August 9, 2012

Twelve top tips from an efficiency expert

Okay, Blog--I'm not licensed or anything, but I did realize the other day that I seem to have a natural-born ability to be efficient. For one thing, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, "How do you get so much done?" I'd be up to my nose in nickels. For another, I often notice people around me doing things that seem all kinds of inefficient, but they don't seem to notice.

Now, I tend to think this efficiency of mine is just another symptom of my anality (not a word but should be). But on the other hand, who these days wouldn't like more free time?

So for that reason I decided to share twelve of my top tips for how to save yourself some time (for more rounds of the Ten Minutes o' Fun Game, perhaps). Hopefully one or two of them will be helpful to our readers!

1. Keep your email inbox empty.

Your email inbox can serve as a to-do list without any extra effort on your part. Try by the end of each day to clean it out except for items you still need to address. Delete the stuff you don't need to keep right away--that's easy and saves you the time of looking at it a second time.

File items you may need later into designated folders: examples are notifications of bills to be paid (calendar those, too!), and coupons you might use later (it'll be easy later to delete the ones that are old). When you have responded to an email, delete the original. If you keep the text of the original in your reply, then the version in your Sent box is all you need to keep.

The goal of the clean inbox will motivate you not to procrastinate, help keep you organized, and keep you from forgetting things you need to do.

2. Have a pending folder.

Could work at home, and essential for office jobs. If you send out an email that requires a response from the recipient, just pop over to your Sent box and move the message to your Pending box.

Keep it there till you have an answer, then delete or otherwise file. If the recipient dawdles in responding, you won't lose track--and can send a reminder quickly by just forwarding the original message. You can monitor ongoing issues easily by reviewing your Pending box each morning.

3. Back up everything!

This is a case of investing time to save time. Backing up everything shouldn't take more than ten minutes once a week, once you have a system in place. You need to tailor this plan to your own electronics, but here's how I do mine, every weekend:

  • Computer files--Search for changed documents from the past week, copy to backup files on detachable hard drive.
  • Email--Copy outlook.pst file to detachable hard drive.
  • Electronic journal (on flash drive)--Use software backup program to back up to PC.
  • Phone--Use backup software to back up to PC; sync calendar, contacts, and photos.
  • Camera--Off load photos to PC, delete from camera (yes, really!), back up to
  • MP3 player--Keep copies of all music on Amazon Cloud.
  • Nook--Keep copies of books on PC and/or

And when you're working on something really important, frequent saves and more-frequent-than-weekly backups are the order of the day. NO EXCUSES, START DOING #3 FROM NOW ON!

4. Learn and use keyboard shortcuts.

If you type a lot, you'll be amazed the time you save by using these instead of dropdown menu steps.

  • Ctrl + s = save
  • Ctrl + c = copy
  • Ctrl + v = paste
  • Ctrl + x = delete
  • Ctrl + z = undo
  • Ctrl + y = redo
  • Ctrl + b = bold
  • Ctrl + i = italics
  • Ctrl + u = underline

If there is any sort of word processing step that you do a lot, check (by googling) if there's a shortcut. Also be mindful to copy and paste multiple text rather than retyping it each time ("Ctrl +" for example, LOL).

5. Throw (or give) things away.

Clutter not only looks messy and takes up space, it slows you down. If you have 24 pairs of shoes, and only wear 12 pairs of them, the other 12 pairs just get in the way of your finding the shoes you want to wear. Same principle applies to books, paperwork, DVR'd shows you'll never watch, stuff in your pantry and fridge you'll never eat, etc. 

If you haven't worn, used, touched, or looked at something in an appropriate amount of time (e.g., one year for clothes, six months for non-perishable food, etc.), then give it away or toss it. If you occasionally pick an area of your house to "purge"--the kitchen junk drawer, your jewelry box--the task needn't be time consuming or dreadful.

6. Stay organized.

The sister principle to #5. I know it's easier to just throw something in a drawer than to take the trouble to put it in the right drawer. And it's also easier to have the drawer just a big open drawer o' stuff than put an organizer in it with a spot for everything. But doing things in an organized way actually saves time when it comes to finding what you need. 

I hated the tangle of charger cords in my electronics drawer--having each neatly bound up and in it's own cubby saved me time and hassles.

I hate filing, and I used to just throw my filing at home in a big pile and then once a year or so face the huge chore of putting it all in the right places. But during the course of the year, I was constantly having to go through that whole huge pile when I needed to find something--huge waste of time. Gotta keep on that stuff.

7. Go digital.

Of course, my filing problem has been greatly alleviated these days because I have almost nothing on paper. Examples: I pay bills online, so those websites keep records for me; bank statements are online, correspondence is electronic; I have Google Maps and GPS on my phone so no need for maps and directions on paper, etc. 

Not only does this eliminate paperwork, it makes things way easier to find, because everything is searchable. Where did I put those theater tickets to "The Book of Mormon" next January? Well, when I downloaded them, I named the file with "tix" in it, so I can do a search in My Documents and find them in a sec. So even misfiling isn't a problem! (And you bet I have a backup copy!!!) Which reminds me, you should learn how to use the search function both for files and in your email--you'll eliminate a lot of frustration.

8. Multitask.

Be mindful of times when you can do more than one thing at once. Even if the task is small, the cumulative effect can save you tons of time. This example may be ridiculous, Blog, but here it is: In the morning when I'm getting ready, I simultaneously do my leg stretches, brush my teeth, and pull out the beauty care stuff I need to use that morning. This saves me maybe 1.25 minutes a day, but that adds up to almost eight hours a year! 

More crazy but effective examples: cleaning old mail and photos off my phone while going to the bathroom (TMI, Blog?); letting the cat, who requires supervised feeding, eat while I pack my lunch; and catching up with my Dad on the phone while doing some mindless type of task at work. A no-brainer: save up "sitting chores" like mending and menu planning for TV watching that doesn't need your full attention (like sporting events and SyFy channel movies).

9. Plan weekly menus.

Speaking of, unless you enjoy grocery shopping as recreation, menu planning is something you should do. We only buy food once or twice a week, so no struggling with "what to have tonight" and repeat trips to the store. I put the menu on the top of the grocery list I make each weekend, and then we tack it to the fridge so we know what to thaw out for the next day and so on.

10. Remember electronic calendars are your friends.

If you have a smart phone, sync it to your PC calendar. And use your calendars, both at work and at home! They have handy, built in to-do lists and note areas where you can keep information at your fingertips. If you have something to do and a sieve-like brain like mine, put a reminder on your calendar (phone and otherwise). 

This works for everything from dates to pay bills, to reminders of stuff you need to bring to work, to birthdays. If you make a date with someone, note it right away while you're thinking of it. Then (and believe it or not, I know a lot of people who fail at this), check your calendar each day and each week!

11. Consider using a password program.

Some people use the same password for everything--which is an invitation for disaster involving hackers and identity theft. Some people write all their passwords down--which is fine if you have those notes handy all the time, but who wants to risk having something like that that could be lost or fall into the wrong hands? 

I use a system called Roboform, which not only stores my passwords, it lets me access them via web anywhere, and also lets me fill in forms online with a single click. Roboform itself is password protected both locally and online, obviously (and that's a complex password I change often and only keep in my head!). I can't even begin to guess, between entering passwords and filling out forms, how much time this saves me in a year. Lots.

12. Think like an efficiency expert.

Only you can really improve the time you waste by being inefficient in key areas of your life. Spend some time thinking about the things you do that take up a lot of time, and figure out how you might reduce that time. Here are some examples to spark your brainstorming:

  • Make homemade chili often? Cook up a huge batch at once, divide up and freeze.
  • Tired of waiting at the coffee shop each day for your morning latte? Think about making your own coffee. Even if it's only for you, the combination of a good thermos and your microwave could mean only making coffee two or three times a week.
  • Still prefer getting the lattes at the coffee shop? Figure out something you can do while in line each morning, like tasks on your smartphone (Facebook catch up, reading the headlines, emails), reading a magazine or newspaper, checking your to-do list or making the grocery list.
  • Hate spending time paying bills? Set up automated payments with your bank or the utility in question. (Just make sure to subtract them all from your checking account each month.)
  • Struggling with medical recordkeeping--FSA, HRA, health insurance issues? Create a spreadsheet to track the status of claims, funding levels, etc.

And if you're not the type of person who is inspired by the joys of efficiency and organization, look at it this way, Blog: just like saving money for something you want to buy, you can save time for something you want to do. Think in terms of that long bubble bath, that extra hour to play a game or read a book, or just a chance to sleep in later. Sounds like a great plan to me, and I'm the expert!  :-)

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