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Published on October 23, 2019

How to Complete Any Task in the Most Time Efficient Manner

How to Complete Any Task in the Most Time Efficient Manner

It’s not just you: We’re all busier than we used to be.

Whether you’re a working mom, a college student, or a small business owner, managing your time can be challenging. Between classes, meetings, doctor appointments, and kids’ after-school events, how does anyone find time for exercise or, heaven forbid, fun?

We all get 24 hours in a day. So how do some people seem to breeze through their tasks while the rest of us flounder? They’ve learned how to be both time efficient and effective.

What Does it Mean to Be Time Efficient?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “efficient” as, “Capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or material).”[1] But what does it mean to actually be efficient in how you spend your days?

To me, “efficiency” means negotiating each day’s circumstances while ensuring I have enough time for non-negotiables like sleep and self-care. This nuance is especially important for working professionals. Efficiency doesn’t always mean sitting down at a desk in the morning, whittling down a to-do list, and leaving the office by 5 p.m. Efficiency means doing your best despite internal and external factors, leaving ample time to take care of yourself.

I start my work days by writing down my deliverables. Inevitably, though, I get roped into an unexpected meeting or investor call. Yes, I could stay up all night doing the work to hit my deadlines — but if I did, I’d be too tired the next day to get anything done. That’s being effective, not being efficient (we’ll talk more about that later). To be efficient, I might divide the work with a colleague, or complete half the assignment and request an extension.

When you’re juggling work, parenthood, and a social life, you have to continuously optimize your days and hold yourself accountable. But of course, you still have to be effective as well.

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Effective vs. Efficient: What’s the Difference?

There’s a fine line between what it means to be effective and efficient. Let’s start with the dictionary definition: “Effective” means “producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect.”[2]

Put simply, being effective is about accomplishing a specific result; being efficient means accomplishing that result without wasting time or effort. In theory, you have to be efficient in order to be effective, but that’s not always the case.

Look at it this way: You have a task to complete that should take you an hour. But between distractions like the internet and office chatter, that task winds up taking you four hours. You accomplished your end goal, but you didn’t exactly do so efficiently.

If you think about it, we’re all “effective” in one way or another. If you have a job that keeps a roof over your head and food on your table, it means you’re effective enough at work to get a monthly paycheck. But your paycheck probably doesn’t reflect how much time you spend on social media each pay period.

The exception is entrepreneurs and freelancers. To make more money, people who own a business need to be not only effective, but efficient. So how do they do it?

6 Ways to Be Both Efficient and Effective

Effectiveness is a byproduct of efficiency. Although it’s safe to say that most entrepreneurs are efficient, it’s a skill that takes practice.

Even if you aren’t trying to run a profitable business, you can still benefit by operating the way successful business leaders do:

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1. Set Measurable Goals

Although every entrepreneur has his or her own method, productivity experts suggest setting SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-dependent goals promote both efficiency and effectiveness — not only can they be realistically achieved, but progress toward them can be quantitatively checked.[3]

Say you want to bring in $100,000 per quarter. You might set weekly milestones of $8,000, making the goal more manageable and giving you a cushion in case you fall short one week.

Setting goals helps you be efficient because it focuses your energies on what you want. That, in turn, improves your ability to achieve those goals. And if you’re a leader, you set the example for how your employees can get more done, too.

2. Communicate on Your Terms

Whether it’s meal-planning or product development, most projects take a team. But that doesn’t mean you have to refresh your email every five minutes for updates. Working professionals waste an average of 21 minutes per day simply over-checking their inboxes.[4] Over four work weeks, that’s nearly 7 hours a month you could claw back.

Entrepreneurs, in particular, need to be careful with email. Investor messages might merit a quick response, for example. Does it actually matter how quickly you read that employee-welcome email you were copied on, though? If an employee needs something immediately, ask that they call you or stop by your office in person. Dedicate one or two hours per week to combing through your full inbox to ensure you don’t miss something crucial.

3. Default to Trust

Even if you aren’t working with a team, you still depend on others. When my wife and I added a laundry room upstairs in our home, I had to trust that the contractors I’d hired to do their jobs. I had to trust my wife to answer all those “Where do you want it?” questions that inevitably came up. If I hadn’t defaulted to trust, I would’ve slowed the project down and perhaps even scrapped it completely.

Learn to trust others the same way you would your romantic partner. Be clear about your intentions. Make sure your actions match your words, and assume others’ do as well.

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Be sincere in how you communicate. Most importantly, accept that others are their own people. Not everyone works or communicates in the same way, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re failing you or attempting to undermine your efforts.

4. Take Regular Breaks

The more time you spend on a project, the faster you accomplish it, right? Not necessary.

Research suggests that the most productive workers actually take the most breaks. A study by the Draugiem Group showed that the ideal work rhythm is actually 52 minutes followed by a 17-minute break.[5] Although the study didn’t look at other types of work, it’s a fair bet that breaks promote efficiency across the board.

Set a timer to remind you once an hour to take a break. If shorter intervals are more appropriate for your task, try the Pomodoro Method. Work for 25 minutes, then do something else for the following five. Not only will you get more done, but you’ll be less stressed to boot.

5. Use Your Resources

Not long ago, I had to cut down some trees in my yard to protect my house. I could have pulled out the bow saw and spent the next hour slowly slicing my way through the trunk, but I didn’t. Why not? Because I had a chainsaw sitting in the garage. Once I fired it up, the tree work took about ten minutes.

Take the same approach at work. If you need to transfer information between multiple browser windows on your computer, you could constantly click back and forth between multiple tabs. Or you could hook up the spare monitor sitting in storage, which would help you work quicker and make fewer errors.

6. Know When to Say ‘No’

Small projects have a bad habit of ballooning into bigger ones. If all you set out to do is mow your yard, stick to that. Don’t tell yourself (or let anyone else tell you) that you also have to trim the bushes and pull weeds. Get done what you want, and move on. That’s being effective as well as efficient.

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What if it’s a work project? You may not be able to say “no” directly to your boss, but you can suggest alternatives. If you’re worried a task is a waste of time, throw out a different idea. If you truly don’t have time on your calendar, ask your him or her to help you prioritize your project list. Get it right, and your boss may thank you for saving company time.

Having a full understanding of time management is key to knowing when to say “no” and when something could make sense for a time investment.

Bottom Line

Planning is key. Whether you’re an entrepreneur like me or a stay-at-home dad, you’ve got a job to do. The work itself may differ, but the value of being efficient and effective does not. If you want to succeed — and have time for yourself to spare — think before you grind the day away.

Working wisely is better than working hard. Learning to trust others is more important than the outcome looking exactly like what you had in mind. Efficiency and effectiveness may differ definitionally, but both boil down to two things: having a plan and pivoting as needed.

More About Time Management

Featured photo credit: Alex Presa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Merriam-Webster dictionary: Efficient
[2] Merriam-Webster dictionary: Effective
[3] Calendar: How to Set Business Goals You’ll Actually Reach
[4] Harvard Business Review: How to Spend Way Less Time on Email Every Day
[5] Inc: For the Most Productive Workday, Science Says Make Sure to Do This

More by this author

John Hall

John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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Last Updated on July 13, 2020

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

    This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

    We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

    Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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    When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

    Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

    4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

    Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

    For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

    Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

    5. Make Decisions

    For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

    If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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    If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

    Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

    I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

    This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

    The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

    6. Take Some Form of Action

    Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

    The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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    It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

    Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

    The Bottom Line

    Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

    When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

    More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

    Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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