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“In order to maximize each day, you need to own up to your junk hours,” Core instructs. “You need to identify when you’re going through the motions of work, versus when real work is being done. Don’t be ashamed that your junk hours exist, because everybody needs to take breaks and shift gears. Your task now is to exchange your low-value ‘junk’ activities for ones that build greater health and value into your workday.

“For instance, I know one woman who, instead of taking an endless string of coffee breaks, sets aside 20 minutes each afternoon to knit. I know another man who decided to spend his lunch hours either with friends or going to the gym, instead of trying to squeeze in more work around bites of a burger. In both instances, these scheduled breaks increased my friends’ energy levels and sense of well-being. They felt less of a need to take low-value breaks and began to experience more productivity. And yes, they began getting out of the office earlier, too.”

Instead of adding to your to-do list, build a new pattern. Maybe you’re thinking, Sure, I’d like to change the way my days look, but wouldn’t that involve doing more than I already am? The thought of adding anything else to my already out-of-control to-do list makes me want to crawl back into bed. I can’t handle any more tasks and responsibilities! If that sounds familiar, take a deep breath. The changes that build momentum are rooted in decisions, not additional tasks.

“To build a productive new pattern into your life, you usually won’t have to add new tasks to your day,” Core confirms. “Instead, you’ll simply do what you are already doing, or want to do, in a way that becomes habitual. For instance, if you want to wake up an hour earlier so that you can jump-start the day, you simply have to change the time your alarm rings and the time you go to bed. If you want to be more productive at work, you might have to replace aimless procrastination with scheduled breaks. In both cases, you’re changing the way you perform existing tasks, not adding new ones.

“Remember, though, it isn’t sufficient to simply trigger the start of a new behavior,” he adds. “You need to make sure that you have a motivating reason to make this change—like being able to enjoy evenings with your family—as well as the confidence and energy to sustain it so that it becomes a pattern.”

Make a big-box checklist. It’s a given that you have a to-do list. Maybe it’s on paper, on your smartphone, or just in your head…but you have one. It’s also highly likely that your list isn’t as useful as it could be. Too often, you get stuck doing the urgent instead of the important. Core has a solution: Make an actual, on-paper checklist each afternoon for the following day or each morning. Put a box by each task—the more important that task is for you to complete that day, the bigger its box should be.

“I focus first on my big-box tasks,” Core explains. “I’m no longer distracted by each shiny ball that rolls by—I’m able to ignore them and train my focus on what’s really important. At the end of the day, if most of my big boxes have checkmarks, it’s generally been a good day! Yes, prioritizing my daily list by the size of the boxes on it may sound simplistic, but it has made me feel much more accomplished and satisfied with my day. It has also helped me relax in the evenings, because when I remember the big boxes I’ve checked off, it’s easier to leave work at work.”

Think about it so you don’t have to think about it. We all have “those” tasks and obligations that eat up a lot of our time, that we find difficult and frustrating, or both. For instance, Core recalls that as a hunt-and-peck typist, he was once slowed down and aggravated by the need to produce papers and reports.

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