Software

Five tips for avoiding false efficiencies

Some of your favorite timesaving tricks may actually be slowing you down. Justin James looks at common strategies that hurt productivity and offers some better alternatives.

People develop all sorts of tricks to help them be more productive in their workday. Sadly, there are a few common tricks that people use to get more things done that actually make it harder for things to get done. Here are five things you may be doing that are actually working against you -- and a better way to be efficient in the same circumstances.

1: Beware of email rules

One of the things busy workers do to streamline their workflow is establish some email rules. The problem is that the wrong rules can give the illusion of organization while actually making things worse. The most common mistake you see here is the sorting of email by sender. This is a completely irrelevant basis for sorting mail, other than filtering mail from mailing lists and automated senders where the mail will always be of low priority or perhaps flagging mail from your boss so you always handle it first. But for the majority of human senders, who the sender is gives zero insight into the important of the email, and sorting it by sender is a great way to ensure that important emails are lost in the shuffle.

Instead of applying heavy-handed rules like sorting by sender, pick more granular rules. For example, keep putting the automated emails in their place with rules, but use your email client's ability to manage conversations or threads to selectively ignore things you've been incorrectly copied on. Also, take a look at why you are receiving so much email. It is often a sign that you have become a roadblock in the decision-making process or that people do not feel empowered to do things without your say-so.

2: Focus on one thing at a time

I've seen this all too often: A harried worker brings a laptop or smartphone to a meeting to manage other tasks and can't properly participate in the meeting. People usually overestimate their ability to do two things at once. To show yourself just how bad you are at it, play a song you have never heard before while reading something you have never read before, and see if you can properly recall both of them. Chances are that you can't. So if you are going to be in a meeting, leave the email at your desk. At the same time, be more selective about what meetings you attend. It's better to not be at a meeting at all and have everyone know you need to be filled in than to have the other participants think you are on the same page as them when you aren't.

3: Be careful about long hours

The more hours you work, the less you get done with them. As you get tired, it becomes harder to focus on your job. In addition, it often builds resentment to your work that is not helpful at all. Working long hours often is counterproductive, since you start making more and more mistakes. Many times, the best way to get things done is to actually step away from the work and recharge your batteries. This might mean not pulling an all-nighter or perhaps doing nothing work-related over a weekend. It may mean a vacation, even if all you can afford to do is spend a few days sitting at home watching TV. Yes, in the current economy it can be hard to say "no" to long hours. But at the same time, you need to get a sense of when you are just spinning your wheels and wasting your time.

4: Don't answer every call

The wonderful engineers at the phone company invented caller ID and voicemail for a reason: so you do not have to answer every single incoming call. Many people feel the need to answer every call, regardless of what they are doing at that moment. Why break your focus to answer a call that may not be very important? And if you're working with other people, why make them waste their time sitting around watching you have another conversation? Unless you are expecting an important call (or the person keeps calling back, indicating an emergency), let it go to voicemail if you're busy and check the voicemail during a break in your work.

5: Learn to trust others

Many times, the size of our workloads is artificially increased by our own refusal to trust other people. For example, you might have a junior member of the staff eager to learn how to patch the servers or write the data access code, but you insist on doing it yourself because "it's too important to be done wrong." We think this is a timesaver because it will take less time to do it ourselves than to show someone else how to do it. That is true for one-time tasks, but not for things that need to be done on a regular basis. Chances are, you made some mistakes on your way to where you are, and someone else is going to have to make some mistakes too. Don't dump your work onto someone else, but carefully train others to take over some of your responsibilities and make yourself available in case they need a hand. The right people will be grateful for the chance to step up to the next level, knowing that it helps them with their long-term career growth.


About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

15 comments
MvZyl
MvZyl

Something I'll be recommending as a first-read to new team members. So obvious, but yet so underrated advice in our Customer Focused world...

lobo
lobo

Right On, particularly #2, multi-tasking is overrated.

kburrows
kburrows

I find rules very efficient. If I have rules to sort emails by customer, I know when I open my email, those are the priority emails and get looked at first. My Inbox now catches incidentals, etc. I even have my tech bulletins go to a tech folder and can look at them in bulk. By doing this, I also keep my message threads together and clean and don't have to spend my time dragging emails to folders. One comment above states " It's very strange that Outlook still uses senders email address as a way to identify spam." Using rules makes sure I know which emails are priority and which are not. Rules eliminate exactly what the reader is talking about. I teach Outlook classes and most of my companies like being able to get organized this way. Folders with rules help me prioritize my email and keep them sorted and clean. Without Outlook rules, I would get distracted looking at every email. I rarely even get junk emails anymore (hosted Exchange is the way to go!), so I don't have to deal with that, but rules rock and help me focus on what is my priority.

learn4ever
learn4ever

Good advice. I do most of this already.

Paul0009
Paul0009

I find it interesting that management never promotes these tips. It usually promotes their opposites.

geo
geo

I am pretty sure nearly everyone is following #4, I rarely get a human voice when I call anyone. After pressing 1, 4, 2, that is... (?`?._.?ns??v??._.???)

Ron_007
Ron_007

I especially like #2 and #4. #4, just because the darn thing is ringing doesn't mean you have to answer. It may be important to them, but that doesn't mean it is important to you right now.

TobiF
TobiF

Good article. I'm going to bookmark it. Especially, I agree on point number one "sorting mails per sender is not efficient". It's very strange that Outlook still uses senders email address as a way to identify spam, when it's totally irrelevant. Most spam emails have fake sender id's, anyway. For my private emails, popfile does a good job of sorting spam, low prio and normal mails into three buckets. (hit rate around 98 per cent, i.e. I quickly look through the spam folder before deleting, once a day.)

tr
tr

to set a color or flag (depending on your email client) when I am in the TO: field while leaving plain the items where I am in a distribution list or the CC: or BCC: fields.

frwagne
frwagne

all of the tips posted are good.... One more that works for me, since I mainly work at my desk, or in deskside support for others, that has made my life a LOT better - leave my cell phone OFF unless I need to make a call. That way whoever and whatever I'm working on takes first priority. Except for unusual circumstances, I only read my work email, at work.

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

salivate at every ringing of the bell / phone / email / doorbell etc.

katedgrt
katedgrt

you subscribe to an active group/list and you want to address them all at once rather than have the entries show up in your inbox with regular issues/emails. This is the only time I have found routing emails by sender to be useful.

TobiF
TobiF

You highlight the important stuff (based on positive rules), rather than hiding away anything (based on negative rules, which may be more prone to fail).

TobiF
TobiF

When the doorbell rings, it's often the pizza guy. :)