Since the Great Recession, many professionals have been facing more challenging schedules and more daunting to-do lists. This makes it all the more important for professionals to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively. Here are the three steps that I consider most critical to be efficient at work.
1. Establish your priorities
The first step might be the most important. You should take some time to literally write down a ranking of your major goals and tasks—for the next year and for the next week. Don’t just think about the supply side: what you’re good at and what you like to do. Also consider the demand side: what the world, your organization, or your boss needs most from you.
2. Clear away your low priorities
When you write down your goals, you’re likely to find a multitude of small tasks that need to get done, but really aren’t that important. Tasks like these might include writing a status report, attending a routine meeting, or responding to a slew of emails. If you’re not careful, these low-priority assignments can take up your entire day—leaving you with no time to deal with your higher-priority goals.
The best way to clear your docket of low-priority tasks is to avoid having to do them at all. If you can graciously bow out of attending a boring meeting, do it! If you can decline an assignment by explaining your impending deadlines, great! One less unimportant task for you to do.
Of course, you can’t decline every small task. However, you should recognize that very few of these small tasks need to be perfect. You don’t have to agonize about the phrasing of every email. You don’t have to spend hours perfecting the formatting of every internal report. For a lot of your low-priority tasks, “B+” is good enough.
Along the same lines, you should be quick to delegate tasks like these to any employees that you manage—even if there’s a chance that the result won’t be “perfect.” You still need to put in the hard work of establishing goals and metrics for the project, occasionally checking in, and offering feedback. But you can avoid the time-consuming process of actually doing the entire project yourself—giving you more time to spend on your higher-priority goals.
3. Start at the end
For your higher priority goals, you obviously need to make a strong effort to create top-notch results. However, in my experience, many professionals could still achieve these results more efficiently.
As a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, I sometimes assign complex research projects to students or research assistants. Quite often, their first step is to spend days or weeks gathering facts about everything and anything related to the topic. After these days or weeks, they sit down, look at the information that they have gathered, and try to make sense of it all. Although they’ve certainly learned quite a lot of information, how much of it is relevant to the underlying research question? Not much.
Here’s a better approach. After a day (at most!) of basic research, try to establish some tentative conclusions for the project. That way, you have to quickly think about the issues most central to the project—allowing you to focus the rest of your research.
Of course, your tentative conclusions may turn out to be wrong. And if you don’t realize the error of your ways until the end of your project, you will have wasted a lot of time. So I advocate making a “mid-flight check”: around halfway of your project, take another close look at the evidence that you’ve discovered to see whether your conclusions need to be revised or even scrapped completely.