There was a time when our society honored the busy. We equated being short on time with being important. And we believed that those hyper-productive people, always checking email or sprinting from event to meeting to errand, must be the most successful.
However, things have been changing over the past few years, thanks to writings like Tim Kreider's "Busy Trap." The new mantra for business leaders and entrepreneurs today is how to work smarter, not harder. As a CEO with a Type A personality, history of panic attacks and fatigue-induced fainting, this backlash against busyness couldn't have come at a better time.
Over the past year, I have been making a concerted effort to improve my work habits as a way to improve both my productivity and well-being. Here is some of the sage advice that has worked for me so far:
1. Try to do more of the things that interest you
New research from Duke University offers scientific evidence for a pretty basic premise: when you are interested in your work, you are more likely to be successful and avoid burnout. "Our research shows that interest is important in the process of pursuing goals. It allows us to perform at high levels without wearing out," said Paul O'Keefe, who conducted the studies as a doctoral student in Duke University's Department of Psychology & Neuroscience.
The takeaway is to focus on those goals that you find interesting and personally significant. Whenever possible, delegate or outsource whatever tasks you find boring.
2. Learn to say no
I have always taken it upon myself to make sure everyone else is happy. It was so much easier to say 'yes' to requests than 'no', and that's why even when my schedule was packed full, I would take on one more thing for someone else.
However, at some point you need to learn how to decline opportunities and start saying no, whether it's to friends, family members, volunteer organizations or colleagues. Your objective should be to take on only those commitments that you have time for and that really matter.
3. Make a decision and move on
Indecisiveness is one of the major roadblocks to productivity. Every time you hesitate and waver on a decision, you're simply wasting time and mental energy. More importantly, if you wait too long, things will happen to you rather than because of you.
When you find yourself succumbing to indecision, think about why you can't make the decision right now. What will be so different about tomorrow when it comes to this decision? If there's no good answer, then just make a decision and move on. You can always recover from a bad one. The key is to keep moving forward.
4. Don't get stuck in the details
It has taken me years, probably decades, to realize just how unproductive the quest for perfection really is. Perfectionism is just a form of procrastination: you let projects take too long by getting hung up on all the small details. Meanwhile, the competition is running circles around you.
I've found that I am much better off by pressing onward with a project, getting it 80-90 percent completed and then revising things after I've launched it to the world. In this sense, I think about Facebook who has created a hacker culture of agility ("move fast and break things").
Mark Zuckerberg explained it this way: "Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once...We have the words 'Done is better than perfect' painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping."
5. Take more breaks
I am sure you have experienced times when you were working hard and concentrating on a task, but then after an hour or two, you started to tire and lose focus. I used to try to power past this fatigue, but that strategy got me nowhere.
I have since learned of a natural phenomenon called the Ultradian Rhythm, which basically indicates that the human mind can focus on any one task for 90-120 minutes. After that, a 20-minute break is needed in order to recharge to get back to high performance and attention for the next task. I now make a point to step away from something when I begin losing focus, and I no longer give my husband a hard time about taking short naps in the day.
The bottom line is I'm still learning that there's a difference between busy and productive. Instead of wasting time on menial tasks or thinking things to death, I am choosing to do things differently now. I would love to hear your ideas on reaching that important goal of 'working smarter, not harder.'