Go faster! Work harder! Get more done in less time! MULTITASK!
Sound familiar? Everyone’s trying to find the secret formula for cramming as much work as possible into every workday. Too often, though, the result of our super-scheduled, overly tight timelines is that we obsess over double-, triple- or quadruple-tasking and lose focus on our projects so we don’t get much actual work done.
So stop. No, seriously – stop. Put down your smartphone and your other smartphone. Mute your desk phone. Close your email. Silence the alarms on your IM. Close your laptop or tablet (unless that’s how you’re reading this article – you can keep whatever device you’re using for that). Now, breathe. For just a few minutes, let’s talk about some tips to help you REALLY get more done in less time.
- Admit that multitasking is a lie. I know, we all like to imagine ourselves as office superheroes like The Memo Maven or Max Faxer – complete with capes and cool action figures with kung-fu grip– but it’s still a lie. Studies have found that not only do people commit more errors when trying to perform two or more tasks at a time, but even forget about some of the tasks completely1.
- Keep a “Hot List.” Chances are good that you are interrupted during the day with questions. Chances are also good that many of those questions are the same ones you’ve answered over and over and over again. Instead of preparing the answers each time someone asks, keep a Hot List, or Hot File of answers. This can be a single document, or a set of document and pre-written emails that you can forward to people. You can do the same thing with URLs in your favorites list if your answers are web pages or intranet pages.
- Empty your inbox. Admit it – your inbox is never – NEVER – empty. There may even be messages there from more than six months ago. It’s hard to use your email program as a productivity tool if it’s just another clutterbomb. Take some time today to create some mailbox and network folders to house your messages. Starting tomorrow, spend a little time every morning moving the email messages over to those folders. Make it your goal, by the end of this week, to have moved all of the messages out of the box and to a folder. Just be sure you’re only keeping things you really need – save attachments, but delete messages when you can. From now on, see if you can’t empty your box by the end of every day.
- Communicate your capabilities and expectations. Some time management systems tell you to only answer email twice a day. It’s good advice, and works well for some people. But if you do that, make sure that the people with whom you regularly communicate know that’s your schedule. By the same token, if you want to start making yourself off limits to coworkers between 2:00 and 4:00 to focus on work, make sure that everyone knows that; otherwise you can’t be angry when they continue to call, email or show up at your desk. Trying out a new system is great, and it may well be rewarding and effective for everyone – you, your boss, and the people with whom you work, but you need to be sure that people know what you’re doing if you want them to be supportive.
- Give yourself a break. Keep to-do lists and schedule time, but make sure that among your meetings, email zones and conference calls you block out some breathing room. You need downtime during the day, every day, if you’re going to work your best. Taking time away from your desk – five minutes or so each hour – can help relieve and prevent common office worker ailments including eye and wrist strain, back discomfort and other issues that accompany a sedentary day2.
Getting organized and making big changes to your time management routine takes time, effort and commitment. There is every likelihood that whatever you try first is not going to be a perfect fit. You’re going to have to work through a few different systems and techniques and tweak some things as you go. It will be a process that grows and changes with you and your job over time. Don’t get frustrated and give up – give it time and you will find that perfect combination of tips, tricks and techniques that works for you.