Work smarter, not harder

Work smarter, not harder

Get organised and cut distractions

The bad news is that time flies. The good news is that you are the pilot. You decide how to spend your time.

To get ahead in your career, you probably work hard and long hours – maybe not quite to the extent of inventor Thomas Edison, who slept only three hours per night; or Leonardo da Vinci, who only needed two hours; or Margaret Thatcher, who famously served as British prime minister on four hours of sleep a night.

In fact, South Africans sleep less than any other nation in the world – just more than six hours a night on average, according to specialised tracking app, Sleep Cycle.

This is still more than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who sleeps four to six hours and proposes working up to 130 hours a week (including weekends, that leaves an average of only five hours and 15 minutes non-working time per day). She says that you have to be ‘strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom. During my first five years, I worked at least one all-nighter a week.’

But there’s another theory, which encourages workaholics such as Mayer to take time off and even pays them to sleep. US insurance company Aetna believes that people can only excel at their work when properly rested, and therefore pays its employees $25 a night – up to a maximum of $500 per year – if they log at least seven hours of sleep a night on 20 consecutive nights. This is tracked by wearable devices, such as Fitbit, and based on an honesty system.

‘You can’t be prepared if you’re half-asleep,’ Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini told CNBC TV. ‘Being present in the workplace and making better decisions has a lot to do with our business fundamentals.’ He said the company’s investment in employee wellness, which also includes yoga, mindfulness practice and meditation, has already resulted in ‘69 minutes more a month of worker productivity’.

Closer to home, South African insurance group Discovery has pioneered a wellness programme that incentivises doing exercise and eating healthy food. The idea is that members who lead a fitter lifestyle and manage their stress are sick less often, and more productive at work. Their rewards include leisure activities such as discounted rates for movie tickets.

But how do you fit everything – work, sleep, exercise, quality time with friends and family, and ‘me time’ – into a 24-hour day?

‘Don’t say you don’t have enough time,’ writes the bestselling American author H Jackson Brown Jr. ‘You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.’

Essentially, it is all about being smart about how you spend your time. It’s about prioritising and delegating, planning ahead and sticking to your schedule while trying to eliminate ‘time thieves’ from your life.

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 Getting organised

A good start is physical decluttering, because having an organised workspace and home also frees up your mind. ‘Clutter overwhelms people and holds them back from the things they want to achieve,’ says Maryann Gillett, a personal organiser in Cape Town. She likens her job to that of a gardener who is digging, trimming, pruning and replanting an overgrown garden to get rid of weeds and enable plants to flourish.

‘Bringing order to chaos has an amazing knock-on effect,’ says Gillett. ‘I ask clients to start off by sorting through one single drawer. They need to decide whether to keep an item, give it to someone else or throw it away.

‘Once that first drawer is tidy, we tackle the rest of the desk or wardrobe, then go from room to room until the whole area is organised. I assist my clients with setting up storage and filing systems, keeping on top of tax and finance, as well as collating a “memory box” for possessions that have sentimental value and a “fire file” for birth certificates, passports and other important documents you’d grab in an emergency.’

With their physical environment in order, Gillett says her clients are often able to reassess their relationships and remove ‘toxic’ people. She adds: ‘It’s an organic process that initially begins with physical decluttering and leads to the decluttering of seemingly unrelated areas in their personal and professional lives.’

To do and to don’t

However, clearing space and getting organised does not mean cramming more tasks into your day. Quite the opposite: by simplifying your to-do list, you can set goals and focus on seeing them through.

The first step is to keep a diary and to-do list – be it handwritten on a paper calendar or stored digitally in a cellphone, tablet or computer. There’s a wide range of online tools and apps such as Evernote, WorkFlowy, Opus Domini, Remember the Milk, RescueTime, Todoist, Timely, and Toggl, which assist in remembering dates, prioritising tasks, storing information and keeping track of workflow.

The second step is getting rid of ‘time thieves’, which come in the shape of unproductive tasks, and people who waste your time. Identify things that are not important or can be delegated and banish these to your ‘to-don’t list’.

Learn to say ‘no’ to things that you can’t or don’t want to take on. Close your office door when you need to focus, to shut out interruptions. If an urgent issue requires your immediate attention, deal with it but don’t let it derail you. Plan some buffer zones into your daily schedule for sorting out unforeseen matters.

Another distraction is social media and email, so schedule a specific time each day to respond to email in bulk, return phone calls and update your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts. Don’t be tempted to aimlessly browse the internet or end up asking ‘wwilf’ (‘what was I looking for?’) – a common phenomenon that results in the loss of two full workdays each month, according to UK survey YouGov.

Focus single-mindedly on completing your priority task. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy recommends tackling the most unpleasant chore first, as this will stop you from procrastinating, provide a sense of achievement and make your remaining tasks seem less daunting.

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Sharpen your focus

The popular Pomodoro Technique is one method for sharpening your concentration and blocking off distractions during short bursts of energy. It divides work into timed intervals (usually 25 minutes) followed by a short break (five minutes). After four intervals, there will be a slightly longer break. All that is needed for this method is a simple egg timer, although a stopwatch or app (such as Marinara Timer, Simple Pomodoro or Block & Flow) also works well.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter which method you use to organise your day, as long as you find a system that works for you and minimises wasted time. The secret to success doesn’t lie in working like crazy, but in being more productive during your working hours and setting aside enough time to recharge.

Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, iStockphoto

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