Work smart

The exams are over and it’s now time to take a breather. Or is it? Most of you have been on study leave and it’s now back to work. To help you all young professionals out there work more efficiently and effectively I propose a few points which I chose to follow and in essence NOT do.

‘Not-to-do’ lists are often more effective than to-do lists for upgrading performance. The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.

• Do not email first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia. Email can wait until 10am, after you’ve completed at least one of your critical to-do items.

• Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time. If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you can best prepare and make good use of the time.

• Do not check email constantly — ‘batch’ and check at set times only. Focus on execution of your top to-do’s instead of responding to manufactured emergencies. Set up a strategic auto-responder and check twice or thrice daily.

• Do not over-communicate with low-profit, high-maintenance partners. There is no sure path to success, but the surest path to failure is trying to please everyone. Do an 80/20 analysis of your customer/business partner base in two ways – which 20% are producing 80%-plus of my profit, and which 20% are consuming 80%-plus of my time?

• Do not work more but prioritise. If you don’t prioritise, everything seems urgent and important. If you define the single most important task for each day, almost nothing seems urgent or important. Often it’s just a matter of letting little bad things happen (return a phone call late and apologise, pay a small late fee, lose an unreasonable customer, etc.) to get the big important things done. The answer to overwhelm is not spinning more plates – or doing more – it’s defining the few things that can really fundamentally change your business and life.

• Do not carry a mobile phone 24/7 (as emphasised in my column last month). Take at least one day off of digital leashes each week. Turn them off or, better still, leave them in the garage or in the car. I do this every Saturday, and I recommend you leave the phone at home if you go out for dinner. So what if you return a phone call an hour later or the next morning?

• Do not expect work to fill a void that nonwork relationships and activities should. Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.” Review Parkinson’s Law (the adage that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’) and force yourself to cram within tight hours so your per-hour productivity doesn’t fall through the floor. Focus, get the critical few done, and get out. Emailing all weekend is no way to spend the little time you have on this planet.

It’s hip to focus on getting things done, but it’s only possible once we remove the constant static and distraction. If you have trouble deciding what to do, just focus on not doing. Different means, same end.

• Pantelis C. Fouli is ACCA qualified and an ACCA Advocate and Student Mentor