7 Ways to Working Smart

Working smart at work

It may be the case that we all want to have Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of effective people and the 8 habits of highly effective (Google) managers. And if we can’t remember all those, at least we could try doing the quandrant thing to sift out the important and urgent stuff we need to attend to (“The only thing you need to remember about the seven habits of highly effective people”, Forbes, 24 July 2012).

Those are all good to have. But perhaps you may be thinking, I don’t have time! You may also be thinking, I don’t have time to learn new things! But spending a little bit of time initially can save you time in the long run.

Here are a few ideas to chew on:

1. Save your work

It seems like time spent on nothing and extra work but saving your important files on an external device will save you a lot of time later when things go wrong. It takes only a few minutes to back up your computer on a external hard drive if you plug it in regularly and if you use backup software which will back up your files additively. If you don’t happen to have the hard drive with you every other day, it’s also a good idea to copy your latest version of a file you’ve been working on for the last sleepless 3 days to your Google drive, cloud or Dropbox. In the unlikely event that your thumb drive and hard drive both fail, you will still have a version to work off from your G drive!

2. Use hotkeys

Once you have discovered keyboard shortcuts, you’ll never want to go back to not using them! The keyboard shortcuts  for Windows 7, even if you only learn to use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V (copy-paste functions), will save you time switching from keyboard to mouse and back again. The only hitch is that once you swap keyboards between desktop and laptop, you might find your usual keys not in the usual place. But it’s a small price to pay for a huge saving in time. For people switching from Windows to a Mac O/S, hotkeys aren’t very different: ⌘+C and ⌘+V get your stuff copied and pasted in a jiffy. There’s of course more to learn for the enthusiast…

In Word, Excel and other office programs, you have the option of creating a macro or customized keyboard shortcut for an action that you do regularly and have to repeat. Instead of using the mouse, you can set up your own keyboard shortcut and use that instead. Setting up your own Word or Powerpoint template can also be useful in the long run.

3. Keep a folder of bookmarks

Do you work in an organization for which the intranet contains so much information that you can never find the form you need to download or the documentation manual and guide on specific company policies? And even if you work for an organization which has the most amazing website where everything is efficiently catalogued, you’ll probably have to toggle other websites in which there is too much information and not enough order in their menus and submenus. The answer to the problem is bookmarks! It’s an essential survival tool. Not only will you be able to download the forms you need to declare lots of things on, you’ll be able to do it in one click (after typing your username and password), while everyone else navigates the maze to retrieve their cheese.

4. Wear headphones and hang a “don’t disturb” sign

Listening to music can be a useful way to cut out the background conversations. Assuming we’re doing something in which music doesn’t interfere with our cognitions. But wearing headphones does help everyone observe the “don’t disturb” sign that you’ve posted loudly and clearly on your desk and on your forehead. Asking people to talk to you during designated times such as lunch and mid-morning coffee breaks will help you create blocks of uninterrupted work time. So take time out to make your sign and buy earbuds!

5. Make time to socialise and network

Have lunch with your team and colleagues. In addition to helping you increase the number of steps you’ve walked in a day and improve your mood by staying socially integrated at your workplace, it’ll save you time from writing small emails which go back and forth faster than a table tennis rally. Mid-morning coffee breaks in which the whole office or team participates have been found to be useful strategies for helping team members communicate effectively about a task they’d like to request another team member’s help with.

6. Schedule your email replies

One useful tip is to not to start the day by checking mail, as suggested in this Forbes article. Rather than checking mail when we first start our work day (which might be the morning for the larks among us), it is more efficient use of our cognitive resources to reply to emails when we’re not as alert. That saves us our brain for real work.

The reason why this tip works is that if our main work is not replying emails, we are less likely to get caught up replying to an email that just arrived (and spending the next hour shuffling the right words into sentences) and sorting out the mail to find the one that does require a response from us.

And when we do read our mail (which we’ll do sparingly in the day as we have real work to do), we can compose our response offline and schedule the response to leave our outbox at a specific time (perhaps at the time when we next read our email). Most email clients offer this function: Try it to step up your efficiency!

7. Use email filters

Getting lots of unimportant emails (often from others inside the same organization) is a common problem faced by many employees. The bigger the organization, the more emails we seem to receive. There are many events, activities, meetings, and bazaars which appear to arrive in our inbox whether we want them or not. Instead of manually moving these emails to folders, we can automate this process by setting up a filter to do it either when the mail arrives or when we click a button to “run filter”.

We can either select unimportant or non-urgent emails to filter by telling the email client to send mails from a specific someone (using their name or exact email address) or key words in the subject line or body automatically to a local folder, which we can browse leisurely, when our brain is sending out the “20% battery: Please recharge your brain now” signals. Most email clients like Outlook, Thunderbird, Windows Live, Gmail, all have this function. There’s no excuse for not setting one (or 50) up.

Do something about it

Do something about it

The fifth day of Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) was also World Cancer Day.

It seems a good time to take stock of our health. Especially now that we’ve been let loose from the dominion of uncontrolled pineapple tart scoffing and have been set free from unrestricted access to yu sheng, under the auspices of generating bounteousness and plenitude with the humble shredded carrot, cucumber, radish, yam, pomelo, plum sauce and ginger.

A recent article in the Guardian reported cancer rates for women in the UK to be linked to a lack of exercise. And although local cancer rates differ from those in other countries, the most frequent cancers in the local population – colorectal and breast for men and women respectively (refer to this report for facts and figures) – are associated with low intake of fruits and vegetables and sedentary low-exercise lifestyles (see this fact sheet on colorectal cancer and this fact sheet on breast cancer from the National Registry of Diseases Singapore).

Even for cancers which are less frequently occurring, such as non-small cell lung cancer (details in a Mind Your Body article, 4 Nov 2010), targeted treatments are improving rates of recovery as well as remission. Even advanced lung cancer patients are living longer locally because of targeted treatments (CNA, 30 Nov 2013). Immune therapies which shrink the tumour are also being made available thanks to the advancement of research in this area. And new breakthroughs happen on a regular basis: “Sticky balls may stop cancer spreading” (BBC News, 9 Jan 2014).

Cancer research receives a colossal amount of funding worldwide (see this blog entry about cancer funding from the NY Times), but it’s not really going anywhere unless we do something about the things that we do know. And we know that exercise and fruit-vegetables have something to do with the most common cancers.

Dealing with the emotions of having a diagnosis and receiving treatment, as well as caring and supporting a family member or friend who is coping with an illness, are also sources of stress. It’s important to take steps which can help one adjust to the illness: the National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS) provides a comprehensive approach; practical tips are at the US National Cancer Institute and Mayo Clinic, while advice on how to help a friend can be found here at the APA website and this NIH website.

It’s a good time to start a new habit. More so if you made 1 Jan 2014 resolution to exercise more and eat more fruits and vegetables. Here’s a chance to reboot that resolution and make it last the whole horse year.

Understanding Gen-Y

A 2010 Harvard Business Review report, Mentoring Millennials indicates that Millennials—those born between 1977 and 1997—seek work which they find personally fulfilling. Their wish list includes a desire to develop their skills, to be mentored, to receive career coaching, and to have flexible work hours.

A 2013 report from the Millenial Impact Corporate Research Project indicates that 75% of millennials like, retweet, or share content on social media, while A Pew Research Centre study reports that 75% of Millennials have a profile on a social networking site and 20% also have a video of themselves online. Additionally, a 2013 Gallup study reports that Millennials are the more likely than Gen-X and Baby Boomers to say that they would leave their company in the next 12 months if the job market improves.This concurs with a 2012 workplace poll that reports 91% of Millennials expecting to stay in a job for less than 3 years. On the bright side, the Gallup report finds US Millennials to be more actively engaged at their job than other generations of employees.

In the local context, a Singapore Human Resources Institute study characterizes local Gen-Y employees as a restless and tech-savvy lot. Job insecurity seems a major concern for them, according to a 2013 study on young people in Asia by Viacom International Media Networks Asia. But the same report also notes that as many as 69% of Millennials in Singapore describe themselves as “very happy””. And like employees from the other generations, local Millennials also view financial rewards and work-life balance as job incentives—a finding from a 2012 Civil Service College study on 450 local public officers.

The good news is that Gen-Ys are productively engaged workers, given the right incentives. And those things are things that everyone wants (“Winning the generation game“, The Economist, 28 Sept 2013). Employers just need to know what those incentives are.

Take control of your eating

Omega 3 and 6

We just had The Festive Weekend of the year. And it was not a fun time for people who need to watch what they eat.

A practical tip for those with diabetes has been to eat on smaller plates (Mind Your Body, 30 Jan 2014), while a useful guide for those with high cholesterol has been that they should choose foods which are low in saturated fat.

But here are some facts that you may not be aware of.

1. Not all carbohydrates are equal.

It’s always a good idea to fill up on vegetables that are coloured (e.g., broccoli, kai lan, peppers, brinjal, carrots, spinach), and to keep in mind that root vegetables are essentially sources of carbohydrates rather than fibre. But not all carbs are equal. White unpolished rice isn’t particularly diabetes-friendly. But sweet potato and yam have a lower glycaemic index (here’s a chart). And so do soba (buckwheat noodles), beehoon (freshly made rice noodles), steel-cut (Irish) oats, rolled oats, tortillas, lentils, and barley, while russet potatoes have moderate glycaemic index when eaten cold (here’s why).

2. Eat food rich in Omega 3.

Foods with omega 3 are the in thing these days (here’s the science behind it). So it makes sense that you’d want to fill up on oily fish (here’s a list), walnuts, cauliflower, and flax seeds. In fact, there’s evidence that a handful of almonds or walnuts a day decreased the bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) for participants in two separate studies (here’s that data). In comparison, walnuts and brazil nuts have to be eaten in moderation. For a comparison of oils and omega-3 among nuts, check out this table.

3. Don’t blame that bad egg.

The recent advice about eggs has been that what we really need to watch out for is the amount of fat in our food intake, not so much the foods with cholesterol that we eat (here’s why), particularly if our cholesterol levels and triglycerides are in the healthy range. Nevertheless, those of us with elevated cholesterol might want to be careful about eating foods which have relatively higher levels of cholesterol (read this piece of advice and this piece about quail eggs).

Majong is good for you

That majong is good for us is music to our ears (well, at least for some of us who actually play majong). The claim is based on recent research findings, which has led to reports that “tai chi, majong offer hope for dementia patients” (South China Morning Post, 22 April 2013; see also a similar report in www.majongnews.com).

The evidence is based on two studies. The first showed that a 3-times-a-week programme of either tai chi or majong for 12 weeks was significantly more effective in reducing depression scores among older adults with mild dementia and moderate depression in nursing homes than a handicraft control condition (Cheng et al., 2011). The second showed that the same programme was effective in improving cognitive task performance for a sample of 110 participants with the same population characteristics (Cheng et al., 2012); the first study sampled 12 participants for each condition. It’s not the case that the findings are limited to only nursing residents because these results replicate an earlier finding by Cheng and colleagues. Their 2006 study found that playing majong twice or four times a week for a duration of 16 weeks improved the cognitive performance of 62 older adults living in the community.

Although it would appear that playing majong is helpful in protecting against dementia, it would be wise to also observe that the participants in the 2006 study had not played (although they knew how to play) the game for at least 6 months prior to the study. Similarly, nursing residents were also not regularly practising tai chi or playing majong on a regular basis before the intervention programme was implemented. That is to say, there may be some benefit initially of engaging in mentally challenging activities, but at some point the cognitive demand of these activities may not be sustained over the longer term.

So the advice is to provide your brain with opportunities to grow new neural connections. Giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks like mastering a new language, musical instrument, skill, dance, game, or exercise form, serves this purpose. Learning to play a mentally challenging game like Chinese or international chess, weiqi, taboo, scattergories, and majong for the first time will definitely put us out of our comfort zone. But with a little practice (or a lot for strategy games), it likely loses its edge in its ability to build cognitive reserves and its protective cloak against Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re feeling comfortable, whatever you’re doing is not likely to be of extra benefit. If you’re feeling the strain on your brain, you should keep doing it (at least for a while).

Learning is important. But what’s crucial is that we keep levelling up.