March 1, 2023
Are you a busy fool? 5 ways to work smarter, not harder
Work in the modern landscape is complicated. While technology has made so many things easier, it has also created some unforeseen challenges. The rise of flexible work has worsened boundaries between our work lives and personal lives; our reliance on devices means communication is omnipresent; and with so many different apps available, many people spend their day hopping between different things. Given this, is it any wonder burnout is on the rise?
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
These working conditions have fostered a workplace phenomenon: The busy fool. The term refers to workers who – while they may feel stressed and work long hours – are actually achieving very little. Instead of working with strategy, the busy fool allows a general sense of “busyness” to trick them into thinking they’re being productive.
If this sounds like you, you shouldn’t feel bad. This is a condition fostered by the fast-paced working environment which is so prevalent at the moment, and being aware of it is the first step to changing it. So, check out the following five steps to start working smarter instead of harder.
Email, video calls, instant messaging, texting, phone calls. These days, we are not short of communication tools – and that’s not always a bad thing. It is comms technology which enabled so many of us to get through the pandemic, and what continues to make remote work possible. The problem, of course, is that many of us communicate in a reactive way, responding to messages as and when they come in. This is a dangerous game when it takes the average person over 23 minutes to refocus after being distracted.
How to work smarter: Try chunking your communication to leave more time for focussed work during the rest of the day. This will look different for different people, depending on your role. It might mean setting aside an hour at the end of each day to catch up on email, or perhaps you’ll only need to set aside a couple of hours a week. The important thing is to handle your communication in chunks, rather than having dotted it throughout the day.
Think before you work
In all other areas of our life we understand that strategy is key to success. Someone training for a marathon plans out their training and recovery time. A person who is trying to get healthier will plan meals ahead of the weekly shop. So why, when it comes to work, do we not take the same approach? While an intimidating “to do” list and general sense of stress can make it tempting to jump straight into work without planning, the result is often more stress and less achievement.
How to work smarter: Bringing strategy to your work will involve typical good practice principles such as planning and prioritisation. It might also involve productivity techniques such as Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog”. But you should also look at common thinking traps which may cloud your judgement when deciding how to tackle work. These include, selective thinking (the tendency to validate certain viewpoints and discount others); reactive thinking (when we jump to react to external influences, events or ideas); assumptive thinking (an assumption is a belief, convention or idea we accept to be true, often with no proof). Being aware of these traps will enable you to work with real strategy, avoiding common pitfalls which prevent true productivity.
It sounds counterintuitive at first. We think of daydreaming as something for children, or a time-wasting activity. But I’m here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth. Multiple studies have shown that daydreaming has an incredible effect on creativity, cognition and productivity. Taking time out to daydream every day will boost your work performance in every area. And while the idea of making time for daydream breaks may seem intimidating with a busy schedule, they might also provide the perfect excuse to look at what can be streamlined within your day.
How to work smarter: To daydream correctly, you need to learn to engage the optimal daydreaming state. That doesn’t mean worrying about the past or future, or dwelling on one topic. The kind of daydreaming which inspires creativity is free-moving, and often best inspired by mundane or rhythmic tasks. This means anything from chores to walks will help to engage the kind of daydreaming which is so essential for elevated cognition.
Collaborate with strategy
Since the start of the pandemic, the frequency of meetings has gone up. When working remotely, especially, it can be tempting to supplement the lack of in-person interaction with constant video calls. But as evidenced by research from Microsoft, back-to-back meetings cause stress to build up in the brain. There’s no denying that collaboration is important, but in order to make it work you need to refocus on quality over quantity. That means only hosting meetings when they’re really needed, and following certain rules to ensure that they are productive when they do take place.
How to work smarter: Whether you’re organising a standard meeting or brainstorming session, it’s always a good rule of thumb to ask individuals to come armed with ideas. Having people pre-prepare their thoughts helps to eliminate groupthink (where people agree with each other to keep the peace). Jeff Bezos also has a rule that he won’t attend any meeting too big to be fed by two pizzas – so make sure you’re only inviting the relevant people! And remember, creative sessions should always have a facilitator.
Say “no” more often
No one says this better than Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
What more can I say? Of course, we all like being agreeable, but saying “yes” when you don’t have time isn’t helping anyone. Boundaries are absolutely essential to good work, and while regularly working overtime might feel like a sign of dedication, it’s actually killing the quality of your focus and creativity.
How to work smarter: Learning to say no also means learning to communicate clearly. Of course, you don’t want to seem unprofessional, so when a task comes your way which doesn’t fit your expertise or isn’t urgent, try talking this through with the person requesting your help. Explain why you’re not the best person for the job, or why it’s not something you can focus on right now. So long as you are fair and polite, people will respect your honesty and the benefits to your working life will be huge.
In a sentence…
Being busy isn’t the same as being productive! To achieve real success you need to add strategy to your daily working life. By applying the right techniques, you can learn to work smarter – not harder.
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