When I visit my corporate clients these days I am amazed at the levels of stress and burn out that I am seeing.  People look haggard, rushing from one meeting to another, clutching bulging notebooks and beeping cell phones. When I ask why things are so out of control I hear the same answer every time:  tightened purse strings. More work does not mean more resources. If anything, the “do more with less” mantra has folks at the end of their patience and sanity.

Being the inveterate problem solver, I started to look for themes or trends that could explain overload and burnout beyond the obvious one of too much work with too few resources. Here is my prognosis on what is contributing to all this mess: although the workload may have changed in the past few years, people are still using the same, ineffective work habits. Habits, by definition, are unconscious, repeated behaviors. So here is the rub, if they are unconscious, I am not aware of them. If I am not aware that the behavior I am using is time-wasteful, I won’t change it.

So let me cast a sharp spotlight on some of the bad habits I see that need to stop and the good habits to replace them:

BAD HABIT: Meetings that are casually run with flexible start and end times, no agenda or agendas that are not followed and no accountability for assignments or follow-up.

NEW HABIT: Meetings start on time, end 5 minutes early for assignments, due dates, and follow up and adhere to a structured agenda.

PAYOFF: Meetings, as the name implies involve 2 or more people. When organizations support poor meeting processes, the waste multiples by all in attendance, resulting in a huge drain on time and effort. Start now to insist on honoring time and assignment commitments. Depending on how poor your meeting management has been, you may gain hours of additional time in your week.

OLD HABIT: Having “open door” policies which allow for continuous, ad hoc interruptions in your day.

NEW HABIT: Schedule specific times when you are open to interruptions and drop -by visitors. The amount of this open time can vary depending on your various constituents. It might be 20 minutes per hour or one hour per morning. The rest of your day should be scheduled to produce the work you need to be successful and should include blocks of dedicated, uninterrupted time. Yes, unplugged time, no interruptions, no drop-ins, no phones, no checking email.

PAYOFF: Use this unplugged time to concentrate and focus on critical issues that require your undivided attention.  You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish not just in the volume of work but in its quality. Take control of your time and the result will be more time to really get things done.

OLD HABIT: Grabbing at ideas and running with them based on the passion of the person requesting them.

NEW HABIT: Every time you are presented with a solution or a new idea ask, “What problem will this fix?” and “Will this solution have cross-impacts or repercussions that will create new problems for me?” Then add a day or two into the implementation plan to objectively assess whether or not it really is such a good idea after all.

PAYOFF:  If you fix problems once with a single solution rather than multiple times with quick fixes or partial patches imagine the time that will be added back into your days and weeks. Slow down. Ask the right questions. Question everything you do. Move from “action-solution- problem-new solution-new problem” to “action-solution-problem fixed”.

Bad habits can be replaced by productive behaviors but only if we invest the time in consciously adopting new ways to look at what we do. I am convinced that the “work smarter, not harder” adage applies now more than ever as we continue down the road of diminished resources.