Kelsey Down

Ancient hunter-gatherers likely worked around 15 hours per week. In contrast, the average American works for about 34.3 hours each week (and many people work longer hours in certain industries).

Our forebears left so much room for leisure in their schedule that scholars have had to reconsider modern definitions of affluence (time, after all, is money). They knew how to get the job done quickly, without creating unnecessary hard work for themselves. These early humans embodied the principle of working smarter not harder.

But even in 2018, you can cut down on unnecessary work in your busy life. Here are 11 tips for doing just that, from successful, strong women who have already started working smarter in their own lives:

1. Cap your to-do lists.

Successful entrepreneur and working mom Karen Shopoff Rooff started her personal training business 10 years ago, and since then has seen that business evolve into a prolific blog, a suite of e-courses and public speaking engagements. It may seem like such a diversified business would mean a lengthy to-do list every day, with equally diverse action items. But a key factor in Shopoff Rooff’s success is her commitment to short, realistic to-do lists—without waisting time on distractions.

“I plan each day to have no more than three tasks,” she says. Besides preventing her from biting off too much, this tactic also allows her to expect the unexpected. “There are so many unexpected tasks that appear each day. If I have only three MUST DO tasks, there is still time and mental energy to tackle all of the new ones that appear.”

Other to-do list strategies exist, and it’s up to you to determine the best method for your needs. The key is to know what’s realistic and to accept that reality.

2. Block off time for planning.

In addition to capping her daily to-do lists, Shopoff Rooff sets aside Friday afternoons to review the past week and plan for the coming week. She says that this dedicated planning time frees up mental space during her work days and helps her launch straight into productive work each Monday morning.

You don’t have to stick to Shopoff Rooff’s Friday afternoon planning block to apply the guiding principle here. You might choose instead to hold short planning sessions at the start or end of every work day, or maybe you want to plan your week on Sunday night. Whatever you decide, the secret is to block off the time on your calendar so that it doesn’t get squeezed out when other events or responsibilities pop up.

3. Make a project list in addition to a to-do list.

TEDx speaker and founder of Maura Thomas has written extensively about productivity at work. She recommends a separate project list “containing your big-picture objectives” to complement your smaller daily task list.

The bullets on your project list will be more abstract goals than actionable items. But according to Thomas, once you identify your overarching goals, you can break them down into specific steps by asking yourself, What is the first thing I need to do to move that project forward?

“The idea,” she says, “is that if you had five minutes, and wanted to move that project forward, you’d know exactly what you’d need to do.”

4. Declutter digitally.

Thomas further recommends that you eliminate both physical and electronic clutter. “Talk to me all you want about messiness and creativity,” she says. “Your clutter sends the message (to yourself and others) that you’re overwhelmed and not in control, and that there may be things buried in the clutter that need your attention.”

So as well as clearing out the surface of your desk and your messy drawers, take some time to close out of the twenty open browser tabs and application windows on your laptop. Thomas says that digital clutter leads to constant distraction and multitasking, which can be a recipe for mistakes in the business world. Take the time to disconnect.

5. Know your optimal productivity times.

Solopreneur and leadership coach Lisa Sansom emphasizes the importance of knowing yourself, including your “good energy times.” That means knowing whether you’re an early bird, a night owl, or something in between and planning your schedule accordingly.

“Work on the tough stuff when your energy is good,” Sansom advises. “Work on the easier stuff when you have less energy.”

6. Embrace monotasking.

Sansom echoes Thomas’s warning not to multitask. Instead, she suggests that you learn how to monotask, or how to focus on one task at a time: “If you’re going to be there, be there.”

Samson says that trying to multitask is usually ineffective and exhausting—but what’s more, research has uncovered a link between higher rates of media multitasking and poorer cognitive performance. So by attempting to spread your attention across many tasks at once, you are reducing your ability to focus on anything at all and will ultimately be less productive.

7. Find an accountability buddy.

Sansom urges anyone with long-term goals to find a friend, mentor, or peer to whom they can stay accountable. “We are social creatures,” she explains. Sharing accountability with another person can take many forms, whether that’s in a casual daily text message or a more formal one-on-one each week.

Peer accountability not only enhances team performance, but it can also lead to higher individual performance if you don’t work on a team. Seek out someone with similar goals and interests and ask if you can consider them your accountability buddy—and don’t forget to offer to return the favor if they are interested.

8. Turn off notifications.

Career expert Joyce Chou has found that removing interruptions like email notifications amplifies her productivity at work. “Desktop and mobile email notifications were normal for me,” she says. “But I realized that every time I got one, I’d pause whatever work I was in the middle of to take a quick look. This meant that every email was an interruption, however minor it was.”

Chou suggests disabling those instant notifications in favor of a few designated times to check email throughout the day. First thing in the morning, right after lunch and before she leaves work is the system that feels right for Chou, but you can choose different times of day based on your existing routine and individual situation.

9. Use a standing desk.

To beat the universal afternoon slump, Chou recommends using a standing desk. “Switching to a standing desk after lunch is a game-changer for keeping my attention focused instead of daydreaming about my bed,” she says.

But beyond maintaining focus, standing rather than sitting can have health benefits. Research shows that remaining sedentary for too long is associated with higher mortality rates. To lower your risk of numerous health issues, you should aim to interrupt long periods of sitting. A standing desk is one way to do that while continuing to work if you are too busy to take a walk or get some other exercise.

10. Outsource household tasks.

Querida Lugo, Ed.D., specializes in counseling and innovative leadership. As the founder and CEO of a self-improvement website, she helps provide women with the tools they need to find growth in their careers and personal lives. Lugo is a big advocate of outsourcing tasks that you don’t have the time, energy, or desire to do.

For example, Lugo suggests that you “have a laundry service come pick up, clean, and fold your clothes” or “pay for a housekeeper here and there.” Another way to outsource tasks is to invest in smart technology. We haven’t reached the age of the Jetsons just yet, but you can find coffee machines that start brewing automatically and dog feeders that release food on a timer. No need to feel intimidated if you’re not tech-savvy—you can keep smart tech as simple as you want.

11. Hire a Virtual Assistant.

Lugo points out that you can also outsource parts of your business or job by hiring a virtual assistant. Especially helpful for the self-employed and small business owners, delegating more menial administrative tasks to an assistant can free up valuable time to accomplish bigger goals.

“This person can work an hour a day for five days a week, just setting up your day,” Lugo says. Of course not everyone can afford to pay for housekeepers, virtual assistants, or smart home technology, but if you have the money to spare you should not feel guilty about letting someone (or something) else do that work. “Sometimes it is just worth it to get someone else to do it and better utilize your time,” Lugo says.

These suggestions are proven ways to reduce unnecessary work and free up space in your schedule to pursue meaningful long-term goals. You don’t have to apply them all at once—choose the tips that feel like a more natural fit for you, and experiment with new ways of working smarter like the hunter-gatherers who knew how to live a balanced life.

Kelsey Down is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who has been featured on publications including Elite DailyVentureBeat, and SUCCESS. She’s covered fun stuff like why TV reboots need to stop and how to hack sleep as a workout, and she also writes about personal and family wellness. Follow her on Twitter @kladown23.