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The not-so-productive person’s guide to productivity

By Christopher Schifando posted Wed July 13, 2022 02:11 PM


A former, beloved creative director of mine, Chuck, used to love repeating the phrase, “work smarter, not harder.” At that point in my career, I was a young copywriter at an advertising agency in Los Angeles that had created some of the best advertising in the country, if not the world. The pressure was on, so, of course, I completely ignored my boss’s advice. I just didn’t know how to work smarter — it would be years before I did. It also didn’t help that there was another phrase that was passed around the office, it went something like “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” Gulp.

It was only years later, after feeling burned out, that I really started to adopt that “work smarter, not harder” mantra. I realized that I didn’t have to put in 80-hour weeks to come up with great ideas. I needed to prioritize, chunk up my workday, block-off time on my calendar and understand what time was best for thinking and writing and what time was best for less brain-intensive activities. So here are a few of my tips. They’re not groundbreaking, and you’ve probably seen most of them someplace else. That’s because they work. So, choose a few to test out or go all in. Here they are:

  • Embrace the notebook. I love having a pen and paper next to me to outline my day. There’s something about having this analogue tool to counter all the digital tools I use. And it just feels great to cross something off your list. Continuing, I split the page horizontally in half and then draw another line vertically down the bottom half. In that top section, I list all the meetings I have for the day chronologically. On the bottom half of the page that I split in two, I list my work “to-dos,” and my home “to-dos.” And I use the back of the page for notes. Now that I got the administrative part of my day out of my head, I’m free to put that brain power towards more important stuff. Shameless plug — Watson Orchestrate works in a similar way.

  • Know when you do your best thinking. For me, anything that requires a substantial mental lift needs to be done in the AM. There are less distractions, I have more energy and nothing has gone wrong — yet. Choose the time that works best for you.

  • Put time on your own calendar. Otherwise, someone else will fill it up with a meeting, or you’ll start trolling Slack looking for distractions. Putting it on your calendar makes you accountable and makes that time work harder for you.

  • Chunk up your day. Like I said earlier, AM works best for me for my most mentally draining activities, but you can also devote a section of time to responding to emails or messages so that you’re not constantly checking them. Try to group your meetings together, if possible, so they aren’t strung out across your day, and factor in time for lunch and breaks.

  • Use a timer. Some people have picked this tip up from the Pomodoro Technique. Focusing is hard for lots of people. The best way that I have found to focus is by timeboxing a task. If I only know I have 30 or 60 minutes to complete something, I’m that much more focused. I also like challenging myself to beat the clock.

  • Use that sliver of time between meetings more efficiently. Some tasks don’t require a huge amount of time. Maybe you need to schedule a meeting or a doctor’s appointment. When you list your “to-dos,” make a mental note or even star the ones that you can accomplish during these gaps.

  • Go for a walk. It’s amazing how wound up you can get sitting at your computer while trying to tick the “to-dos” off your list. At some point, just like your computer, you need to reboot. All those 1s and 0s start getting tangled up and you lose perspective. Go for a quick walk around the block and clear your mental cache.

  • Stay organized. Here’s a secret: Organized people work at being organized. You may be tempted to shut down the computer right after your last meeting, but organized people make time to stay organized. They spend that extra time deleting emails, adding files to Box, moving meetings to make better use of their time and proactively looking at what the week holds. Be like them.

  • Plan your next day’s activities the night before. This way you’re ready to go. It also helps you percolate any thoughts or ideas subconsciously the night before.

“Working smarter, not harder” may sound like a cliché, but it takes rigor to put it into effect. It took me years. See what works best for you and own it. And if anyone tells you not to come in on Sunday because you didn’t come in on Saturday, tell them “I wasn’t planning to.”






Wed July 20, 2022 09:55 AM

I'm with you Chris, the morning is when I'm most productive. If I have a lot to do, then I'll get online by 6am to expand my productive hours. Sure I'm exhausted by 4pm, but I'm already less effective at that hour :)

Tue July 19, 2022 07:19 AM

These practices should be put on posters and made as visible in workplaces as the famous "hang in there" picture of a cat hanging on a tree.

Sun July 17, 2022 05:12 PM

Love this reminder. I too took awhile to learn how to work "smarter". I always have a handwritten list by my side. I like the timer idea! Totally going to try that this week. Thanks!

Thu July 14, 2022 01:01 PM

Those are really great tips, one thing that I would add is to share task and problems with collegues, this way you can find solutions faster and have more time to other activities.