Stay ahead of the curve at work

Work. Sometimes it's a place where you're cranking out ideas and projects like a well-oiled machine. Other times, you're squeaking through the day, easily distracted. And trust us, we know it's tough to get everything done. With the workplace in a constant state of change and many companies forced to consolidate job responsibilities to keep down costs, there's typically more work than seems possible to accomplish.

But before you let out a sigh or start screaming, "Is it Friday yet?" for the third time in an hour, there is hope for a better (and more productive) life during those eight-plus hours on the job. Ready to refresh your tactical take on the day? We've got a few suggestions - 18 of them, in fact - to keep you ahead of the curve.

1. Carpe diem (even if you're not a morning person).

With the exception of those freakishly chipper types, most people aren't ready to rise and shine as soon as the alarm clock goes off. But there are good reasons to get an early start. Waking up even 20 minutes earlier can make a huge difference. You'll have time to read some Scripture and talk to God while sipping your java - a perfect way to start the pre-work day.

Suzie Waltner, a loan closer at Franklin American Mortgage, says, "I almost always come in the office about 30 minutes early and settle in for the day before the majority of my co-workers arrive."

2. Kill the morning clutter.

To start the workday off right, begin the night before. Clear off that desk before you leave the office. "If I'm in a messy environment, it's harder to concentrate," says Lori Isaacs, a publicist for The Media Collective in Nashville, Tenn. "So as a rule, I take a few minutes at the end of the day to straighten up my desk and organize things, so I can get a fresh start the next day."

3. Get your head together.

Begin each day with a 15-minute orientation in which you accomplish three objectives: prioritize your tasks (name those pieces of your work that are most important), set your daily agenda (schedule those tasks for your most productive work times), and review progress on the previous goals you've set.

4. Find the needle by organizing the haystack.

Looking for that follow-up e-mail from last month's staff meeting? Hunting for the receipts to reconcile your corporate card account? Trying to sort through that important client's file? You'll actually save much precious time by spending a few hours to get organized. Find a system that works for you - and stick to it. If you're truly organizationally challenged, professionals can help for a fee or ask for pointers from your most OCD co-worker.

5. Put it in writing.

For assignments and event details (such as "Lunch with vendor at Morton's, Tuesday at 11" or "Please take care of these parts of this project"), don't call. Instead, send an e-mail and give your fellow workers the courtesy of your request in writing, reducing miscommunication ("I thought you said, ‘Brunch with lender at Horton's'" or "Was I supposed to write that report?").

6. Turn off the darn speakerphone.

"My biggest distraction at work is being forced to listen to co-workers talk on their speakerphone in their cubicles," says Amy Bickel, a campaign associate for United Way of Central Iowa. So how do you deal with these annoying circumstances? Don't use your speaker phone and don't be afraid to kindly ask colleagues to keep it down (they may not even be aware of their faux pas).

7. Pare down personal calls.

Your boss understands that occasionally you'll have personal business to attend to. But excessive cell phone chatter won't help your productivity, so limit personal calls to five minutes or less if they're crucial. If they're not, let voicemail answer until lunch or after hours (when you'd also answer personal e-mails). And to keep distractions to a minimum, set your phone on silent or vibrate (not everyone is a fan of your Coldplay ringtone).

8. Take a breather.

Of course it's important to get your work done, but everyone needs a break now and then. Stand up and stretch. Step away from your computer (it's best to take a five-to-10-minute break every two hours to give your eyes a rest). Take a walk around the office or climb the stairs in your building. Go outside for some vitamin D and fresh air. Let your brain go offline so you can return refreshed.

9. Go green.

Place a plant in your cube to boost your brain power. In an eight-month study, a Texas A&M University research team explored the link between flowers and plants and workplace productivity. Participants performed problem-solving tasks in a workplace with flowers and plants, with sculpture, and with no decorative embellishments. Result: Workers demonstrated innovative thinking - generating more ideas and original solutions - in the greener environment. Male participants generated 15 percent more ideas, and females generated more creative, flexible solutions to problems when flora was present.

10. Skip the watercooler gabbing. Gossip is enticing.

"Hey did you hear that about ... " begs an "ooh, do tell." But when it comes right down to it, juicy tidbits cause more strife than they're worth. When asked how Christians can best live out their faith on the job, Kevin Miller, author of "Surviving Information Overload," says, "Gossip less. It's so easy for me to get pulled into unkind conversations about others, and as a Christian, one thing that would immediately make me stand out is to not do that."

11. Take your lunch break.

Make eat-at-your-desk lunches few and far between. Your brain needs the break of a new atmosphere for the 30 minutes or hour that you're allotted. And when you chow, avoid heavy meals (think high fat: fried foods, cream sauces, and so on) that make you feel sluggish the rest of the day or simple carb selections (like rice), which fill you up momentarily, then leave you hungry an hour later. And pack healthy snacks to curb mid-afternoon munchies (apple slices with a tablespoon of peanut butter or trail mix with nuts and raisins), avoiding the sugar spike-and-dives of vending machine choices.

12. Get moving.

If you prefer, use your lunch break to take a nearby exercise class or go for a walk with a favored co-worker. Exercise benefits your cardiovascular health, weight, and work mentality, allowing endorphins to elevate your mood and enhance your productivity.

13. Play well with others.

A few extra minutes to build relationships isn't wasted time. "Establishing good rapport with co-workers is absolutely necessary for the success of our projects," says Ryan Wojcik, a business systems analyst/consultant in Tulsa, Okla. "It doesn't matter if I like the person or not - I need to be able to communicate in a cordial manner with this person if the project is to be completed successfully." So take time for people who cross your cube. Good interactions make good business sense.

14. But don't get too chummy on the clock.

Ever notice how sitcom characters never actually work at their jobs? And while co-workers can become good friends too, one of the biggest office time-wasters is spending too much time gabbing (or IMing) when you should be focusing on work. While it's always fun to catch up on a friend's hot date or to see what someone thought of an episode of "The Office," reserve longer chats for lunch (or after hours).

15. Minimize multitasking.

"We never concentrate on one task anymore," says John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "You take a little chip out of it, and then you're on to the next thing. It's harder to feel like you're accomplishing something." Instead, focus on doing one task at a time well. Join the revolt against multitasking, and enjoy the thrill of finishing projects fully and promptly.

16. Control your e-mail (not the other way around).

It's lightning fast, but e-mail isn't always your friend. "The average worker receives 220 messages every day in e-mails, memos, people visits, advertisements," Miller says. "Most people think they have to respond immediately to every e-mail." But you don't have to. Miller suggests two simple solutions: Turn off the Pavlovian chime on incoming e-mails (so you don't become distracted) and space e-mail deliveries further apart.

17. Plan for chaos.

In his book "Never Eat Barbeque in Maine: Proven Career Strategies From People Who've Been There, Done That," Ken Tanner advises, "Before you leave for the day, spend 15 minutes planning the next day. And plan loosely. The fact is that new priorities will pop up, your boss will re-direct your plans, and your assistant will get sick on the day you need her the most. Plan for interruptions and chaos, and build it into your schedule."

18. Do a reality check.

Even with a daily three-page to-do-list, Isaacs makes it a point to maintain perspective. "My co-worker once gave me the best advice, and that was that this job is never tied up in a pretty red bow at the end of the day. It will always be ready for you in the morning," she says. "I think that has helped me realize that everything won't be crossed off the list every day." Plus, knowing what really matters in the grand scheme of life has been a great reality check.

Christa A. Banister is a Nashville-based freelance writer.

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