We can all appreciate the culture of a workplace or lifestyle choices based on the 'Work smarter, not harder' mantra. After all, who wants to work even harder than they already do? But the phrase has become a catchall; We use it to advise our friends about their stressful jobs; we use it to remind ourselves to prioritize daily tasks; and mainly we use it for filler. Do we know how to apply what we mean when we say it? Turns out, science might.
There are many ways our brains can work smarter, not harder, but it's always good to start by realizing when it's time to take a break. Science tells us to unplug every 90 to 120 minutes. Just take a look at the ultradian rhythm — our body's natural 24-hour cycle of performance:
The method is mainly used in writing, but there is no reason it can't be applied to the daily routine. When our attention span is long, we can accomplish several tasks — usually the quick ones: answering e-mails, returning a phone call, etc. before we move on to the more challenging projects of the day. Listening to our body and knowing when to respect that the attention span has dwindled is a good cue to get up and take a break. That could mean a lunch break, taking a walk, or — for those of you who work from home — taking a post-lunch power nap. Again, science has already informed us of this; just take a look at our circadian rhythm:
A good power nap — 20 minutes or so and preferably in the late afternoon — is equivalent to 8-9 hours of a good night's sleep. Research has shown that power naps replenish our cognitive function, including memory performance, capacity for learning, and creative juices, so you know that's not a terrible idea.
Taking multiple breaks during the day is also a good way to ditch multi-tasking. Yes, it's true: multi-tasking isn't always a good thing, regardless of what you may have heard. In fact, we recently did a video on selective hearing and the truth behind multi-tasking:
The cliff notes are this: A recent study from the University of Utah concluded that people who think they can multitask are actually pretty bad at it. The study authors note that individuals who engage in multitasking do so not because they have the ability, but because they are less able to block out the distractions around them. Read the Italics again; it's important.
Multi-tasking can hurt your productivity, and some experts suggest that working in 'blocks' is better. It begins by making a clear to-do list in order of priority, and executing it in sections; meaning, don't start a new task before you finish another. If you feel this method is easy, you can make it more challenging by creating 'stations' for your work; once you finish a task, you walk/bike/drive to another location (think of it as your break) and begin the next task on the list. Sounds a bit daunting, but you may be amazed at the results!
The final and probably most important tip is to stop reading about how you can work smarter, not harder and actually apply what you've learned to real life. On that note, time for a break!