Americans work longer hours than the citizens of nearly any other industrialized nation. We take little vacation and have no federally mandated paid family leave. Many office workers bring their work home with them, checking email after-hours and on weekends.
You’d think that all this work would make us the most productive country in the world, but the data say otherwise. The U.S. ranked fifth for productivity in 2015, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as measured by GDP per hours worked — despite putting in more hours than the four European countries who were ahead of us.
In fact, research shows that putting in long hours makes workers less productive, not more. Workers who put in 70 hours a week produce no more than those who put in 55 hours, according to one study. They’re essentially wasting 15 hours’ worth of time. Longer hours also lead to increased health problems, including a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.
Of course, even if you’re sold on a shorter workday, it might be hard to pull off. Ideally, you’d be able to present this evidence to your boss and get their support. But even if that’s not going to happen, there are things you can do to take back some of your time, all on your own — and boost your productivity as well.
1. Start Small (and Be Realistic)
“Many have pursued greater productivity via books or apps, expecting information or technology alone to make them more productive. These initially feel helpful, but then, usually, they fail,” writes Matt Plummer at Harvard Business Review. “The problem is that becoming more productive is more like losing weight than memorizing the presidents’ names – it is the product of behavior or lifestyle change, not (only) knowledge. As a result, the key to becoming more productive is changing small behaviors (i.e., developing new habits) and sticking with those changes over time.”
In other words, don’t promise yourself that you’ll start getting up two hours earlier each morning to go for a jog when you’re a night owl who hasn’t walked more than 10 feet since you received your diploma. Start small, and focus on changing habits over time.
2. Don’t Look at Your Phone First Thing
Here’s your first small change: don’t look at your phone when you first get up in the morning. Don’t check your email, don’t read the news, don’t scan your social media feeds. Just leave your phone parked at its charging station until you’ve had a chance to wake up a bit and prepare to face the day.
Better yet, don’t bring your phone into the bedroom at all. Electronic devices like smartphones emit blue light that can interfere with melatonin production and therefore sleep.
3. Look Into Flexible Work Options
Ninety-three percent of workers say they’re more productive outside the office. Telecommute a day or two a week, and you could boost your productivity while cutting down on your commute time (and costs).
If the boss won’t go for that, ask about a flexible schedule. Coming in an hour early (and leaving early at the end of the day) might save you some travel time due to traffic. Plus, it’s a lot easier to get things done in a quiet office.
4. Stop Multitasking
You may think that you’re an expert multitasker, but science says that you’re probably wrong.
Most multitaskers aren’t really don’t two things at the same time. They’re task-switching, going back and forth between two projects. That comes with a cost: up to 40 percent of your productivity per day, depending on how many tasks you’re switching between.
Instead, whenever possible, block off time on your calendar to focus on each project — or batch tasks, so that you’re working on similar things at the same time.
5. Make Health a Priority
When time is tight, many of us shortchange ourselves, skipping workouts, staying up late or grabbing less-than-healthy snacks instead of making a real lunch.
Break the habit of putting yourself last. Build realistic health goals into your schedule, focusing on small activities that are easier to fit in. For example, maybe an hour-long gym session isn’t going to happen every day, but a half-hour walk at lunch is totally doable. Meditation and mindfulness are also easy to fit in, provided you start small.
Remember that you can’t be productive if you’re burned out, exhausted and/or sick all the time. Make a little time for yourself now, and save yourself a lot of struggle later.
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