Wouldn’t it be helpful if you could get eight hours’ work done in six hours? There will have been days when you’ve done exactly that. Perhaps a deadline was looming, or you needed to get something important done. Maybe you were particularly motivated or maybe it was just because you knew exactly what you needed to do. Similarly, there will have been days when the opposite was true and it took you eight hours to do just six hours’ work.

So it’s not how long you sit at a desk that determines the value you generate. It’s the energy you bring to those hours that is important. The thousands of books on time management offer a misplaced emphasis on the one thing you can’t really manage: time. Energy management and energy renewal are more important if you want to elevate, or even maintain, your performance. Athletes know this, but when we’re using our brains rather than our bodies, we tend to forget.

So to become more productive you need to manage your energy, and make time for renewal. To become more effective, and work smarter, you also need to ensure you work on the tasks or projects that generate the highest value.

  • Busyness = continuous working, but getting very little done.
  • Productivity = getting lots done, but not necessarily the most important things.
  • Effectiveness = spending the right amount of energy on the right things.

Working smart, therefore involves the following five steps:

STEP 1: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT
Too often, the link between what you want to be doing, and what you actually do is fractured.
Spend a few moments thinking about your long-term goals. There’s no point accelerating if you’re going the wrong direction.

Once you know where you want to be, decide on you year goals and your quarterly goals. Where specifically will you be in three months time? Don’t forget to make your Q goals ‘SMART’.

STEP 2: APPLY THE 80/20 RULE
Based on your goals, now apply the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule is a commonly accepted principle used to explain uneven distribution, derived from the observation made by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, more than 100 years ago, that 80% of Italy’s land belonged to only 20% of the population.

If you apply the 80/20 rule to what you do each day:

  • 20% of what you do matters a lot and generates 80% of your results, or progress towards your goals.
  • 80% of what you do generates only 20% of your results.

“Slow down and remember this: most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness.”
Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Work Week.

  • Establish your most valuable tasks (MVTs) and least valuable tasks (LVTs), based on the 80/20 principle.

STEP 3: WORK MORE ON YOUR MVTS, LESS ON YOUR LVTS

Part of the challenge to working smart is to remain self-directed despite the urge to feel responsive. This means prioritising the work that generates the greatest value, based on your goals.

  • Plan between 1-3 MVTs each day. Any more than three, and you’re probably being unrealistic. Any less and you’ll likely fill your day with ‘busyness’, doing lots of things that don’t matter very much.

STEP 4: MANAGE YOUR ENERGY

To execute your most tasks best, you need to learn how to manage your mental energy and use your best hours for your most important work!

Most people feel their mental energy is highest in the morning, between about 9am and 12pm. Some people, instead, find they are most alert in the late afternoon, after about 4pm.

  • Start each day knowing which of your MVTs you want to complete and, if your best hours are in the morning, do your single most important task first. Try to get at least two of them done before lunch.
  • Stop replying to emails first thing. As soon as you start replying you’re using up your best few hours and you risk spending your highest energy on low-value tasks. You’ll also then and it harder to remain ‘self-directed’ for the rest of the day, as you’ve opened your cognitive door to other people’s needs.
  • Take more breaks. Just as your mental energy fluctuates predictably throughout the day (circadian rhythms), your energy also oscillates in 90-minutes cycles (ultradian rhythms). To stay at your best it’s important to have a break at least every 90 minutes.

STEP 5: FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION
Having energy isn’t enough to ensure you work effectively; you also need to stop trying to multitask!

Have you ever noticed that you turn down the car radio when you’re lost? Or maybe you’ve seen people stop walking in the middle of the street because their phone call suddenly required their attention? Multitasking is a myth. Your brain can’t multitask, it attention shifts, and if you engage simultaneously in two tasks that require even remotely complex thought or critical thinking, your performance suffers noticeably. It’s been estimated that multitasking causes your productivity to drop by 40% and that you make up to 50% more mistakes. So:

  • Turn off your email alerts, and turn off your email application when you’re not using it. Do you need multiple tabs and multiple applications open at the same time? Your relationship with technology may be preventing you from focusing on anything.
  • Manage other distractions, such as people, by setting boundaries or agreeing the best times of day for them to ask you questions.
  • Empty your mind once a week of all unattended tasks and mental clutter. Do a ‘brain dump’ of all the unattended tasks in, or on, your mind. This exercise will help you focus, improve your sleep, and allow you to work smarter every day.

SUMMARY

  • Figure out what you want, and the tasks or projects that get you there quickest.
  • Work more on your high value tasks, and less on your low value tasks.
  • Do your important work when your energy is high, and make more time for energy renewal.
  • Focus on one thing at a time, and eliminate distractions.

If you apply the tips above you will be able to get 8 hours work done in 6 hours – the equivalent of getting 12 months work done in just 9 months. Stay focused.