Here’s a paradox for you. Working hard can actually decrease your productivity. You may have heard that multi-tasking doesn’t work. Well whether or not you personally find that to be true, it is a neurological fact that our brains do not function in a predictable manner like you might expect from a machine. Our cognitive resources are available in a limited supply, which means it takes rest and regeneration to free them up again.
In the Harvard Business Review article, The Productivity Paradox, Tony Schwartz describes what it takes for working smarter and not harder to become embedded within a company’s culture: “we encouraged Sony to make two fundamental shifts …  stop expecting people to operate like computers …  move from trying to get more out of employees and instead to invest in systematically meeting their four core needs, so they’re fueled and inspired to bring more of themselves to work every day.
To take advantage of this productivity paradox:
Free up your cognitive resources as much as possible
- Keep a running list of all of your to-do items. Perhaps you have a separate page each for personal and professional tasks you need to complete. Also keep a list of things you have delegated and things you need to follow-up on. Writing these down will keep you from worrying about them.
- You can streamline the things that you do on a regular basis. Do this by creating habits around your necessary tasks. We have a finite amount of energy to get things done each day. When you make your own predictable processes around the mundane tasks you must do, you’ll do them automatically, freeing up your mental energy for more important activities.
Alternate between focusing and breaking
You can’t (in any meaningful way) change the amount of energy you have in any given day, but you can take advantage of your mind when it is fresh and ready to work. Like a sprinter, put your all into one of your priorities and then rest and recharge to recover.
Interestingly, what constitutes ‘effort’ and ‘rest’ varies with each individual. Work that requires intense focus for one person can actually seem like a break time to another. Extraverts may find that meetings renew their energy. If this is the case, schedule energy-intensive projects, such as proposal writing before and after a staff meeting or a lunch date. Introverts, on the other hand, may find that monotonous periods of data entry renew their energy in between cold calls and conference calls.