The typical American office worker only does about 90 minutes of real work per workday.

The rest of each workday is largely spent on distractions like reading the news, Web surfing, socializing with coworkers, snacking, taking coffee breaks, shuffling papers around, processing irrelevant emails, needless delay tactics, playing games, and daydreaming.

Moreover, American office workers are among the world’s most productive. In many other countries, even less work gets done each day.

This stat hasn’t changed much in decades, despite massive investments in time management and productivity training by many companies. We have more technology to assist us in being productive, but we also have more to distract us.

The general problem is that we’re still applying an industrial age model to the productivity of knowledge workers. It makes sense to pay attention to hours worked if the productive output for each hour is roughly the same. That may be true for repetitive labor, but it doesn’t apply much to knowledge workers.

For a knowledge worker, what’s the difference between an hour of peak productivity vs. a low productivity hour? That peak hour could easily be 10x more productive in terms of the volume of work completed and the results generated.

What sense does it make to spend more time at the office if you’re normally operating at less than 20% of capacity? Why not simply do 90 minutes of real work and then go home for the day?

What if you could complete a whole day’s work in only 90 minutes? What would that 90-minute period look like?

Focus Blocks

Here are some recommendations for having a very productive 90-min period (let’s call it a focus block):

1. Pick one theme — Instead of doing a bunch of random actions, pick one clear theme for the block. This allows your brain to load in a singular context and stick with it, which makes you more efficient. Your theme may be a project you’re working on, a type of work like catching up on correspondence, or anything that lets your brain load in one clear context and stick with it.

2. Define the finish line — See your focus block as a fast dash to the finish line. But where is the finish line? What does it look like? Having a clear goal that’s only 90 minutes away will help you focus. Don’t worry if you don’t cross the finish line each time; it’s there to help you focus, so aim for it, but accept that sometimes you’ll miss. Some examples: Write a new blog post. Process items in my email inbox till it’s completely empty. Plan and schedule all my focus blocks for the upcoming week.

3. List the action steps — List the specific actions you’ll take during this block. For some blocks this is really helpful. For others it may not be necessary if the steps are already clear. I wouldn’t list out my action steps for writing a new article since that process is very familiar to me, but I’d list brainstorm and list steps for an unfamiliar new project to make it easier to get started. Some examples: Delete all obvious spam and clutter from my email inbox first. Then quickly process all messages that I can handle in less than two minutes each. Next, sort and prioritize longer messages for response. Respond to my most important longer messages till I’m at the 90-minute point. Surrender to the realization that it’s not a good use of my time to reply to the rest, and just archive them to empty the inbox.

4. Ensure zero interruptions — Do whatever it takes to ensure that you will not be interrupted under any circumstances during your focus block. If necessary, tell people in advance that you will not be available for the next 90 minutes; let them know that you will be available after that. Lock your door if you can. If you can’t guarantee that you won’t be interrupted in your current work environment, then do your focus block somewhere else. You’ll be much more productive and your focus will be deeper if you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted.

5. Work fast — Think fast. Move fast. Work fast. If you catch yourself going slow, speed up! Imagine that you’re in a race, and you have to maintain a strong pace for the full 90 minutes. After that, you can rest. With practice, this gets easier.

6. Allow no distractions — During your focus block, you must do your pre-defined work and nothing else. Keep your cell phone off. Turn off any notifications that might interrupt you. Turn off your Internet access if you won’t need it during this block. Do not check email during this time. Do not take a coffee break or snack break. Use the bathroom during this time only if you must.

I think you get the idea.

Avoid the Gray Zone and Take Real Breaks

Many people spend their workdays in a gray zone marathon. That’s why it takes them 7-8 hours to do 90 minutes of work. They work slowly and inefficiently. Their work time is cluttered with distractions and interruptions. They begin late and wind down early. Most of the time, they’re only half working.

Instead of doing a gray zone marathon each day, cycle between real work and real breaks. This will be much more efficient, even if you work only half as many hours or less.

Don’t immediately go from one focus block right into another. After you complete a focus block, celebrate your achievement. Then assess where you are. Tune into your energy and see how you feel.

If you’re still feeling alert and energized, you may only need a short break. Take 5-10 minutes to stretch, go to the bathroom, and have some fresh fruit. Then feel free to dive right into another focus block.

If you feel tired, it’s good to eat something and/or take a nap.

If you feel like doing something physical, go for a walk or take an exercise break.

If you feel like you could use some emotional renewal, you may wish to meditate, socialize, or read some inspiring material.

How long should your breaks be? Make them as long as necessary till you’re ready for another round of focused work. Sometimes you may only need a few minutes. Other times it may be wise to take a couple hours off, especially if the previous block was particularly draining. Between focus blocks, seek to refresh and renew your energy until you’re ready to handle another focus block.

Do your best not to load up your breaks with gray zone tasks like email since that’s more likely to drain you. I recommend batching small tasks into their own focus block (including email). But if it’s just a quick one-minute email check now and then, that probably won’t be too bad, but never do email checks during a block unless it’s critical for the completion of the block.

Realize that if you only complete one focus block in a whole day, you’ve still done as much real work as the typical American office worker does in a full eight-hour day. And if you only complete two blocks, you’re twice as productive as most. On a super productive day, you may complete five or six blocks, which is like getting a full week’s worth of work done in one day.

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These Are The Most Unusual Ways to Work Smarter Instead of Harder

Millions of people work really hard. Everyday. But there is always a better or smarter way to accomplish the same things you have to do every week. And you probably have a productive routine that works for you. Most people do. You can still improve it though.

These are two of the most upvoted answers to this question on Quora: What are some uncommon ways to work smarter instead of harder? These ideas have worked for the productivity experts.

Answer by Nela Canovic, productivity hacker, writer, and Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Do your deep work (the hard stuff, the work that requires the most concentration) EARLY.

When exactly?

Many scientists say that the brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after we wake up. If, for example, you wake up at 6, your peak times are between 8 and 10  a.m.

What are the benefits?

Doing your deep work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of  energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave your hardest work for nighttime, after you’re done with all your daily activities and you are exhausted from the day.

How can I get into this habit?

1. For one week, keep a log of what you do during your peak times. Are you focusing on your important mental tasks? Are you learning new material, solving complex problems, reading, or writing? For most people, this time is usually spent commuting to work, checking email, making phone calls, watching or listening to the news.

2. Re-prioritize your peak brain performance time. Think of ways you could rearrange the things you do early that are less important to your personal and professional development. Like to stay on top of the latest news? Save this activity for your lunch break or right after lunch.

Emails are waiting in your inbox? Be careful of how much time checking email takes; it can seriously impact your day. Choose 2 blocks of time to go over your emails, one mid-afternoon and one closer to the end of your workday. It’s better to be proactive early (by doing your important work) and reactive later (responding to questions, providing input on discussions, etc.).

3. Create more space and time to your day by implementing a morning routine that can help you be productive. The benefit of a morning routine is that you jump start your day; you complete several tasks before moving on to work, school, or other responsibilities; you are more productive with your time; you feel more successful in what you do. I wrote a few ideas on developing a morning routine here.

Answer by Akash Sehrawat, Practices Kaizen ( act of continuous improvement ) daily

Here are 17 uncommon ways to work smarter instead of harder.

1) Find your passion: Life becomes much easier in the long run.

Sure, when you start out there will be doubts! No one will believe in what you are doing, but you need to keep moving no matter how much criticism you face!

All this doesn’t matter. What TRULY matter is the believe in yourself. Related post: Akash Sehrawat’s answer to How do you know if you’ve discovered your passion?

2) Passion is not enough. Find a purpose: Doing something which you are passionate is good. But is selfish. Nothing wrong with that. Now take a step forward and find a purpose.

For example: I am passionate about building muscle and becoming healthier. Good. Purpose: My mission is to help a million skinny guys gain muscle, and be healthy. Great!

3) Once you find your passion, and a purpose, Profits will come:

Passion: Baba Ramdev is passionate about Yog and Ayurveda.

Purpose: He propagated Yog on TV, through books and DVD and now through his company Patanjali he is providing natural ayurvedic products at reasonable prices! Patanjali’s Predicted Revenues by March 2017= INR 10,000 Crores.

Profits will come eventually. Just focus on helping lot of people.

4) Create, Consume, Communicate, in this order: Creating is the highest form of intelligence.

Here are few things you can create:

-A life that you want.

-Write a blog post on things that you are passionate about.

-Paint.

-Create a company.

-Create Products and Services that will make people’s life easier and so on and so forth.

Consume: While you are reading this article you are consuming. Reading fiction, non fiction, watching TV, etc are all forms of consuming.

Firstly, majority of us consume too much, just too much. But librarians are not smart or rich!

Idea is to consume the right stuff. It is to consume something which will help you reach towards your goals.

Consume biographies, consume awesome posts by great bloggers.

Secondly we consume mostly entertainment and not educative stuff.

We love watching Cricket, our favourite comedy shows, and reality TV. These things provide immediate pleasure or gratification but don’t provide any long term value.

I am not asking you to cut out completely on entertainment, limit it to 10-20% of the things that you consume.

And Lastly communicate: God has given us 2 ears and one mouth. HE wants us to speak less and listen more. In this age of wats up and Facebook, there is too much noise and mindless chatter going on! Just too many opinions about anyone and everyone!

My advice: Talk less, listen more and do more:)

5) Do something important: Before venturing into Tesla, SpaceX Elon Musk knew his odds to succeed were very less.

To this one interviewer asked him why did he still went ahead with it? His answer: “Coz its important and is the right thing to do”

6) Measure how much time you waste everyday, and then aim to reduce it: Watching TV, gossiping over the phone, chilling with friends, late night-outs, spending excessive time on Facebook are all time wasters and usually don’t provide any educative value. First step is to become aware about how much you are actually wasting on these activities everyday, every week. Then aim to reduce by 10% and then by 20% and then move upto 50%.

Just imagine the awesome things you can do with these many hours saved: like spending more time with your family, starting a blog part time along side your job, devoting more time to your hobby and so on and so forth.

7) Walk and burn: Do yourself a favour and buy a fitness band.

And set the target to 10,000 steps daily. This will help you burn roughly 500 calories daily which is equivalent to 3500 calories in a week or 1 lbs of fat loss a week, or 4 lbs a month, or 48lbs a year (21.8kg). Most of you don’t even need to lose this much in the first place!

8) Lift heavy weights: Weight training is concentrated work! Working out just few hours a week can provide you with immense benefits. Learn more.

9) Wake up early: Sure some people do their best work between 11pm to 3am. I was one of them long time back, until I become a morning person. I realised I am much more alert working early mornings. Usually after an undisturbed night sleep I can really focus and focus hard.

Whereas working at night was always erratic. Usually something or the other used to come up. Friends birthdays, family get togethers, movie etc. Majority of people in this world are asleep from 5am to 7am. You can do your best work at this time.

10) Build a routine that works for you: Will power is not enough. You plan 10 things the night before. You are all charged up and promise yourself that you will accomplish all the things in the list. What happens the next day? You snoozed and as a result you lost few hours of your precious time. You start to feel guilty and the whole day spirals downwards!

Don’t feel like writing, sit down, open your Mac and start typing. A rough draft is better than an empty page

Don’t feel like going to the gym. Stop your thinking, wear your shoes and just go. Once you are at the gym, you’ll be glad you came.

Successful people build routines, and not will power.

11) Start a stop watch before every task: Oh this one really works! When I know the clock is ticking, I am way more focussed.

12) Divide your day into small chunks: I don’t enjoy F1 races much! But what I have learned by watching is that the team who wins is the team who takes timely strategic pit stops! In the long run what really matters is that you have the right amount of fuel in the gas tank, your tires are not worn out too much etc.

The same can be applied to your work. I personally can focus intensely for 25 to 30 minutes. After which my mind and my body asks for break. Usually when I am excited or with my team I override that signal and make myself a cup of coffee and keep working! Not wise! After sometime my body starts to release stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline etc. This makes me anxious and jittery!

In order to work smarter, what I can do is to take a break after a period of intense work:

  • The break should be no more 5 to 10 minutes after 25 min of work
  • and 15 to 20 minutes is ok if you work for 45 to 50 minutes
  • During the break don’t check Facebook or chat with your friends.
  • Instead do these things: Go for a walk and take deep breathes simultaneously
  • Mediate
  • Listen to great music
  • Take a power nap

There’s an app for that: iOS – Be Focused by Denys Yevenkoy

Android – ClearFocus by ClearApps.xyz

13) First things first: Now, I am of the notion that if it has to happen, it has to happen FIRST. You see we have limited will power. Roy Baumeister’s experiment proves this fact.

If you complete all your important task before noon ( exercise being at the top of the list ) , chances are very high that they will get done!

14) Do Less: Less is more. Less is productive. 20% of the things you do will give you 80% of the results. Those 20% of thing are hard to do. Usually we try to avoid them! And choose to stay in our comfort zone. Majority of us are busy, but not productive.

15) Keep asking this important question: Is this the best use of my time? If the answer is “No”, then probably it is. Re-assess and stratagize. Figure what are things that you should be doing instead.

16) Plan Plan Plan: Abraham Lincoln said: ” If I have nine hours to chop a tree, I would sharpen my axe for 6 hours and cut the tree for 3 hours! Always plan the next day the night before! This habit has helped me saved me tons of time! Plan every hour , every minute. Its ok if things don’t go according to your plan. Just improvise:)

17) Reserve Sundays for Weekly Planning: Measure, analyse, progress. How can you improve on something that you don’t know? Keep a document detailing how you spending every hour of the day! I know it may seem like a big task initially, but over time, it builds into a solid habit. This way you have a clear idea where your spending your time.

Every Sunday you can take a look at the various things you have accomplished. You can then work towards improving.

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