I have known too many people who work far too many unproductive, long hours. They cause stress for themselves while running in circles to get their jobs done. Working more hours and adding more effort does not always complete the task you are attempting. I have found that when I am running on a treadmill harder, it does not get me to the destination any sooner. As I have worked harder, I have often lost my ability to think with a level head and I start to build up that feeling of self-induced pressure, pushing me to work even harder.
We may think that working harder means putting on the blinders and looking straight ahead to get to the finish line. We also think this means we need to work faster and put in more hours to get more done. When the feeling of control continues to get lost, you may feel the need to work even harder as the pressure grows more intense to meet approaching deadlines and get to that finish line. The feeling you have in the pit of your stomach may tell you to dig deeper and get more intense. I suggest the counterintuitive advice of stopping what you are doing at the moment and regrouping. I recommend trying to understand the goal or the task you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying for quantity or quality, or both? Are you trying to meet a deadline, or just trying to get through your emails? Who is putting the line in the sand? Is it your boss or personal pressure you are putting yourself under?
Taking the time to stop and understand the true purpose of your mission and task is time well invested, which will assist you in coming up with a game plan and pointing you in the right direction. You need to incorporate what should be considered a lower priority and push that to the side for now, or delegate those tasks while you accomplish the most pressing task. These first steps are critical in order to see what is on the horizon. The ability to stop what you are doing to outline the next steps will save you time and effort in the long run. It is possibly the hardest thing for go-getters to do because we have been programmed to constantly be going a million miles per minute.
I personally like to maintain and reference things I have worked on in the past. I pride myself in organizing my working files (paper and virtual) for easy access and reference. Far too many people waste time reinventing the wheel. Are you always scrambling to put together a last-minute presentation? I have base slides that I constantly keep updated and put together. There are few times that I can just copy the slides in without making modifications, but it always gives me a starting point to get past the writer’s block stage. It is also not plagiarism if you are copying from yourself and your team (as long as you have permission and are giving proper credit). The ability to have a solid foundation to work from actually gives you time to dedicate to the creative process (e.g., brainstorming, team discussions). You might be surprised that your end product looks nothing like the original, but that jumpstart puts it in motion. I have been around many hard working and smart people who have already put the effort into creating reference materials that can, and should, be used more than once when it makes sense. Using their materials is the sincerest form of flattery. The key is to keep it organized and updated, and know where to go to get off to a quick start.
There are certain times when there is a legitimate need to put in more hours to complete a job. You must ask yourself, is it necessary each day and each week? Do you find yourself constantly putting out fires and not being able to manage your calendar because of it? If this is the case, you should complete a self-assessment around what kinds of fires you are constantly putting out and what commonalities there are.
For example, at the end of every month is your manager asking for the same types of reports or summaries? The first couple of months may still be fire drills, but the rest should be routine. You should do what you can to build routines that minimize the unexpected.
In your preparation for the unexpected, you should categorize and target your efforts so that when you are under pressure, you know how to utilize your resources. For example, can you never find a phone number? If this is the case, make sure your phone directory is always updated. A few years ago, when we used to do more paper filing, I had a manager who tried to hide her files from me in a large drawer. When I asked her why she just didn’t file them immediately when she was ready to put them away, she said it would take too long. Looking at her pile, it was true, but if she had done it right away it would not have been an issue. I realize these examples are over-simplified, but that is the point. The simple actions of doing things right away are often our biggest timesavers.
Don’t let the simple tasks be your time constrainers. If you are not good at remembering to keep your directory updated, place a recurring appointment in your calendar as a reminder, delegate it to someone who can, or know where to get it from someone else. You can be creative in your simplicity, just make sure it gets done. Do not allow the small tasks to add up to a point where they are causing the frustration, or make you work harder than you need to.
Can you never find the notes you took from that meeting last week? Centralize them. Whether your notes are handwritten or done online, have an organized place to go back to them—you can have paper files, online folders, or scanned objects. It is not possible to remember every conversation you had. However, if you took notes, it was obviously important enough for you to jot it down. The key message here is to know where to go to get it. Do not dump it into a generic folder or stack in the inbox. To state the obvious, if it is related to something from Human Resources (HR), create a folder for HR. Your filing and organizational techniques will never be the same as anyone else’s. That’s all right as long as you know where to find things. I have seen too many “Miscellaneous” folders that only cause more hard work in the effort to find something that can be so easy to reference with a small investment of time.
Finally, set aside specific times to get to your routine tasks, such as reading your emails. You should set aside specified time to do this every day as opposed to managing them throughout the day while you are multitasking. Although some multitasking is necessary and can be done productively in today’s busy world, such as eliminating junk emails during a conference call, attempts to run your entire day doing multiple things at once is not working smart.
If you are attempting to read critical email details during a conference call, you are not truly listening to what the other person is saying. In reality, you are not even multitasking since you are sacrificing one of the tasks. You are simply taking up a phone line while reading emails. I am being realistic and want to make sure we all have the appropriate prioritization and dedication to the task. Remember, it is not about just getting the job done, it is about getting the job done right. You may create more work than expected if you give a half answer to a conversation you were only half paying attention to, or erroneously respond to an email without reading all the way to the bottom. I know we have been told to do more with less and to keep our noses to the grindstone. I get it. Just be smart about it.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
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