How to work smarter rather than longer

Improving personal productivity is a constant battle in business. Working more hours is the depressing choice, though one many of us opt for. How then to get the same results in less time - to work smarter?

by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 30 January 2006
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

This leadership and organisational consultant's tips may not be rocket science, but since too many business people fail to take the common-sense road, they're a useful aide-memoire. Multi-tasking is a distraction, it is argued. Better to increase your focus, which will allow you to build momentum and work faster.

The key to working faster is to eliminate distractions, including email, telephone, visitors - and yourself. Try blocking out a few hours every day for focus time. Close your office door, divert your phone to voicemail and start doing some solid work.

But people create their own biggest distractions. Multi-tasking may make you feel busy, but much of the time can be spent switching from task to task rather than making real progress. Distinguish between being busy and being productive: you're only productive if you're producing the results that are most important to moving the business forward.

Constantly checking email is a great modern distraction. But is the time spent reading and replying really well spent? If it takes up to two hours a day, it's a significant proportion of your working time. But unless that 25% of an eight-hour day is producing at least 25% of your total income, it's a low-value-added activity.

Likewise, the 80/20 rule says that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort. Businesses find most profits come from a few customers, and most of an employee's output comes from a few tasks. So double the time spent on real output-producing activities and stop doing the others. Result: output doubled, working for just four hours.

Concentrating on high-output work is also likely to make you better at it, further boosting your productivity and contribution. Rather than multi-tasking, look for ways of working in parallel: arranging work so that many things are happening at once. Delegation is the obvious example: when you delegate a task it should keep moving while you attend to other matters.

Look too to prioritise tasks of your own that, once your contribution is made, can move forward while you get on with something else.

However, working faster, identifying your 80/20 tasks, and using opportunities for parallel working do all benefit from some prior thought and planning. So probably the most important tip of all is to regularly review and fine-tune how you work.

Source: Tips for working smarter 
Stever Robbins
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 30 January 2006

Review by Steve Lodge

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 30 January 2006 recommends

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