You know those people who always seem to accomplish more, in less time, than the rest of us? Experts say they follow simple strategies that we can all adopt. Here’s how.

By Louisa Kamps
Updated February 11, 2015
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Find focus with a simple ritual.
Try making your favorite morning activity—sipping tea, walking around the block—a mind-clearing pre-work ritual. Devoting a few minutes to relaxing and centering can help erase and even prevent mental frazzle, according to Paul Silverman, an executive coach for Fortune 500 companies, who draws on his training in Zen Buddhism to teach clients how to develop single-minded attention: “The purpose is to deepen your breath, make you energized, and help you come into the moment, fully focused and concentrated—a skill many exceptional people have.”

Establish a clear mission statement and assign incremental project goals to keep everyone on track.
People who devote time to focusing on project plans before the project even starts, according to Silverman, are far less likely to find themselves lost in the weeds, wondering how to proceed—and procrastinating. “Take as much time as you need working with colleagues to get consensus and define, down to one crystal-clear line, what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. Pre-determining measurable benchmarks also helps everyone stay focused on the parts of a project they’re responsible for. Finally, with a clear mission statement, you’ll know when a project’s finally met its objective and everyone can call it a day.

Tackle the most challenging task first.
Whether it means phoning an obnoxious client or making sense of wildly disparate data points, effective people give priority to their toughest chore. Finishing the most challenging and important item on a to-do list first (a strategy recommended by Brian Tracy in his best-selling Eat That Frog!) frees up mental energy that would otherwise have been frittered away worrying about it. And it makes the rest of the day seem manageable by comparison.

Go easy on email.
Though it’s easy to fall into the habit of checking mail dozens of times a day, productive people check theirs far less frequently. Workers instructed to check email only three times a day reported being far less stressed after one week than workers told to check email freely, according to a recent University of British Columbia study. The “email-minimalizers” answered roughly as many emails, in 20 per cent less time, as the “email-maximizers.” Why? “Constantly monitoring our inboxes promotes stress without promoting efficiency,” the study’s authors concluded. If you need help, try an internet-blocking software like Self-Control or Freedom, which can block Internet access for up 24 hours.

Take regular breaks.
People cycle from being alert to being fatigued about once every 90 minutes, according to Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project. Schwartz himself used to put in marathon 10-hour days writing his books. But learning to manage his energy more effectively—he now writes in three focused 90-minute intervals, with breaks between for exercise and socializing—has doubled his productivity, he says. Completing a manuscript used to take him a year, but now he can bang out a book—The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working is his latest New York Times bestseller—in just six months.

Shake a leg at lunchtime.
Taking a break to walk outside the office boosts productivity: Workers who walked for 30 minutes over their lunch breaks returned to work feeling more enthusiastic and capable of coping with stress, according to a recent study led by the University of Birmingham. Need further inspiration? Try taping philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s advice over your desk: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Make sleep a priority.
More than a third of Americans are underslept, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and our collective sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy a whopping $63.2 billion annually in lost productivity, according to the Harvard Medical School. “No matter how conscientious you are, inadequate sleep saps concentration, focus, and energy,” says Silverman. “It has a major impact on every aspect of your life. If you’re getting up at 7, you need to be asleep at 11. It’s not advanced math.” And because e-readers and computers interfere with our ability to sleep, experts recommend sticking with paper books right before bedtime.

Learn from failures, then move on.
In keeping with kaizen, the Japanese principle of continuous improvement, productive people have a knack for analyzing what went wrong with a flopped prototype, or in snippy conversation with a colleague. But instead of endlessly rehashing the problem, they simply vow “to engage better as a human being, or somehow tweak things a little bit the next time,” says Silverman. “They have the ability to make incremental improvements in their performance and ask themselves, ‘Ok, what can I learn from this? What can I do better?’”