Keep Interruptions to a Minimum
How can you be expected to polish off your projects if colleagues are constantly stopping by to ask questions or chitchat? PCWorld's Dave Johnson has a couple of tips for keeping such interruptions to a minimum, starting with Outlook's autoresponder: "It's not just for when you're sick or on vacation," he says. "Use it to let people know that you're heads-down in a project and won't respond to e-mail or phone calls today."
Johnson also recommends buying a pair of headphones. You don't necessarily have to listen to music, but the simple act of wearing headphones creates "some sort of perception that visitors are violating 'private time,' and so they come back later."
Use E-Mail Instead of Phone Calls
So you wrapped everything up at 4:00 and you're ready to hit the road. The only remaining task is to call a client for clarification on a project item. You make the call, but the client turns out to be a long talker, and you get dragged into an endless conversation about...well, does it really matter? You can't be rude and you can't hang up, so you sit and listen while the minutes tick by.
That's why people invented e-mail. Sure, warm phone chats with the client are great for building and maintaining rapport, but save them for when you have time to burn. If all you need is the answer to a simple question, resist the urge (which seems especially ingrained in people over 40) to pick up the phone. Fire off an e-mail, and then head for the door. You can always watch for the reply on your BlackBerry (though not when you're behind the wheel--that's just dangerous).
Use Instant Messaging Instead of E-Mail
E-mail may be faster than a phone call, but it's slower than an instant message. Sticking with the previous example, let's say you need clarification on a project item--and you can't leave the office until you get it. Who knows when the client will check and answer his or her e-mail? That could take hours. But if you have the client's IM address, you can ask the question as quickly as if you were sitting in the same room.
Okay, but what if the client's office is on Yahoo Messenger and you're a Google Talk fan? No problem: Meebo is a cross-platform chat service that resides in your browser. That means it has no software to install (so it should get a free pass from your company's IT guys), and it can connect you with anyone on just about any network--AIM, ICQ, MSN, even Facebook.
Use Text Messaging Instead of Instant Messaging
Instant messaging is great for getting quick feedback, but isn't always practical. What happens, for example, if you need your boss to sign off on a sales agreement, but he or she is stuck in a meeting with no access to IM? Simple: Send a text message instead (but only if you have prior approval to do so).
Don't stick to e-mail, because the boss might be ignoring new mail until the meeting is over. A text message has urgency, so it's more likely to get peeked at under the conference table. Send a brief, direct question like "OK to renew WidgetCo's contract at $75K?" and you make it easy for the boss to text "Yep" in reply. Presto: You're headed for the freeway.
Rescue Yourself From Endless Meetings
A meeting that ends on time is as rare as a dinosaur eating a dodo-egg omelet. How can you extract yourself without getting into trouble? Just schedule a fake phone call. Either enlist a trusted friend to call you at a specific time, or tap a fake-call app on your smartphone. Fake-A-Call for iPhone, for example, emulates real calls from real contacts (or a fictional doctor, lawyer, or the like) at designated times. It will even play a script for you to repeat so that the call sounds authentic. Sure, it's a little sneaky, but nothing gets you out of an endless meeting like, "Sorry, but I have to take this."
Get Home From Work Faster
What good is getting out of work early if you end up in traffic? The problem is, you never know when you're going to get stuck in traffic until, well, you're stuck in it.
Instead of waiting for the radio announcer to deliver a traffic forecast, fire up Beat the Traffic on your BlackBerry or iPhone. This convenient app maps out traffic trouble spots in your area so that you know what you're in for--and whether you should steer clear.
Beat The Traffic also has a traffic-camera option that shows real-time images from along your route, as well as a Forecast button that projects what conditions will be like in 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, and so on. Both features are great for those occasions when you don't know what's causing a backup--an accident, construction, a cop on the side of the road--and you want to see if it makes sense to get off at the next exit or to stick it out.
This app works well for your morning commute, too. After all, the later you get to work, the later you have to stay.
Finish Up at Home
What's the single best way to do your work without actually being at work? Take your laptop anywhere--home, the ballpark, a beach in Bermuda--and "dial in" using remote-access software. PCWorld has covered such tools many times before, so I won't rehash them here. The good news is, you can get everything you need without spending a penny. Find out more in "Free Remote-Access Tools for Windows and Mac."