10 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

Feeling overwhelmed at work? Here are 10 tips to help you stay on top of your work and in charge of your life.

A major problem for most people is having too much work and not enough time to do it. One solution: fine-tuning your time-management skills. By using your working hours more efficiently, you attack stress on several fronts:

  • You’ll feel more in control, be more productive and more secure in your job.
  • You’ll get greater satisfaction from what you do.
  • You’ll give yourself more time to relax and enjoy life.

No matter how you juggle your schedule, the number of hours in the day will always remain the same. But it is possible to adjust your habits to buy more time for the things that matter most.

1. Plan Regularly

Every night, make a to-do list of all your unfinished business and projects. Review the list, prioritize and decide how much time you need to get each activity done. Use a planner that shows you a full week at a time.

2. Prioritize

Eighty percent of your accomplishments come from 20 percent of your efforts. So think strategically: What 20 percent of your work is the most valuable—to you and to your employer? Once you’ve identified it, try to focus the lion’s share of your time and energy in that direction. Learn to say no to non­essential demands. And don’t waste time perfecting every interoffice memo when you could spend the time more profitably on something else.

3. Delegate

Pass projects on to subordinates at work, recruit your children to help with household chores and hire a gardener or local teenager to maintain your lawn.

4. Set Deadlines for Major Projects

Then focus only on starting to work on them—not finishing them. Instead of procrastinating, divide large projects into manageable pieces and attack only one piece at a time. Realize that many people who have trouble meeting deadlines have the unrealistic idea that their work should be perfect. Expect quality rather than perfection.

5. Schedule Concentration Time

Block out some time every day when you can’t be disturbed except in an emergency. Use that time to get the most important tasks of the day done. If someone stops by your desk and asks for a moment of your time, you can honestly and politely reply, “No, I’m in the middle of something right now, and I can’t give you my full attention.” Close the door to your office if you can.

6. Organize Throughout the Day

Remember this rule: Tuck it, transfer it or trash it. Quickly glance over every piece of mail and every memo or e-mail message you get. If it looks as if it’s potentially important, file it right away in a folder marked “pending” or delegate it to someone else to take care of. If it’s not relevant or it’s something you’ll never look at again, trash it. Handle your mail the same way at home.

7. Schedule Phone Time

Make and return most phone calls at a set time. Set aside a portion of your day, perhaps a half hour in the late afternoon, as telephone time. Let people know that this is the best time to reach you by phone and that it’s when you’re most likely to return calls. People will come to expect to hear from you at certain times and won’t bother you as much during the rest of the day.

8. Be Social at Work

Chitchat can be very important because it builds relationships and helps you stay plugged in to the office grapevine. Share a joke, anecdote or personal story while standing at the photocopier or waiting for a meeting to start. Schedule a coffee break with an office buddy. Also consider joining your office softball team or helping organize the annual toy drive or basketball pool.

9. Stay Flexible

All your careful planning will be of little use if you assume that you can’t veer from the schedule you set. You may have to spend some time handling crises and putting out fires. Or you may get on a roll with a proposal you’re writing, in which case it would be a mistake to stop just because you only scheduled an hour for it. Instead, practice effective procrastination. In other words, ask yourself, “Is putting off my next scheduled task and continuing what I’m doing an intelligent decision, or is it just a delay tactic?”

10. Plan Ahead

Start your workday right—at home the night before. After dinner, pack your lunch for the next day, while you’re already in the kitchen. Lay out the kids’ clothes and your own and pack your briefcase. Then spend a pressure-free hour or more doing things you enjoy before bedtime.

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