How Successful People Work Less

It's time you started working smarter—not harder.
How Successful People Work Less

If your everyday workload regularly leaves you feeling frantic, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Over decades in the business world, I’ve observed thousands of different approaches to work and time management. The least successful approaches tend to leave people feeling pressured and overworked, while the best time-managers seem to accomplish more while actually working less—and they’re happier with their work, too. So what’s their secret?

There are five main attributes that tend to set these “super-workers” apart. Try integrating one (or all five) of these into your workflow, today.

1. Set Priorities First

Whether you do this before you go to bed or first thing in the morning, lay out the key things you must accomplish that day. Don’t give yourself a list that cannot be accomplished. Focus on just three to five things that will “move the needle.”

What is the first thing you do when you get to the office? That first hour at work is precious; it’s a time to start fresh, while your brain is rested and ready, and it can be incredibly productive and creative time. But many people start by reading and responding to email, and in doing so, they almost immediately lose control of their day. Starting with email can send you bouncing from one new “urgent” question or request to the next, wasting some of your best brain energy of the day on things that might not be all that important.

Instead, try to spend your first hour setting and pursuing your big priorities. Then take a quick break. Get up out of your chair and walk around, and give your body a chance to move and relax before you tackle your inbox. I like to say a quick prayer around this time as well, asking God to help me stay focused on what matters and to help me serve him with my time today.

Sometimes it helps to set a time limit for that first round of emails. I find that if I’ve given myself a set amount of time (maybe an hour or so, depending on the amount of emails you normally receive), I’m less likely to get bogged down or distracted unnecessarily. If you find yourself taking too long on any particular email, consider picking up the phone instead. Sometimes, a three-minute phone conversation can save you hours of work and distraction.

2. A Strong 80 Percent Is Usually Enough

I have worked with a number of people in senior levels who have a hard time pushing the “done” button. They keep working and worrying, trying to take every project to 100 percent perfection, when in most cases 80 percent is more than enough. This may be especially true in a collaborative environment where your work product (and the time it takes you) impacts others’ ability to do their jobs.

Stay focused on the big-picture goals and what you can do to move forward rather than getting bogged down on tiny details. The amount of energy and time you spend on that last 20 percent is almost never worth it. That’s why the people who focus on 80 percent seem to get twice as much accomplished. Yes, there are times when a project truly must be perfect, and in those instances, feel free to unleash the perfectionism! Just know that the vast majority of your work in a given day should not fall into that category. Know when to let something go and move on.

3. Limit Multitasking

My kids could tell you exactly what “multitasking” looks like for me. I almost never leave home without my phone, iPad, or paperwork with me. That way, if I’m waiting for them at an appointment, delayed on a flight, or stuck in a long line at the coffee shop, I can always use the time as effectively as possible.

Multitasking can quickly become counterproductive, however, if deployed in the wrong way. Your brain can only solve one problem at a time. Trying to direct your attention toward multiple problems at the same time might seem efficient, and it certainly feels busy, but in fact studies show that you make slower, worse decisions this way.

Multitasking also makes you a less effective communicator, and it is off-putting (not to mention rude) to others who catch you skimming emails when you should be focused on what they are saying. My daughter, Annie, broke me of this habit by helping me to realize I was not only being terribly disrespectful of her but I also wasn’t even really focused on the emails I was skimming. I was trying to put my brain in two places at once, in order to feel more productive, but actually I was accomplishing almost nothing, and I was creating interpersonal problems.

4. Get Comfortable with “No”

Many people struggle to say no when asked to take on new things, but you need to get comfortable with saying no if you hope to manage your time well. That might mean turning away from good things or worthy causes. The word no is crucial to effectively stewarding your God-given gifts, and it’s a part of God’s biblical example. On the seventh day of creation, God rested (Genesis 2:2). Creating was good, and I’m sure God could have continued, but when the time came he said, “no more.”

We can see the same sort of balance played out in the life of Christ. Jesus possessed incredible, miraculous powers, and he gave of himself generously, healing and teaching multitudes of people who sought him out. But he didn’t give indiscriminately; despite the enormous needs around him, there were times when Jesus sent the crowds away in order to pray, recharge, and spend time with close friends (see Matthew 14:22–23, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, and Mark 7:24 for some examples).

If something you are being asked to do or are considering doing doesn’t fit your strengths or priorities, your answer should be no if possible. In my book Work, Love, Pray, I shared how I was asked more than once to consider volunteering when my kids were young as a room mom in their classrooms. I love my kids, and I wanted to be involved in their school and lives, but I’m not creative in a crafty way, and I’m not gifted at organizing or planning parties. I could have done it anyway, and there was a part of me that was tempted because it’s “what moms do,” right? But knowing my strengths and weaknesses and time limitations, I said no to room mom requests and found other ways to get involved. In doing so, I honored my gifts and protected my ability to give my best to the work that God created me for.

5. Take Care of Yourself

If you want to accomplish more, make it a priority to nourish your soul, your body, and your mind. My family and coworkers might tell you I am not exactly a pro at this one; I mess up all the time. I feel so driven to be accomplishing things that I can easily fall into a trap of focusing on nothing else. To counteract that tendency, I’ve learned that I need to be involved with some kind of group Bible study, because while I’m not a good independent learning, I will consistently study the Word as a part of my responsibility to a group.

I also work out almost every day. This allows me to clear my head and, through physical exertion, reduce stress. I also set boundaries to allow for a good night’s sleep, and I try to nourish my body with good food. No matter how passionate you are about your work, or how much you want or need to accomplish away from work, your physical body has real limitations. Provide yourself with proper rest and fuel so that when you are working, you can go at full capacity.

I also try to make time to do something enjoyable and energizing. Find an activity you love, and give yourself the grace and the time to enjoy it. Trust me, it pays off.

It might seem counterintuitive to be focusing on yourself when what you want to do is get more done, but you’ll find that taking the time and space to build up a healthy body, mind, and soul will enable you to best serve the purposes that God has laid out for you. As you go forth in your workday, consider these principles. Who knows—soon, you may have people asking you how you get so much done!

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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