One Trick to Getting More Done In Less Time

Businesswoman checking wristwatch in corridor
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How can we get more work done in less time, maximize our creativity, and be happier while we’re doing it?

This was the mission of a crash course in breakthrough productivity run by two experts on Wednesday at Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in Laguna Nigel, Calif.

Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It, and Camille Preston, leadership coach and author of Rewired, approached the subject with agreement: Part of what holds back multitaskers, procrastinators, and work-life-balancers, they said, is a constant underlying churn of worry.

“People are often focused on what they want to spend less time doing,” Vanderkam said. To fix it, flip it: “Ask yourselves what do I want to spend more time doing?” That thinking makes us happier and helps us grow, she added. “When we fill our lives with the things we want to spend more time doing, the things we want to spend less time doing magically takes less time.”

Vanderkam put the group through an exercise designed to help them start re-thinking their lives. Imagine that it’s the end of 2017 and you’ve had your best professional year ever. “What three to five things did you do that made it so incredible?” she asked. Now imagine a similar list about your personal life, like you might put in a holiday newsletter. Those are your big goals for next year.

Break those down into smaller steps and treat them as action items, to be tackled on a weekly basis. “Create a three category priority list—career, relationships, and self—and add two to three items per category,” she says. Then add them to your calendar and stick with it. The trick, she said, is to do it Friday afternoon for the week ahead. “Friday afternoon is a low opportunity cost time,” she said, good for thinking and reflecting.

Preston cited her current research on “flow,” the mystical state of full immersion in the moment identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “There have been tremendous advances in neuroscience in the last three to five years,” Preston said. “We can re-think how we’re designing our days to experience more flow.” Spending just 20% more time in flow mode will double your productivity, she added.

For more flow, you can prepare your brain to be more focused by managing your energy differently, Preston said. “Think of your work as ‘purposeful struggle,’” she said. “Break tasks into smaller projects that let you sprint and then step back.”

And clear out your mind by doing periodic “dumps” of the constant stream of nervous chatter that’s always running in the background. “Write down all the things that are in the back of your brain, the other things that you should be doing in this moment,” Preston said—answering emails, wondering if you left the iron on, etc. “You should feel your energy go up,” she said.

Let that stuff become a manageable to-do list while you focus on the bigger things that will bring you the most progress. Said Preston: “Later, it will feel great to cross them off the list.”

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