Working 9 to 5? What a way to make a living--especially because it's not uncommon for the typical workday to stretch to 6:00, 7:00, or even later. But what can you do? You have calls and e-mail to return, meetings to attend, and TPS reports to file. It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it.
Don't let it. With the right tools and services at your disposal, you can stop staying late and start leaving the office on time--maybe even early. After all, most bosses don't care where or how you get your work done, so long as it gets done. By following our advice, you'll learn to work faster, not harder. Who knows? Maybe you'll even save enough time to sneak out to an afternoon ballgame.
Master Your To-Do List
A good to-do list is the cornerstone of office efficiency. Such a tool can save you from the 4:30 p.m., forehead-smacking realization that you forgot to submit your expense report. (Good luck trying to leave early when that happens.)
The trick is finding a to-do system that's more capable than a yellow sticky note affixed to your monitor or a legal pad stuffed into your briefcase. Both are easily overlooked or forgotten; neither can send you a text message when it's time to do something.
Enter Producteev, a free Web-based task manager with a few handy perks not found elsewhere. Foremost among them is how it lets you add tasks to your list: You can use the Web, e-mail, instant messaging, or your iPhone--whichever is most convenient at any given time. It can sync your tasks with Google Calendar and add a widget to your iGoogle homepage, too.
Since Producteev is available wherever you are, it's easier not only to add tasks but also to review them and receive reminders. The tool isn't perfect--currently it offers no Outlook integration, and you won't find apps for Android or BlackBerry--but it does have some slick social-media features. For example, you can get your coworkers involved and compete in "Who can get the most done?" contests.
Check out some of the Web's other task-management heavyweights, as well. Remember The Milk, for instance, has long been a favorite of the Getting Things Done crowd, and it offers companion apps for all smartphone platforms--though you need a Pro account ($25 a year) to use them. Another popular service, Toodledo Pro, offers similar capabilities for $15 a year.
Make Sure Phone Calls Find You
Suppose a client calls during lunch. He leaves a message on your office voicemail, which you forget to check until later that afternoon. Turns out there's a crisis that only you can solve, and it's going to take hours. Sure, the client could have called your cell phone, but let's face it: The onus is on you to be available and accessible at all times.
That's where a service like Google Voice comes into play. Originally available by invitation only but now open to everyone, Google Voice offers a killer feature for on-the-go business users: a single phone number that can ring all your other numbers (work, home office, cell, and so on), or just the ones you choose. It can also transcribe voicemail into text and deliver those items via e-mail--another great way to make sure you get all your important messages.
Another option is Phonebooth, a similar service designed expressly for business users. In addition to automated call routing and voicemail transcription, Phonebooth lets you set up a more businesslike auto-attendant option so that callers can reach specific departments, and it provides a click-to-call widget that you can put on your Website.
Both services are free, though Phonebooth OnDemand ($20 a month) adds a bunch of other features that you might find useful, such as unlimited local and long-distance calls.
(For more suggestions, check out "13 Top-Notch Web Services for Business and Communication.")
Automate Repetitive E-Mail Tasks
A minute saved is a minute lopped off the end of your workday. Outlook 2010 offers a way to save many minutes throughout your day: Quick Steps. This new feature automates frequently performed e-mail tasks, such as simultaneously replying to and deleting an e-mail message, creating a new message that goes to your entire team, or moving messages from specified senders into a particular folder. Even better, Quick Steps lets you create your own custom "e-mail macros" and then trigger them with just one click.