What are some uncommon ways to work smarter instead of harder?

Are you constantly overwhelmed with work?

Always feeling like there is never enough time in the day to get everything done?

Working smarter, not harder is the solution.

I’m constantly trying to find ways to work smarter in my 9-5 day job and side projects.

If you’re already working as hard as you can, then working harder isn’t the answer.

Also, if everyone has the same 168 hours per week, then why are some people vastly more productive than others? The difference comes down to a few key habits.

Once you recognize these, you’ll see that anyone can learn how to work smarter, not harder.

Here are a few “uncommon” tactics that help me get more done in less time.

I call them uncommon because I rarely see people around me practicing these things, although I do know that top performers and successful people obsess over them.

1. Create a productive work environment

One hour of work in an unproductive work setting is not the same as one hour of work in an optimal, distraction-free environment.

Contrary to popular belief, a traditional office setting may not be the best setup for productivity.

In 2013, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom conducted a study where he measured the productivity of home employees against on-site employees at a Ctrip, a Chinese travel center. The results are described in this Forbes article.

Bloom and his team discovered that the employees who worked from home were quite a bit more productive in a given week than they’d been at the office; at-home employees made, on average, 13.5% more calls per week than their counterparts in the office. This translated into roughly a whole extra work day every week, and all because of a simple change in scenery. Maybe it goes without saying, but the company’s at-home employees also boasted a higher rate of job satisfaction.

For me, the best work environment is a quiet space where I’m not being interrupted.

In my old job, I negotiated a work arrangement where I worked half-days on Sunday mornings and accumulated “comp time” that I could use in place of normal paid time off.

I found that I was significantly more productive on these days than I was during 9-5 weekday hours when I was constantly interrupted by emails, “urgent requests,” and cubicle drive-bys.

In just a couple of these focused work sessions, I was able to build some very complex analytical models that I’m sure would have taken me at least a week of normal work time.

When it comes to my writing, I stopped working at home on my couch with the TV on and instead now spend an hour each day at Dunkin’ Donuts

This is more productive for me not just because of the fewer distractions but also because my mind is more focused on cranking out a few hundred words before I leave.

2. Delegate when it makes sense

I know this may come as a surprise, but you are not always the best person for every task.

You should always be looking to delegate work that is more appropriate for someone else to do, even if it’s something that you can do yourself.

I now delegate research to a team of virtual assistants. Not because I can’t do it, but because my time is better spent on other things. I hire cleaners to clean my house. I hire a healthy food company to prepare weekly meals.

This is not because I’m lazy. It’s because I made very calculated decisions on where my time is better spent.

It’s not like I’m swimming in money either. Services like these are getting more and more affordable, but it’s up to you to seek them out and decide whether they make sense for you.

For me, it makes perfect sense because I’ve decided my time is worth a certain amount of money and the money equivalent of the time I could be spending on these tasks is much more than what I pay for these services.

Additionally, workers who specialize in that work will probably do a better job than you. So you doing it may cost more and produce a lower quality result. There’s a reason why people say, “Don’t quit your day job.”

Delegating when it makes sense allows me to really focus my time on the things that only I can do or the things that I can do better than anyone else.

This is how you add value to the world.

You don’t need to limit this to house work, either. You should always ask yourself, “Is this the most appropriate thing for me to be doing with my time?”

I try to do this in my day job as well, although sometimes it’s not as easy. Which brings me to my next tip.

3. Automate “busy work”

As a data consultant, I’m always crunching numbers in Excel. Then, I summarize the insights and key “ahas” in a nice PowerPoint (because most executives hate looking at a bunch of numbers in Excel).

Over the years, I’ve observed that 98% of people with similar jobs actually take the data from Excel and manually copy and paste it into PowerPoint.

Then, when they have to change an assumption, they need to update the analysis in Excel and update the PowerPoint. If they change something else, they repeat the process.

They’re basically doing twice as much work. But the VALUE of their job is in the first part – the data analysis.

I used to do this too. But now, I take a different approach.

I format the data in Excel to look like nice tables and then link these exhibits to PowerPoint. This is something I had to learn, but it’s very easy to do and has saved me countless hours of mindless drudgery.

This is a perfect example of automating busy work.

Again, you should spend your time on the activities where you add the most value and find ways to minimize or eliminate the rest of your work. You’ll get more done in less time.

4. Prioritize well and then ACT on your priorities

My final tip on working smarter is two-fold. Prioritize well and then act on your priorities.

Few people do the first part and even fewer do the second.

Many people assign equal importance to every request and get stressed out because they think they have to do a million things before 8am the next day.

You can really simplify this by prioritizing the most important things in a brutally honest manner.

Yes, this means you will do some things before others.

It also means you will not get to some of the things. And guess what? That’s OKAY as long as you are doing the most important things you need to do and doing them well.

You cannot do important things well when you are trying to juggle them with ten other less important things that you elevate in your mind as equally important. They’re not.

Just because a request is “urgent” for someone else doesn’t mean it’s urgent for you.

If you have trouble prioritizing your work, here are a couple of easy tests:

  1. Think about what you are actually being paid to do. (Hint: no one that I know is paid to check email).
  2. Your boss’s requests are more important than pretty much everyone else’s except for your boss’s boss or your boss’s boss’s boss.

Next is acting on these priorities once you have set them.

Knowing what is important is useless if you’re still going to have superhero syndrome and try to do everything yourself.

You have to be okay with not getting to some things and letting some people down. If you focus on what’s important to everyone else, you will never actually do what’s important to you because everyone’s agenda is inevitably different from your own.

I know this sounds selfish, and maybe the reason I’m better at it than most people is that I’m not a selfless person by nature. But it’s an extremely important concept when it comes to productivity.

In the book The ONE Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan encourage distilling your entire life’s focus down to ONE thing.

It sounds extreme, but it works and it forces you to think about what’s really important. When you only allow yourself to focus on one thing, you’d better be damn sure it’s the most important thing.

In fact, in the book, they even describe how things can easily get a little out of balance with this approach and that you constantly need to reevaluate your priorities to bring other areas of life back into focus.

As I said in the beginning, it all comes down to habits.

A lot of these suggestions aren’t the norm, so you’ll need to train yourself to think a little differently. But once you develop these behaviors, you’ll notice improvements in your productivity very quickly.


Featured image by Imanuel Pasaka.

First published on Quora.

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