Working Smart: 3 Tips to Accomplish Much More in Less Time

Alexandra Guadagno
Posted: 06/12/2011

I thought I'd share my take on some pieces of research presented by the American Psychological Association and Standford University that, if properly communicated to managers, could potentially increase employee productivity and engagement.

Want to accomplish more during your workday? Your line managers might laugh and say, "Good one!" when you deliver the following few tips, but these will certainly be well-received by employees: 1) Don’t work when you don’t feel like it, 2) Ignore your phone calls and e-mails, 3) Go home early.

No, I’m not being sarcastic. Research by the American Psychological Association suggests these surprising tips of highly successful individuals. They studied a group of musicians and figured out that the difference between "mediocrity" and "Mozart" had less to do with natural ability and more to do with the way students managed their time and approached the task at hand.

Those who excelled at the violin, for instance, worked in short, intense bursts and took breaks in between. "Deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day during extended periods without leading to exhaustion," according to the research by Ericsson. "To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis."

We can take this research and view it through an HR lens. It breaks down to the following few tips that will help you and your workforce do much more in a lot less time.

Don’t spend the whole day slaving away.
When you come in to work, check your e-mail and then set up your game plan for the day. First thing in the morning, figure out what you need to get done by the end of the time you leave. Then, knock yourself out. Spend the next half hour surfing Facebook. When that gets boring (and it will get boring—honestly, how many status updates can you read through? "Alexandra Guadagno: just bought a new vacuum cleaner!" Riveting...), put the pedal to the metal and get to work.

As far back as 1938, this method has been touted by C. E. Seashore, the pioneering researcher in music psychology. "Many a student becomes disgusted with music because he cannot learn by dull drudgery. The command to rest is fully as important as to work in effective learning." Seashore recommended that practice periods be limited to an hour at a time.

So take it from Seashore-- while you’re in the zone, don’t deviate from your task until it’s done, or your stomach starts growling for lunch. Leave the office to eat, come back refreshed, and work in another short, albeit intense, spurt. When you start to crash around mid-afternoon, go ahead: get up, walk around and harass your coworkers. By this time, they will just be getting to indulge in their "working lunch," as they eat their brown-bagged delight over their desktops while simultaneously arguing with the accounting department and shoe-shopping on Zappos. Now is a great time to pull out your wallet and show these drones pictures of your nieces and nephews, your cats, your nieces’ and nephews’ cats—whatever it takes to get yourself decompressed and ready for another mini productivity marathon. Soon enough, your working-stiff coworkers will ask, "Don’t you have any work to do?" And that’s when you’ll know it’s time for another focused session.

No, really. Don’t be a menace, but don’t try to be a multi-tasking extraordinaire, either. Even Peter Drucker knew the dangers of multi-tasking. You’ll get a lot more completed if you stay focused on the task at hand and eliminate distractions, and then you can fully immerse yourself in your online retail therapy during downtime. You’re not getting any more done by trying to do it all at once. You’re stressing yourself out, you’re giving each task maybe 60 percent of your effort, and darn it-- you’re getting crumbs on your keyboard!

Don’t feel obligated to pick up every phone call or answer every e-mail within the nanosecond. Research at Stanford found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information "do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time." Maybe it’s a clichê, but even as part of the "digital native" generation, I’ve heard some rumors that we did manage to get by before smartphones (which apparently have now been surgically implanted into most of our palms.) Somehow, business still functioned, and I hear that the world even kept on turning. As it turns out, you can absolutely be productive at work if you’re not instantaneously accessible at every moment of your already too-long workday.

Of course it’s annoying that you’re getting electronically harangued by every department every five minutes, but guess what? It’s your fault. You set the precedent for the timeframe in which your colleagues will expect a response. If you practically respond to e-mails in real time, your workmates are going to think you’re ignoring them if you suddenly start taking your sweet time with your replies. Hysterical coworkers that find themselves in a jam (and want YOU to fix it) might try to convince you otherwise, but don’t flatter yourself-- do you really think you’re all that important, anyway?

However, you can clearly set some ground rules and communicate to your biggest e-stalkers that you’ll check e-mail, say, every hour on the hour, or at a few set times during the day. They’ll learn to have a little patience (and maybe even figure things out for themselves before they have to ask you—hey, you’re not a human search engine!)

You're a professional, and you know what it takes to get your job done. Don’t waste time getting sidetracked with other people’s problems throughout the day. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and yes—helping your coworkers is part of being a team. But if you can get your own priorities completed, you’ll have more time in the long-run to focus in on others’ challenges that need to be addressed. Besides—if there’s a true emergency, your colleagues can Google how to use those things called "legs" and walk over to your desk.

Go home early. Or at least on time. No one is going to give you a gold star for slaving away in your cubicle until 8:30pm. I admit, I’ve sometimes felt a twinge of guilt when my work is done and I’m skipping out the door at 5:05. I see many a coworker still hammering away with little more than a Hot Pocket to get them through the evening. That is, until I remember this quote from a book by Jason Fried and Davis Hansson: "Workaholics are not heroes … The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done."

They’re right. Occasionally, big projects or problems come up that necessitate a few late nights. But if it becomes a habit, not only do employees start to feel resentful, drained and disengaged—in fact, many managers will look at them and wonder why it’s taking them so long to get through their tasks.

If this is you or someone you know, It might just be time to look at reprioritizing the workday. If staying at work through the wee hours is your style, more power to you— but obviously it’s the really hard workers are the ones that make it to happy hour.

So although these tips might seem a little counterintuitive without further explanation, I guarantee you’ll earn the respect of your employees and a higher rate of productivity if you keep some of these points in mind. They’ll be thankful to get home in time to eat dinner with their families (hey-- none of your business if that family happens to be the bartender at the local pub), feel more fulfilled and engaged by day-to-day tasks, and won’t feel micromanaged if they have the freedom to take care of some personal errands after a particularly intense and focused burst of work. Work-life balance is key to employee engagement—and very little productivity will ensue from an army of sleep-deprived zombies that have been burning the midnight oil.

Alexandra Guadagno
Posted: 06/12/2011

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