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During the 1990s, I worked for a local accounting firm. The culture there was such that those who wanted to impress the partners and move up worked long hours. This included most weekends, especially Saturdays. Those who were really dedicated also worked on Sunday.

One Sunday I came into the office to get something I had forgotten. I was not surprised to see that several of the partners who were the most hawkish on hours were there working. What was surprising was the fact that most them had the football game on in their office. While they were “at work” they were clearly not working very hard.

It took several years but I did make some progress – at least with most of the partners – in distinguishing the difference between being at work and marginally productive and getting work done in a timely and efficient manner.

I remember a conversation with a consultant who worked for me. He had a budget to deliver 1200 hours at a billing rate of $100 per hour. He asked me how many hours he needed to work to achieve the goal. My answer was that if he could get someone to pay him $120,000 for working one hour, he could take the rest of the year off.

It’s not unusual even today, for me to encounter business owners and supervisors who reward their employees based on how long they work each day rather than how much the employees get done. They manage based on a paradigm that if I can’t see them working, they aren’t working.

Time spent at work, particularly in the modern business world of automation, does not necessarily lead to productivity. Quite often, if you have a project that requires strong concentration, you may be more productive finding a place to work outside the office where you won’t get interrupted.

Productivity and efficiency are essential in our culture where time is always at a premium. In fact, I will always take an employee who works hard and smart over one who finds a way to extend their work to fill the day.

For example, early in my management career, I had an employee whose job it was to open the mail each day for a larger processing operation. On President’s Day, I was surprised to see that she was opening mail. I asked her why she was opening mail on a day when there was no mail delivery. She replied, “Oh, I saved half the mail from yesterday so that I would have something to do today.”

Not surprisingly, her career in my department was short-lived.

Working smart is not just about managing your time. It requires the ability to plan your day in such a way that you do the most productive things at the right time of day. It also requires that you manage interruptions and that you maintain continued focus on tasks until they are done.

The number of interruptions we get each day can be overwhelming. Unmanaged they can lead to limited productivity.

I really don’t understand why some people consider it a badge of honor to respond to every text, phone call, and email immediately. I am guessing that it may be because it gives them a sense of their own importance. But it also decreases their productivity. You can’t concentrate and function at a high level if you allow every text, phone call and email to interrupt what you were working on.

The point of this article is to work hard and smart. Concentrate completely on your work when you are working. Work without interruptions and takes breaks periodically to stay fresh.

Here are some concrete suggestions on how you can work hard and smart to increase your productivity:

  1. As touched on above, don’t let texts, phone calls, and emails interrupt you. Manage them by taking a break every two to three hours and addressing the important communications. Unless you have lost control of your life, there are very few crises each week that you need to respond to immediately.
  2. Focus on substance over style. Eliminate long reports that no one reads. I have had great success with requiring each employee to write an email each month. These emails are less than two pages documenting their successes and issues for the month. This is a far better method than having them prepare long reports that are not read.
  3. Model productivity. Demonstrate to your employees that the key is to get your work done efficiently. Reward those who are efficient and coach those who need improvement. Employees who spend more time with their families or doing things they enjoy are happier and also are likely to work for you much longer.
  4. Instead of having meetings in your office, go to the office of those you are meeting with. When you are in their office, you always have the opportunity to leave when the substance of the meeting is complete. If a meeting is in your office, it can be more difficult to get people to leave once the main topic is covered.
  5. Better yet, have standup meetings in the hallway or in the aisle. Most people don’t like to stand for more than fifteen minutes. As a result, standup meetings tend to take much less time.

Remember, efficiency means working smart and hard. It requires strong focus on the task at hand. This means managing interruptions and limiting the time spent responding to texts, emails and phone calls to two to four times per day.

Efficiency also means that when you work, you work hard and with strong focus. When you play or are with your family, put work aside. Don’t be checking your emails and returning phone calls when you are spending time with your family. All time with your family should be quality time.

Time may be the most valuable currency of the human life. Use it well. Work when you work, and play when you play. Don’t allow distractions to get you off focus. If you can increase your personal productivity, you will be rewarded with more time to devote to the things you enjoy the most.
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