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Getting Efficient

By Marty Nemko

It seems we’re already making the most of every minute: we talk on our cell phone while driving, we work while downing our lunch, make dinner while attending to our child’s pleas for attention.

Need we be even more efficient? For better or worse, most of us want to be. If you feel that way, here are some ways to wring 30 hours from a 24-hour day:

§ Whatever task you’re doing, have a little voice in your head constantly asking yourself, "Is this the most efficient way?" For example, let’s say you need your colleagues’ input. Your first intuition is to call a meeting. Might an email to the group do the job in a fraction of the time? Another example: You need to write a report on fertilizing tomatoes. You’re tempted to go to the library or review a range of databases. But might the job be done well enough just by googling “fertilize tomatoes?” While writing a column, I’m constantly asking myself, “Is this the most efficient way?”

§ When you have a choice, do tasks you can do easily. They go faster. For example, I’e remolded my worklife so it includes lots of writing. Ask your boss if your job description could be changed to emphasize your strengths.

§ Hire a personal assistant, if only for a few hours a week. Delegate the tasks you do poorly or don’t like to do. You’ll free yourself up to do more lucrative, important, or fun activities.

§ Avoid major time sucks: watching TV, taking long vacations, time-consuming hobbies such as golf or fishing. When you include the travel time, going to a single baseball game costs you most of a day. Sure, some additional pleasure comes from watching in person, but TV is so much more time-effective: no travel time, and during commercials, you can get stuff done. I wrote half this column during the commercials of an A’s game. Plus you can see the game better on TV, and that sandwich and a beer that costs $10 at the stadium is just $2 at home.

§ Learn how to say no: Do you really need to agree to plan the company picnic?

§ Shop online. Using such sites as ebay,,, and, for high-tech stuff,, I am usually able to find what I want at a great price. That’s usually much more time-effective than driving to the mall, traipsing through stores, and too often ending up not finding what I want. Recently, guilt-invoked by listeners to my radio show who blame me for not using local independent bookstores, I went to a large one. It had only one of the three books I was looking for and the price for all three was 20-30% higher than at Not only did Amazon have all three (it offers 2,000,000 titles compared with a large bookstore’s 60,000), Amazon offers reviews of each book and recommends similar titles.

§ Think three times before going back to school. A class is the least efficient way to learn most things. Better to get a tutor or mentor. And don’t think a degree will necessarily help you in the job market. The Bay Area has a glut of degree holders. Your job prospects will usually be more enhanced if you spend the time and money on tutoring/mentoring, supplemented by networking with prospective employers.

§ Try this six-step efficiency builder. 1. Write a personal mission statement. Mine is: “Provide under-the-radar advice on careers, encourage honest exploration of racial issues, and expose higher education as America’s most overrated product.” 2. List the activities that take up a lot of your time. (If you don’t know how you spend your time, keep a memo pad and a timer with you for a typical weekday and a weekend day. Every 15 minutes, write down what you’re doing.) 3. Cross out any tasks that, in truth, needn't be done. Keep in mind your personal mission statement. 4. Mark each remaining task as high- or low-priority. 5. Assign each task to yourself or someone else. 6. If you sense that any tasks could be done more efficiently, consider asking someone for suggestions.

Finally, don’t let efficiency cloud the need for moments of utter inefficiency. Take a minute to stare at the clouds, take five deep breaths, self-massage your arm, neck, or face. Do it now.

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