By Michael Tune (NLGJA executive director)

I met with one of my mentors recently. She asked how I was, and inquired if I had been working hard. (For the record, I have three mentors, and I don’t think any of them realize who they are.) For her, your work is the most important thing. It serves as exhibits A through Z of your life to prove that you were productive, that you contributed to humanity in a meaningful way. For her, work comes before most anything else.

I paused, and risked displeasing her when I finally responded with the simple statement, “I’ve been working smart.”

Whenever I have a meeting with someone who is late, they always respond with, “Sorry, I am just so busy,” as though they are the only one in this restaurant/coffee shop/phone call who is actually busy.

The truth is, everyone is busy: That’s what Americans do. They work … busily.

To say that you’re busy is akin to saying, “Sorry, I’m late. I was brushing my teeth.”  Who doesn’t brush their teeth? What you’re really saying is that you can’t seem to organize your life well enough to arrive on time, or that you’ve over-committed yourself.

If you find yourself in that situation, might I suggest you need to learn how to work smart. To start, prioritize, and learn to say “no” so you’re not biting off more than you can chew.

I’m the “no” guy. I say the word “no” a lot in my work. It drives people crazy, but it drives me calmly. I know my limits; know yours. The truth is, if I were to say “yes” to every request, proposal and project, I’d just be lying to the requester, proposer and project creator. And as we all know, lying never leads to anything good for anyone.

Spend the time you need to prioritize your overall work, your day and your life. Be realistic. For example, I haven’t worked at a job that required a timecard in years, but I still often find myself keeping strict written records of how long it takes me to do Project X. It not only helps me remember how long Project X actually took to do, it helps me better understand how much free time I will actually have next Thursday when I’m working on Project X again.

Working smart doesn’t mean you won’t work hard. It means you’re focused on your priorities, and more likely to be happy with the finished result. And as an added bonus, you’ll probably be on time to a lot more meetings.

What are your tricks to working smart?