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Mission Complete: How to Know When You’re Done

Most of us feel as though there simply aren’t enough hours in the work day (or even the work week) to accomplish everything on our to-do lists. Worse yet, when we finally do get on a productivity roll, there always seems to be a distraction (or two, or three) waiting in the wings to throw us off course. But the reality is that we could accomplish a lot more each day if we would just learn to recognize and acknowledge when we’re done with a task.

When you learn to recognize when you’re done with projects, big and small, you’ll immediately find that you have a lot more time than you thought you did; time you can use to focus on those things that truly matter.

Here are some tips to help you do just that:

Stop majoring in the minors. Many of us spend a lot of time on the projects and tasks that are easy for us. Then, we convince ourselves that we “just didn’t have enough time” to get to the harder stuff. But when it comes to knowing when you’re done and freeing up time during your day, completing these easy tasks quickly and efficiently is essential.

Before you start your work day, think about what your high leverage activities are and what your low leverage activities are. For the low leverage activities, force yourself to move through them as quickly as possible. With these tasks—for example, writing an e-mail to a colleague—perfection isn’t necessary, and there’s no need to waste time wringing your hands over every word. When you can accomplish these minor tasks more efficiently, you’ll have the time you need to devote to the more important items on your list.

Don’t overwrite e-mails. Dealing with e-mail can eat up a major part of the day. Make a conscious effort to keep your e-mails as short and sweet as possible. Get to the point quickly and use action verbs in subject lines so that both you and the recipient know what needs to happen even before the e-mail is opened. ” This saves time both for you and the recipient. Chances are your boss doesn’t want or need a multi-page rundown of a routine meeting. He just wants to know the main points covered and any action items.

Set deadlines and stick to them. It’s very easy to get distracted or sidetracked by things you think you should do or things others think you should do. Having a self-imposed deadline will help you ignore those distractions. If a colleague calls you about a non-urgent task, you can let her know you’ve got a 3:00 p.m. deadline that you have to meet. There’s no need for her to know that it’s self-imposed! And then as 3:00 p.m. draws near, start wrapping up that particular task.

Try to keep meetings on time and on task. Usually meetings will take as long as we’ve allotted for them. If we set aside an hour for a meeting, it’s sure to expand to fill the hour. Pay close attention to how time is actually spent focused on the important stuff. If participants spend 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning or end of a routine meeting discussing a coworker’s golf game, try to schedule less time for the meeting in the future.

Know when it’s time to ask for help. If you think about a time you were stumped by a project or task, how did you respond? Did you walk away from it for a while and then come back to it, hoping you’d suddenly know what to do? Sometimes knowing when you’re done is simply a matter of knowing when you, specifically, can’t take a project any further. That’s when it’s time to ask for help. Wasting a lot of time on an issue you’re never going to be able to figure out is much worse than asking for help!

When you make a conscious effort to adopt strategies to help you know when you’re done, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you’ll accomplish. You’ll free up time in your day so that you can focus on the really important tasks. As a result, you’ll have a more gratifying work day, you’ll increase your value to the organization, and you’ll be happier overall. Worth a try?

About the Author(s)

Jason W. Womack M.Ed,, M.A., has worked with leaders and executives for over 16 years in the business and education sectors. His new book is Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley, 2012). For more information, visit: www.womackcompany.com