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It’s impossible, right? In order to get more done, you need to invest more time. Working ten hour days will make you more accomplished than a colleague that only works seven. Studying three hours a day will get you better grades than the guy who skims through a few chapters before the test. More work = more results.

I disagree. Working smart beats working hard. In some cases working more can actually damage the amount you get accomplished. In both cases, the degree effort matches outcomes has been overstated.

Working less and accomplishing more isn’t easy. It requires thinking creatively to find more effective ways of doing things. But first you have to be open to the possibility that your methods aren’t as efficient as they could be. Once you do that you can look for ways to get more accomplished without just increasing your to-do list. Here are a few guidelines to start looking:

1) The 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule basically suggests that a small amount of inputs contributes to a much larger amount of outputs. Using this rule means to minimize time spent in the unproductive 80%.

In application, you can’t simply cut everything that doesn’t directly contribute to your bottom line. Some things, however trivial, still need to get done. The purpose of 80/20 is to force you to be more ruthless in cutting time in areas that contribute little. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Cut e-mail time to invest more in larger projects.
  • Say no to people who want commitments that don’t contribute enough value.
  • Spend more studying core concepts and key terms than less important details.

2) Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that “work will fill the time available for its completion.” This is a side effect of focusing on doing work instead of getting projects completed. Give yourself strict deadlines and cultivate a desire to finish projects, not just check tasks off on a to-do list.

Here are some applications:

  • Set a timer for 90 minutes to finish a small project. When the timer sounds, you can’t continue working on it, so think fast and don’t waste time.
  • Chunk mammoth projects into smaller pieces. Strive to complete those pieces, rather than just working on the project aimlessly.

3) Energy Management

Energy management, as opposed to time management, forces you to think of results as a function of energy, not time invested. Working intensely for a short period of time can accomplish more than working for days, tired and distracted.

Working yourself into low energy can actually make you accomplish less than if you rested. Here are some ideas:

  • Work in bursts. Divide yourself between complete rest and complete focus. Don’t constantly switch in-between which leaves you neither rested or productive.
  • Kill projects. Don’t spread tasks that only take a few hours over several days. Sit down and finish them in one sitting. This method of killing projects keeps your energies focused and time saved.
  • Rest, health and fun matter. Enslaving yourself to your work can actually accomplish less. Master the ability to recharge yourself when you need it.

4) Only Use Sharp Tools

There’s an old story of two lumberjacks in a tree-cutting contest. The first picked up a rusty axe and ran into the woods immediately to start chopping trees. The second spent almost until the end of the contest sharpening his axe. After which he walked up and quickly felled the biggest tree.

The moral? Don’t use rusty tools.

Don’t waste your time doing things you don’t intend to be excellent at. Delegate them to someone who does have a sharp tool. And for the things you do want to master, make it a priority to sharpen your tool beyond what is necessary to cut. Skill saves time.

5) Rule With Numbers

Assumptions are the biggest waste of your time. When your intuitions about the world don’t match the way it works, you can never be efficient. The only way to combat false assumptions is to test them and follow them up with numbers. The results of a test can save you hundreds of hours if it shows a current process has no impact or suggests a faster alternative.

Here are a few examples:

  • A/B Tests – Test out two different methods simultaneously. This can allow you to know with greater accuracy which method works best.
  • Track Numbers - Don’t just weigh yourself or count calories, track them. See how they go up, down or change over time.

6) The Marginal Rule of Quality

Is it better to be a perfectionist or sloppy? One can never get a project finished the other requires constant repair because they waste too much time. I think the answer is simpler: when the extra input you invest exceeds the output gained, stop working on it.

An even better extension of this rule would be to say you should stop working on a project when the extra input invested gives less output than doing a comparable task. Here are some applications to try:

  • Measure the difference between different amounts of time spent. Try doing your e-mail for 30, 60 and 90 minutes per day. Compare the effectiveness changes when you change the amount of time. Can you really justify spending two hours doing e-mail?
  • Compare the amount of time spent polishing with time needed for repairs. If it takes more time to polish than repair, you’re better of quitting early. If repairs are draining your time and polishing is fast, slow down and be careful.

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