Originally published for Shape by Mirel Ketchiff
Research shows that most people have hidden pockets of time in their day. The key to taking advantage of this time: being extra productive, but in a way that’s smart, not stress-inducing. Below, four techniques that will help you do just that—getting your “must-dos” done faster, so you have more time for your “want-tos.”
Rewind your clock.
“Your cells contain special ‘clock genes,’ which operate on a loop, priming your body to do different things at different times based on daylong cycles of light and dark,” explains Suhas Kshirsagar, an Ayurvedic physician and author of Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life. Sync your habits with your body’s clock, and you’ll operate super-efficiently.
One of the most powerful ways to do this is to schedule your workouts between 6 and 10 a.m. “Levels of cortisol, a stimulating stress hormone, peak in this window, so if you exercise then you’ll feel more invigorated afterward,” Kshirsagar says. “Plus, research shows you’ll double or even triple your cognitive performance for the rest of the day.”
To further boost your productivity, eat your largest meal at lunch. By 10 a.m., your digestive system is operating at full capacity, Kshirsagar says. For the next four hours, your body is primed to turn a substantial, balanced meal into energy, keeping you fueled through the afternoon.
Create more blank space.
Entering every errand, playdate and phone call into your calendar might seem like a smart organizational move, but it can make you less productive, says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock. Keeping lots of empty blocks of time on your calendar is what’s truly essential to getting things done. Free time feels shorter when it comes before a scheduled task, reports the Journal of Consumer Research. So if you have an hour before you need to leave for school pickup, you behave as though you have only 30 to 45 minutes of usable time. Feeling rushed is a productivity killer. “If too much of your day is blocked out, you might say no to something that would have been a great use of your time,” Vanderkam says.
To create more space in your daily life, stop scheduling to-dos that don’t need to be done at a specific hour (such as getting groceries). Vanderkam also suggests calendar triage. “Once a week, look at what’s planned for the week ahead,” she says. “What should be canceled? What can be cut short? Give yourself more breathing room.”
Pass the one-minute mark.
Research shows that we work on a task for an average of just 40 seconds before we become distracted, says Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus. “Our brains are typically resistant to starting something new, especially if the job is difficult or boring,” he says. “But once we do it for a few minutes, our concentration kicks in.”
One way to get over the initial hump: If you don’t feel like working on something for an hour straight, don’t force it. Allot 10 to 15 minutes to the task, and go from there. “Chances are, once you pass the one-minute mark, you’ll keep working for longer,” Bailey says.
Give yourself an out.
“Breaks are crucial to being productive,” Bailey says. The trouble is, people tend to think that what they do during their downtime will be more restorative than it is. Take scrolling through social media, for example. Being the audience to other people’s lives doesn’t always feel relaxing in the end. Bailey says the best breaks have three key characteristics: You can do them without much focus, they’re things you truly enjoy and they’re activities you don’t have to exercise control over. “Think about things that leave you feeling fully recharged, such as taking a walk outside, doing a favorite hobby or playing a game with your child,” he suggests. Devoting 15 or 30 minutes to one of these rejuvenating activities every few hours will keep your mental abilities fresh and your productivity high.