Work Smarter — Be More Productive With Your Time

I’m guessing you’d like to be more productive than you currently are. I’m also guessing you’d like to be more creative as well. The thing is what you do to get better at one is often the exact thing that makes the other harder to do. Improving your productivity probably sets up conditions under which creativity is not at its best and vice versa.


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This is a topic I come back to from time to time and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately. I thought I would consider two topics, time and routines, each from the perspectives of productivity and creativity.

Today I’ll talk about time and productivity and next week I’ll talk about time and creativity. In the weeks after I’ll do the same with routines.

Limits in Time

You may remember in early April I talked about how have you to put in a consistent effort if you want to be successful. I said you have to show up and work hard every day no matter how you feel, but there’s only so much time you can squeeze out of any day or week.

At some point you bump up against the limits of time. There’s a limit to how many hours any of us can work. I might work 50 hours in a week where you might be willing to work 70. A third person might hit 40 hours exactly and call it a week.

The specific number isn’t important. What’s important is there’s a limit to how much time any of us can work and let’s face it, we usually can’t sustain the maximum hours we can put up with for long. At some point you have to work smarter and not more hours.

The situation is similar with effort. You can only put in so much effort before you have nothing left to give. We all have limits to how much energy we have, at any moment, over the course of a day, week, or month. Like time, the limits of effort will be different for different people and at some point you have to work smarter instead of harder.

Work Smarter Through Processeses

I think the first step in working smarter is getting better at what you do. The more you write, the more you design, the more you develop, the better you’ll get at each and the more you’ll be able to get done in the same amount of time.

Devote some time every week to improving your knowledge and skills and you’ll consistently find you can do more in less time. Beyond getting better I think the best way to work smarter is to develop processes for most everything and optimize each where you can.

You can identify parts of the process and optimize them individually. For example my writing process has several distinct parts from brainstorming ideas to publishing the finished content.

One way I optimize the idea generation part of the process is to find better ways to capture ideas when and where they come to me. I have several apps that sync between phone, tablet, and laptop so wherever I am when an idea strikes I can record it and later move it into my collection system.

It doesn’t make writing a draft any easier, but it does lead to less time having to come up with new ideas when I need one. It optimizes one part of the process.

You can also optimize the process as a whole. Identify the parts that overlap so you can work them together. One reason I’m writing more series this year is because the research overlaps. The amount of time it takes to research a topic to write four posts isn’t four times as long as the time it takes to research one post on the same topic.

Writing the series is working smarter, because I can finish more posts in the same amount of time. It is more time than researching one post, but far less than the amount to research four separate posts.

When designing a site for a client I send all deliverables as prototypes and I continue to iterate them based on client feedback. I deliver and improve working web pages. By the time my client has approved the design, a significant amount of development is finished.

I can take code from the prototype for the production site and often the two end up being the same or nearly the same. I combine design and development in a way that allows me to complete one while working on the other.

You’ll probably find it easier to optimize the components at first, but watch for the larger patterns that will show you how to optimize the whole process too.

Reuse and Automate Where You Can

When you look at your process in terms of its component parts you’ll probably find some of the parts can be reused over a project or across different projects.

Find these patterns and set them up for reuse. Don’t forget to improve them the same way you should work to improve everything else. Time you spend making a single reusable pattern better is time spent improving many projects at once.

Ultimately this leads to the use of frameworks and component and pattern libraries. They increase efficiency since they don’t reinvent the wheel on every project. You don’t have to use someone else’s framework or library. You can develop your own.

For example do you always set up a client or project directory with the same subdirectories and standard files? Automate the creation. Set up a script you run through the command line or keep a copy of your project folder template that you can copy and paste.

Take advantage of tools like TextExpander that let you type out large blocks of text with a shortcut. Use editors with code completion or add Emmet, which similarly expands shortcuts.

I have a snippet set up in TextExpander for the basic HTML structure of a web page, from declaring a doctype to the closing </html> tag. I type ;html and it expands to the entire structure. It may not save a lot of time, but it adds up, especially as I have other snippets to expand to other patterns of code for navigation bars, different layouts, and similar.

I can type a handful of short commands in a minute or two and have it all expand to the basic structure of a web page that might have taken a half hour to type out.

Anything you do that you’ll do again is ripe for automation. Find the repeated work and think about which of it can be extracted and abstracted for reuse

Do One Thing That Serves Multiple Purposes

I’ve always thought that multitasking is complete garbage and I’m probably someone who most people think of as a multitasker. It’s not uncommon for me to have the TV and stereo going while I’m working out a color scheme.

I might have a podcast playing through the headphones while I’m creating notes for a post and keeping an eye on my forum. I always have a number of apps and a number of projects going at the same time.

The truth is I’m not doing any of those things at the same time. Neither is anyone else who thinks they’re multitasking. All but one of the things calling my attention will be background noise while I work on the remaining one. I’ll bounce back and forth between them all, but my attention is only ever on one thing at a time.

I prefer what I call multipurposing or doing one thing that serves multiple purposes. For example writing here doubles as a way to improve my knowledge and skills as a designer, a developer, a freelancer, and a writer, while also leading to published content that can attract people to the site and maybe hire me or buy a book.

At the start of the year, I knew very little about SVG. I had been through some basics and found them relatively easy to understand, but it had been a long time and knew I’d need to learn from scratch.

By the end of the year I’ll know how to work with SVG fairly well. I’ve written two series (15 articles) so far and have two or three more series planned for later in the year and possibly into next year.

I wanted to learn something new and I wanted to have something to publish here. I choose a topic I wanted to learn about and learn well enough to teach someone else. The result is an increased understanding of the topic and some published content all for a similar amount of work and time than doing either separately.

I also have some ideas for future designs that will lean on SVG. By the time I’m ready to put my ideas into practice, I’ll understand more than I need to about SVG and the knowledge will likely generate new ideas as well.

I use the same time to accomplish multiple goals at once. The trick is having processes and understanding where parts of one process or project overlap with parts of another so they can be worked together.

You want to go into the work knowing that it needs to serve two different things. Knowing in advance allows you to tweak your approach so you can serve both. Regularly stepping back to see your work at the big picture level will help in finding the overlapping items.

Understand Yourself and Know When You Work Best

Just as important is to know yourself. You can easily find tips that say an organized desk will make your more productive or taking a nap at just the right time will make your more efficient. I have no idea if either of those are good ideas, but I think it’s silly to think we all respond to the exact same things.

We’re all different and while we certainly respond to some things in similar ways, a better approach is to know yourself and understand what conditions make you more efficient.

You might have more uninterrupted time in the morning and early afternoon. You might find you have the most creative energy after midnight and mid morning all you can handle is mindless busy work.

Organize your schedule around your time and energy patterns. I’m more creative early in the morning and late at night. In the middle of the day I run low on mental energy and I can best deal with mindless busy work. I find I can do analytical work at any time of day.

I don’t try to do high mental energy work during times when my mental energy is drained, usually right after lunch. I also don’t schedule busy work for times of the day when my focus and energy are typically high. I would waste the time and energy balance for lack of a better phrase. One reason I like planning further ahead is because it allows more flexibility to reschedule any given day.

Again my writing process has distinct stages. Each requires different amounts of time and different amounts and types of mental energy. On most days I can set the conditions for any of those kinds of energy to be available. I understand myself well enough. Some days I can’t and can only work certain parts of my process. I simply won’t have the energy for anything else.

Maybe I don’t have the energy to write the draft for an article, but I can proof another one. Because I work the process instead of the article, I have many, many, many, and many written projects started. Most are little more than an idea. The next largest group adds outlines and sketches for what I’ll write. A few less have notes and so on until the very few that are just about ready to publish.

On a day when I only have energy for research I can work on ideas needing research and pull them along to the next stage. Naturally there are points where I’ve committed to publishing something on a specific day and I can’t avoid working on it. I can still make the most of my time and energy balance for everything else.

I’m far enough ahead of schedule to be able to take a day or two off any time I want and still stay on schedule. I can skip what I’m committed to if the time and energy balance isn’t there for a day.

It may not seem efficient to work on something I don’t plan on publishing in the near future instead of working on something I will, but I get more done overall this way. I’m not writing an article this week to publish next week. I’m working a process that can produce some number of articles per month.

Knowing this, when I do have the energy for writing a draft or working through a high level edit I do those things. I know the energy won’t be there every day so I make sure to take advantage of it when it is. This might and often does mean changing my entire day’s schedule based on how I feel that morning or afternoon.

Knowing yourself lets you maximize how efficiently you and your system mesh. You don’t have to do things the way I do them, but I’m sure there’s a way you can make your time, energy, and schedule fit together better. Understand yourself. Know what you need in order to work effectively and productively and optimize your schedule with your time and energy balance.

There are always exceptions. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. A client calls with a project on Monday and needs it finished by Thursday. Something time sensitive needs to be completed so you may have to work on it during less than optimal times given its priority.

That’s ok. Unless you’ve reached a point where 100% of your time needs to go to one project, you’ll have some flexibility to schedule it as optimally as possible and then schedule your remaining work around it, again as optimally as possible.

Best is to get ahead of your schedule when you can. If you do, you’ll find you won’t bump up against time crunches as often as you might now. Where you can, schedule things in a way best for you.

Closing Thoughts

When you aren’t getting enough done, your first thought is probably to work more hours or to work harder in the hours you set aside for work.

Both working more and working harder have limits. There’s only so much time in a day and we all have limits on how much energy and how much of a specific type of energy we’ll have over any time frame.

At some point you can’t work more or harder. You have to work smarter. Develop processes and optimize them at both the component and overall process level. Modularize, automate, build reusable parts. Spend the same amount time on working on something you’ll use again and again.

Learn to see where processes, projects, and tasks overlap and put multipurposing to work. Spend time on one thing that can serve multiple purposes. Step back and look at the big picture of your work and schedule. The overlap might be with something you weren’t planning on working on for a few months, but overall you’ll be more productive to work on it alongside something now.

Most of all know yourself. We’re all different. The specifics of what works for me may or may not work for you. Learn when you work best and understand your time and energy balance. Figure out what conditions are needed to work on different tasks so you can schedule your work in tune with how you feel at any particular moment.

This all gets easier if you get further ahead of schedule. Being ahead will allow you to be more flexible in how you schedule your work and how you can change it to adapt to the day’s circumstances. You can get a lot done even on days you don’t have energy when you have more options for doing more types of work.

I’ve been talking about time only from the productivity side. Of course, there’s another side to this topic. Sometimes you don’t want to get as much done as possible or use your time in the most efficient way.

Sometimes wasting time is the best way you can spend your time. I’ll stop there and hold off on the details until next week when I talk time from the perspective of being more creative.

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2 comments

  1. I largely prefer to work during the morning right after I wake up or after work in the evening.

    One thing that kills me is I tend to eat too heavy in the evening and I can’t sleep well at all. So I am having to force myself to control my portions. When I sleep better, I just feel better in every way possible and it is easier to concentrate. I also experience better creativity.

    • I think we all have different ideal times to work based on our other habits and routines. It’s good understand when you work well and on what.

      One thing about the food. Just eat a bit or two less than you usual do and get used to the new amount. Then cut another bite or two as needed. Smaller changes usually stick more than larger changes.

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