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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

4 Secrets to Getting More Done—Without Working a Single Late Night or Early Morning

Last Friday at 4:30 PM, I shut down my computer, cleaned off my desk, and went home. One of the items I tossed in the trash can before I left was my to-do list for the week: 150 items, all checked off. I didn’t work a single late night or early morning that week. And I even had time at home to make myself decent dinners, see friends, walk the dog, and watch too much TV.

Now, before you make any assumptions about the contents of my to-do list or the importance of my job in general, I should mention that during that week, I led a board of directors committee call, brainstormed a grant proposal for the USDA, met with a major foundation’s executive director, was introduced to a leading entrepreneur by a Microsoft executive, submitted three grant proposals, and received my annual performance review (which was very positive, by the way).

In short, I do a lot of work each week. How do I do it without having a nervous breakdown—and with time to spare? Here are a few tips.

1. Know What Needs to Get Done

Although it seems obvious, the things that stress people out the most are usually the things they didn’t know to expect. So, to start the week, review everything you need to do in detail. For instance, let’s say you know that a proposal is due on Friday, and it’s your job to do the narrative, but the finance team is responsible for the budget. To make sure the entire project gets completed on time, make sure to add “check in with finance team about budget” to your to-do list.

I’m pretty agnostic about tools for to-do lists; written lists work just as well for me as electronic solutions, like Evernote or Asana. But I do have a rule that the entire list needs to be in one place. You can segment and rearrange it all you like, but you should see everything that you need to do in a single glance.

2. Know What Needs to Get Done First

When I’ve supervised less experienced staff, I found that the biggest roadblock for them was not knowing how to prioritize and arrange their day.

For example, if there was a big project due the next week, they’d push full-steam ahead toward that deadline, despite the fact that they first needed to gather information from another department—information that could likely undo all of the work they’d done. And meanwhile, there were other, smaller projects on which they could have made real headway.

Your priorities may also shift based on your mood or schedule. For instance, if I am having a particularly uncreative day, I know it’d be more effective for me to prioritize a data project. If I’m in meetings for most of the day, I answer calls and emails between appointments rather than try to launch into something bigger in such a short timeframe.

You’ll be much more effective if you work with your priorities and restrictions rather than trying to resist them.

3. Ask for Help

If I’ve gained nothing else from working in nonprofits, I’ve learned that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. No one can do the work of an organization alone. If you don’t have the skills or time to get something done efficiently, it is your duty to ask for help.

Luckily, working for nonprofits, I can usually find a volunteer to help me with more mundane tasks. If I need a higher level of expertise, I pull out my address book and see if I know anyone who can suggest a solution. Recently, for instance, I was agonizing over an interim report for a donor. We were midway through a new program, so although I knew we had done a lot, I didn’t know how to convey that in the report form. So, I took one of my communications whiz friends out for a coffee, and she suggested focusing the entire report on stories from clients and how they interpreted the new program.

It was a breakthrough—one I never would have had on my own. The donor loved it and put me into touch with his communications department to publicize the program even more. Once I had the idea, it took me a week to finish the report—the same amount of time I’d spent worrying about it before I met with my friend.

4. Close the Loop

You know that satisfying feeling of checking something off your to-do list? It doesn’t just feel good; it’s an important way to indicate that you finished a task and can now move on to something else.

But before you move forward, you’ll want to make sure that you have a record of your completed tasks somewhere, so you can follow up if—ahem—others aren’t quite as efficient as you are. When I finish a grant proposal, for example, I always put a reminder in my calendar to follow up with the funder in eight weeks. By that time, most funders will have made their decisions, and if they haven’t, they might be interested in learning a little more about the organization. Likewise, your boss may not get back to you about a project for a few weeks if you leave it up to him, but a prompt after a few days can get him to take a look sooner.

I am a firm believer in working smarter, not harder. My job is too important to me and the people that my organization serves to accept anything but the best. But I know from experience that running myself ragged by working 60-plus hours a week isn’t going to help anyone in the end. Working more efficiently means better results and a weekend—what could be better than that?

Photo of relaxed man courtesy of Shutterstock.