Working smarter, not harder, is an age-old adage, and if you master the concept, your entire working life will be easier. There are simple techniques that you can employ to save steps and tedium from almost any task.
Assess everything that needs to be done. Before you plunge in headfirst, remember that enthusiasm needs to be tempered with wisdom. Look over every aspect of the job, and allow yourself ample “pondering time” so that you can be sure that every detail is accomplished on time, and accurately.
Make an outline. Whether it’s in your head or on paper, you should have a checklist in mind and follow it to the letter and in order – you don’t want to repeat steps, duplicate the efforts of others, or make mistakes. Also, you definitely don’t want to forget anything.
Consider your materials. Don’t take shortcuts, when possible, on the quality of your materials. Cheap materials are harder to work with, because they aren’t as sturdy or nice. Because they’re harder to work with, they take longer to bend to your will. Remember that working smart means thinking about these things – in most jobs, the materials aren’t where the majority of the costs are. It’s the labor – the time needed to complete the job – that costs the company more money. Using inexpensive materials where they are easily installed makes sense. Trying to save a few bucks but spending an extra hour or two because those cheap things didn’t install properly doesn’t make any sense at all.
Follow your plan and don’t deviate from it – unless you must. Once you’ve assessed the job and come up with a plan, it’s usually best to stick with the plan. However, things come up: a part doesn’t fit, or it turns out it’s not the best item for the job, someone gets sick, all sorts of emergencies can throw a wrench into your plan. Be prepared to think on your feet, and be resourceful. Nimble thinking is essential to working smart, especially when something goes wrong. Following a plan slavishly, in spite of new information, developments, or problems is just plain dumb. Be flexible and change if you need to.
Delegate to the right people at the right times. Make sure your team is well-ordered. If one person is faster, put him or her on the part of your task that will take longest. If one person is more skilled and accurate, put him or her on the part of the task that is most critical.
Work parallel. This means that there may be four or five, for example, components to your job. Let’s say you are a design and display company creating a display for a county fair. Your client wants a combination of signs, banners, flyers, and brochures, along with a booth design. You set your best designer in motion to design the copy and look of things, but meanwhile, you assign someone to procure what essential supplies you will need. So far, you could be having one of your people contact printers to get pricing for the number of flyers and/or brochures your client wants, and another to take an inventory of what sign and banner materials you already have on hand – vinyl or paint colors, banner sizes, pre-cut blanks. This way, once the client meeting is complete and you have a good idea of what is going into the installation, you can match it to your inventory and see if there are things on hand that you can use to get started, while someone else goes and gets the things you still need.
Control clients by communicating properly. Many times, it’s hard to work smart because your clients will insist that their job is a big rush. Instead of scrambling to get that job done, make sure your clients understand in the initial meeting what your normal turnaround time for their job would be. If you know you will need two weeks, don’t let the client squeeze you into one week unless that client is willing to pay extra for the rush. Most businesses have more than one client, yet many clients forget that their job is not the only one you’re working on.
Stick to your policies. If you charge extra to rush a job, don’t deviate from that, ever. It’s unfair to apply policies to some customers and not others. When one client comes in and is very pushy, feeling entitled to your undivided attention immediately, often, you can simply say something like, “Sure, we can rush the job for you, but I need to let you know that it will cost extra – probably as much as 50% more than the original quote, for the rush.” It’s amazing how quickly this type of client stands down, saying, “Oh, forget that – it’s not that big a rush. We can wait.” Just let them know that you are willing to rush their jobs, but by doing so, you must move other customers who were “in line” before them out of the way – causing you to run those jobs behind. Plus, you need different workers to complete different jobs, and rushing requires you to pay them overtime, rather than allowing more time to complete the job during regular hours. This is smart – it lets your clients know that you really know your stuff, plus it relieves your schedule or makes you more money.
Give one to three choices – never more. Handing a swatch book to a client and saying, “Tell me which colors you are interested in” is deadly. Too many choices will cause horrible delays as the customer peruses ALL possibilities, and later tends to second-guess every decision, wanting to see it now “In green?” or how about “In this chartreuse? It’s just a shade different, but…” Oy. Instead, say things like, “Do you like this blue or this green better?” Lots of the jobs you do will instantly suggest certain tools, colors, approaches, materials, etc. You can also attempt to influence the client in the direction you think best for his purpose. Use your expertise to narrow down the critical choices right away: “We can paint, which will be expensive to fix when it weathers, about 3 – 5 years from now, or we can use 5-year vinyl, or 10-year vinyl for the letters. The best stuff only costs a few dollars more.”
Never willingly trap yourself into accepting a bad job. You know when a job is going to be great. You also know when you get that “uh-oh” feeling that something is not right. A client or boss who pressures you into areas where you are not comfortable, either because it is an unreasonable expectation or because it’s outside your scope needs to be aware immediately of your discomfort with the job as proposed. Make any misgivings clear instantly, and in front of others, if possible. If you are self-employed, declining a job like this is much smarter, even though it’s so hard to let that money go when you depend on every job for your livelihood. Still, a client who doesn’t pay because you didn’t adhere to every jot and tittle of his demands (and some are just breathtakingly demanding) is not a good customer in the end, and if you work for hours and end up not being paid all or part of what you worked for – especially when you were sweating bullets over it the whole time – is not smart. And it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do.
Work as hard and as efficiently as possible, and finish each job as quickly as you can. Hit every job with everything you’ve got. Getting it done quickly and efficiently – while you have the time – is much smarter than looking at the schedule and telling yourself you have three more days to get it done, and then going to a long lunch or off to play tennis or whatever. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow – you might come down with the flu. Figuring that you will need only one day to complete that job if nothing goes wrong and then sitting on it just because you can is dumb. If you end up getting sick, you might not even be well enough to finish on time, let alone early. Running out the clock on jobs when you don’t absolutely need to can force a rush at the finish line, or worse, deprives you of opportunities you might not have otherwise.
Example: you’re the self-employed designer mentioned above. Today is Wednesday. You have a big job due for Client A on Friday. You know the job will only take about 8 hours if all goes well. You could quit at 4pm and go to a ballgame with friends, leaving you all day tomorrow to finish so that the job will be ready for pickup on Friday morning. Or you could put your head down and work until 7pm today instead of your usual 6pm. If you do this, you will be finished today – the client can pick it up on Thursday morning, a full day ahead of schedule. You decide to sacrifice the ballgame and get the job done tonight. On Thursday morning, Client B comes in, panicked because he has a job which he needs finished by Friday – you’ve worked with him before, and he realizes he will have to pay a rush charge to get it done that quickly. You accept the job on a rush basis, knowing you have cleared your schedule and can easily turn this around in time during regular hours – you will work no overtime, but still receive rush pay. Had you gone to that ballgame, Client A’s job would still be sitting there, undone, and in front of this job, and you would have to work all day today to finish it, then be forced to pull an all-nighter to finish Client B’s rush job. But because you sacrificed your fun at the ballgame: You can call Client A on Thursday and let him know he can come and pick up his job, plus, you can do the new job, be Client B’s hero – and you can get his job to him by Friday! On top of that, you can even give Client B a slight discount (from the rate he was willing to pay for the rush job), and still make loads of money you wouldn’t have been able to make at all, had you allowed Client A’s job to run out until Friday, slacking until the last minute.
Recognize the point of ‘diminishing returns.’ The above steps do not imply that you should work yourself to the point of exhaustion. You need to protect your health and the integrity of your job. Working yourself to a frazzle constantly makes you prone to mistakes. When you’re so tired that you realize it’s taking you twice or three times longer to do a job than normal, you need to call it a day. Rest at least a few hours, and come back fresher, so that you can be strong at the end of the job. Learn how to power nap.
Finish strong. It’s so important! Being dead tired and sluggish at the finish line is not smart – it’s foolish. Be sure that you are well rested at deadline time. On the day a client is expected to pick up his or her job, go over it with a fine-toothed comb – and this means checking the finished product against the original instructions, making sure they match up. Check it for accuracy and detail, make any adjustments, corrections or touch-ups well ahead of the time the client will arrive. Making sure every last detail has been checked and re-verified will make you confident and calm when your client comes to pick up the job. You can present it proudly, knowing that everything has been done to ensure the client will be happy with the finished product. Your confidence spills over to the client, which also makes it easier to ask for that final payment – when you see the client smiling and appreciative of the work you’ve done for him or her. This works for any project you have to do in life.
When you can work, do. Don’t slack or allow time to run out so that you’re rushing at the end to meet a deadline.
When you’re sick, stay home and rest until you are well. You make too many mistakes when you’re ill or tired to call that “working smart.”
Learn to make your money work for you. Working a lot and spending every penny you make is NOT working smart!
It’s mentioned above that you should avoid taking a bad job. By that, it’s meant that you know that it’s a sort of thing you aren’t good at, or that is not part of the usual services you offer, or that it’s something you don’t know much about. Instead of trying to bs your way through it, tell the truth. And if you get an “uh-oh” feeling from the client, don’t take the job. If you have a sense right away that this client is not on the same page with you, either you must take steps immediately to get them there, or you must not take the job. This doesn’t suggest that a difficult client is a bad client – often, a difficult client isn’t really so difficult at all, once s/he knows you and trusts you to do the good job s/he requires. But one who constantly grinds for discounts, tries to get you to cut corners to save money, or changes scope of job or deadlines in the middle of everything, this is someone who will work your last nerve. You must ask yourself if the money you make on these jobs is worth the time, effort and tears.
There is one other situation you should take caution with, and that is allowing the customer to make changes mid-stream, causing you to go out of pocket much more than you originally planned. A little tweak is one thing. A big change should stop everything while you re-think – and re-bid. The client should be made aware instantly that it’s not “just a little change”, and that making changes in mid-job could cost significantly more. Don’t allow yourself to be suckered into making “just a little adjustment” more than one time during a job. Some clients have this down to a science, asking for “small changes” several times when you’re already heavily into the project. Many huge problems and disagreements (usually resulting in you not getting paid as you should have, had you bid the job this way originally) start with “small changes.”