When it comes to work, everyone has their own methods for getting tasks done.
But it turns out that the most successful people tend to have similar habits.
Or, so says Laura Vanderkam, author of a new mini e-book, "What the Most Successful People Do at Work." (The e-book is the third in a series, which also details the habits of successful people in the mornings and on weekends; the series will be published in paperback in September.)
Vanderkam, who wrote 168 Hours, a guide to getting the most out of your time, has, over the years, asked hundreds of people to track how they spend their days. Her analysis of these time logs has provided the fodder for her books, and in her latest examination — of how successful people approach work — she’s come up with seven common habits that people who shine in their fields use to accomplish things.
While one of these matters above all others, it is also the one that takes the longest to achieve — and you'll see why in a minute. Here are the seven commonalities she found.
1. Mind Your Hours.
If you want to give your working hours a makeover, you've got to know how long your activities take. One of the most prolific children's book illustrators interviewed in the e-book can project exactly how much time a drawing will take (and actually measures each by how many Seinfeld reruns will play in the background before she’s finished). Then, she uses that knowledge to set goals for specific time periods — i.e. three illustrations in a day.
To get the same understanding of your own work or productivity, Vanderkam recommends you keep a time log for a full week so you also capture the weekend — that’s when people tend to be less conscious of what they're doing. There's no one way of tracking your time, so just pick something that works for you. As Vanderkam said by phone from her home outside Philadelphia, "The goal is to be helpful, not to make you hate your life." For instance, Vanderkam updates her time log twice a day. Another person might want to do it more frequently, using a computer or smartphone app. Whatever you choose, make it something convenient that will also allow you to faithfully track what you've been doing.
"Time passes whether or not you make a conscious choose about how to use that time," Vanderkam says. "And not being conscious of how you spend your time is also a choice. I can't tell you how many people tell me by the second day, 'I got so sick of saying, "checked Facebook," for the tenth time that I stopped doing it.’”
The next step to being more conscious with your work time is to plan out your hours. This might seem really obvious, but many harried workers find themselves in triage mode — only answering urgent matters and never taking a moment to strategize about how best to spend their time. As Vanderkam writes, "People lament that they’d love to have strategic-thinking time, but they’re just too busy!"
She recommends having a planning session at least once a week — or a big one weekly and then smaller ones as projects get finished. She also suggests planning over different time frames. For instance, at the end of the year, you could plan your goals for the year, and then, in your weekly planning sessions, make sure you are steadily working toward those goals.
3. Make Success Possible.
With a new plan, it's easy to start getting excited about your goals, become over-ambitious … and then fail. But you are more likely to reach your dreams as long as you set discrete, doable tasks for yourself — and then make sure you're held accountable. First, break down big projects into small steps, and try to limit yourself to tackling three to six a day.
Then, make sure you get to them. Everyone has a different accountability system, says Vanderkam. She personally uses an accountability partner, with whom she has weekly check-ins on Friday. Others might want a more punitive or public approach, such as making a promise on Stickk, a web site in which people can set goals and then promise to do something dreaded, such as donate to an organization they loathe, if they fail.
4. Know What Is Work.
Many of us end up spending inordinate amounts of time answering email. As Vanderkam writes, “According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on the social economy, knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their time wading through their inboxes.”
But checking email is not the same thing as doing “work” — and by that, Vanderkam means the core of what you’re trying to accomplish. “Email expands to fill in the available time. Give email less time, and it will take less time,” she says. If you’re the kind of person who is worried about leaving your inbox unattended, Vanderkam suggests starting to wean yourself off by being on email for 20 minutes, and then using the next 40 minutes to focus on a task without interruption. Eventually, expand those times between email check-ins.
Another thing that can look like work but isn’t always: meetings. “The reason you have a meeting is that you want something to change in the world by the end of it,” she says. “The problem is that people have meetings to check that everyone is still doing their jobs — but hopefully you hired people good enough where you don’t have to check.”
She also notes that many people schedule meetings as a way of imposing a deadline. She says that if you’re a supervisor giving an assignment, you should explain that you won’t meet about the work, but you still need the project done by a certain time.