Does the workplace drive you to work harder each day? Upwardly mobile people work so obsessively at becoming productive that it becomes counter-productive, to the point of burning out. Yet, the secret to real productivity is so simple that people often miss the point completely. Productivity is not about driving yourself harder in the sweatshop; it’s about working smarter.

Put in extra smarts, not extra hours. If that sounds simple, it’s because it is simple. Here are 5 not-so-secret secrets that corporate individuals seem to forget:

  1. Do the toughest task first thing. Instead of simply listing everything that comes to mind, limit your list to the top 3 most important things to accomplish. Every day, you can only take as much as three major tasks. These are tasks that are so important, you won’t be able to leave the office without completing them. Because they’re critical and very demanding, they must be completed earlier in the day, when you’re at your optimal mental and physical alertness. Minor tasks can fill the rest of the day, when you have less energy and focus.
  2. Plan tomorrow, today. Before going to bed, write your to-do list. Having decided what happens the following day reduces anxiety, allows sleep, and provides clarity and focus upon arrival to the workplace. In fact, work starts when you get to your desk: no haziness or loafing, because you already have your to-dos set out.
  3. Have a master to-do list, and a today to-do list. The master list is where everything that needs to be done in a month, or a longer term, gets listed. The today list is extracted from the master list. Every day, focus only on the tasks that are listed for the day; don’t be side-tracked by the larger picture. Every once in a while, sit down and assess how far you’ve gotten on the master list, and make adjustments for the tasks assigned daily.
  4. Don’t forget that productivity refers to the amount of work you’ve completed in a given time. It’s not the amount of time you put into your work. Break a major task into several smaller tasks. Target a reasonable number of mini-tasks to be completed in a day and tick them off as you go. This will sustain you through the days that follow until completion date, contrary to the low morale that one feels in the middle of the week with a huge incomplete task.
  5. Develop a routine to kick-start every day. Habits can help you switch to work-mode. Upon arrival at the office, for instance, you can clear your table or go to the rest room, then perhaps check the mail. A cup of coffee after that, or any alternative cue, will signal the start of work.

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Having done these things, cool down and head home. Don’t overstay in the office, as this only make the day longer and not necessarily more productive. Get home and wind down.