The kids were arriving as we had yet another unexpected family funeral. I had a fully booked week with a to-do list a mile long planned. Spending time with my kids and grandkids was a priority, so I knew I had to re-evaluate what I planned to do this week and work smarter.
Working overtime wasn’t an option, delegating to someone else wasn’t an option, and saying that I had no capacity to take on more would have landed on deaf ears because I still had a lot of deadlines that needed to be met and deliverables that were expected.
I know that you can relate. In today’s fast-paced and competitive world, working smarter and being productive is not just beneficial – it’s essential. The volume of work and the expectations of the role are higher now than ever. We are constantly bombarded with distractions, demands for our attention, and unexpected challenges that can derail our plans. That’s why it’s important to work smarter, not harder.
You shouldn’t have to routinely work overtime because you have too much to do. Your stress levels shouldn’t be at dangerous levels because you are juggling all your responsibilities as part of your norm instead of an exception. Being connected 24-7 so you can respond anytime in the day isn’t reasonable for most of us. In theory, we should be able to manage the workload and stresses by working smarter.
Easier said than done, though. We need to adopt effective strategies to help us manage all of this.
- Use Lists and Schedules
Create short- and long-term lists and put them somewhere you can reference easily. I love MS To-Do for my “ideas” list. I write a quick five-item list at the end of each day for the next day with my top five priorities, and I use a manual planner as that works well for me. I jokingly say that I make lists of my lists, but they keep me focused and confident that I won’t forget something.
My lists get scheduled too. I like to schedule things at specific times of the day to feel like an appointment. My scheduling is based on my day, energy, and ability to focus. Since I’m more productive in the morning, I do my best to schedule my important responsibilities before noon. I often deliver workshops or meetings in the afternoon, so I protect my peak efficiency time for my top priorities.
Scheduling time for specific tasks keeps me focused and avoids procrastination. You can use time-blocking or Pomodoro techniques to make your schedule even more efficient and ensure you work very smart and not just hard.
- Set Clear Goals
Setting clear goals is the foundation of increased productivity and helps you identify boundaries, too (which is part of working smarter and resisting working harder). Goal setting helps focus your efforts. Without clear goals, work can appear overwhelming and directionless, leading to procrastination and, ultimately, lower productivity.
To set clear goals, the SMART framework can be used. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Responding to urgent requests all day long makes the day go quickly, but it will never make you feel in control. You’ll be overwhelmed and won’t be working smart at all. It is hard work to work that way, and often those are exactly the days I have, and when I look back and realize that I was busy all day, but I wasn’t prioritizing, I get frustrated with myself.
Instead, determine the deadline and the consequence. What happens if this is late? What happens if you don’t do it at all? I know this is a priority if I have a deadline tomorrow, and it is very important (meaning there is a major consequence if I deliver this late). If I can delay something an hour or two before I get started, that allows me to work on something with a higher priority.
- Break down large projects into smaller tasks
Large tasks can be overwhelming and challenging to prioritize, especially when you feel stressed because you have too much to do. Breaking them into smaller, more manageable tasks can make them more approachable and easier to prioritize.
For example, when booking travel for your executive, we know there is more consequence for not having the proper flight booked than the other trip details. The entire itinerary might be a huge project for you, but ensuring you have the preferred flights booked allows you to let the other elements wait until another time. Book the flight; the rest can be done at another time.
- Keep your eyes on your week or month
To work smarter and not harder, we need to plan. I am always aware of my deadlines the following week or during the month so they don’t creep up on me.
When we knew the kids were coming for the funeral, I had a full week planned – but it wasn’t all due this week. I could postpone (not procrastinate) some tasks as I had built-in flex time for emergencies. I always like working on deadlines at least one week out – I prefer not to be in crisis mode all the time. It takes planning, the same way you buy holiday presents or start your savings account for your vacation. I build buffer time by keeping my eyes on the deadlines ahead.
That means that I’m working on deadlines that are actually due this week, which I prefer not to do, but I will quickly prioritize those so that I can get back to working without those unneeded stresses. I’ll be back on track by the end of the week.
- Avoid distractions
Distractions are a huge waste of time – even though they likely only take a few seconds or minutes of your time. They could be chatty coworkers, noises, notifications, interruptions, or anything else you’d prefer to do instead of the work you should be doing. I turn off sounds for notifications (I generally turn off notifications, period), I close tabs (some days I realize I have a dozen tabs open on my browser, and I wonder why I do that), and I turn off the music or the podcast in the background. Find a place to work that is as distraction-free as you can create it.
One of the ways to ensure you are avoiding distractions is to keep an organized workspace. Clean up your physical desk as well as your computer. File electronic and paper files, delete, recycle, and take time to organize by creating systems to make it easier to find things. By staying organized, you can simplify your workload, increase productivity, and reduce stress.
- Maximize technology
Technology can play a key role in increasing productivity in today’s fast-paced world. You can use collaboration tools like Teams, Slack, or Asana to streamline communication and reduce the interruptions from constant email. You can automate repetitive tasks with software tools like Zapier, IFTTT, Follow-Up Then, or the rules you can establish with your Microsoft products. Save time by using online meetings instead of having people spend time and money attending in-person meetings. We also know that artificial intelligence programs such as ChatGPT can save you time with various time-saving applications. Check out this article to read more specifics.
- Hold yourself accountable
It is easy to find excuses why we work so hard and are not always quite as smart as we would like to. In the same way, we commit to going to work each day, sleeping a certain number of hours, or calling our parents on the weekend; we need to commit ourselves to do what we said we were going to do.
Stay healthy. Take your breaks, force yourself to put the mobile phone away after a certain time at night, and see if you can delay responding to some emails until morning. When you go to bed, think about your next vacation instead of all the things you need to do at the office the next day.
You are the only one who can make this work. Don’t allow excuses to stop your ability to control your day.
We had a great unexpected extended weekend with the kids. There were sad moments at their grandfather’s funeral (my former father-in-law) as his passing was unexpected; there were also great memories and laughter shared too.
I could enjoy his final farewell because my mind wasn’t panicking about all the deadlines I had to deliver. I knew that I had done everything I needed to work smart and not hard to do what I wanted and needed to do in my personal life. I didn’t miss any deadlines; I didn’t make any excuses. I prioritized my job so that I could prioritize my family.
Remember, productivity is not just about working hard; it’s about working smartly and efficiently. With the right mindset and strategies, you can be on your way to being a more productive and successful individual.