Possibly no piece of productivity advice is more well-worn than the adage, “Work smarter, not harder.” Of course, the directive points to the fact that it’s not how many hours you put in at your desk that matters—it’s how you spend your time there. In other words, get results faster and you won’t be spending so many late nights at the office.
But what does it really mean to work smarter?
“It means figuring out better, faster ways to work,” says personal productivity expert and trainer Peggy Duncan. But before you enroll in a time management course or start playing “beat the clock” with your project list, consider these counterintuitive ways to get more done.
Don’t Dive Right In
Most of us have warped views of how we spend our time, Duncan says. “If you don’t see it on paper staring at you in the face, you won’t realize that you spend too much time on Facebook, or that you have the same people interrupting you all the time, asking you the same questions,” she says.
Spend a week keeping a time log. Write down what you’re doing, how long it’s taking you, and who is interrupting you and what they wanted. “Because the biggest time-management mistake people make is not realizing how much time they waste. When you analyze it, you see what’s going on,” she says. And you’ll have a good data set to figure out how you can shift your time usage, minimize interruptions, and learn a few key lessons.
Let Someone Else Do It
For Tomer Yogev, cofounder of leadership and performance consultancy Tandem Spring, working smarter means focusing on the areas in which you’re strongest—and letting go of things you’re doing for other reasons. High performers tend to think it’s easier to do things themselves, but “when it comes to working smarter, we often spend a lot of effort on trying to fix the problems that we see,” he says.
To be more effective, you’ve got to ask for help and enlist people who are better at certain tasks and functions than you are, he says. That requires taking a hard look at your strengths and having the humility to admit that there are some areas you’re more skilled in than others. You’re likely spending more time than is necessary on the things you’re not good at—when you can delegate those tasks, you free up time to do the work you’re best at, which you’re probably going to do faster and enjoy more, he says.
Work When You Feel Like It
It may seem like working smarter means front-loading your day so you get more done sooner. But that’s ignoring your ultradian rhythm—the 90- to 120-minute pattern found in our sleep and waking hours. By taking more breaks and carving up your day into 90-minute segments, you capitalize on the periods of focus you naturally have, which can help you get more done.
Paying attention to your energy cycles is critical to working smarter, says performance consultant Heidi Pozzo. When you’re feeling focused and energetic, you’re going to get more work done in a shorter period of time. “A lot of people are really good at high concentration work in the morning. So, if you can, block your day in a way that the first thing you work on is the most impactful,” she says. Of course, if you’re not a morning person, shift that advice to when you feel at your best.
Prepare For Your “Wasted” Time
Your day is likely filled with pockets of “wasted” time—an airport delay, those 15 minutes before your next conference call, and cancelled meetings, to name a few. Duncan recommends preparing to make the most of that time. Cloud-based tools that let you work from anywhere and a to-do list that reminds you of calls that need to be made, email messages that need to be written, and work components that need to be completed keep you ready to use those pockets to get more done.
Read The Manual
How many times have you read the instructions that come with your new phone, tablet, or other device? How much time do you spend looking up hacks and time-saving measures for the platforms you use? If you’re like most people, you dive right in and try to figure it out yourself and may never learn the true power of the technology you use, Duncan says.
Investing time in reading the instruction manual and getting appropriate training can yield many hours of return on investment, she says. Macros, shortcuts, and other time-savers may not be immediately apparent, but can simplify your work.
Be More Bureaucratic
Big organizations don’t seem like the best model for time-saving, but one thing their people often do well is systematizing, Duncan says. Some excel at examining tasks that need to be done for the company to function and implement the most time-, cost-, and energy-efficient ways of doing so. Process improvement has become an entire industry and specialization as more professionals try to make tasks easily repeatable with less time and effort while maintaining quality.
Look at the tasks you perform on a regular basis and how you can create a more efficient way of getting them done. Are you wasting time scheduling many appointments every day? Look at automating that function with a scheduling app. Are you managing a project with many contributors and version control issues? Look at how you can create a system of capturing feedback and ensuring everyone has the most current information, perhaps with a cloud-based collaboration system that color-codes and date-stamps feedback for easy tracking.
Lay Off the Junk Food
What you do outside the office has an impact on your ability to focus. If you’re tired and feeling bad because you’re not getting enough sleep, good nutrition, or exercise, that’s going to reflect in your efficiency and productivity, she says. The Centers for Disease Control call insufficient sleep a public health problem that costs the U.S. up to $411 billion per year in lost productivity.
“Think about what creates energy in you versus what drains energy and come up with approaches that keep you at your peak all day long,” Pozzo says.
Stare At A Photo
Think about the reason you want to work smarter and not harder. Do you want more time for yourself to do the things you love to do? Are you just feeling burned out? Do you want more time to spend with loved ones? Whatever the reason, put a photo or group of photos that represent those reasons nearby so you can see them, Duncan suggests. This will act as a touchstone to help keep you on track when you’re procrastinating, spending too much time on social media, or otherwise undermining your efforts to get your work done in less time.