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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The Secret to Doing More? Say Yes to Less

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Our culture applauds those who work too hard, but what happens when you’re so overwhelmed that the net effect is hardly working?

The scenario certainly explains my experience last month. You’d think final exams in two graduate school courses was enough for me to deal with. But, no, I also accepted two new consulting projects and had a bathroom renovation to oversee.

Yes, I survived the month and was able to see myself through all the deadlines, but I’m still not sure that pace was worth it. My grades were a bit lower than I wanted, and the home improvement job went over budget. I’m certain neither of those setbacks would have happened if I hadn’t taken them all on at the same time.

In fact, researchers have found that those who take more breaks, and take on less, may actually have the upper hand in the productivity department. Want to know how to scale back—and actually get more done? Read on for seven ways to do more with less.

1. Get Over Overcommitment

When you’re juggling too much, and you're about to kick yourself for not being able to do it all as well as you’d like (or at all!), Dr. Susan Biali, physician, life coach, and author of Live a Life You Love says take a step back and examine your (over)commitments. Her advice: When you say yes to one thing, turn right around and say no to something else on your to-do list. We only have a certain number of hours in the day to accomplish things.

No one can truly do it all, so don’t be too hard on yourself. And don’t cram your to-do list with tasks. You’ll discover that the room you give yourself allows you to turn out even better results for the duties you keep in your calendar.

2. Step Away From Your Desk

Go on, turn off your phone, put on your coat, and go for a walk outside—or make your way to a yoga class. You now have a scientifically backed excuse for abandoning your desk for the sake of better (yes, better) job performance. According to a new University of Granada study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers have found that consistent physical activity improves our attention span and cognitive performance. Those who made fitness a priority had markedly better results than those who lead more sedentary lives. Remain tied to your desk and your work suffers, found the authors. Get out for some “you” time and yes, your job performance actually improves.

3. Get Realistic About Time

Ask me if the glass is half empty, and I’ll say it looks more like half full. And ask me to do you a favor, and I’ll figure out a way to fit it into my day. So, what’s the problem? My optimism may just be my own worst enemy.

When I’m always racing against the clock to get things done, it may not be the number of items on my to-do list that’s the problem. Instead, blame my too-optimistic approach to time management. In other words, I carry an unrealistic sense of just how long it will take me to do my tasks. “Realistic time management and organization plans can improve productivity and the quality of life,” found researchers studying the key elements to improve. Getting a more clear-headed handle of just how long any single task will take can give me the breathing room I need to finish what I started without the stress.

4. Clean Up Your Physical Workspace

When the work has piled up and you can’t even fathom where to start, begin with the wastebasket. Research from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that your visual environment can impact how efficiently your brain processes work. It appears that clutter in the office hurts our ability to focus, sabotaging our brain’s potential to process information. So add straightening out your workspace to the top of your to-do list. You just may find this task makes your others go by more smoothly.

5. Take Time to Doodle or Daydream

Unless you’re getting paid for your art, it may seem counterintuitive to take a break from spreadsheets and start drawing pictures on paper. Yet research shows that when you switch tasks briefly and let your mind wander, it may help improve your productivity. “The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test,” says study author Jackie Andrade.

And if doodling isn’t your thing, you can just put down the pen and indulge in a little bit of old-fashioned daydreaming. In a recent paper called “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman revisit research done by Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer that was eventually published in the book The Inner World of Daydreaming. Singer found that “positive constructive daydreaming” can help boost creativity, strengthen your attention span, and aid in future planning. So, don’t be afraid to let your mind wander. It may just help you tackle a bigger problem later on.

6. Limit Socializing With Colleagues

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice when you can get along well with your colleagues. But fraternize too much and they’ll get in the way of your productivity. While the downside of long work lunches may seem obvious to most of us, sometimes the influence is subtler than you think. Take the open-office floor plan that is so popular these days. Research is showing that “architectural privacy [is] associated with psychological privacy” to produce better job performance and satisfaction.

So when that colleague swings by your desk while you’re in the throes of work, her visit just may make it harder for you to quickly shift gears and return to your duties. The best way to cut down on the drop-bys? Embrace an instant messaging program instead. Your work pal will get the impression that you’re still available at any given time, but her interaction will be remote. Just what you need to get your work done.

7. Take a Vacation

Have vacation days piling up? If you’re reading this in the United States, chances are, you’re not using your allotted time, according to a recent Harris Interactive survey of 2,000 Americans. While you may think taking a hard-earned holiday would be bad for business, experts say otherwise. An oft-cited Ernst & Young study of its employees found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation they took, their performance ratings improved by 8%. So, what are you waiting for?

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