How to work smarter and not harder

I'm a big fan of efficiency.

When I say this, people always wrongfully assume that I'm one of those crazy hard-working Japanese people. Of course, you need efficiency when you're clocking in 80 hours a week!

Sorry to burst your stereotyping bubble, but I'm probably one of the laziest people you'd ever meet. I'm also terrible at math. 

I have a good reason for my laziness, though. I've suffered from low energy level all my life, and I get tired so easily that it's almost obscene. So, it was necessary for me to learn how to do things using the least effort possible. 

OK, enough with making excuses. Let's get to the point, shall we?

How to work smarter and not harder

Have a functioning task management system

If you haven't already, create a system to record and track all of your tasks. I use Simplenote for basic to-do lists, Google Calendar to keep track of my schedule, and Google Sheets and Trello for collaborative works. The review of the systems is outside of the scope of this blog post, but many great reviews are available online.  

The reasons why you must keep an accurate inventory of your tasks are threefold:

  • to plan your schedule; 
  • to record tasks because we can't possibly remember everything; and 
  • to have an accurate picture of the current state so you can make improvements. 

For maximum productivity, your system must be easy for you to use, readily accessible, and is visually appealing (or at least not offensively ugly.)

One last thing about the task management system—list every single task even the one that you'd rather forget. I know several small business owners who had put off paying taxes. Not surprisingly, the government came after them with more paperwork and the penalty for late payment. 

So bite the bullet, unearth every annoying task out in the open and deal with it. Sooner you deal with the easier and often cheaper it will be. (Note to self: Go see a dentist.)

Declutter your lists

OK, now let's take a look at your task management system. Let's go over every single item on your lists and ask yourself, "Does this task spark a joy...?" (Sorry, I couldn't help.)

But, seriously, go through your list, examine each item and get rid of some items based on the criteria below.

Delegate, swap and train

Flag all tasks that can be delegated immediately and if you trained or hired someone. Next, ask people to do them for you with a smile. Here are some examples:

  • Ask your supervisee to attend the weekly meeting in your place. Instead of spending an hour each week, you can get a 15-minutes briefing while the supervisee gets some training. 

  • Are there any tasks that you dread doing? See if one of your colleagues are willing to do it for you. You can take something off their plate in exchange. 

  • Likewise, are there any tasks that match your colleague's skill set better than yours? Swap tasks with your colleague.

  • Think about how much your time cost and outsource jobs accordingly.
  1. If envelope-stuffing cost $13/hour and you earn $50/hour, you'll save $37/hour by outsourcing it. 

  2. Hire a specialist for a complicated job. If their rate is $100/hour and they estimated the job would take two hours, and the same task takes you six hours to complete (at $50/hr), then you'll save $100. 
  • Can your colleague or supervisee do your tasks if you trained them? It makes sense to spend ten hours training them if that would lead to your saving three hours every week by letting someone else do the job. 

Automate

It's often possible to automate repetitive tasks. Examples below:

  • Do you buy certain supplies on a regular basis? Instead of ordering them manually, see if you can take advantage of a subscription service where you receive them on a set interval. 

  • If you use a spreadsheet program and do a lot of copying and pasting data from one workbook/worksheet to another, automate the task by either writing scripts or using a function. If you don't know how to write codes, you may: 1) find an appropriate app/software; 2) ask someone to write it for you; 3) get sample codes online and modify it to your use. Always have a backup and test your codes with dummy data! 

  • Are you responsible for sending out a monthly/quarterly report to a bunch of people? Instead of sending the PDF file manually, you or someone else can edit the query to generate a link to download the report and have it emailed it to the recipients automatically.

  • Do you work with a group of people and send out deadline reminders and messages to announce new tasks? Use a project management software and set up automated prompts. It's also possible to use a spreadsheet to do the same with a little bit of script writing. 

Do you really need to do this?

Take a close look at your tasks. Are you 100% certain that every one of them is essential? What can be cut without compromising the outcomes?

  • Do you need to attend that meeting in another province/state in person? Or a Skype meeting sufficient?

  • Is it necessary to have a weekly one-hour meeting for the project? Would 30-minutes suffice? How about a meeting every other week? 

  • Do people actually read that 100-page monthly report? Can you write a summary instead?

  • Will you learn anything from attending that expensive training?

  • We've always done x, y and z. Are they still relevant?

  • Do you have to print and mail out the hardcopy of the report? Can't you just send an electronic copy?

Learn new skills

  • Learning new skills requires an upfront investment of your time; but, it could potentially save a lot of time and money in the long run. 

  • Familiarize yourself with the latest technology as much as possible. You may be able to use it to do your job better, easier and quicker. Changes are unsettling and not always fun, but try to keep an open mind. 

  • Learning how to write basic codes (any language) will help you increase efficiency. Along the way, you will also learn how to think in a systematic and logical way, and that also helps with efficiency. 

  • If people are not following your request, you often find mistakes in the works submitted, or the team project that you're managing is always behind on schedule, you might want to improve your communication skills. Take a course or read a book and learn how to modify communication style to suit the people you work with.

  • Can you think of any skills related to your work that would make you more efficient and productive? Would it make sense to go back to school to upgrade your skill set? 

In closing

In a nutshell, you'd work less if you had a good strategy; spend more time thinking about how to do the work instead of jumping into the tasks. Avoid using band-aid solutions at all cost. 

You'll need a current, accurate task management system to come up with a good strategy, so don't forget to update it regularly.

That's all from me. Have fun with the free time you've gained.