Ever have those workdays when you know by 10 a.m. that you won’t be making it home for dinner? Instead of resolving to work after hours, tap into these seven surprising secrets for boosting your productivity.
(For more smart life hacks and awesome guy advice, check out The Better Man Project, the brand-new book from the Editor in Chief of Men’s Health.)
1. Work for 52 Minutes, Break for 17
That’s the schedule that super-productive people follow, according to a study conducted by DeskTime, a time-tracking app that monitors your work efficiency.
The app analyzed its top 10 percent most productive users and found that on average, they took 17-minute breaks throughout the day.
That aligns with previous research touting the stress-busting benefits of breaks. One Australian study found that employees who took a short walk at lunchtime felt more enthusiastic and more relaxed in the afternoon than those who didn’t head outdoors.
But breaking every 17 minutes all day long isn’t exactly realistic—according to this formula, you’d be on a break for 2 full hours of your day. Consider saving this strategy for when you’re working on something particularly complicated or draining.
Research from Singapore also shows that brief “cyberloafing”—i.e. watching funny YouTube videos—provides an instant recovery from the humdrum of day-to-day work, helping people stay productive for longer amounts of time.
2. Drown Out Chatter with the Right Soundtrack
When you need to churn out work on a tight deadline, the last thing you want to hear is your chatty cube mate shooting the bull.
Putting in earbuds to drown him out seems like the obvious fix, but blasting your favorite tunes can actually be counterproductive. Research in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that listening to pop music with lyrics while performing memory and reading comprehension tests led to lower recall and poorer comprehension than doing the tasks in silence.
Related: 6 Easy Fixes You Can Do Today to Improve Your Memory.
But another study from the Acoustical Society of America found that listening to natural sounds, like flowing water, could boost your mood and productivity. Head to RainyMood.com for a more soothing soundtrack.
3. Hide Your Phone
Sure, you know that browsing Instagram probably won’t help your work performance. But research from the University of Southern Maine found that simply having your cell phone on your desk distracts you during complex tasks.
Is answering the occasional text really all that bad? Science says yes. In a study at Michigan State University, people who were interrupted from a task for just 2.8 seconds made twice as many mistakes when they returned to it—and a 4.2-second disruption led to three times as many flubs.
4. Find Your Zone
There are certain times of the day where you’re totally in the zone, like after your morning cup of coffee, or maybe right after your lunchtime run. Keeping track of when you’re at your best and capitalizing on that time will help you knock out top to-do list items, says Kathryn McKinnon, Harvard Business School Executive Coach and author of Triple Your Time Today.
“If you’re spending your most productive time of day doing email or other tasks that aren’t your true priorities, you won’t get your best work done,” says McKinnon. Save the important stuff for when your mind is sharp and your energy is high.
5. Break Free from Email
One of McKinnon’s clients was drowning in emails and came to her for help. After assessing the guy’s workday, McKinnon found that he was spending an average of 4 hours a day just on email, and 60 percent of the messages weren’t related to his highest priorities.
It’s 2015—there’s no getting around a digital inbox. But highly productive executives follow the 6-12-6 rule, says McKinnon: They scan their email early in the morning, (6 a.m.), again at lunch (12 p.m.) and at the end of the day (6 p.m.).
If someone has a really pressing message for you, they’ll give you a call or swing by your office. Otherwise, all emails can wait.
For more ways to manage your email, discover how to Take Your Overflowing Inbox to Zero in 8 Minutes.
6. Get a Head Start on Tomorrow
Prep tomorrow’s to-do list before you head home today, suggests productivity coach Cathy Sexton, founder of TheProductivityExperts.com.
When you’re already in work mode, it’s only going to take you a few minutes to assess what you really need to get done first thing in the morning. So taking an extra 15 minutes at the end of the day to strategize might save you up to an hour tomorrow A.M., says Sexton.
Keep your list organized by splitting it in two: Have a master list with tasks you can complete at a comfortable pace, and a must-do list with no more than three top priority items on it, Sexton suggests.
7. Analyze Your Distractions
Just when you’re making progress on a tricky task, your coworker knocks on your office door. If daily distractions often throw off your workflow, consider the source, says Sexton.
Do an experiment: Every time you’re interrupted, jot down who it was and what it was about. You might find that it’s the same person always interrupting, or the same issue that repeatedly occurs.
In that case, you may be able to nip common problems in the bud before they become distractions, says Sexton.