Work smarter, not harder is a mantra we hear a lot. But what does it mean and how can you apply it to use your eight hours at work most effectively?
- Write a to-do list
To-do lists sometimes get a bad press because you often find yourself adding tasks quicker than you can cross them off. But they can be a useful tool, especially if you find it hard to prioritise, your head’s spinning with thoughts about what needs doing (but not actually doing them), or you’re simply likely to forget. Getting it down on paper can help you to focus, reduce anxiety and prompt your memory.
Add tasks in order of their importance. If your list gets too overwhelming have a ‘today’ list and a master list of longer-term tasks, which can be added to the ‘today’ list as necessary. This helps you to stay in the present. It’s also a good idea to write your list at the end of each day, which has a couple of benefits: it helps to establish a daily closing ritual to act as a trigger to stop working and as you have a list with your priorities at the top, you won’t waste time the next morning figuring out where to start.
- Write a stop-doing list
Alternatively, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, suggests a stop-doing list. In a world where there is an increasing number of distractions, being stricter with yourself on time spent checking your mobile phone, updating your social media or browsing your favourite websites could be a useful start.
- Establish an opening ritual
We’ve mentioned having a closing ritual but as procrastination in the morning is a common hurdle you should also try to introduce an opening ritual. Having a tea or coffee while checking email, for example, is a good way to ease yourself in. Some time-management gurus advocate ignoring email first thing but if you work at an international company where colleagues are contacting you 24/7, a message you need to act on may have pinged into your inbox overnight. It’s also a good time to get on top of any outstanding emails before you start receiving more. Letting your emails pile up can cause stress so aim to get back to people within 24 hours, even if your response is just acknowledging you’ve received their message.
Be clear and concise in emails. Not only does this save writing time but it also reduces the chances of ambiguity that longer replies can create, which can lead to more to more to-ing and fro-ing as your recipient seeks clarification.
However, it’s important to ensure emailing as an opening ritual doesn’t become a distraction from that all-important first task on your to-do list (that’s if an email you just read hasn’t become your new priority…), so use finishing your drink as a trigger to get on with the jobs on today’s to-do-list.
The art of talking has been largely lost in the workplace but picking up the phone is often a much more time-efficient way to communicate. But like with email, it’s a good idea to be disciplined with it and set aside a portion of your day to make and return calls, and let people know the best time to reach you.
- Impose a time limit
Instead of just sitting down to work on a project and thinking, “I’m going to be here until this is done,” try thinking, “I’m going to work on this for three hours.” The time constraint will push you to focus and be more efficient, even if you don’t get it finished. And chances are you won’t, because as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first pointed out in 1979, humans have a ‘planning fallacy’ – a tendency to underestimate how long it takes to complete a task – so try to build in buffer time that will allow you to come back to it another day. If you’re really struggling, the Pomodoro timer method can help you focus. The Pomodoro timer gives you a prescribed interval of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break. After 4 work intervals, there is a 15-minute break. It can be adapted to your own productivity needs, but this work/break pattern is a good place to start.
- Take breaks
Even with a self-imposed deadline you must take breaks. Taking a short walk can increase productivity and reduce stress levels. Due to a phenomenon based on ultradian rhythms the human brain is, on average, only able to focus for 90 minutes, and then you need at least 15 minutes of rest to reset your attention span. Even taking a ‘microbreak’ between 30 seconds and 5 minutes can increase mental sharpness by 13%.
- Best laid plans…
But when you have a deadline looming you simply have to block off the time to get it done. Close the door to your office, if you can, or find a quiet place to work (working away from your desk also makes it harder for people to find you and signals you don’t want to be disturbed), and turn off your phone and all unnecessary browser windows.
Ultimately, no matter how efficiently we plan to spend our time, be realistic – projects and deadline collapse, money evaporates and customers go AWOL. Some days, best-laid plans need to be adjusted to fit with the unpredictable nature of business. But if you manage your time effectively when you are in full control of it, you’re giving yourself the best chance of leaving your desk at 5pm.