How to work smarter not harder

We all want to feel more productive and in control. In the first of a series of articles, Neil Massa explores why we’re more effective just before a holiday

When we ask people what they value most about our time management training, they rarely answer in terms of the hours they save. Instead they talk to us about what they want to do with the time they save – about getting more work done, spending more time with family, being a more attentive parent or partner, exercising, socialising, studying – or just being less stressed. It’s about what they want to make room in their lives for. By the way, we do think in part in terms of the hours we save. We show the businesses we work with how we can save their staff on average three working days a month – or seven working weeks a year. But more of that later.

Of all the non-renewable resources that we burn up in our lifetimes, time is one we believe we should be very concerned about. And we are confident that everyone can create more time to use for themselves by applying our tips, techniques and tools. We’re confident because we’ve observed it thousands of times through our training and coaching – with people of all ages, and from all walks of life, backgrounds and job roles. One such tip is to be clear up front about why you want to manage your time better – and what exactly you are going to use the saved time for. So, what are your goals? Why do you want to be more productive? What would be the benefits if you could be better at managing your time? Is it because you want to:

  • achieve more in less time, so you can make time for other things at work?
  • spend more time thinking, planning or on strategic challenges?
  • feel more in control and less stressed, pressured and overwhelmed?
  • switch off more easily (particularly after work and at weekends) and feel more relaxed?
  • be healthier, happier and more energetic?
  • have better relationships (inside and outside work)?
  • just feel more focused and more productive?

Please take a moment now to think about this.

Without these goals we lack direction, and without the ability to be productive each day we lack momentum. The worst case is that we set goals, feel we are making little or no progress and our hope fades. Through these articles, we want to give you the opportunity to feel that you are winning every day.

The holiday phenomenon

We believe that most people already have what it takes to be really productive and manage their time very effectively. When you’ve finished this article you will understand why we believe this, and hopefully believe it too. It is a truism of modern life that we tend to be highly productive and get through a mountain of work on the last working day before we go on holiday. We call this the holiday phenomenon. Now, some people say it’s because we tend to work longer hours that day, and it is true, sometimes people do. But it is also true that every hour we put in that day is more productive. As the saying goes: “It’s not the hours you put into your work, but the work you put into your hours that counts!” So why is it that people are highly productive on the last working day before their holiday?

There are some fairly obvious reasons that explain why and some quite subtle ones. What we’ve learnt is that when we understand what happens on this day, we can learn things that will help us to be more productive on all the other days of the year.


So here’s a suggestion: take two minutes to write a list of the reasons you believe are behind the holiday phenomenon. Your target is 10, but eight will do. If you can, we suggest you find someone to write a list with you – it can be more fun and more insightful.

Here’s what we’ve observed:

  1. The day before you go on holiday, you have a very meaningful deadline, which means you have a specific number of hours and minutes to get things done.
  2. You feel motivated and energised by the thought of the reward you will receive when your work is done.
  3. You often create a list and have a plan for the day.
  4. You prioritise much more ruthlessly than you do on other days.
  5. You are focused and stay on task until the necessary work is done.
  6. You are much less likely to succumb to distraction from emails or other sources.
  7. You delegate.
  8. You say “No” to work and find it easier to decline or defer requests.
  9. You are decisive and stop procrastinating.
  10. You recognise when something is fit for purpose (when it is good enough) and so you moderate any perfectionist tendencies you might have.
  11. You plan ahead and prepare in advance for this day (in the weeks leading up to this day you are more aware of what is going on and what needs to be done, including the dependencies you may have on other people).
  12. You tie up loose ends and close things down (much less is left unfinished or undecided).
  13. You might set an auto reply or ‘out of office’ telling people about your situation and you might even do that a few days before to give them advanced warning so they can adjust to your plans.
  14. You are comfortable doing part of a task and either doing the remainder when you return or passing the rest of it to someone else for completion.
  15. You have realistic expectations about what can be achieved, but also willingly accept that if everything doesn’t get done, it’s not the end of the world (because the priorities have been completed).

And most of this you will do instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation or any resistance. Why? Because you know that this is the best way to get things done. It’s the smart way to work if you want to leave work feeling satisfied, knowing things are under control and that you can switch off and truly relax. But isn’t that the way you want to leave work every day, feeling satisfied, knowing things are under control and that you can switch off? Of course it is.

In part two of this series, which will appear in the June online edition, I’ll answer the question: how do we take our experience from the last working day before a holiday and translate it into work every day?

About the author

Neil Massa is a specialist in employee productivity and specifically time management in the digital age. He is co-founder of Smarter Not Harder, a consulting, training and coaching services provider.

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