9/1/2004 | 9 MINUTE READ

The Art of Working Smart

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Being more productive doesn’t mean working yourself to death.


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Being more productive doesn’t mean working yourself to death. More often, it means substituting brains for brawn, organizing your efforts and practicing some old-fashioned discipline. Some tips to get you on the right track.

Set goals and assume the responsibility for reaching them. Goals are necessary for achievement because they channel your energies. Make sure yours are specific, realistic but challenging, and measurable. They should be compatible with each other and not mutually exclusive. Give each one a deadline. Putting your goals in writing can be helpful, but don’t fall into the trap of believing that because they exist on paper that they are cast in concrete; keep them flexible and subject to change. When you establish your goals, set them on a long-term, intermediate, and daily basis. After setting them, rank them in order of importance and tackle the most important first.

Keep accounts of your time. People who wouldn’t dream of not maintaining meticulous accounts of where their money goes often have no idea of how they spend their time. Don’t be one of them. Most time use is habit and we don’t know what happens to it unless we keep track of it. Keeping a time log for a week or so periodically can help you uncover waste, keep you sensitive to the whole problem of time management.

Know what not to do. Achievement isn’t always the result of doing more. Frequently, it’s the result of doing less…better. A great effectiveness killer is the inability to say no. When you find it necessary to decline a job, do it promptly to avoid raising unrealistic expectations. Don’t think you have to offer an explanation for every turndown, either.

Cash in on your strengths. What we do easily, we usually do well. Whenever possible, therefore, look for work that allows you to build on your strong points. How well you work, remember, is more important than how hard you work.

Avoid the “perfection trap.” Few of us are perfect. Fortunately, there are few tasks in the world that require perfection in their execution. Of course, if you are a brain surgeon, that’s a different story, but for most of us, a little less than perfect can be more than adequate. Sure, sometimes perfection is required, but learn to recognize those rare occasions and maintain your perspective.

Don’t procrastinate. Putting things off is probably the single biggest achievement killer. Things have to be done eventually. Why not now?

Minimize interruptions. The best laid plans can be sabotaged by meetings, telephone calls, and visitors. Keep yours down to the barest of essentials. If you know a meeting will leave you no wiser than you now are, skip it. If you have to call a meeting, make very sure it’s necessary. Maintain “visiting hours”—times during the week when people can see you; keep the rest inviolably private. You will be surprised by how much you can accomplish. Police your use of the telephone. If its overuse is wasting your time, cut down. When you want uninterrupted time, have your secretary take your calls. Few phone calls can’t wait.

Keep clutter off your desk. Few things are so daunting as a desk piled high with papers. They discourage action on sight. If you want to get things done, clear your desk of everything related in any way to projects other than the one at hand; that’s your top priority. Any other items will have to wait their turn. Resist the temptation to leave the project you are working on for other, more appealing tasks. When you are finished with the job at hand, send it on its way, then start on the next one.

Don’t Demand Unconditional Surrender When we get into an argument, most of us try to prove that we are totally and completely right, and the other person 100 percent wrong on all counts.

Skillful persuaders, however, always concede something and find some point of agreement.

If the other person has a point in his favor, acknowledge it. And if you give in on minor, unimportant matters, he will be much more likely to give in when you come to the main point.

Are You Getting the Truth?

Whether you manage two, ten or twenty people, by virtue of being a boss you run the risk of never quite getting the truth from your people. They may not even be aware of stretching the truth when they speak to you, but subordinates tend to tell the people they report to (a) what they think the boss would like to hear or (b) what they would like the boss to hear. In the process, what is actually happening may slip between the cracks.

To add to the information that comes to you from the usual sources, consider these tech-niques for wringing out the distortions and adding to the perspectives you usually get.

Build mutual trust between yourself and your people. To the extent that you reduce fear, you reduce the emotional need among your people to mislead you. Although you may seldom receive absolute frankness, you can hope for occasional helpful hints.

Put a premium on integrity. When people know that all the news is welcome, they are more likely to share what they know and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Centuries ago, the bearers of bad news got their heads chopped off—and, at least fig-uratively speaking, they sometimes do today.

If the truth is unwelcome, it is hardly likely to be told. The boss should realize that, for him, bad news can be good news. For if someone has overcome the instinct to tell him only what he wants to hear, there is a fair likelihood that it is not only true, but important. Once he knows the facts, he can do something about them.

Triple-check when you can. The moment you suspect the veracity of some statement (or feel something is being withheld), start questioning in several not-too-closely-connected quarters.

Get out of your office and find out. The more you get around to all the people who work for you, the more difficult it will be for any of them to get around you.

How Well Do You Manage Your Time?

You won’t find it in your wallet or bank account. You can’t borrow it. You can’t work harder and earn more of it. You certainly can’t hoard it. In fact, all you can do with it is spend it. What is it? Time.

Some people know how to spend it effectively and productively, while for others it seems to slip away. Those who spend time well seem to be able to do all their work—including those rush jobs—meet all deadlines, keep up with their reading, and attend meetings while still having time to do all the things they like to do all the things they like to do. Some others, on the other hand, often seem behind in their paperwork, juggling a series of deadlines, late for appointments, and distressed by the thought of the 101 things they want to do but somehow can’t find the time for.

How well do you manage your time? Are you completely satisfied with the way you spend your minutes, hours, and days? Or deep down, are you concerned that there may be a better way of accomplishing things? If you suspect that you may not be using your time as well as you’d like, here’s a quiz designed to help you spot the most effective ways to use time.

  1. Do you put in a full day’s work?
  2. Was everything under control when you returned from your last vacation, or did you come back only to face one crisis after another?
  3. Does your family frequently complain that you are not spending enough time with them? Are their complaints justified?
  4. Do you have enough time each week to do the things you like to do (e.g., attend the theater, see friends) or do you find yourself often bowing out of social or recreational activities due to the pressures of work?
  5. Do you find yourself wasting time in the morning?
  6. Are you getting more done than you did six months ago or last year?
  7. Do you ever sit down in an executive session with yourself and seek ways to save time and increase your efficiency?
  8. Do you have a personal program of progress, either in your mind or down on paper? Do you know what achievements and positions in your company you want to attain within, say, the next five years? If you do, what are you doing right now to realize your goal?
  9. Ever get the sneaking suspicion that you are coasting, not living up to your true potential?
  10. Are you a decisive individual, or do you weigh the pros and cons of every course of action open to you so long that you miss opportunities?
  11. Can you say no to unfair demands on your time?
  12. Have you cultivated the habit of getting things done promptly and out of the way? Or do you tend to let them pile up until their sheer number is discouraging?
  13. Do you consciously follow a plan for using your leisure time?
  14. Do you ever set quotas of accomplishment for yourself … and do your level best to meet or beat them?
  15. When was the last time you actually planned your day on paper?
  16. Describe at least three ways in which you recently used the telephone to save time.
  17. Are you frequently forced to stay at work to catch up on paperwork?
  18. Do you keep small talk to a minimum in business meetings, getting right down to the heart of the matter?
  19. Do you carry a small notebook with you at all times so that you may capture a fleeting idea or sudden insight?
  20. Is your traveling time put to productive use? How?
  21. When things are going exceptionally well, do you take advantage of the psychological boost by tackling other tough chores, or do you bask in your accomplishment and ease off for the rest of the day?
  22. Are you a good listener? Do you get instructions, requests, and the like right the very first time, or ask for clarification until you understand them, or are you reluctant to do so and pay the price later in the form of errors, misunderstandings, and backtracking?

Check Your Priorities

Many a hard working manager is working hard on the wrong things. Yet, determining what is most important at any given time is one of management’s toughest challenges. But the manager who continuously meets this challenge is almost certain to stay on top of the job.

The truth is, the things that are most important today may be among the least important tomorrow. How do you determine the ever-shifting priorities of your work? One man does it this way:

At a monthly meeting with his people, he invites them to give their estimates of the most important problems the department faces. Their answers reflect the priorities in their own areas of responsibility. He then weighs their opinions against his own.

This accomplishes two things. First, he spots projects that are being overrated and can take steps to place them where they belong on the scale of importance. He also pinpoints projects that are being delayed because they have been mistakenly put at the bottom of the priority list.

He thus accomplishes what every manager must accomplish if he is to really do his job: keep the partnership between himself and his people alive and vibrant. And he learns from those who are closest to the jobs at hand. A manager like that is ready for a bigger job.


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