Over the past few years, many people have felt pressure to work harder in order to maintain their job security. But meekly shouldering increasingly heavy workloads isn’t necessarily the best way to demonstrate your value to your company. Always being the first to arrive and the last to leave might impress your boss for a while, but in the long term, it’s unlikely to benefit your well-being, your career — or even your employer.
Professionals who pride themselves on a strong work ethic may find that assertion tough to swallow. After all, don’t employers seek workers who are eager to go the extra mile? That may often be the case, but most firms also want employees who don’t burn out or become disenchanted. And all of them want people who make the most of the time they’re being paid for.
Learning to work more efficiently can be a crucial step toward becoming more valuable to your employer. Here are five steps that can help you start working smarter:
» 1. Clarify Your Role
It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to increase your effectiveness, and therefore your value, is to clarify the limits of your role. Do you tend to jump into projects whenever someone needs help? That’s an admirable trait, but it can be detrimental if it wears you out or keeps you from your own responsibilities.
It’s great to be known as the go-to person in emergencies, but if every crisis falls to you, you may want to consider whether all of that firefighting is interfering with your most important work (unless, of course, the firefighting is your most important work).
Learning to selectively say no can protect your productivity, but it’s not always easy to tell when it’s appropriate to push back. Talk to your boss about all the projects on your plate, and then work with him or her to clarify which ones are the most important. He or she may not fully realize how much work you’re doing above and beyond your job description. Be careful to frame the discussion as a matter of putting your time to the best use rather than shirking work you don’t enjoy.
» 2. Revise Your Goals
Goals are useful only when they’re achievable. If their scope or sheer number is unrealistic, it can feel like all you’re doing is treading water, which can lead to overwork and exhaustion.
Write out a list of your goals, and then ask yourself whether they address the most critical functions of your job and are attainable given your current responsibilities. If they aren’t, you may be asking too much of yourself. Talk to your manager to make sure your top objectives align with the company’s priorities. You might find, for example, that your goal of streamlining a particular reporting process is less important to your boss than other priorities he or she has assigned to you.
» 3. Share the Load
If you’re not careful, a can-do attitude can cross the line and make it seem that others can’t do. Insisting on handling everything yourself breeds resentment among coworkers, especially if you’re perceived as competing against them rather than working alongside them. If you’re wearing yourself out with projects that a less-overworked colleague could execute, you’re doing the entire team, including yourself, a disservice.
If appropriate, given your role, talk with your manager about ways you might delegate or share certain responsibilities. Such discussions can help your boss make sure your coworkers remain challenged with new responsibilities.
» 4. Get Lost
If you wait to schedule a vacation until you desperately need one, you’ll lose the focus and energy required to do your best work long before your date of departure arrives. Plan vacations well in advance, and make sure they’re true breaks, not opportunities to work remotely from a prettier location.
Small breaks throughout your workday can also help you maintain your perspective. Taking the time to look up from what you’re doing, take a short walk or have a brief conversation can help you keep a sense of perspective about your work rather than blindly hammering a noncritical project through to completion (and exhaustion).
Another part of working more efficiently is making sure you’re doing things that rejuvenate you — whether that means exercise, a movie or a meal with your family — when you’re not at the office. If you don’t enjoy your free time, your workday will likely find ways to seep back into those hours, depriving you of the daily recharge you need.
» 5. Keep Talking
Working smarter isn’t a one-time fix. As your employer’s priorities and resources shift, so should your own points of emphasis. If you don’t have a regularly scheduled check-in with your manager about such issues, ask to create one. It doesn’t take long to verify that you’re putting your shoulder behind the jobs that mean the most to the firm.
Protecting your personal well-being and serving your employer are sometimes considered competing demands. But in a healthy working relationship — the kind that will keep your career moving forward — the two don’t merely work in concert. They depend on each other.
— Christy De Los Rios is the Santa Barbara branch manager for Robert Half International. She can be contacted at 805.568.0838 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.