We all know that work involves, well, work. Even if you love your job, it can’t always be easy, and it can’t always be fun.
But, sometimes we want our jobs to be a little (or a lot) easier. We want to get our work done more quickly, to not feel overstretched or overwhelmed, and to have more time for the things we really love.
The good news is, there are ways to do that (without being a total slacker). Check out our favorite tips and tricks below for being more productive, removing things you don’t need to be doing from your to-do list, and overall making doing your job a much more pleasant experience.
1. Don’t Plan on Doing Too Much
Here’s a secret for you: Most to-do lists are way too long, which leads to overwork and stress when it doesn’t all get done. Instead, assume you can only get one big thing, three medium things, and five small things done a day (fewer if you have a lot of meetings). We’ve created a template to help you plan a more reasonable to-do list.
2. Focus on High-Reward Tasks
Focus the majority of your energy on those tasks that are going to create the biggest results. You’ll look like you’re doing much more, but secretly with less effort. This is often called getting the low-hanging fruit—the rewards you can achieve with the least effort.
3. Work in Sprints
It’s been said time and time again that the secret to getting more work done in less time is to work in bursts, with breaks in between. The intervals you choose will depend on your work and preferences, but, whatever you go with, set a timer, do your best to stay focused for that period of time, and then actually get up and take a break in between. You’ll feel more energized during your work sessions and ultimately be way more efficient.
4. Give Each Day a Theme
Do distractions keep derailing you from focusing on the actual important things? Use Jack Dorsey—the co-founder of Twitter as well as the CEO of Square’s—secret and try giving each day a theme. That way, when distractions come up, you know to either punt them to another day or, if you have to, deal with them quickly and get back on track.
5. Start With the Most Difficult Task
By getting the hardest thing on your plate out of the way first thing in the morning, the rest of the day will feel way easier by comparison. Plus, then you won’t waste mental energy all day thinking about this challenging thing you have to do.
6. Follow Your Energy
Everyone has certain times of the day when they’re more or less productive. If you schedule big projects during your energy downtimes, you’re making your work way harder on yourself. Instead, try mapping out your ideal day based on your energy levels.
7. Don’t Fight it When You’re Feeling Useless
Probably one of the hardest things to do at work is to force yourself to work hard when you’re really not feeling on top of your game. So, unless you have a pending deadline and absolutely can’t, put off that particular task and do something more suited for your mental capacity. Writer Katie Douthwaite suggests that this is a great time to get those boring, monotonous tasks knocked out.
8. Use Templates Whenever You Can
Why reinvent the wheel every time you have to do something? Have an email you have to write often? Use a template. Need to create a presentation? Use a template. Redesigning your resume? Use a template. You get the picture.
9. Set Up Canned Responses
Better yet, if you use Gmail, set these templates up as canned responses, so you don’t even have to leave your inbox to drop them in and send them off.
10. Set Up Auto-Text
If you’re often responding to messages on the go from your phone, make it easier on yourself by setting up auto-text. For example, “pitch” could expand to fill in your elevator pitch—meaning you don’t have to type the whole thing out every time on your tiny keyboard. Read here for more on how to set it up.
11. Or Don’t Type at All
You can also use your phone’s talk-to-text feature to more easily and quickly respond to messages. Productivity expert Alex Cavoulacos explains how she uses it to her advantage here.
12. Shorten Your Emails
We’re going to take a wild guess that answering emails takes up a lot of your time and energy. What if you made it all easier for yourself by setting a limit on how long each response can be? Obviously, some messages necessarily have to be longer than others, but challenge yourself to keep them under five sentences long (or even shorter!) as often as possible.
13. Just Have a Conversation
Long email chains got you down? When a conversation starts getting too convoluted, consider whether it would be easier to just hop on the phone or set up a meeting to talk it out. Sometimes a 10-minute conversation can eliminate hours of email messages.
14. Eliminate Follow-up Emails
Nothing makes answering emails harder than your inbox constantly filling up with follow-up emails from people you haven’t gotten the chance to respond to yet. So set up an auto-responder that lets people know you’ve received the message and will respond in due time—hopefully dissuading the eager beavers from constantly emailing you back. You could even include answers to commonly asked questions, to potentially help the messenger help herself (and prevent you from having to answer at all).
15. Employ the OHIO Strategy
How many times do you open an email, read it, and then leave it in your inbox to deal with later? Don’t do this! It’s actually taking up more of your time and energy to process it multiple times. Instead, follow the OHIO (only handle it once) strategy and deal with it immediately, whether that’s by deleting it, answering it, shooting it off to the right person, or, for larger messages that will require more time, parsing it out into tasks to put on your to-do list.
16. Get Rid of as Many Decisions as Possible
Decision fatigue is real—and it could be making your days way harder. To keep it from affecting your work, eliminate as many decisions as possible. This could mean wearing a work uniform so you don’t have to pick an outfit every day, bringing the same thing to lunch for a week, or setting up a standing meeting with your boss so you don’t always have to reach out asking for one. Whatever it takes to put a lot of your decisions on autopilot.
17. Stop Multitasking
This habit may make you feel like you’re getting more done, but it’s actually slowing you down and making your work harder than it needs to be. So do your best to focus on one task until it’s done, and then move onto the next thing. You’ll find your mind is clear and your work is better (and easier).
18. Leave Yourself a Cliffhanger
Sometimes the hardest part of work is getting started on something. So, make it easier to jump into a task by leaving yourself a cliffhanger. This means, if you’re dragging your feet starting a project, just start, do a little bit of it (even if it’s not your best work), and then leave it unfinished to come back to the next day. Getting going will be way easier once you already have somewhere to jump in.
19. Remove Something From Your To-Do List
Seriously consider each item on your to-do list to see if there’s anything that’s actually not important. This especially applies to things that keep getting put on the back burner. It’s worth asking yourself, “If I’ve been putting this off so much, is it really that necessary?”
20. Say “No” to Something
In addition to removing something from your plate, consider saying “no” a little more often to new asks. Obviously you can’t do this all the time to just get out of work, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed or you get an ask for something non-work related (like doing an informational interview with a friend’s kid), suck it up and say “no.” Here are some suggestions for how to say it nicely to your boss and to your friends.
21. Constantly Question Meetings
In case you haven’t heard, meetings can easily become a huge waste of time. Every time you schedule a meeting—even a recurring one—you should really be questioning whether it needs to happen at all, whether you’re alotting too much time for it, or whether you need to be in attendance. If you feel like the answer to any of these questions is “no,” consider adjusting (or talking to your boss to make sure you’re using your time as effectively as possible).
22. Have a “To-Don’t” List
To help yourself say “no” more and cut down on decision fatigue, start a “to-don’t” list—a list of things you should never waste your time doing. Check out these ideas to get you started.
23. Delegate Some of Your Work
Is there a task that you’re doing that you really, really dread, or that you feel like is really no longer part of your job description? Consider whether it would be worth delegating it to a more junior employee or, if you’re really drowning, whether it’s time to bring in an intern or new direct report. Here are some guidelines for figuring out when delegation is the right way to go.
24. Or Crowdsource It!
Writer Jennifer Dziura suggests crowdsourcing as a way to “make less effort for yourself while making clients and users happier.” In essence, it’s working along with the client or user to make proposals, presentations, and the like. To learn more about how it can play out in your everyday work life, check out her article.
25. Do a Work Swap
Have a task you’re dreading or really not sure how to handle? Ask a colleague in your department if she wants to swap! Basically, you send one of your least favorite tasks her way, and she sends one of hers to you. You won’t have to drag yourself through something you’ve been dreading, but the work will get done—potentially even better than you could have done it yourself; someone who hasn’t been aggravating over the assignment might quickly be able to see something you couldn’t.
26. Avoid Perfectionism (Except Where it Really Matters)
Putting pressure on yourself to make all your work perfect is not only stressing you out, it could be slowing you down and causing you to procrastinate finishing things because you’re worried they’re not just right. In some cases (big end-of-year report to your boss, copy that’s going out to the world) this sort of attention to detail is critical. But in others (sending an email to your colleague, getting a first draft of a presentation to your team), focusing on perfectionism is making your life harder than it needs to be.
27. Look for Ways to Streamline Processes
Is there a task that always takes you forever to complete? Something you feel like is way harder than it should be or something that is taking up far too much of your time? Rather than just trucking through it time and time again, see if there are any ways you can streamline these processes. Maybe it’s talking to other companies to see if they’ve found an easier way. Maybe it’s coordinating with other departments to see if they can help save you time or effort. (For example, is there something the engineering team might be able to quickly build you that would save you tons of time?)
28. Hire a Virtual Assistant for Small Things
We all have those menial things that take us hours to complete but could easily be done by someone else. If you don’t have someone in the company to delegate them to, consider hiring a virtual assistant to help you out. They can do anything from scheduling travel plans to proofing your reports to doing the tedious design work on your next presentation—pretty much anything you dread starting and really don’t have to be doing yourself. Check out efficiency expert Marissa Brassfield’s advice for figuring out if something is worth outsourcing.
29. Get Everything Super Organized
Your files. Your computer folders. The top of your desk. Your inbox. Take the time now to get organized so that finding the things you need is never the hurdle to getting started on a task. And hey, it can all be done in just 30 minutes!
30. Don’t Let Your Colleagues Interrupt You
Your co-workers probably mean well, but their constant stream of IM updates, quick questions for you about the latest project, or chit-chat about their weekends can seriously mess up your flow of focus, making it way harder to get difficult tasks done. Set up systems that alert your office mates when you’re in the zone—whether it’s a do not disturb message on your chat or huge headphones that signify that you’re not to be bothered—and communicate them clearly.
31. Take a Nap
See if you can sneak in a power nap during your afternoon slump. Even 20-30 minutes of shut-eye can give you more of an energy boost than coffee could, improve your mood, enhance your analytical and learning abilities, and banish stress—making the rest of the day much easier and more pleasant. So shut your door, sneak off to your car, or do whatever it takes to get in a quick bit of sleep.
By Erin Greenwald