Let’s get this out of the way: the important things take too long.

If you want to build a relationship, lose weight, go back to school to finish a degree, or learn a new skill, no matter what the thing is that you're trying to accomplish, it takes more time than we’d like to get it done. If things take too long, we get frustrated. And when we get frustrated, we look for shortcuts.

Shortcuts aren’t necessarily bad. As long as you aren’t running red lights or cheating on tests, shortcuts are helpful and save us time. But what happens when we use shortcuts in ways that are detrimental to our success? What happens when shortcuts are actually hurting us in the long run and don’t get us closer to our goals?

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re an engineering student and you’re taking three really difficult classes at once – one requires a lot of programming, another requires detailed analysis, and the third is a mandatory senior and graduate level technical class.

Here are a few of the ineffective choices you might make to try to find your way through the madness:

  • Search the web looking for solutions manuals to textbooks you’re using in class, thinking that it will cut down on the time it takes to do homework 
  • Given a choice between a minor task for minor credit, and making progress on a bigger task that’s worth more in the long run, you go for the short win and do the minor task, just so you can check something off your to do list.

In this example, if you’d just opted to do the work, you’d have saved more time.

Here’s another example, this time from the workplace. A co-worker just quit and left a pile of essential tasks that no one else but you can do, and you’re supposed to get them done in addition to your existing workload. You’ve got a stack of things to do and since nothing can be omitted, everything must get done. You decide to multi-task your way through, working on each item for just a few minutes at a time or when it crosses your mind. You’re listening to a conference call, keeping an eye on your email and trying to finish up a handful of minor tasks, all at the same time. By the end of the day, you may have accomplished a few minor things, but the stack is still there.

To sum up each case, you’re slammed. Everything is time consuming, and while it’s crazy to take on such loads, sometimes they can’t be avoided. So what do you do? You start looking for the fastest way through all the work at hand. Not the best way, mind you – just the fastest.

Sometimes, shortcuts don’t work.

Get Things Done Faster

You’ve got a mountain of tasks you need to get done today and time is at a premium. Here are a few key ideas to help you get things done faster.

1. Focus on one task at a time. Turn off or silence your phone and flip it over so you can’t see any notifications. Close your email program. Reduce all non-essential windows. Close the door. Move everything else out of the way. Turn off the television. Whatever is going on near you that could in any way distract you from the task – make those things go away so you can focus on the job at hand. Sometimes, taking the time to do one thing correctly and effectively will save you time in the long run. Why? Because you don’t have to do it over, or revisit it, or leave it on the pile because you only did part of it.

2. Take a few moments to plan it out. Decide – in advance – exactly what you want to accomplish, from folding a stack of laundry or writing a term paper to completing a sales report or polishing up your resume. Don’t skip this step. How can you arrive at your destination if you don’t play how you’re going to get there? Whatever you’re going to do, plan it out first.

3. Decide what the “end goal” looks like. Using the previous examples, an empty laundry basket, a ten-page term paper, a detailed spreadsheet of last month’s sales, or a concise one page resume would be the item that you need to complete and deliver to call the task “done”.

4. Touch things only once! If you start a task, finish it. If you open and read an email or letter, handle the task or response it requires and then file it, recycle or delete it. This simple step in itself will drastically reduce the items you need to complete.

5. Get things done, but know when to quit. This doesn’t mean that you plan to do a horrible job, or you accept mediocre results, or that you lower your standards and ultimately affect your reputation by delivering shoddy work. Instead, it means that you don’t let perfectionism keep you from delivering the goods. Nine times out of ten, getting something 85-95% “perfect” is all you need to call a task complete. Call it good, then check it off.

Remember, shortcuts aren’t always bad, and multi-tasking isn’t the worst thing when you’ve got a few tasks to complete that aren’t mission critical. (One example of multi-tasking that won’t kill your efficiency is listening to a good audio-book while cooking. Dinner probably won’t suffer.) There are times when cutting corners is exactly what needs to be done.

On the other hand, be very aware of how much time your concentrated focus will save you in the long run if you dedicate your complete attention to the important things on your list. If your stress levels will skyrocket because the task list gets longer, then it’s also possible that your stress level will decrease with each item you complete.

When an opportunity presents itself today, make what seems like the harder choice in the short term and just do the work. The investment will pay for itself.