Time management helps you get more work done in less time. But time management does not necessarily help you work faster. Time management systems allow you to prioritize and organize your work, but how do you optimize the velocity of each task?
Work Faster by Allocating Less Time for Tasks
In 1955, The Economist published an article titled "Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress" by Cyril Parkinson. It is a complex study of bureaucracy and how government organizations tend to create work for one another. Over the decades, the world of organizational productivity distilled Parkinson's law into this precept: "Work expands to fill the time we give it."
A couple of tongue-in-cheek versions of Parkinson's law include:
- If you wait until the last minute to do something, it only takes a minute to do it.
- Work contracts to fit in the time you give it.
- In a ten-hour day, you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.
The point is you can work faster by allocating less time for your tasks. If you set aside a day to draft a monthly report, try setting aside four hours. If that works, try setting aside two hours. Keep honing the time you allocate to tasks to minimize time spent.
You can do the same thing with meetings. Does every meeting need to take an hour? No. We are accustomed to hour-long meetings. They do not all have to take that long. Try scheduling meetings for 30 minutes.
Work Faster by Turning Off Alerts
The electronic alerts that notify you when an email, text, or chat message is in your inbox are productivity killers. Every time you move from a task to check a message, your brain switches gears, and researchers estimate it takes 20-25 minutes to regain focus. This shift is known as "switching time" that time slows you down.
Your phone vibrates or beeps, and a notification slides across your screen; a social media app shows how many alerts you have in a browser tab. These are all temptations to back out of whatever you are working on, especially when you are using a software program and must click out of it. Switching time is when you take time to read and think about whatever message just arrived and click back into your task. Just say no to alerts.
That said, all those messages will need your attention at some point. You can timebox—set specific times in your calendar—to view and respond to emails, texts, and instant messages. You may have to set (or reset) peoples' expectations for your response time if you commonly react at the moment. In most chat apps, you can create a do-not-disturb notice so that people can see that you are not available.
Work Faster by Doing One Thing at a Time
There was a time when "multitasking" was a badge of honor—being busy with simultaneous tasks was a sign that you are influential and talented. That ship has sailed. Study after study has found that multitasking is another productivity killer. Switching time is one reason multitasking does not work. There is also evidence that multitasking reduces cognitive functioning—our brains are being rewired by constantly moving between stimuli. A study of knowledge workers found 92 percent read emails and other messages during meetings and cannot remember decisions or action items.
"Frequently switching between tasks overloads the brain and makes you less efficient," said Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. "It is a formula for failure in which your thoughts remain on the surface level, and errors occur more frequently."
To work faster and wiser, Chapman recommends:
- Focus intensely, without distraction. Silence your phone, turn off your email and try to perform just one task at a time. Start with 15-minute intervals and work your way up to more extended periods.
- Give your brain some downtime. Taking a break will help make space for your next brilliant idea because a pause in constant thinking slows the mind's rhythms to allow more "aha" moments.
- Make a to-do list. Give the most important tasks your brain's "prime time," as Bond called it. Working fast on unimportant tasks is good, but tackling the critical stuff is better. You want to work faster, but you also want to work smarter.
Work Faster by Doublechecking Everything
It might seem counterintuitive to think that taking the time to review work thoroughly will increase work speed. But tasks that are incomplete or inaccurate will cost you more time overall. In the world of software development, the balance between quality and velocity is crucial. Developers want to ship code and update apps fast, but speed is counterproductive if quality assurance is lacking.
Time is one of the hidden expenses of inadequate quality control, according to quality consultancy ETQ. Using the iceberg metaphor, lost revenue, rework costs, reputation, and customer satisfaction are the most visible costs above the waterline. Lost time delivering a quality product is less visible but just as damaging.
Simple quality control checks you can do every day include:
- Spelling and grammar in documents
- Data in spreadsheets and CRMs
- Bills, invoices, and payments
- Schedules and meetings
- Travel plans
- Event logistics
- Sales reports
- Third-party and internal data used in reports
Doublechecking and validating the quality and accuracy of your work will save time. It will also save you some embarrassment, especially regarding sensitive emails, important meeting invitations, presentations to your managers, and high-profile reports that can also set back your career development.
It is also a good idea to have a coworker review important projects before completing them. A classic example of this is proofreading. It isn't easy to proofread your work. Others will spot your errors in a second. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. Once again, it will save time in the long run. A colleague's review can also help share ownership of the task and the end work product you create.
Work Faster by Avoiding Perfectionism
Ok, yes, it is important to double-check your work. But that does not mean you have to triple and quadruple check it.
Perfectionism is another enemy of productivity and workplace velocity. When your presentation for a customer meeting reaches version 47, something has to give. This is another area where getting feedback from colleagues can help. Get your first draft of your project done, ask for input, accept what makes the project better, and call it done.
Remind yourself that there is no such thing as perfect. Getting something done and refining it with others result in faster and better-finished products.
Work Faster by Delegating Tasks
Saving the best for last—the best way to work faster is to give your work to someone else. If you have a hard time delegating (perfectionist?), consider that you already do a lot of it. Do you clean your own house, or mow your own lawn? You outsource the tasks that must get done but don't need to be done by you, either because you lack the time, expertise, or interest. In business, you do not just delegate to employees. You can delegate responsibilities to contractors, freelancers, and agencies. Examples of functions that get delegated include:
- Website development
- Graphic design
These are tasks that are not central to your business and require expertise that executives do not have. A software business leader is not an advertising expert, for example. The delegation that executives often struggle with has to do with work that is integral to the business. They keep the company moving forward—but they are not appropriate for the executive role. Examples include:
- Calendar management
- Email communications
- Data entry
- Invoicing and payment processing
Delegating can also improve the quality of work if you delegate to people with more expertise than you.
Get More, Better Work Done
Follow these practices to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. As a bonus, the quality of your work will improve too. Your brain performs better when focused and not distracted, and investing a few minutes in quality control makes your finished product better. You will increase the velocity and the quality of your work at the same time.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.