11 Strategies to Work Smarter, Not Harder

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox




"Work smarter, not harder."

Chances are, you've heard this phrase before -- and probably more than once. The philosophy behind working "smart" is to maximize your productivity when you are working so that you can get more stuff done in shorter periods of time. By working smarter, you'll find yourself with more time in the day to sleep, exercise, be creative, and recharge.

(Oh, and it just so happens that those relaxing things also make you more productive when you get back to work again -- and so the cycle continues.)

Most of us use to-do lists to keep track of what we need to do and how much we've gotten done. These lists are loose ways of measuring how productive we are: When we've successfully crossed everything off our list, we feel really really accomplished. 

The key to getting through your to-do list faster is by working smarter -- without sacrificing the quality of your work. How is that done? Here are 11 tips to help you get through that to-do list as efficiently as possible.

11 Tips for Getting Through Your To-Do List Faster

1) Choose the to-do list app or tool that works for you.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of good ol' pen-and-paper to-do lists. But unless you want to carry a physical notebook around everywhere you go, it makes sense to use a to-do list app or tool that syncs across all your devices. That way, you can access your to-do items whenever and wherever you need to, whether you're at your desk, in a meeting, or on a business trip.

There are a lot of to-do list apps and tools out there, though ... so which ones are the best of the best?

Actually, the best one for you depends entirely on your working style and personal preferences. Here's a list of 10 of the best to-do list tools and apps. It includes descriptions of how they work and which features they include so you can choose the one(s) that fit closest with your style.

2) Write out your to-do list the day before.

When you plan out what you're going to do the day before, a few good things happen. 

For one, you'll be able to dive right into your to-do list in the morning, freeing you up to get more done during one of the most productive times of day.

Secondly, planning out your day in advance can help you spot obstacles ahead of time, which can help you reduce the total time you spend working on a project.

Finally, knowing what you have going on well in advance could help you relax and sleep better the night before -- and a good night's sleep is important not only for productivity but also for health and happiness.

Before you head home from work each day, spend a few minutes looking over your calendar for the next day and writing a to-do list -- perhaps using that new favorite to-do list app or tool.

3) Separate your work and personal to-do lists.

When you're in the office, you shouldn't be worrying about cleaning the oven, feeding your chinchilla, or picking up a birthday card for your mom. Likewise, when you're at home, you should do your best to unplug and be present in the moment -- without worrying about those looming work deadlines. We all know there's always more you could be doing, but you'll be happier and more productive if you focus on work when you're at work and on life stuff when you're at home.

The simplest way to separate your work and personal to-do lists is by keeping multiple lists separated on the same tools or apps. Or if you find it hard to stay focused on one or the other when they share an app or tool, you might use different tools or apps for each part of your life.

I personally keep three separate lists in three locations: My personal to-do list is in my written planner, my grocery and packing lists are on my phone in the Wunderlist app, and all my work to-do's are on my computer in the Todoist desktop app. Find the system that works for you.

4) Keep a "to-don't" list.

Here's a productivity trick that'll help you focus on what really matters: Remove any items from your to-do list that you're not realistically going to do and put them on a "to-don't" list. That way, you aren't wasting any time on the things that don't really matter. This'll help you prioritize the more urgent list items and get through everything faster.

What's more, you'll probably feel less stressed overall without those less important things hanging over your head. I'll always remember what Arianna Huffington said in her keynote at INBOUND 2014:

'I discovered early on in life that you can actually complete a project by dropping it,' she said. And this has been incredibly useful to me. For example, I thought that I was going to learn German. I thought I was going to become a good skier. I thought I was going to learn to cook. And one day, I decided I was actually never going to do any of these things. So I dropped them ... You just have to decide, what are you going to put your energy into and what you're not going to put your energy into, and that's just as valuable."

Below is a helpful graphic from my colleague Leslie Ye on how to create a "to-don't" list:


5) Stay accountable by sharing your to-do list.

Not only is sharing your to-do list with colleagues a great way to collaborate, but it's also a great way to hold yourself accountable. Having to share your to-do list with others in the first place will force you to spend some time prioritizing your tasks and thinking through which ones you'll be able to realistically complete. You might find that when it comes to actually knocking them off the list, you'll feel healthy pressure to get everything done in the time period you promised.

There are a lot of different ways to share your to-do list with your colleagues. Here at HubSpot, the blogging team has a daily standup where we come together briefly in the mornings to, among other things, list out what we're working on that day. If we find ourselves repeating the same task over a series of consecutive days, it becomes clear to ourselves and our colleagues that we either need to prioritize that task to get it done, or reevaluate whether it really needs doing in the first place. You can also use collaborative to-do list apps like Trello or Wunderlist to share tasks with others digitally.

6) Block time on your calendar to knock things off the list.

When you literally reserve blocks of time in your online calendar to get specific tasks done, it can be much easier to focus and get your work done quicker. Plus, it prevents others from setting up meetings with you during that time. Need to do some last-minute prep for a presentation at 4 p.m.? Block off a 1-2 hours in the morning or after lunch so no one bothers you during that time. Need to do some research before an important call? Block the half hour before the call starts.

Even if you don't have a specific project you want to tackle, you can still block off time to cross things off your to-do list. HubSpot's Director of Marketing Debbie Farese told me once that she blocks time off on her calendar and labels it "GSD" (Get S*** Done) so she can work for longer stretches without getting disturbed.

7) Batch similar tasks in the same time frame.

Ever been doing online research one minute, and find yourself writing a one-off email another? Perpetually shifting your focus like that can add up to a whole lot of wasted time. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association found that shifting between tasks causes temporary mental barriers, depleting our productivity by as much as 40%. 

Instead of completing tasks as they come up, consider doing batch tasking, or batch processing. This is a handy time management hack in which you take similar tasks -- like answering email, scheduling out your tweets, and so on -- and "batch" them together to get them done faster. For example, you might set aside a full hour each morning to read and write emails. Or, perhaps you dedicate your Friday mornings to writing blog posts.

HubSpot VP of Growth Brian Balfour once said he thinks the worst habit people have is not batching their emails. He typically batches email twice per day: first between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., and then between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.


Over the next few days, pay attention to the tasks you find yourself doing on a one-off basis that could be hurting your overall productivity and consider batching these tasks.

8) Physically remove distractions.

Speaking of losing precious productivity when you shift your focus, distractions like notifications, phone calls, and noise in the office can make it much harder to get through your to-do list quickly. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine found that a typical office worker gets only about 11 minutes of work done between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption.

There's only so much you can do mentally to close yourself off from these distractions. When you see a Facebook notification pop up telling you your friend just posted a new video to your Timeline, how are you not going to look? Remove those temptations by physically removing stuff like notifications (for email, for Chrome, and so on), turning your phone on airplane mode, or even putting your phone in your bag except when you're taking a break.

If you really need to focus, you might even move yourself to shut out in-person distractions. HubSpot Demand Generation Manager Amanda Sibley told me, "If there is something I must get done in a day -- a deck due to our CMO, for example -- then I turn off email and shut myself in a room for an hour or so until it's done."

9) Work in sprints, follow by periods of rest.

Similar to batching similar tasks together, doing work in regular intervals with breaks in between is another way to check more off your to-do list, faster. There are several sprint-and-rest techniques out there, but the Pomodoro Technique is a favorite of ours. It's a productivity-boosting technique developed by neuroscientists that can help you concentrate for longer periods, avoid distractions, maintain higher energy throughout the day, and lower your stress levels.

The Pomodoro Technique is all about taking advantage of our natural rhythms of energy and fatigue. Here's how it works: You work in 90-minute intervals, followed by 30 minutes of rest between each interval. Why? These time frames are based off our ultradian rhythms, which are the 120-minute biological intervals our bodies operate on throughout a given day. These 120-minute intervals are broken into a series of peaks, when we're feeling energized, and troughs, when we're feeling fatigued.


When you work in 90-minute intervals, you're working when your energy is highest, and resting when your energy is low so you can recharge and get back to being productive.


The point here is to not fight the times of day when we naturally feel exhausted. Instead of working against our bodies by loading up with caffeine, eating sugar foods, or just simply "biting the bullet" and working through the fatigue, we're working with our bodies to take rests when we need them.

You can keep track of the time by just keeping an eye on the clock, but if you prefer to use a desktop timer, my colleague Scott Tousley suggests using Pomodoro One for Mac or Tomighty for Windows. It's as easy as pressing start and stop.


10) Reward yourself for completing tasks.

If the break alone isn't enough to keep you laser-focused during periods of work, try using a rewards system. Once you knock three items off your list, or once you finish a particularly grueling task, you can allow yourself to check Twitter, eat a snack, or go to the gym.

Sometimes, I plan a break with coworker where we agree to grab coffee together once we're done with a task on each of our lists. It's a less direct way of keeping each other accountable than standup or sharing our to-do lists, and the reward -- a nice break with a friend -- is much sweeter.

11) Try the "dead battery countdown."

Here's a handy productivity trick from my colleague Ginny Soskey, who manages HubSpot's Marketing Blog. Bring your laptop with you to a remote location without your computer charger, and aim to get your to-do list done by the time you leave. This is a way of gamifying your productivity, and it works: The pressure of a looming deadline can do wonders to keep you focused and working smarter.

What tips do you have for getting through your to-do list? Share with us in the comments.

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