It's something we're all looking for -- the perfect solution that will minimize our work life while still getting the stuff done that we need to get done. Well, that one solution doesn't exist, but with a combination of strategies, you can get to where you want to be.
Now, none of these tips will turn your life around. But they can make a big difference, and when used together, your work life might just be enjoyable, productive, low-stress and high fun. And these tips won't work for everyone. They're not meant to be used as a step-by-step guide. It's a list of strategies that work -- choose your favorites and give them a try.
1. One goal. Set a single goal that you want to accomplish this year -- I know that we probably want to do 12 goals, but it's too difficult to maintain your focus on more than one goal, and it diffuses your energy. Pick one goal for the next 12 months, and then a single 3-6 month goal that will lead to your 12-month goal. Then choose something you can accomplish within the next 1-2 weeks that will lead to the 3-6 month goal. Now focus on that short-term goal, giving it all your energy, and when it's achieved, set your next short-term goal until you've accomplished your medium-term goal.
2. Find your passion. All the rest of these tips are just window dressing if you find work you're passionate about. If you're not in a job you love, start your quest to find that job now. You don't need to quit your current job right away, but start doing some research on the web, think about what you're really interested in, talk to others who are doing what you want to do. Make this your One Goal for this year, and it could turn out to be your best year ever.
3. Work from home. This is not a miracle solution, but it's something many people would love to do. And it's completely possible -- more people are doing it every day. Is it something you want to do? Give it some thought, and find a solution that works for you. You could telecommute for your current job -- plan your pitch to your boss today, making sure to focus on how it will benefit your company. Or you could find another job that allows you to work from home -- even if the pay is a little less at first, you will have reduced costs from not having to commute or eat lunch at work or buy expensive work clothes, and you will also have increased satisfaction.
4. Come in early. If telecommuting isn't your thing, try getting to work 30-60 minutes before the rest of the crowd. Or even more. This might require you to learn to wake up early, but the benefits are many: you skip the morning traffic, you can work without distractions until the rest of your coworkers come in, you can get a jump start on your day, you can be ahead of the crowd and get more done. Getting an early start is a great way to start your work day and to become more productive.
5. Work 4 days. If you can control your work schedule (or can convince your boss to change it), try working fewer days. Working four days a week not only gives you an additional day off, but it forces you to be more productive in the days you do work. Think about it: if you knew that you had to get your work done by the end of Thursday, you will focus more on what really needs to get done, and goof off less too. What would you do less? Email? Read stuff on the Internet? Chat? Play solitaire? Those unimportant things fade away when your time is limited.
6. Work 6-hour days. Same concept as above, but reconfigured. Personally, I'd choose the 4-day workweek, but that can't work for everyone. Get in early and leave even earlier -- imagine the 7 a.m.-1 p.m. work day. With focus, it can be done.
7. Work 20 hours. This might sound impossible. And if you are a full-time employee somewhere, it might be. But you could either 1) telecommute, and get your work done in fewer hours; or 2) work for yourself. Now, I'll admit that these options won't work for everyone, but they can be done. And I'll also admit that in working for yourself, you tend to work more hours, not fewer. But if you limit your hours to 20, it will force you to focus in the same what that working four days a week does. And if you focus on only those tasks that are truly important (see next item), you can get a lot done in 20 hours a week.
8. MITs. Each day, make a list with only three items: the three Most Important Tasks you want to accomplish today. Make at least one of them related to your One Goal. The others might be something you've been procrastinating on, or a big project that's due today, or something similar. Ideally, these MITs are really important tasks -- ones that will gain you longer-term recognition or income. Now focus on these, making sure to accomplish them. It's best to do your MITs first thing in the morning, before you get interrupted by a bunch of other things. If you do only three things today (you could choose more or less than three MITs, but I've found that three works for me), make it your MITs.
9. Batch process. There are usually a bunch of smaller tasks that we have to do that aren't that important. Email, paperwork, phone calls, things like that. Instead of doing those little things throughout the day, giving you busywork to interrupt and distract you from your important tasks, batch them together and do them at one set time each day. Write these tasks down on a small list, and with an hour left in your work day (or whatever works for you), start processing them as quickly as possible, ticking them off your list.
10. Telecommute 1 day a week. If you can't convince your boss to let you work completely from home, try one day a week. You could start out by calling in sick, but still getting a lot done from home. Or tell him you want to give it a try, just for one day this week, because you think it will make you more productive.
11. Freelance as a 2nd job. This is something I do, and I earn an extra $2,000 a month doing it. It's extra work, but it helps me to pay the bills (and pay off debt and save). Eventually, if you get good at the freelancing gig, you could make it your full-time work. To do this as a second job, set aside some time each day for freelance work. I've used early mornings (I get up an hour earlier and do one assignment), my lunch hour, work time (with permission), or evenings. If you could do 1-2 assignments a day, you will be making a decent extra income, and starting yourself down the road to working for yourself.
12. Brown bag it. This isn't life-changing, but I take my lunch to work every day -- leftovers or a sandwich, usually, with snacks such as fruits on the side. How does this help? Well, it saves me a lot of money (a few thousand a year) and it allows me to work through lunch, giving me time for that freelancing gig I talked about above or perhaps allowing you to leave work early.
13. Cycle to work. Again, not necessarily life-changing, but if you can commute even just a couple times a week by bike, you will save money on gas, reduce the stress of rush-hour traffic, and get your daily exercise done at the same time. A shower at work (or at a nearby gym) helps make this easier.
14. Take high-profile projects. If you just take the grunt work, your boss might or might not appreciate it, but it certainly won't make you a star and you won't go very far. Instead, volunteer for the big projects, the ones that will make a name for both you and your company. If there aren't any available, make your own. Be sure you can do them well, but if you do, these projects will have a huge impact on your life. The tasks on these projects should be your MITs every day. If you take on high-impact projects, you can be more productive working a half day than if you worked 10 hours a day on tasks that won't matter next week.
15. Automate your business. If you have your own business, or set one up on the side, find ways to make it automated as much as possible. Everything can be outsourced, from manufacturing to mailing to advertising to taking orders to customer support to credit card processing. Put your business front online, with online ordering, and give your outsourcers the ability to make decisions (with certain limits, following rules you set) without your approval, removing yourself from the bottleneck. If it's completely automated, your business will require minimal work from you once you've got it set up. Now all you have to do is check now and then to make sure things are running smoothly, and make sure your money is being deposited in your bank account. Nice.
16. Bank your raise. If you get a raise (and if you haven't in awhile, you need to make it happen by taking on high-profile projects and then asking for the raise), don't increase your spending. Take the raise and put the entire amount in the bank, making it automatically deducted from your paycheck or checking account and sent to a high-interest online savings account. Doesn't increase your productivity, but it can increase your financial stability.
17. Clear your desk. A messy desk might be the sign of a creative mind, but in my experience (I've tried both messy and now clean desks), having a desk that's clean is much more calming, much more productive, and more organized. Most importantly, it reduces visual clutter and allows you to focus on the task at hand, increasing your productivity. Clearing your desk can take a chunk of time, but it's worth it: take all your papers (everything!) and put them in your inbox, or in a pile if they don't fit. Now process through them, one at a time, from top to bottom, filing, acting upon, delegating, trashing each document or noting tasks on a to-do list for later (and filing the to-be-acted-upon documents in an action folder). Remove other knick knacks and put any office supplies or tools in a drawer (and empty out your drawers while you're at it). From here on out, everything goes in your inbox, and you process it to empty every day using the steps outlined here.
18. Granularize. If a project or task seems too intimidating, split it into smaller tasks, and just focus on the first task you need to do. For example, instead of "Research report", just find three sources on the Internet. You can read each of these sources and take notes after that.
19. Delegate. Get out of the habit of thinking you need to do everything yourself. Relinquish control and learn to trust others. If you don't think a person can handle a task, take the time to train him to do so. It will save you tons of time and headaches later. And by delegating, you empower others while shrinking your to-do list, leaving you to focus on what's really important.
20. Eliminate. Your to-do list is a mile long. You'll never be able to do all those things. Cut it in half by crossing out stuff that doesn't really need to be done, or delegating others. And from that list, just choose the three most important things that you need to do today. Get in the habit of eliminating as many of the tasks and processes you normally do as possible, and your work life will be greatly simplified.
21. Clear distractions. In addition to clearing your desk, you can allow yourself to focus more by eliminating all distractions: email or IM alerts, Twitter, other websites (in fact, turn off the Internet), phones, visual clutter around you or on your walls. Wear headphones so your coworkers interrupt you less, or let them know that you're not available right now. Focus more, and you'll get more done.
22. Kill meetings. One of the biggest time-wasters in our work lives. Most of the time, a meeting could have been accomplished with an email or a phone call. Beg out of meetings (or if you're the boss, eliminate them) by claiming you have a project due that you need to work on. Then be very productive during the time you would be at the meeting, and show your boss how much you got done.
23. Email once a day. Don't do email throughout the day. Set one time during the day to process email, then crank through it, getting your inbox to empty (use the same steps in "clear your desk" above). If you check email throughout the day, you are allowing yourself to be distracted and at the mercy of anyone who sends you a request. And by sending out emails all day, you are generating even more responses in return, compounding the problem. Batch process, and you will get a lot more done. Same applies to reading your RSS feeds and checking your blog stats and reading your forums.