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Everyone wants to be more productive, but there’s a certain warning that should come with wanting to get the most out of every day, especially at work. For a long time now, society has been teetering along the edge of maximum productivity and what has been dubbed ‘struggle porn’, in which we have all become quite comfortable almost gloating about how busy we are.

But studies show there is power in the words we use, and talking about being stressed and busy can actually bring on more stress and lead us to feel overwhelmed.

With all this over-the-top productivity advice about how to squeeze every last morsel of energy out of ourselves daily, there has naturally been some push back and counter advice. This mostly entails slowing down, working less hard, avoiding staying late and never skipping lunch.

However, it’s one thing to tell people to do these things, it’s quite another to show them how to actually succeed in this. Especially given that, at the end of the day, we all still do want to be reasonably productive and do the best job we can at work, without letting it take over our lives. So, what specific plans and habits can you put in place that will help you stay productive but also stay healthy and avoid overworking?

Learn how your brain works

One of the most important things you need to do to make sure you’re working at your best is to figure out what schedule works for you. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and still be unproductive if you don’t set your day up in a way that suits your energy levels.

If you find yourself better able to power through a lot of tasks in the morning, structure your day to allow for that and don’t get distracted or bogged down by emails at 9am. Equally, if you find yourself slowing down in the afternoons, use this time for creative thinking.

While that may sound counterproductive, studies show that you can actually be more creative when you’re a little tired, so use that time better by putting your brain into ‘free roaming mode’ rather than forcing it to power through a difficult task.

Evaluate your to-do list (and consider throwing it out)

To-do lists can be really effective ways of organising your brain and tasks that you have to do at work. But they can also lead to stress and feeling overwhelmed if there’s too much on them to contend with. As a huge fan of to-do lists, I have experienced the pitfalls first hand.

Firstly, there’s usually too much on your to-do list and in all likelihood, you’ve added too many daily tasks than you can actually get through in a day. You might think if you jam-pack your day, you’re more likely to be productive and ‘get everything done’. But thinking you’re going to get everything done is your first mistake.

Accepting you will never get everything done is the first step to reducing stress, working smarter and maximising your own productivity levels within healthy limits. You’re only one person, after all. You can only get so much done. So, start by taking one or two tasks off the list. If you force yourself to take a task off your list once a day, your brain will naturally select the one that is the lowest priority.

The second danger of to-do lists, and part of the reason you should always consider reducing your daily tasks by one, is ‘task debt’. This is when you allow tasks to continuously sit on your list, be it a physical list or an online Trello Board. If you find yourself constantly overwhelmed and busy because of a never-ending to-do list that seems to have the same unaccomplished tasks, consider throwing out the list and starting afresh. Once again, your brain will be able to better evaluate the tasks that actually need to be prioritised once the slate is clean.

Schedule your breaks

If you’re prone to skipping breaks and working through lunches because you believe you’re too busy to take time out, you’re actually damaging your workplace well being and your productivity in one go.

Regular breaks are vital to keep your brain working at it’s best. A 2011 scientific study endorsed the now popularised interval working approach known as the Pomodore technique, which encourages employees to break their day into 25-minute intervals separated by five-minute breaks.

Not only that, but research shows that working through your lunch can actually affect your physical health as well as burning out your brain and reducing your productivity levels.

For those looking to find the right way work smart, schedule your breaks into your day as a must-do task. Whether you write ‘lunch’ on your to-do list, set a Slack reminder to leave your desk or have your phone alarm go off when you need to take a break, make your breaks a mandatory part of your work day and change your attitude towards them. They are not time spent away from more important tasks, they are a necessary component to do the best job you can possibly do – and more importantly, be the healthiest you can possibly be when it comes to your workplace well being.

Guest blogger Jenny Darmody is the growth editor at RECRUITERS.ie, Ireland’s most trusted recruitment partner. She is extremely passionate about workplace wellbeing, diversity and work-life balance.

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Originally published Oct 7, 2019 8:00:00 AM, updated October 07 2019