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 othersMany 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.
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.