5 ways to work smarter, not harder

Sarah Finney 13 May 2014

More than 80% of white-collar workers regularly work over 40 hours a week, with nearly a third putting in more than 50 hours “at the coalface”. In a 2013 work and lifestyle survey conducted by recruitment firm Robert Walters, only 21% of respondents said they received any overtime pay or time off in lieu for the additional hours they put in. Shockingly, the UK has a higher number of people off work with stress-related illnesses than anywhere else in the world.

We’ve all heard the reports of unpaid interns working overtime or gruelling night shifts to impress potential employers in a dog-eat-dog graduate job market, to entrepreneurs pulling all-nighters adopting multiple roles to get their burgeoning company off the ground. While putting in the hours may sometimes seem unavoidable, there are some simple ways to get more done and achieve a healthier work-life balance.

1. Have a break

The well-known twin-wrapped chocolate biscuit brand are on to something. Although more and more of us are reportedly skipping our lunch breaks to power through, according to recent research, humans are most productive in spurts of between 60 and 90 minutes (the body’s ultradian rhythm). While your boss (or your diary) might not appreciate a 15 minute break every hour or so, health care provider Bupa recommend fitting in some small breaks throughout the day.

Simply going to have a conversation with a colleague rather than bashing out another email, or sticking the kettle on can help you to oxygenate your brain and avoid attention lagging. You could even go the whole hog, taking inspiration from the chair aerobics they recommend on long-distance flights, and do some sort of desk yoga.

2. Catch 40 winks

Studies have shown that staying awake for more than 17 hours has the equivalent effect of the level of blood alcohol needed to legally convict someone of drink driving on the brain’s ability to make judgements. Regularly getting minimal or disturbed sleep can affect your perceptiveness and performance at work. Taking a cue from Mediterranean countries where an afternoon siesta is perfectly acceptable, various management consulting gurus recommend short naps during the day, effectively acting in the same way a computer refresh can clear system functions.

3. Let’s go outside

It’s long been known that going for a walk around the block on your lunch break improves your physical and mental health, as well as enabling a more productive afternoon, but recent research has suggested that the greener the space you choose to wander in, the better. The attention and energy you are required to maintain walking down a busy city street is almost the equivalent of the energy you expend at your desk - greener spaces with less noise and movement allow for better levels of relaxation. Research has also found that students are reportedly much more motivated to learn outside rather than inside the classroom. While not always appropriate, why not try taking your meetings outside?

4. Find your happy hour

An infographic recently appeared on the sleeping and productivity habits of famous literary figures, based on interviews, diary entries and biographies on how they chose to write. Bad news for night owls: the vast majority, including prolific writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, rose before 6am and did most of their writing in the mornings.

Whether you’re a perky morning person who doesn’t need a strong shot of caffeine to get through those first few hours, someone who struggles until after midday, or the kind of person who gets inspiration when everyone else is asleep, you can use what you know about when you’re most alert when it comes to doing the nine to five. Some productivity consultants recommend dealing with your most challenging tasks first thing in the morning, saving answering emails and making phone calls until the drag of the afternoon sets in. Whilst you may feel a quicker sense of achievement, if you know that actually you’re at your best in the afternoon, schedule tasks which require your full attention then, and deal with the more routine tasks while you warm up in the morning, if you can.

5. Regularly set goals

There’s some debate at the moment between psychologists over goal setting methods and to-do lists don’t suit everyone’s working style. But, working towards a defined end-point within a grander sense of where things are going may improve productivity. One small business blogger advocates breaking larger goals such as ‘build microsite content’ into smaller, easily achievable chunks: ‘write page titles’, ‘brief designer on page one’, for instance.

MoneyHub can help you track your progress towards important financial goals. Whether it’s paying off your mortgage and credit cards, to planning a holiday or something special. The goals you set are linked to your everyday spending and monthly budget to give you a fuller picture of how far you’ve got towards your goals. Because you have the great incentive of tracking your progress towards achieving something concrete, Money Hub could help you become more productive with your money.