Ideal Outcomes

Work Smarter, Not Harder: Productivity Hacks That Really Work

by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

How many hours a day do you work? Let’s say you go into the office from 9 to 5 (on the days you’re not working from home, that is!) Does that mean you work seven or eight hours? The chances of anyone contributing that many productive hours are highly unlikely. In fact, most workers are truly productive for no more than three hours a day when you take into account distractions such as social media, chatting with coworkers, and snack breaks. Numerous hacks to overcome these productivity killers can be found with a quick internet search. But do they really work? Worse still, could they be counterproductive or damage our work relationships? Is it possible to get more done without sacrificing our health and humanity?

Here are some answers.

Stand Firm, Set Boundaries

When teams are in a crunch period, fighting to meet project deadlines, it’s natural for some people to take on more work to appear cooperative and capable. Remote work has intensified this problem. Not being constantly “visible” to others can drive us to overcompensate by responding instantly and willingly to every request. But consistently taking on more than you can handle can put you on the fast track to burnout, anxiety, and resentment.

Set and communicate realistic boundaries with your colleagues. This is more than just a professional courtesy—it helps build a healthy work environment. By clearly defining your limits, you not only protect your own well-being, but also contribute to a more respectful and collaborative workspace. The key is to approach this task in a courteous and constructive manner. Open dialogue and mutual understanding are essential; they help to ensure that everyone is on the same page, preventing misunderstandings and fostering a culture of respect.

Pro tip: The next time you find yourself overwhelmed or stretched too thin, remember that setting boundaries is not just okay—it’s crucial for both personal and professional success.

Reserve Your Calendar for Appointments

Many people use their calendars for appointments and as to-do lists. But having multiple notifications pop up during the day can be distracting and overwhelming.

Consider deleting everything from your calendar except appointments. You could also download a calendar automation app like Calendly that eliminates the need to send emails back and forth to find a mutually convenient meeting time.

Pro-tip: If you’re wondering where your tasks should live, you could advantage of the underused tasks or newer To-Do list functions in Outlook (if you’re a 365 user) or an external digital to-do list app. The best tools sync immediately with your computer, tablet, and phone.

A Tidy Space for a Focused Mind

For most of us, our desks are the control center of our work, but it’s easy for them to pile up with papers, headphones, chargers, and other assorted office paraphernalia. Despite the protestations of messy creative thinkers like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, clutter affects the mind’s ability to focus. The more you are exposed to clutter, the more distractible you become. Your brain favors order over chaos, constant visual disorganization so constantly looking at a disorganized mess (even when it’s your mess) exhausts the brain, impairs working memory, and makes it increasingly difficult to regain your focus. Clutter also releases cortisol which, although you might not make the connection, d is correlated with stress and anxiety.

Pro tip: Taking just a few minutes to straighten up and organize can save you hours of distracted time.

Give Yourself a Break (The Pomodoro Technique)

Have you ever found yourself sitting at your desk for hours without taking a break until backache alerts you to the issue? If so, you need to find a way to control your time more effectively. The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time management system that encourages breaking workdays into 25-minute focus periods followed by five-minute breaks. Each of these  cycles is known as a Pomodoro, after the tomato-shaped timer first used to test the method.

The basic steps are:

  • Choose a single task to focus on
  • Set your timer for 25 minutes and focus only on your selected task during this period
  • After 25 minutes, take a five-minute break
  • Repeat these steps four times
  • Then, take a longer break of about 15-30 minutes.

The  idea behind the technique is that it creates s a sense of urgency. When you know you only have 25 minutes to make as much progress on your chosen task as possible, you’re less likely to squander those precious minutes on distractions.

With this technique, you also avoid spending hours in front of your computer every day without realizing it. Taking periodic, mandatory breaks helps to lessen  the exhaustion many of us experience at the end of a working day.

Pro-tip: In addition to dedicating time for your 25-minute focus periods, select the tasks you want to focus on ahead of time. This will eliminate information overload or procrastination when the time comes to start working. And if the idea of keeping such detailed track of your workday feels a little overwhelming, there are plenty of Pomodoro timer apps available to help you out.

Clear the Noise

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who introduced the flow theory in 1975 described flow as a state of deep immersion in a single task where the outside world seems to slip away. The theory is still relevant today. According to McKinsey & Company, individuals who frequently experience the state of flow are more productive and derive greater satisfaction from their work than those who don’t.

We are constantly bombarded by smartphone and desktop notifications that keep us in a state of perpetual hyper-responsiveness, distractions that zap our ability to get into flow, do our best work, and go home feeling accomplished. A 2008 study, still cited today, showed it takes about 23 minutes to get back into a state of flow after an interruption.

Pro tip: Preserve focus by silencing notifications. It may feel strange initially, but that disconnect is essential if you’re serious about getting more done. Use self-scheduled breaks to catch up on your messages.

Balance Beats Breaking Your Back

Working harder isn’t always better. And increasing your productivity only goes so far. It’s important to carve out some “me time” in your busy schedule. Taking a breather is good for your brain and your body, too. When you step away from the grind to do something that genuinely relaxes or inspires you—maybe it’s a quick jog, a meditation session, or even just doodling—you’re not just “taking a break,” you’re hitting the reset button on your mental and physical well-being. And guess what? That’s going to make you way more effective when you dive back into work.

The next time you’re swamped with tasks and deadlines, remember this: stepping back isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a strategic move. A little self-care can go a long way in boosting your productivity and, more importantly, keeping you sane in this fast-paced world.

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