It’s not just you: We’re all busier than we used to be.
Whether you’re a working mom, a college student, or a small business owner, managing your time can be challenging. Between classes, meetings, doctor appointments, and kids’ after-school events, how does anyone find time for exercise or, heaven forbid, fun?
We all get 24 hours in a day. So how do some people seem to breeze through their tasks while the rest of us flounder? They’ve learned how to be both time efficient and effective.
What Does it Mean to Be Time Efficient?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “efficient” as, “Capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or material).” But what does it mean to actually be efficient in how you spend your days?
To me, “efficiency” means negotiating each day’s circumstances while ensuring I have enough time for non-negotiables like sleep and self-care. This nuance is especially important for working professionals. Efficiency doesn’t always mean sitting down at a desk in the morning, whittling down a to-do list, and leaving the office by 5 p.m. Efficiency means doing your best despite internal and external factors, leaving ample time to take care of yourself.
I start my work days by writing down my deliverables. Inevitably, though, I get roped into an unexpected meeting or investor call. Yes, I could stay up all night doing the work to hit my deadlines — but if I did, I’d be too tired the next day to get anything done. That’s being effective, not being efficient (we’ll talk more about that later). To be efficient, I might divide the work with a colleague, or complete half the assignment and request an extension.
When you’re juggling work, parenthood, and a social life, you have to continuously optimize your days and hold yourself accountable. But of course, you still have to be effective as well.
Effective vs. Efficient: What’s the Difference?
There’s a fine line between what it means to be effective and efficient. Let’s start with the dictionary definition: “Effective” means “producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect.”
Put simply, being effective is about accomplishing a specific result; being efficient means accomplishing that result without wasting time or effort. In theory, you have to be efficient in order to be effective, but that’s not always the case.
Look at it this way: You have a task to complete that should take you an hour. But between distractions like the internet and office chatter, that task winds up taking you four hours. You accomplished your end goal, but you didn’t exactly do so efficiently.
If you think about it, we’re all “effective” in one way or another. If you have a job that keeps a roof over your head and food on your table, it means you’re effective enough at work to get a monthly paycheck. But your paycheck probably doesn’t reflect how much time you spend on social media each pay period.
The exception is entrepreneurs and freelancers. To make more money, people who own a business need to be not only effective, but efficient. So how do they do it?
6 Ways to Be Both Efficient and Effective
Effectiveness is a byproduct of efficiency. Although it’s safe to say that most entrepreneurs are efficient, it’s a skill that takes practice.
Even if you aren’t trying to run a profitable business, you can still benefit by operating the way successful business leaders do:
1. Set Measurable Goals
Although every entrepreneur has his or her own method, productivity experts suggest setting SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-dependent goals promote both efficiency and effectiveness — not only can they be realistically achieved, but progress toward them can be quantitatively checked.
Say you want to bring in $100,000 per quarter. You might set weekly milestones of $8,000, making the goal more manageable and giving you a cushion in case you fall short one week.
Setting goals helps you be efficient because it focuses your energies on what you want. That, in turn, improves your ability to achieve those goals. And if you’re a leader, you set the example for how your employees can get more done, too.
2. Communicate on Your Terms
Whether it’s meal-planning or product development, most projects take a team. But that doesn’t mean you have to refresh your email every five minutes for updates. Working professionals waste an average of 21 minutes per day simply over-checking their inboxes. Over four work weeks, that’s nearly 7 hours a month you could claw back.
Entrepreneurs, in particular, need to be careful with email. Investor messages might merit a quick response, for example. Does it actually matter how quickly you read that employee-welcome email you were copied on, though? If an employee needs something immediately, ask that they call you or stop by your office in person. Dedicate one or two hours per week to combing through your full inbox to ensure you don’t miss something crucial.
3. Default to Trust
Even if you aren’t working with a team, you still depend on others. When my wife and I added a laundry room upstairs in our home, I had to trust that the contractors I’d hired to do their jobs. I had to trust my wife to answer all those “Where do you want it?” questions that inevitably came up. If I hadn’t defaulted to trust, I would’ve slowed the project down and perhaps even scrapped it completely.
Learn to trust others the same way you would your romantic partner. Be clear about your intentions. Make sure your actions match your words, and assume others’ do as well.
Be sincere in how you communicate. Most importantly, accept that others are their own people. Not everyone works or communicates in the same way, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re failing you or attempting to undermine your efforts.
4. Take Regular Breaks
The more time you spend on a project, the faster you accomplish it, right? Not necessary.
Research suggests that the most productive workers actually take the most breaks. A study by the Draugiem Group showed that the ideal work rhythm is actually 52 minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Although the study didn’t look at other types of work, it’s a fair bet that breaks promote efficiency across the board.
Set a timer to remind you once an hour to take a break. If shorter intervals are more appropriate for your task, try the Pomodoro Method. Work for 25 minutes, then do something else for the following five. Not only will you get more done, but you’ll be less stressed to boot.
5. Use Your Resources
Not long ago, I had to cut down some trees in my yard to protect my house. I could have pulled out the bow saw and spent the next hour slowly slicing my way through the trunk, but I didn’t. Why not? Because I had a chainsaw sitting in the garage. Once I fired it up, the tree work took about ten minutes.
Take the same approach at work. If you need to transfer information between multiple browser windows on your computer, you could constantly click back and forth between multiple tabs. Or you could hook up the spare monitor sitting in storage, which would help you work quicker and make fewer errors.
6. Know When to Say ‘No’
Small projects have a bad habit of ballooning into bigger ones. If all you set out to do is mow your yard, stick to that. Don’t tell yourself (or let anyone else tell you) that you also have to trim the bushes and pull weeds. Get done what you want, and move on. That’s being effective as well as efficient.
What if it’s a work project? You may not be able to say “no” directly to your boss, but you can suggest alternatives. If you’re worried a task is a waste of time, throw out a different idea. If you truly don’t have time on your calendar, ask your him or her to help you prioritize your project list. Get it right, and your boss may thank you for saving company time.
Having a full understanding of time management is key to knowing when to say “no” and when something could make sense for a time investment.
Planning is key. Whether you’re an entrepreneur like me or a stay-at-home dad, you’ve got a job to do. The work itself may differ, but the value of being efficient and effective does not. If you want to succeed — and have time for yourself to spare — think before you grind the day away.
Working wisely is better than working hard. Learning to trust others is more important than the outcome looking exactly like what you had in mind. Efficiency and effectiveness may differ definitionally, but both boil down to two things: having a plan and pivoting as needed.
More About Time Management
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