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Hacking. It’s a strange term and it’s enjoyed a number of different meanings over the years.

As an asthmatic child growing up in the UK, it wasn’t unusual to experience several bouts of bronchitis accompanied by a nasty hacking cough over the course of the winter.

On Sundays, we would often enjoy a nice roast dinner with all the trimmings, but only my father was allowed to cut the meat because he disliked anyone else “hacking” at the joint. Here, hacking was something people did and made a mess of things.

In the equestrian world, hacking meant going from one place to another on your horse.

The saying “I can’t hack this anymore!” meant you had reached your absolute limit, describing the level of exhaustion and frustration experienced from feeling overworked, out of your depth, or having to continually deal with difficult people.

Today hacking includes the mischievous computer hacker or how we can hack a particular way of thinking or behaving to get a better outcome.

(If you’re interested in the history of the hack, you can discover more in this article in the New Yorker magazine).

Let’s look at a couple of ways you can hack your productivity that doesn’t desecrate the lamb roast:

Ask why

Why are you undertaking this task? Is it relevant, important or just a quick tick off the to-do list? We have become very good at creating work for ourselves through lack of filtering.

That horrible feeling of overwhelm, when you’ve got too much to do and too little time, elevates stress levels and effectively reduces access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain used for conscious thought; planning, organising and regulating emotion.

While we know it helps to prioritise our tasks, paradoxically our ability to do this shrinks as the number of tasks waiting to be done increases, heightening our inefficiency. Just like de-cluttering your cupboards, emptying out those drawers of stuff that you don’t really need frees you up to allocate the time required for what really matters.

Stay right here

We think all day long, and when not actively focused our mind likes to disappear on a little mind wander. Sometimes we’re thinking about the plans we have for our future. Sometimes we’re thinking about what’s happened in the past. It’s been estimated we spend 47% of our awake time at a place other than in the present moment, meaning we’re not actively engaged with the task at hand. This is where undertaking a daily meditation practice of ten to fifteen minutes practice can help keep you focused, less stressed and more productive.

Cancel bad feedback

Performance reviews have taken a bit of a hammering recently (and with good reason as they were often linked to a significant drop in productivity and performance) because those very words “Can I give you some feedback?” creates an enormous threat response in the brain.

But here’s the thing, we like feedback when it is delivered in the right way.

So, ask for it!

Research by Gallup and others has found that weekly feedback that is self-initiated, leads to higher engagement, helps us to quickly work out what isn’t working so well, and find a solution. Little and often is the way to.

The two-letter word to use more often

No. I was in a gift store recently that was selling bright red “No” buttons. (In fact, I think I might go back and get one). Because we’re not always very good at saying no, we can end up taking on more than we’re truly capable of delivering. So next time someone asks you to stay back late or to take on extra work, instead of automatically saying yes because you don’t wish to offend, or appear self-centred, check in with yourself first. Will this extra work make it harder for you to fulfil your other duties? Does it mean you’ll be late getting other work to your colleagues who are depending on and waiting for your input? Is this going to cost you too much time and energy that you simply don’t have right now?

If yes, say no and offer to help out another time.

Get out of the office

Overthinking fatigues brains quickly. Getting out of the office for a short 15-30 minute break at least once a day provides the brain with the pit stop it needs to refresh and re-energise. Choose to go for a walk, go to a café for lunch or meet up with a colleague. Taking time out for unfocused work allows your subconscious to get on with all that background work needed to solve those tricky problems, create more insight and preserve your cognitive stamina.

Go home on time

While there will always be those times where you have to stay late for a particular job, working too hard for too many hours leads to a productivity nose dive, especially if you’re working more than 48 hours a week. Time spent elsewhere, especially when with family and friends is essential to cognitive health and well being, elevates mood and boosts performance.

What hacks have you found helpful to boost your productivity?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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