I like to work hard.

It’s easier than having to think, you just do, and people respect your initiative for it.

A problem with this approach is that it hurts to run up against a brick wall repeatedly until you find the door. Productivity is lost in the attempt, and some tasks do not allow for a trial-and-error approach.

So, I researched the topic, and ended up getting battered over the head with the single phrase:

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Work Smarter, Not Harder

If only it were that easy.

Below is my attempt to filter the noise on the topic, to find a through-line where I can work both intuitively and forcefully. As always, I hope my thoughts on the topic are able to assist you in your day-to-day.

1. The Power of Ritual

I don’t like the word habit. Habits are things we do unconsciously, and my productivity goals are intentionally intentional. A ritual has steps, which if improperly handled, can produce a worse result than you had when you started.

Tony Schwartz of the Harvard Business Review defines rituals as, “highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, so they . . . no longer require conscious will or discipline.”1

With the term now defined, how do we leverage it? Turns out, crafting a ritual takes as much intent as executing it. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Same Time, Same Place: Give yourself the benefit of familiar surroundings and a consistent time for a task.
  • Mental State: During his TEDxBloomington talk, Shawn Achor presented some of his research into positivity and mental state on work being done. His findings are pretty clear: “[Y]our brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, [and] your energy levels rise.”
  • Know Your Goal: The exact duration is unclear, but we can only deeply concentrate on something for 1-1.5 hours at a time. If you know in advance that your project will take longer than that, break it out at the outset into multiple, one-hour chunks.
  • Snacks: Stay hydrated and eat before you feel hungry. It is staggering how much this impacts both productivity and mental state.

2. Work Modular

With both my IT and process work, I’m always looking for ways to cleanly swap out a sick piece of a larger workflow to keep the whole thing moving. But building things from scratch takes time, rounds of approvals, discussion, revision, and shipment – all things that don’t fit cleanly into an already busy calendar.

How can we leverage modularity in the context of working smarter?

  • Work Offline: Huh? The IT guy said work offline? Sometimes, it is the quickest way to cut down on distractions. We all have to manage not only the duties assigned to us, but also the internal and external-facing communications platforms that allow us to do business. If your role allows for it, sign out of chat for an hour. Close Outlook. All those emails will be there when you get back.
  • To Do, or Not to Do: I’ve recently been presented with the idea of a To Don’t list, a subset of tasks on your plate that do not matter in the next few hours. Pick things off your To Do list until you have a few hour-long chunks of time laid out. Clear them in order of importance until closing time.
  • Setting Up for Success: You may be geared towards working modularly, but is your workstation? Take some time when things slow down and review all the software you utilize to fulfill your role. If one of those products gets a bad update and crashes, do you know your route to resolution? Is your IT guy internal, or external? If external, do you have both their contact information and authorization to reach out if needed? Keep this information on a post-it or note card near your desk so you can pivot directly from working to getting assistance on returning to work.

3. Chase Effectively

I spend a good chunk of each day authoring and replying to emails. When people don’t reply in a timely manner, the work doesn’t stop, but each successive round of outreach can feel like knocking on the door of someone who isn’t home.

Luckily, I have been blessed with a series of professional mentors over the years who have shared their experiences on the subject. Here’s a summary of what I have learned from them:

  • Let it Breathe: ASAP is really ASA(r)P, As Soon as Reasonably Possible. I used to fire off replies as quickly as I could, but ended up ignoring other work to get communications out in this manner. Don’t overburden yourself to get someone a reply five minutes quicker.
  • Really, Let it Breathe: Unless the deliverable or answer you need from someone is due within the next hour, don’t expect a reply in the next hour. Develop a method of tagging/flagging communication so you know at a glance if you need to follow up. Personally, I use the Category tags in Microsoft Outlook: Action Required, Awaiting Reply, and Follow Up. Each of them has a distinct color, so I have a visual language to use in navigating my email inbox.
  • Pick the Right Route: Externally, I mostly use email and phone calls to communicate. Internally, however, there are more avenues of communication available. If your query can’t be answered off-the-top-of-my-head, I want it in an email. Pings and DMs add up so quickly among workplace communications. Limit instant messages to matters that allow for instant resolution.

Thank you for taking the time today to reflect on my reflections. Seek to start each day more productive than the last, and when looking back you will be amazed at what can be optimized.

Until next time,
Taylor Hall
Client Services Manager