A few years ago, Suzanne Andrew, a freelance writer in Vancouver, took stock of her growing number of deadlines. One client wanted her to complete 26 profiles – articles that describe an individual or organization – in one month.
“I love writing profiles, but when I looked at the amount of work, it felt crushing,” she says.
Rather than brace herself for 18-hour days, all-nighters and inevitable burnout, Ms. Andrew took a different approach. She paused and then came up with a game plan.
“I’d worked as a project manager in the past and found that what worked best when managing other people was to create work-back schedules and milestone deadlines,” she says. “As a freelancer I was used to simply working to deadline, but realized I could make things easier and less stressful if I acted as my own project manager.”
Ms. Andrew created a work-back schedule that outlined exactly how many interviews she had to conduct, plus a daily writing quota to meet the overall deadline. Once she met her daily target, she could stop work for the day and rest.
“The idea that I could achieve these daily goals and then stop felt amazing,” she says.
Forget highly caffeinated mornings, information overload and burning the midnight oil. When it comes to working smarter, Ms. Andrew’s gentler approach is right on the money, says Barbara Green, president of Think Productive North America, a productivity training company in London, Ont.
After all, employee burnout can lead to exhaustion, reduced efficiency and increased mental distance from the job, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). They recently recognized workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases.
“We’re all trying to get more done in a day, but is that better for us?” Ms. Green says. “We’re all human. We’re not superheroes.”
So how can we increase our productivity without cranking up the stress?
Here are a few pointers from Ms. Green and Michelle Cederberg, a Calgary-based performance and productivity expert:
1. Work with your attention levels
Not every moment of the day is created equal when it comes to feeling sharp and productive. Our brains can only handle so much focused work time. Ms. Green explains that everyone has three levels of attention: proactive, active and inactive.
Feeling proactive? You’re in the zone: Take advantage of those times each day. Active times are best spent on less focused tasks like addressing emails or making a phone call.
And those inactive times? “Your brain is cooked,” says Ms. Green. “You should probably be taking a mental break, going for a walk or getting a cup of coffee. Even just doing low-priority, repetitive work like filing is a good idea.”
In other words, work with your brain’s energy levels. Don’t fight them and push yourself through those inactive times or burnout could be the result, she says.
2. Plan the night before
Don’t let your inbox become your to-do list, cautions Ms. Green. Instead, take 10 minutes at the end of the workday and create tomorrow’s action plan. What’s most important? What must get done?
The next morning, look at that list and work on the most vital tasks before even thinking about firing up e-mail. Otherwise, there’s a good chance your best laid plans will get sidetracked before you even finish your first cup of coffee.
3. Think like a smoker
No, you don’t have to start a pack-a-day habit, Ms. Cederberg says. But it’s a good idea to pay attention to the way smokers take their breaks: They leave the building, go outside and even socialize.
“I’m a big believer in quality breaks,” she says. “How you take your break is as important as [taking] a break.”
When our brains work hard on the job, they need intermittent rest from thinking, she explains. That means no scrolling through social media or eating at the desk while staring at the computer screen. Get up. Move. Take in some fresh air and talk to people. You’ll come back more refreshed and proactive.
4. Try the Pomodoro technique
Both Ms. Green and Ms. Cederberg swear by this productivity method, developed by a business consultant named Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. (Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian, a nod to old-school, plastic timers shaped like tomatoes.)
The method dictates that you set a timer for a short amount of time – say, 25 or 30 minutes – and then focus on one task without interruption. Once the timer goes off, take a short break. Then, if needed, you do it again.
“You’ve just got to commit to going deep for 25 minutes,” Ms. Cederberg says. “It’s amazing when we consciously choose to do one thing, and one thing only, how much we get done.”