This is a guest post by Brain Cutlery.
Time is precious. Time is money. Time flies. All cliched, all true.
As a father of two small boys I’m constantly looking for ways of improving the balance of work time, personal time and family time. I want to expend minimal effort on things that don’t matter and be as effective as possible at the things that do.
This article is about the first of those two things: expending minimal effort on the things that matter least. I’m going to suggest six things you can do to boost your productivity and reduce effort.
Take your lunch break
This applies equally if you’re working from home or at a place of work (e.g. an office). It’s a legal requirement (at least in the UK/EU) for you to take a 30 minute break during a six-hour (or longer) shift; this requirement is there for a reason.
You can’t possibly expect to sustain your maximum levels of productivity for six hours straight so do yourself a favour: remove yourself from your workplace (desk, home office etc) and find somewhere to zone out for 30-60 minutes.
Take the opportunity to do something you want to do – catch up on some reading, listen to music, whatever takes your fancy. I have taken to drafting blog posts in my lunch break; it’s really not important what you’re doing provided that you enjoy it and it’s different from the activities you’ll be undertaking for the rest of the day.
Delegate and empower
If you’re anything like me you probably believe that you’re the only person in this world who can do the job as well as you can.
For most human beings (and certainly in my case) this will be false 99% of the time. Even in those rare circumstances that you are uniquely qualified to perform a task there will be sub-tasks that you can delegate out safely. The trick to good delegation is to ensure that you:
- Delegate the responsibility as well as the task. You can’t delegate the accountability (you’re still going to get kicked by your boss/client if the person you have delegated to screws it up) but you need to make it clear to the individual(s) concerned to what extent they are accountable to you and what exactly you expect them to do.
- Give empowerment with the responsibility. Trust your nominated person(s) to do the job creatively and effectively. Focus on what you want (the outcome), not how it should be done. By all means be clear about the quality expected and the standards to work to, but avoid patronising or micro-managing by getting into the detail of how the person should go about the task.
Work from home
I have a 2-hour round trip to my workplace so the days I work from home instantly give me two extra hours in the day. However this only works if you have the discipline to execute a work-from-home routine and avoid the pitfalls of working from home (watching cartoons, doing chores etc).
My personal challenge is that three days out of five my two-year old boy has command of the house and it doesn’t tend to go down very well when I try and evict my wife and children from the house to try and get some work done.
Consequently I try and schedule working from home days on the days when my eldest is in nursery and I know my wife has plans to be out for at least part of the day.
Start work 15 minutes late
This doesn’t work in every environment, but where you have a degree of flexibility in your working hours I recommend you try this out and see how much difference it makes to the volume of work you can do.
Starting work late doesn’t necessarily require you to arrive at work later; it can mean devoting some early time to personal tasks (such as writing a blog post or reading a book). I like to go to the gym in the morning; on gym days the 15 minutes is the time I take to shower and change.
The principle behind this tip is that productivity and time are like gas in a jar; given a finite number of tasks and a fixed period of time we all tend to expand or compress the tasks to fit the allotted time.
Therefore forcing yourself to deliver the day’s work in a slightly shorter timeframe will likely result in you achieving the same amount of work, but 15 minutes quicker.
How often have you been slaving over a particular piece of work late into the night, convinced that the world will end if you don’t get it finished? My wife used to work in hospital operating theatres and would often look at me with bemusement as I tried to explain why a deadline couldn’t be missed.
“How many people will suffer or die as a result of you not doing this?” is a good benchmark to hold yourself to if you’re regularly pushing the boat out.
As a parent this is particularly important to me and I have found that techniques like GTD enable me to transcribe those ‘open loops’ I have floating around at the end of the day, which in turn empowers me to walk out of the door, safe in the knowledge that the tasks will be waiting for me in the morning when I’m fresh and motivated.
Negotiate flexible working
I can’t recommend this enough. As a senior manager I often process requests from my team for different working patterns, but I’d always assumed that it was a “no-go” for senior management.
My particular working pattern requires me to get into work early to avoid traffic and consequently I’d been finding that I was working a fair few ‘free’ hours.
One day I decided to put a proposition to my boss: I would take one day per month paid leave in lieu of the extra hours worked. This gave me one day mid-week to spend quality time with my family and it gave my boss a more motivated employee who comes in the day afterwards recharged, invigorated and motivated to work.
I have been doing this for six months and it’s the smartest move I ever made.
The next time somebody asks you for a favour, try and say “No” without adding “sorry”, or “I really can’t…” or some other platitude.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. As individuals we are conditioned to be averse to saying No and it usually results in us taking more work on, sometimes at great personal effort. I’m not saying that we should all become inherently selfish; more that it pays to work on techniques that enable you to push back when somebody makes an unreasonable request, or one that is really going to pile on the pressure.
My personal favourite technique is the ‘polite decline’, which essentially goes something like this:
- Boss: “Brain, could you please help me out with [Task X] – it won’t take someone of your skill very long.”
- You: “Of course – I’m happy to help – before we discuss it can you help me to understand which of the following [X] tasks you’ve allocated to me can be de-prioritised to accommodate this new task?…”
Of course I’ve hugely oversimplified the scenario but hopefully you get the idea – practise saying No and feel comfortable using it when the time is right.
Have you applied any of these techniques successfully? Do you have any other suggestions? Please let me know!
I’m experimenting with Sketchnotes. Please feel free to check out the Work Less, Get More Done Sketchnote