Snowed under? Are you working hard or hardly working?

Snowed under? Are you working hard or hardly working?

An organisation comprises a range of personalities and moving parts somehow working together creating a cohesive output.

At every level of every organisation we see room for improvement – perhaps none more so than our very own output. So what is the difference between working hard, and working really effectively?

Mental space

When you imagine someone who is hardworking you think of them working long hours, full of concentration and focus, maybe whiteboard full of projects all at varying stages, and likely taking work home, too many mental demands, and sadly too busy to take time off to enjoy life.

How much more effective can we be with mental space? Instead of burrowing down an avenue of action, with a bit of breathing space you can actually question which is the correct avenue of action without charging towards it. Mental space is what gives people the chance to enjoy work, to be creative and to produce new and interesting work. People who are ‘working hard’ by smashing out along the harder/faster/longer can get stuck in a groove of using the same solutions for each new problem.

It’s almost paradoxical for hard-working people to think that working slower could produce better results.

Another way of gaining mental space is to try and take that meta-view of the work that you do. Are their inefficiencies in what you do? Could you automate some elements of processes that you undertake most days, or weekly? Again, this is a kind of problem-solving perspective that is really hard to achieve if your approach is to work with full adrenaline from the time you start work to the time you finish each day.

Focusing on what is important

We all know how much it helps to prioritise your work. The biggest and easiest improvement that people can make in terms of prioritising is to write down the 1-3 ‘must’ actions/tasks that need to take place each day and commit to complete them. Distractions are part of working life. We have all had that early morning phone call that turns our entire day on its head – but you can keep your head above water by making sure the essential actions get completed.

Note – this is really different to writing a full to-do list every day. Most people have a daily to-do list that requires many more hours than they have at their disposal. The purpose of the two or three priority action list is that it is achievable. It means that you stay on track despite distractions. It also means that you can feel a sense of completion and satisfaction every single day, rather than disappointment that you only made it to item six of a very long list.

Being reliable – the social element

Control of our working day is something we all seek but rarely get. But what gives you a feeling of control? Sometimes it comes via social channels – the affirmation and pleasure that you feel when you help out a colleague by delivering as you promised. The alternative is to make promises, and then see that look of frustration in their eyes as you say “Sorry! I’m snowed under, will have it to you tomorrow.”

Strangely, it is the harder working person that is more likely to let down colleagues. Their inclination to take on all tasks means that they spread themselves incredibly thin. When thinking of your own productivity you need to keep in mind what is motivating and rewarding. Social rewards are among the most powerful for our minds, so when you can finish a day knowing that people have relied on you and you have delivered, it really builds confidence to start the next day with enthusiasm.

Smiling – it’s contagious

Nothing shows control of a situation like a broad, confident smile instead of a furrowed brow. It’s great to be someone, and/or work with someone who smiles and looks to be enjoying themselves. As humans it is within our nature to do things for the sake of ‘fun’. Some people work as though fun is not an option; that it is all far too serious to be smiling at any given point. This could be an early signal of impending burnout.

When you come across an organisation that is highly productive yet full of smiling faces, it is an incredible experience. As an individual it is really important to question how you can gain enjoyment out of your work and throughout your working day (without sacrificing productivity). For some people, hitting deadlines or making big sales is a kind of adrenaline rush that they live for. For others, we see work satisfaction as important. But, for many, it is just a case of being friendly and interactive with the people you work with. It has a great ripple effect through an office when people are warm and friendly to each other.

Understanding time slots and time taken

The most undervalued skill in personal management is being able to assess how long tasks will take. The classic situation is where a colleague or manager asks you to do a task, and because you are eager to please you inadvertently underestimate the time or effort involved in delivering it. This is a huge source of stress for many people, and it’s amazing to think that it’s often self-induced.

The other element of self-pressure that changes you from being someone in control to being someone under the pump is accidental double booking of your own time. An example here is where you have a project to complete before Friday, you also have four other smaller tasks that will take about half a day each before that. Instead of thinking you only have one day to finish the Friday task you feel as though you have four or five full days to complete.

There are many ways to get a better understanding of your time and how you allocate it, but the starting point is to realise that when you agree to do something, it almost always comes at the expense of something else. Time is finite, and many people put themselves under pressure by acting as though it is infinite.

Of course I’m in full encouragement of people working hard. It can be immensely satisfying. What this article is promoting is working hard and smart so that you can achieve satisfaction and enjoyment while also hitting deadlines and maintaining a strong rate of productivity.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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