More help, more brainpower, more time, more cash: You may need all four to accomplish everything on your agenda this year, but chances are you aren’t going to get them all. No matter how big your ambitions or how efficiently you work, even the best-laid plans start to unravel when resources are short.
But that doesn’t mean you’re fated to be less productive when you have less to work with. I’ve worked with big Fortune 50 corporations as well as mom-and-pop shops and have launched a few startups, too. Today I run a business, write, sit on multiple company boards, and invest in others. I know firsthand how limited resources can impact the way work gets done (or doesn’t) in all these environments, but I’ve picked up a few simple techniques for keeping productive nonetheless. Here are a few.
1. Be Choosier About The Work You Do
Translation: say “No.” Trying to execute too many things at once is a recipe for burnout and eventual failure. If you’re developing a product, for example, you have to think about research and development, marketing, distribution, sales, finance, and service, among other things. Ideally, you’d want people to build the product, other people to sell it, and still other people to service it–but you may not have the luxury of hiring or contracting them to do all that. So you try doing it all yourself–simultaneously–which often means things don’t get done very well or efficiently.
It isn’t just startup founders who face this challenge, of course. So do employees with bosses to answer to. Ideally, good managers know their team members’ limits and don’t flinch when they decline too much work. But even if your boss hasn’t encouraged you to say “no” when you need to, you’ve got to be able to communicate to higher-ups when you’re spread too thin (here are a few tips for doing just that).
The fact is that “no” is healthy when it helps you stick to your principles and priorities, when it keeps you focused on your goals, and when you need to change directions. (It’s also a shield from abuse and exploitation by hard-driving employers.)
The bottom line: When your resources tighten, use that as a cue to reprioritize and master the art of saying “no thanks” or “not right now.”
2. Build A Partner Network
It doesn’t matter how smart or savvy you are, or which amazing skills you might possess: Nobody succeeds for long alone. Whatever your venture–personal, professional, philanthropic, political, or otherwise–you need partners who have a stake in your success.
As an enterprise software developer, for example, I decided that I wanted to sell only through my partners, and not directly to end customers. So I’ve begun building a global distribution network instead of hiring a team to sell my products. Not only does this let me do more with less, but it also takes less of my time because I’m not overseeing in-house sales and delivery teams.
The bottom line: Actively recruit the right partners who can help you grow, whether it’s in business, life, or your career, and make sure you manage them well. (Hint: When it comes to career growth, this doesn’t necessarily mean finding a mentor–here are a few alternatives that leverage a different partner for a different career-related function.)
3. Don’t Build Everything From Scratch
One of the best ways to maximize resources is to take what’s already been done and make it better. Whenever you can build onto something that’s already out there (or build on others’ ideas), you’ll save time and valuable resources. Some organizations have mastered the art of reuse; others do it without even realizing it. The Apples, Teslas, and Fords of the world understand how applying the principle of reuse can lead to resource-efficient iteration, and thus innovation.
As an author, I first write small blog posts, some of which I turn into feature-length articles, and eventually a few of those articles form the basis of a new book. Reuse generates speed and efficiency in pretty much every work-related scenario that requires you to produce a new asset.
The bottom line: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Leverage your own hard work and the work of those who came before you to get more done with less.
4. Focus On One Thing At A Time
Want to build a new product? Then focus on building a new product. Want to bring a new service to market? Hone it and get it ready for prime time. While you do, don’t focus on anything else. Only when the product or service is finished should you move on to star targeting a customer base and asking for feedback (at which point it’s time to go back and tweak the offering based on that input). Just don’t try to build-and-sell over and over again with limited resources. Doing one thing at a time will lead to higher-quality and, in many cases, faster output.
The bottom line: Stop trying to multitask, and instead practice focusing on one thing at a time–“monotasking” is a skill worth developing.
5. Court Serendipity
As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Research suggests that accidental occurrences can produce meaningful ideas and help you spot connections you’d otherwise miss–especially when you’re mindful about your options and possibilities.
Resource scarcity usually leads us to do the reverse, turning away from serendipitous discovery as a waste of time. But that’s when you’ll need it most. Every worthwhile undertaking requires a mix of curiosity and intent; before long that intent turns into a devoted, purposeful journey. Paradoxically, though, you have to let go in order to embark on it. Think of it like driving a car without worrying about the destination–you’re just on the road to enjoy the sights, scenes, and smells; pay attention to them, and you’ll begin to know where you’re heading.
The bottom line: Let yourself zigzag a little and embrace happenstance. It’s not a wasteful luxury when resources are thin.
6. Avoid Negative People At All Costs
You’ve been around emotional vampires who leave you feeling exhausted and drained. When you’re trying to do more with less, these people will always get in your way.
Sometimes the best course of action is simply to deal with an annoying coworker or professional acquaintance by managing their behavior and limiting your interactions as best you can. Not so when you’re working with scarce time or resources. The last thing you need is another constraint on your focus, energy, or schedule. Instead, you should make a deliberate effort to spend time only with people who uplift and strengthen you (like those partners of yours, in tip #2).
The bottom line: Scrupulously avoid anyone who takes you backward and doesn’t empathize with what you’re trying to accomplish.
Whether you’re part of a big company or an entrepreneur, there will always be conflicting interests, limited resources, and not enough hours in the day. It’s what you choose to do with those hours that matters.