How to Be Efficient: 7 Science-Backed Ways to Build Speed as a Habit

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Clifford Chi
Clifford Chi



My college roommate was the fastest writer I’ve ever met. If he had a 10 page paper due at 9 AM on a Thursday, he would start writing it at 6 AM ... that day. And the craziest part of all was that he always got A’s. I couldn’t never grasp how he could do something in a few hours that took me a full school week to do.


When I asked him how (and why) he did everything last minute, he told me that he needed the pressure of an impending deadline to spark his motivation. He also told me that if you leave things last minute, they only takes a minute to do. Wise words.Download our complete productivity guide here for more tips on improving your  productivity at work.

Leaving things to do last minute can be an effective, yet nerve-racking, way to work faster, so I decided to research some more science-backed alternatives for improving efficiency. Read on to learn how you can build speed as a habit and boost your productivity.

1. Set deadlines for each of your tasks.

According to Parkinson’s law, the amount of time you spend on a certain task depends on how much time you make available to complete that task. If you don’t give yourself a deadline to finish a task, then you’ll take as long as you like on it. But if you enforce a time limit on a task, the pressure you feel trying to beat the clock will compel you to finish the task before your deadline ends, forcing you to work faster.

Timing your tasks can also put you in a mental state of flow. Flow is when you’re so immersed in an activity that you can only focus on that said activity, unaware of everything else going on like your thoughts, emotions, and time. In other words, you’re in the zone.

Flow occurs when you set clear goals that are challenging, yet attainable. Accomplishing them requires full focus and complete control of your skills.

Setting a time limit on a task is an effective way to trigger flow. Finishing a task before time runs out is a manageable goal, and it produces just enough pressure and stress to thrust you into full focus, enabling you to use your skills to their highest potential.

2. Break projects down into smaller tasks.

Starting a new project is always daunting. There’s a ton of work to do, and the finish line is barely visible. Since the reward of this big accomplishment is so far away, it almost seems like it’s not even worth starting. It’s easy to slug through work when you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment everyday.

But what if you could feel accomplished multiple times a day? Would you feel energized and motivated to work harder and faster?

Harvard Business Review analyzed over 12,000 diary entries of knowledge workers and discovered that a sense of progress, no matter how big or small, was the most important factor in boosting emotions, motivation, and perceptions during the work day. And the more frequently workers experienced progress, the more productive they were.

If you break down projects into small tasks, you can achieve a minor goal or even multiple goals in one day instead of one major goal in a few days, weeks, or even months. Constantly feeling a sense of progress is what boosts your morale and productivity in the long term. Small wins help you work faster.

3. Work around other people.

Have you ever played a sport or an instrument in front of an audience and realized you performed better compared to when no one’s around? When I play guitar and sing by myself, I think I sound good, not great. But when I play and sing in front of my friends, I think I sound like Justin Bieber.

This can be attributed to a psychological phenomena called social facilitation. If you perform something in the presence of others, their evaluation of you inflates your level of psychological engagement. This added stress helps you perform well-rehearsed or easy tasks better in front of people compared to when you’re alone. Psychologists have witnessed social facilitation occur with cyclists, students, and even cockroaches (yes, they made cockroaches perform a task in front of a cockroach audience).

If you feel like you’ve mastered your job, but want to build more speed, try working around other people. When people can see what you’re doing and potentially evaluate you, your stress levels will reach an optimal level, prompting you to work harder and faster.

4. Work within ultradian rhythms.

The human body operates on 120-minute biological intervals throughout the day called ultradian rhythms. During the first 90 minutes of the interval, your mental energy peaks, and after that, your mental energy drops down into a trough for about 30 minutes.

To maximize speed and productivity, it’s best to work in 90 minute sprints when your body is naturally energized, followed by 30 minute rest periods when your body is naturally exhausted. This allows you to take full advantage of your body’s fluctuating energy levels.

Sustaining your focus for 90 minutes straight can be a challenge, though. According to Psychology Today, people can only stay focused for 20-25 minutes before their mind starts to wander.

To work with your attention span, use the pomodoro technique during your 90-minute sprints (Work for 25 minutes, then rest for 5 minutes).

Working while you’re naturally energized, resting while you’re naturally exhausted, and taking short breaks to restore focus will ultimately help you reach peak productivity and speed.

5. Listen to white noise.

Music has always been a mood-lifter, but it’s hardly a speed-builder. According to Psychology Today, listening to music with words makes your brain’s language centers pay more attention to the song’s lyrics than your current task, if it requires reading, writing, or talking.

Listening to new music is also not conducive for productivity. New music is novel, and since your brain likes novelty, it releases dopamine when you listen to it. This draws your attention toward the music and away from work. So contrary to popular belief, even though classical music and movie soundtracks usually don’t have words, if you never listen to those genres, they can actually disrupt your concentration,

But what should you do if your workplace is too loud or you’re tired of listening to those annoying spurts of clacking keyboards or colleague chatter?

White noise is your solution.

According to the Journal of Consumer Research, ambient noise at a moderate volume is ideal for enhancing creative performance. Throwing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on and playing white noise can replicate this effect.

White noise sustains concentration because it’s constant. It sounds the same, so your brain gets used to it. Auditory distractions can’t affect you anymore. This boosts your focus on the current task at hand, allowing you to work faster.

6. Find an accountability partner.

Gretchen Rubin, a renowned researcher of human nature and happiness, recently released The Four Tendencies, a book that dives into how humans respond to expectations. She discovered that humanity falls into one of four categories: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

Most people belong to the Obliger category. Obligers eagerly meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. For example, Obligers never miss deadlines, but they also can’t seem to find time to exercise.

To help them meet their inner expectations, it’s crucial for Obligers to attach outer accountability to these internal goals. And one of the most powerful accountability tools is having an accountability partner.

No one wants to let other people down or be perceived as lazy and unproductive. That’s just human nature. So, for instance, promising your manager or colleague that you’ll write 1,000 words every day -- and having them regularly check up on you -- will motivate you to actually get it done and help you work more efficiently.

7. Silence your inner perfectionist.

Perfection is the enemy of productivity. Repeatedly reviewing your work, triple-checking for errors, and doing extra work rather than entrusting it with others delays progress, drains your energy, and can ravage your emotional health

The problem with perfectionists is that they have an all or nothing mentality. If their work isn’t perfect, they consider it a failure. The thing is, though, you can keep polishing and refining your work, but your efforts will only produce marginal improvements -- and it’ll be late. It’s important to remember that most companies consider producing good work and hitting deadlines a huge success.

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