly switching between tasks, especially when they were complex or unfamiliar. Every time you switch tasks, it takes your brain a few seconds to: 1) decide to change tasks, and 2) engage with the parameters of the new task. This destroys your focus, and all of those seconds add up throughout the day.

You’ll find yourself getting a lot more done if you focus on one task with 100% of your attention. Once that task is complete, you can switch to a new one once (instead of jumping back and forth 50 times).

The temptation to multitask is strong, but you don’t have to give in. Make it easier to focus on the task at hand by removing as many distractions as you can: whether it’s turning off your smart phone, unplugging your router, or simply wearing headphones to block out background noise. It’s harder to do this if you work at an office where the phone is ringing and coworkers interrupt you. But control what you can and focus on one task. Even if things aren’t perfect, you’ll significantly increase your output.

4. Track Your Output

A lot of people want to work smarter, but they don’t even know where to start.

Deadlines – and the mad scrambling to meet them – completely control their schedule. The process repeats itself day after day because the overwhelmed worker doesn’t even know where all the productivity “holes” are.

It’s kind of like trying to fix a broken water pipe. You can’t do it until you know where the leaks are. And most people won’t ever find out because they don’t track how they’re spending their time.

If you’re willing to do this, however, you can get a realistic idea of your productivity and ideas how to improve it. You don’t have to do this forever. But making the effort to track your output for at least a few days will reveal some eye-opening insights about how you spend your days.

No one wants to write down how they just frittered away two hours watching cat videos on YouTube. And that’s kind of the point. Once you understand how much time you’re spending to produce your work, it’s easier to fill those gaping holes.

As far as how to track, there are plenty of apps available to help. A lot of them are free. Choose one that works well for you, and watch out about getting overwhelmed by tool overload. You can always use a pen, paper, and a good old fashioned clock if you want to.

Track the time you spend working, not working, and your output. Repeat the process again a few weeks or a month later to see how much you improve. Some people like the accountability tracking offers so much they keep it up as a daily habit.

Studies have found that simply writing down what you did (and how much time you spent doing it) can have a tremendous impact on your success. It works for dieters. And it can work for you too.

3. Divide Work into Focused Effort and Breaks

Ever wake up in the morning, sip your coffee, and totally freak out when you start thinking about all the work you need to get done that day?

You’ve probably been there.

The tasks you need to finish overshadow the energy you feel you have to complete them. Grinding away for 10 or 12 hours and methodically checking off your to-do list items like the Terminator sounds great, but it’s much easier said than done.

Thinking about working for so long causes you to pace yourself. You don’t want to burn yourself out before lunchtime because you know you have to work all day. This can eat into your productivity because you end up multitasking and bumping up easier administrative tasks over more important ones. Then, when the end of the day comes around, you wonder why you didn’t get more done.

This isn’t due to a lack of effort or willpower. Research has shown we can only focus on difficult or mentally challenging tasks for a limited time before our brains need a break. A lot of us try to work like marathon runners when we could be more effective if we worked like sprinters.

You’ll get more done if you work in shorter, focused bursts with time to decompress between. Instead of one long window of time, you divide your work into chunks and schedule time to unwind.

This is more about managing energy than managing your time, but it’s a key piece in the efficiency puzzle. People do this in different ways. Some like the Pomodoro Technique of working for 25 minutes and then taking 5 minutes off. Others do 50 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break. And others prefer even longer work blocks of 90 minutes followed by a 20 or 30 minute break.

You might have to experiment a bit before you find out which chunking method works best with your energy levels and the type of work you’re doing. But applying the principle the best you can – sprinting and then resting – will boost your productivity.

In his study of elite violinists, Anders Ericsson found that the highest-performing musicians weren’t spending any more time than less accomplished performers. It was how they arranged their day into chunks of focused practice time and breaks that made the difference.

Give chunking your work a try. It’s a lot easier to work hard and dive into difficult tasks if you know a coffee break or walk is just an hour away.

2. Use a Minimalist To-Do List and Prioritize Tasks

As much as I love checking things off my to-do list, looking at it used to stress me out.

It’s easy to feel that way if you’re the type to create massive lists of stuff that needs to get done – just like I was. Seeing it all in front of you can get overwhelming quickly.

What happens?

Usually, you do what you can to check off a few things to whittle it down. But the stuff you choose to do isn’t the most important tasks you need to get done. When you look at your to-do list and see 30 items, it’s a lot easier to pay your utility bill than talk to a client about raising your rates or a retainer deal.

That doesn’t mean you should throw to-do lists out the window. They can work well… if you use them differently.

Instead of filling your list with items, what about limiting each day to 5 or 6 items?

This forces you to choose carefully, prioritizing which tasks are most important. Even better: rank your to-do list items in order of importance. You can also estimate how much time each task will take beforehand to help schedule your day. You’ll probably underestimate how much time it’ll take when you first start doing this, but your skills will improve with time.

Now, you know exactly what you need to do to kick off your day. Work on the first item until you finish it (or get as far as practically possible). Avoid multitasking, and knock out your list one item at a time.

Charles Schwab, the steel tycoon, found that six-item to-do lists significantly improved the productivity of his employees. But it isn’t all about working faster. It’s about choosing the right things to work on – and finishing them – before moving on to less important stuff.

You can always use two to-do lists if you like to track admin and personal stuff. Keep your work to-do list (the 5-item one) separate. And don’t turn to your secondary to-do list until you’ve knocked out the work one for that day.

1. Manage Your Willpower Wisely

It’s easier to get excited about work when you’re just getting started. You’re fresh, well-rested (hopefully), and focused.

But boy do things change by the time you’re ready to end your workday!

More research is coming out suggesting that willpower could be a limited resource. We only have so much to spend throughout the day before our brains need a break. This helps explain why it’s so hard to stick to a diet after a stressful day… or get important work done when it’s almost closing time.

A lot of people spend the first part of their workdays on low-impact activities. They procrastinate by pushing difficult (but important) tasks towards the end of their days. Often, those tasks don’t get done on time because our willpower is already shot.

You don’t have to beat yourself up for not having enough willpower or discipline. The more effective way to get the work done you need to get done? Front load your most important tasks of the day. Take care of them while you’re fresh instead of letting them linger.

This tactic works hand in hand with the to-do list. Because you’ve already limited yourself to crucial tasks and ranked them in order of importance, you kick off your day by starting with the most difficult task while willpower is high. Then you move on to less demanding tasks as your willpower dwindles.

For a lot of us, morning is our high-energy time. But you might peak in the afternoon or even late at night. Know yourself, and track your output and the time you spend doing things to confirm it. Then you can align your most taxing tasks with times when your brain is ready for peak performance.

Your Turn

You’re already working hard.

That isn’t the issue.

But making a few tweaks to how you’re working will help you reclaim lost minutes and sanity. Applying these psychology hacks isn’t difficult, and you don’t have to try them all of them at once. Start with one, get comfortable with it, and gradually add new techniques until you find a system that works for you.

The result?

You end up getting your brain working for you instead of against you. You increase your output, lower your stress, and free up time for things and people you enjoy.

What have you tried to increase your productivity? Which strategy worked the best to help you work smarter? Leave a comment below and share your experience!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.