It’s Not On Your Side

Make the most of every precious hour at work, because working smarter and more efficiently is more important than ever.

The average American works nearly 47 hours a week, according to a recent Gallup poll — that’s the highest level in almost 15 years. For salaried employees, that number ratchets up to 49 hours a week. And an extra-zealous cohort of worker bees — 21 percent in all — report working 50 to 59 hours a week.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider that even just an average employee is working almost a full extra day a week. Which raises two thought-provoking questions: Why do so many workers feel like there’s never enough hours in a day to do their jobs? And what can be done to alleviate that seemingly endless run on the workplace hamster wheel, with no end point ever in sight?

Pauline Larkin, a corporate training and development consultant and the owner of Pauline Larkin Consulting, has some answers. For 17 years, she’s been coaching up executives and employees in a variety of areas, including time management (or personal management, as she prefers to call it). That work gives her a unique perspective on this issue.

“I definitely see that people are being asked to squeeze more and more work out of the time they spend on their jobs,” Larkin says. “There have been many layoffs, but the work doesn’t stop … workers are like deer in the headlights because there’s so much coming at them, especially if their roles have been enlarged to do the work of former colleagues.

“I really see the work/life balance getting crunched, too,” she adds. “It’s hard for people to find time to recharge, and it’s difficult to be energized at work if you never have time to refresh or refocus.”

Banish the to-do list

OK, so admitting there’s a problem is the first step toward fixing it. So, what’s next? Well, unless you suddenly become a master of time, space and dimension, there’s no way to create, say, a 32-hour workday. So, clearly, more efficient use of existing time is the key. For starters, Larkin suggests doing away with — or at least drastically reassessing — the time-honored to-do list, that agenda of tasks that so many of us jot down each morning, then ruefully assess before we leave work.

“It’s not the right tool for today’s workplace,” Larkin asserts. “The to-do list is usually just a safe place to do a brain dump so you don’t forget anything. But there’s a big difference between vomiting from your brain a list of everything you need to do and actually compiling a prioritized, strategic task list.”

To strategically determine what’s most important, consider the essential items you need to deliver that day or week. That, in turn, will help you hone in on the tasks that will truly add value to your organization. Too often, workers pluck off the low-hanging fruit on their to-do lists because getting things done makes them feel productive.

“But you need to shake out that to-do list,” Larkin says, pointing to the so-called 80/20 rule as a valuable tool for prioritizing. (Also known as the Pareto Principle, the theory essentially contends that 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of your results.) “Pull out those 20 percent of the tasks that give you leverage (on providing value).”

Too often, people perform the easiest tasks first, thinking that perfect moment will arrive later in the day when they feel best equipped to tackle the tougher items on their lists. Reality check: That moment may never come. So suck it up and do the tough stuff first; break those tasks into 10-minute chunks to make them seem less daunting, she advises.

Email stands as another mammoth time suck. Typically, the first email you see becomes the most important thing to do at that moment. “But it probably has very little to do with your key priorities for that day or week,” Larkin notes. “People want that gratification piece … it’s almost a form of procrastination. Emails make us feel important. Plus fear and politics dictate how to manage email … you want to keep your boss happy (with quick responses).” Instead, strategically prioritize emails using that same aforementioned value-added criteria, she says.

Carving out time

Another time-saving strategy centers on effective use of electronic calendars commonly used by companies and organizations. Too often, people use the calendars to show only meeting appointments. But it’s a potential game-changer if you also block off time on your calendar to perform specific tasks, such as writing that report that’s due at the end of the week; doing so shows co-workers and managers that you’re not available for impromptu meetings or other interruptions.

“Use your calendar to make it visible to your team that you’re busy working on that 20 percent of the really important things,” Larkin explains. “Otherwise you’re a fair target (for more work assignments or meetings) if your calendar is empty and no one knows what you’re doing. It also gives you a valid reason to not drop what you’re doing to take on something else.”

On a broader level, it also pays huge dividends if you work with what Larkin calls “clarity of purpose.” Look at it this way: How many times have you spent a considerable amount of time doing one thing, only to find your manager/supervisor wanted you to do something else? No need to feel embarrassed; you’re certainly not alone.

Larkin’s advice on this point is simple: Go slow to go fast. It may sound counterintuitive, until she expounds on the concept. “We work in very fast-paced workplaces and can’t manufacture more hours,” she explains. “So it’s important to get clarity and plan carefully … instead of working on assumptions. Before you embark on particular tasks and projects, you need to get concrete clarity on exactly what needs to be done, so that in the limited time you have to work, you know you’re executing to the best of your abilities and there’s a match between your expectations and your manager’s expectations.

“Lack of clarity is where a lot of time gets wasted,” she continues. “And the funny thing is that no matter how busy we are, there’s always enough time to do something over — correct what was done wrong — even if it requires pulling an all-nighter. There’s just too much emphasis on doing things quickly and not enough on clarity. We all talk quickly and act quickly, but the language we use is full of ambiguity. So don’t be afraid to ask for specifics.”

The message is clear: It’s high time you retooled your to-do list, relied more on your electronic calendar and sought more clarity on assignments. Once you do that, you’ll find that working more efficiently and effectively is just, well, a matter of time.

About the Author: To contact Pauline Larkin, email her at


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