What does it mean to be efficient?
Based on Meriam Webster's dictionary (n.d.) word "efficient" could be defined as" capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or materials)". Therefore it is not surprising that being efficient is highly valued both by organizations and individuals.
Traditionally, work efficiency was investigated from the employers' perspective to decrease costs and improve performance overall. However, nowadays, we know that work efficiency could be beneficial also for employees, both at the professional and personal levels.
Why is work efficiency important?
Work efficiency is directly related to productivity. Improving the workflow will result in better results and profit, which is important for organizations and employees, both.
Furthermore, one of the ways to achieve work-life balance is by improving work efficiency. It is essential to objectively estimate when our plate is full from needing better organization. If your time management skills are poor, you will get overwhelmed and stuck. Being efficient does not necessarily mean that you will work more for the same amount of money (at least that should not be the case), but rather that you will have a chance to improve your work and enjoy it more, and yes, you will get free evenings, weekends and vacations. But how to become more efficient at work?
Habits to be more efficient at work
Although not an easy task, improving work efficiency is possible and worth doing. We already mentioned that work efficiency is not just related to better productivity (which your boss will certainly like) but also to better mental health.
Below are some proven ways for more efficient work. You should test and identify the techniques that work best for you.
- Set reasonable goals and break Up Large Tasks
We all love easy and fast solutions. Who wouldn't like to get fit in 4 weeks or become fluent in French in 2 months? Although we know (often from our own experience) that "fast solutions" are not realistic and won’t give us magic results, we still fall for them. Setting unrealistic goals will result in giving up and feeling embarrassed and disappointed. Therefore, it is important to set reasonable goals or to divide a big task into smaller ones.
- Ditch your digital devices
Unless you are monitoring your screen time, you’re probably not aware of how much time you’re spending on your devices. Yes, it is a lot, and you already know that time could be better used. However, you might not know that just checking your email or Facebook will negatively impact your productivity. You might spend 5 minutes checking social media, but you will need a few more to regain focus on the task that you were doing.
Try to use your phone only during the lunch break. You will probably realize that you didn’t miss anything. Also, instead of constantly checking your email, do it at the beginning and end of the work day. We are living in a time when urgency is often artificially created, but objectively, most of the time, you do not need to respond immediately.
Some studies (Rhee & Kim, 2016) suggest that using a smartphone, even during the break, unlike walking or talking with a friend, results in a lower reduction of emotional exhaustion. However, this study confirms that taking a break from work (even if you end up using your phone) is still important to help increase vigor and decrease emotional exhaustion.
- Learn to say "No"
One of the most important skills that you need to develop is assertiveness. Your (work) life will get much easier when you learn the power of "No." For each of us, that will mean different things, depending on our personality, current stage of careers, life circumstances, etc. However, there are also some situations where it’s perfectly okay to say no most of the time. If you do not have the capacity for a new task or project - say "No." If you do not want to work again during your vacation - say "No." It is scary at first, but it becomes easier. Also, setting boundaries will earn you respect.
- Take breaks
What we often forget is that taking breaks is essential for being productive and efficient. This might especially be the case when you are performing boring tasks or aren’t particularly motivated. Namely, it was shown (Sousa, cited in Bunce et al., 2010) that motivation directly affects the attention span of students. Expectedly, those who are more motivated hold focus longer while those who are not could only pay attention for 10 to 20 minutes. Therefore, the suggestion is that lectures should be divided into 15-20 minute long sessions. It is reasonable to expect a similar pattern of results also in the workplace (and some time management techniques, such as Pomodoro, work on a similar principle).
Finally, do not forget that you also need a vacation. For some people, being away from work for days or even weeks sounds almost traumatic, but in reality, taking a long break will help you rest and come up with new ideas and creativity. Some companies, such as Netflix, offer their employees an unlimited number of days of vacation, which should not only improve their performance, but they believe it could also be a good strategy for attracting new talent (Fritz et al., 2013).
Studies confirmed (for details, see Fritz et al., 2013) that taking vacations results in improved well-being and performance capacity. Moreover, not having a vacation in a few years is associated with increased cardiovascular risk. However, the effects of vacation are not long-lasting, which emphasizes the importance of regularly taking breaks during the workday as well as weekends, mental health days, etc.
- Let go of perfection
Perfectionism is ruining your life in several ways. Staying too long on tasks that are already done or even irrelevant will cause delays in finishing other tasks. Best case scenario, that will only negatively impact your performance. If it’s a recurring thing, you will gain a bad reputation, and people will (rightfully) avoid working with you.
Another way perfectionism could manifest is through procrastination. Being too afraid of outcomes might result in delaying or avoiding some tasks. Of course, the desire to do the job well is not bad, and you should try to improve your skills and work (after all, one of the basic psychological needs is competence) but be aware of the cost. Ironically, to improve, you need to try and make (a lot) of mistakes.
- Improve your environment
It might sound odd at first, but our environment greatly affects our mood and cognitive performance. Some studies (e.g., Lu et al.,2020) investigated the effects of light on work efficiency, mood, etc.
In recent years, the Danish concept of “hygge” (Wiking, 2017) has become more and more popular in the context of home decoration and increasing the level of well-being and happiness. Hygge could also be used for designing the workspace, whether it is a big corporation or just a small working corner for a remote worker. Like the previously mentioned study, hygge philosophy also emphasizes the importance of good lighting, creating a special corner (if the whole room isn’t available) for work, and adding objects that will enhance productivity (e.g., being surrounded by books if you want to write more).
- Tweak your time management practices
Even if your time management skills are good, there is always room for improvement. Testing and using new time management techniques could improve your work efficiency as well as your mood and well-being. After all, not being pressured by deadlines that you always miss will decrease your daily level of experienced stress.
Although there are many different time management strategies, they all emphasize planning and using available time more efficiently. Below we suggested some of the most well-known techniques but feel free to further explore, modify, and use only those that work for you:
Pomodoro technique - if you are looking for something simple yet effective, Pomodoro could be the right choice for you. Before starting some task, you should set the timer for 25 minutes and try to work on that task without interruption and distraction. After 25 minutes of work, whether you finished your task or not, follow a 5-minute break. You can repeat the Pomodoro cycle for as much time as you need.
If you finish your task earlier (e.g., answering an email), you can immediately go on to the next task without taking the break. Also, in some situations, you can keep working after 25 minutes (if you feel like you are in the zone, for example).
Depending on your attention span as well as the type of tasks you are doing, you might want to modify work and break intervals - and that is just fine. Time management techniques should help you be more efficient and not more stressed.
Finally, although Pomodoro is usually used as an individualized time management technique, some studies (e.g., Gobbo & Vaccari, 2018) confirmed that it might be effective at improving the work efficiency of teams as well.
Efficient people usually are very good at determining which tasks are important and urgent - and which ones are not worthy of wasting our time. The Eisenhower Matrix (Bratterud et al., 2020) is another simple technique that could help you plan and prioritize better.
By taking into account only two factors: importance and urgency, you should be able to organize your daily routine by putting tasks into 4 categories:
- Important and urgent
- Important but not urgent
- Urgent but not important
- Neither important nor urgent
Tasks in the first category are those that should be done immediately. The second group consists of tasks that should be delegated. The third group are tasks that you should do after finishing those in the first category. Finally, the fourth group are tasks that might not need to be done at all (unless you finish all of the above).
If you are already experienced in using time management techniques, you might want to try the Eisenhower Matrix and Sung diagram, which is slightly more complicated but based on similar principles to the Eisenhower Matrix (details can be found in (Bratterud et al., 2020)
5 minutes rule
If you are one of those people who are prone to procrastination, then you know that the hardest part is to force yourself to start. Once you start, you usually find out that you can easily finish the task.
The 5-minute rule is another really simple technique shown to be a very effective tool for many people. The goal is to set timers and work on tasks only for 5 minutes. You might think, "How on earth will just 5 minutes of work help me finish my annual report?" We won’t argue that 5 minutes is better than 0, even if that’s the truth. However, what happens for most people is that working for 5 minutes seems like a realistic goal, which probably minimizes pressure that prevents us from starting to work at all. Once we start, most of us just continue working for more than 5 minutes than initially planned. Try it and see if it also works for you.
- Steer Clear of Multitasking
Multitasking is still considered a superpower, and many people proudly state that they are good at it. Even certain positions and jobs demand multitasking. However, contrary to what you may think, multitasking does not result in more efficient work and higher productivity. Our brains have a limited capacity, and what we think of as simultaneously doing multiple tasks is actually shifting back and forth from one to another, which affects our speed and accuracy. One study (Enz et al., 2021) showed that multitasking negatively affected the speed and accuracy of pharmacy students in identifying prescription errors when also faced with handling phone calls. Interestingly, students' self-evaluation of their multitasking skills was not true to their actual speed and accuracy in a given task.
- Eliminate Distractions
We already mentioned the benefits of limiting time spent on your digital devices. However, they are not the only distractions we experience in the workplace. We all have at least one annoying colleague who keeps interrupting others by sharing not-so-important facts or even personal stories.
While socializing at work is important and good not just for your career but also for your mental health, unwanted interruptions will certainly result in poorer performance and elevated distress.
Again, setting clear boundaries also helps here. You can use even a simple trick to "signalize" to your coworkers that you now need focus. If you have your own office, an open or closed door will do the trick. In an open plan workplace, you can use your headphones or simply announce to others that you need to finish your report and eventually delegate some of the tasks. A chatty colleague is not necessarily intentionally annoying. Maybe they are just awkward about offering you help.
- Use a Kanban Board
Kanban Board (physical or digital) could help you track the progress of your work and improve work efficiency. Usually is used for the shared project, but you can make one for yourself.
Kanban boards have five essential elements: visual signals, columns, work-in-progress limits, commitment, and delivery points.
- Visual signals are usually stickers, cards, etc., containing information about particular projects.
- Columns further precise the workflow of current projects. They could show the progress of more specific tasks needed to complete the current project (defined by visual signals). One of the ways to label columns could be as: "work in progress", "completed task", "to do", etc.
- Work in progress limit defines how many projects could be active simultaneously. For example, it could be predefined to work only on two projects simultaneously. Knowing that our attention span and general capacity are limited, it makes sense not to start too many projects simultaneously (we already mentioned how lousy multitasking is).
- Commitment points refer to a backlog, i.e., all ideas the team has for new projects. Once the work-in-progress limit cleared out - the team could start working on something new.
- Delivery point - refer to the end of the kanban workflow. It represents the completion of some project.
If you need inspiration for the kanban board here, you can find some examples. Of course, your kanban board could also be more simple. What is important is to track your progress and improve your workflow.
Do you use some other strategies for improving work efficiency?
Bunce, D. M., Flens, E. A., & Neiles, K. Y. (2010). How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(12), 1438-1443.
Bratterud, H., Burgess, M., Fasy, B. T., Millman, D. L., Oster, T., & Sung, E. (2020). The sung diagram: revitalizing the Eisenhower matrix. In Diagrammatic Representation and Inference: 11th International Conference, Diagrams 2020, Tallinn, Estonia, August 24–28, 2020, Proceedings 11 (pp. 498-502). Springer International Publishing.
Enz, S., Hall, A. C., & Williams, K. K. (2021). The Myth of Multitasking and What It Means for Future Pharmacists. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 85(10).
Fritz, C., Ellis, A. M., Demsky, C. A., Lin, B. C., & Guros, F. (2013). Embracing work breaks. Organizational Dynamics, 42(4), 274-280.
Gobbo, F., & Vaccari, M. (2008). The pomodoro technique for sustainable pace in extreme programming teams. In Agile Processes in Software Engineering and Extreme Programming: 9th International Conference, XP 2008, Limerick, Ireland, June 10-14, 2008. Proceedings 9 (pp. 180-184). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Efficient. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/efficient
Rhee, H., & Kim, S. (2016). Effects of breaks on regaining vitality at work: An empirical comparison of ‘conventional’and ‘smart phone’breaks. Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 160-167.
Lu, M., Hu, S., Mao, Z., Liang, P., Xin, S., & Guan, H. (2020). Research on work efficiency and light comfort based on EEG evaluation method. Building and Environment, 183, 107122.
Wiking, M., & Wiking, M. (2017). The little book of hygge: Danish secrets to happy living (p. 240). HarperCollins.