Work Smarter: How to reduce your hours and yet get more done.

Paul Boag

Working long hours is not a badge of honour. Instead we should be focusing on efficiency, by working smarter and not harder.

Many digital professionals I meet have a funny attitude towards work. They love to moan about their long hours and constant pressure. But they almost see it as a badge of honour.

They end up seeking ways to increase their profit margin with new and innovative pricing models. In an attempt to reduce their long hours they try things like value-based pricing.

Yet despite this focus on profitability and hours worked, I still see inefficiencies in the way many people work. If you want to increase your profit margins, reduce your hours and get more done then focus on efficiency.

This has become somewhat of an obsession for me over the last few years. Perhaps it is because I am lazy, but I have been tweaking my working processes to get the most from the minimal amount of effort.

Below I share a few of the techniques I use to enable me to work smarter and more efficiently. I hope you find them useful.

Work smarter with email

Most people are inefficient in the way they use email. For a start the majority of people have their email clients open all day. With most email software designed to check for email every five minutes. This equates to 24,192 interruptions a year. Even taking into account public holidays and vacation time.

Let’s say that only half of those contain incoming email and each email interrupts you for only one minute. That means you waste 12,096 minutes per year. That is a staggering 25 days a year wasted through email interruptions.

So here are my top tips for managing email.

  • Only open your email client three times a day. First thing in the morning, after lunch and at the end of the day.
  • Keep your emails short. Other people will get the idea and follow suit. This makes email much easier to process.
  • Use your inbox to process incoming email, not as a task list or storage. It will make dealing with new emails much easier.
  • Make use of filters. Not all email is equal, so separate the un-important stuff for review when you have more time.
  • Unsubscribe from everything. When newsletters come in that you never read, take a moment to unsubscribe from them. It will save time in the long run.

Work smarter with tasks

Task management is a fundamental skill for most professionals these days and yet so few people do it well. People have tasks on the fridge, in their head, in email or any number of other places. As a result things fall between the gaps and get forgotten.

If you don’t want to spend your life fire-fighting, you need a robust task management system. Here are my tips to get you started.

  • Have one task list. I don’t care what system you use, but only use one system. People waste too much time trying to remember where they wrote something down.
  • Review your task list daily. Even when you know what you have to do on a certain day, check your task list. The number of times you will have forgotten something will surprise you.
  • Put everything in your task list. People tend to not bother entering smaller items, but these are useful when you lack energy for bigger tasks.
  • Prioritise tasks by their long term benefit, not just by the most urgent.

 

Work smarter with marketing

We all have to market these days. Whether we are marketing our web design business or our own ‘personal brand’, it is hard to avoid. But we rarely have the time to do the job well. This means we need to be smart in the way we approach it.

Here are a few tricks I have learnt over the years.

  • Never use a piece of content only once. A tweet can become a blog post, that then becomes an ebook and presentation. Reuse content whenever possible.
  • Decide what you want to achieve. Don’t just blog about whatever pops into your head. Decide on what you want to achieve and who you want to reach and write for that.
  • Focus your efforts. With limited time you need to focus your efforts. Either focus on a particular area such as CSS or on reaching a particular audience such as charities.
  • Be regular. Marketing efforts build on one another. If you only put effort in sporadically you will get poor returns. Post regularly and don’t give up.

Work smarter with design and development

Designers and developers always seem to be complaining that they don’t have enough time. That or their department is under resourced. Often this is true, but you can also argue that they are not being as efficient as they could.

There are lots of ways that you can get more done with less effort. Just a few include:

  • Letting go of perfection. Both designers and developers have a tendency to want to make everything perfect. Not only is this an impossible goal, but also most clients are not paying for perfect. Good enough is good enough!
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are so many good resources online. Resist the temptation to build things from scratch when there are solutions already out there.
  • Reuse and recycle. You can reuse code, design elements and other assets within a project and even across projects. This is where things like pattern libraries become invaluable.
  • Be consistent. Have a standardised approach to your coding and naming conventions. It will make supporting legacy projects much easier.
  • Use version control. You have no idea how many hours I have wasted trying to recover from various disasters.

Work smarter with learning

One of the biggest challenges you will face as a digital professional is keeping up with the incredible rate of change in our field. With so much to learn and so many sources of information it is vital that we establish efficient ways of staying up-to-date.

A big part of this is knowing what is worth your attention. Here is how I deal with that problem:

  • Follow smart people on Twitter. They will mention content that is worth your attention without you having to seek it out.
  • Attend at least one conference a year. Conference organisers put a lot of effort into identifying the most important areas. They invite experts in those areas so you are sure to learn loads.
  • Don’t repeat yourself. It is easy to waste time reading about every new jQuery plugin or CSS tutorial. These rarely provide much new insight, so limit the amount of these you read. Instead look for new subject areas.
  • Limit your sources. Be ruthless. If a source is not providing valuable content, drop it. You don’t have time to sift through poor quality content looking for the occasional gem.
  • Wait until a subject reaches a critical mass. Don’t jump on every new trend that comes along. Instead wait until you are seeing lots of people talking about it. It is often better to hang back a bit rather than trying to be on the cutting edge of everything.

Work smarter with procrastination

Finally, I wanted to end this article by talking about procrastination. We are not machines and do not work at a consistent pace. Our energy levels will ebb and flow, so we cannot expect to always be at our most productive.

Unfortunately most people are in denial about this fact. They will sit at their desks pretending to work while just wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. This kind of procrastination has no value whatsoever. Instead we need some techniques for making the most of the times when we just don’t feel like working.

Here are a few that work for me:

  • Have a list of small, low energy tasks you can do when you feel the need to procrastinate.
  • If in doubt read something. There is ample out there to learn so use your down time to read something.
  • If you need to get work done when you lack the motivation, try the pomodoro technique.
  • Take a nap. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop working and have a 25 minute sleep.

There are so many more tips and techniques that I could have covered in this post. It is a subject we discuss a lot in the mentorship program I run and I’m sure you have your own approaches. If you do, please add them to the comments as I believe this is an area we all need to get better at.

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