We have a tendency to believe that we must be productive every waking moment of the day. I’m sure you’ve found yourself immediately responding to emails as soon as you turn your alarm off in the morning. After that, you’re getting ready for the day, put in ten hours at work, cook dinner, and then go back to responding to messages before crashing.
Sure. There will be some days like that, such as when launching a new product or service. Daily, though, this just isn’t attainable. So, what can you do about this quagmire?
The easy answer? Work smarter by getting more done in less time. That might sound impossible, but it is by getting the maximum return on investment of your time by doing the following.
Schedule your most important work according to your internal clock.
“Numerous studies have demonstrated that our best performance on challenging, attention-demanding tasks – like studying in the midst of distraction – occurs at our peak time of day,” writes Cindi May for The Scientific American. “When we operate at our optimal time of day, we filter out the distractions in our world and get down to business.”
Another way of putting that? We all have our own unique natural rhythms. Known as circadian rhythms, these explain why some of us are morning birds while others are night owls.
Rather than fighting about yourself, tune into your body’s rhythms. For instance, after tracking your time, you realize that you’re most productive from 10 a.m. to noon. Now that you’re aware of this, you would schedule your most important tasks for the day during that block when you’re most alert and focused.
Use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage.
Another advantage of tracking your time? You’ll have a better pulse on how long you need to complete certain tasks.
For instance, in the past, you set aside four hours to improve daily operations’ efficiency and effectiveness. After tracking your time, though, you realize that this can be done in three. Obviously, that means you’re wasting an hour of your day.
What’s more, his will help you combat Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work will fill the time available for its completion.” So, if you plan to work four hours, then you’re going to fill every minute of that timeframe. The problem is that because you only need three hours, those extra 60-minutes will be used for trivial tasks or as an excuse to procrastinate.
To hack Parkinson’s Law, you could employ tactics like:
- Cutting your deadlines in half.
- Gamifying tasks by racing against the clock.
- Using blackmail, such as not getting a latte if you go over time.
- Creating consequences, like only working until your laptop battery dies.
- Aligning work with external obligations. If you have a virtual meeting at 1 p.m., your most important work must be done by then.
Follow the 80/20 rule.
Also known as the Pareto Principle, this is a powerful way to encourage you to focus on the vital few. You don’t have to get too hump-up on the exact percentage here. The jest is that instead of wasting time on the trivial many, you spend it on the most important and valuable items.
How can you apply this? I would begin by simplifying your to-do-lists using strategies like:
- Mapping out your 1-3-5 items. Here you merely identify your main priority, 3 medium priorities, and 5 smaller to-dos, so you know what to schedule first.
- Employing a priority matrix. My personal favorite technique since it lets you determine what’s Important and Urgent, Not Urgent and Important, Not Urgent and Not Important, and Neither Urgent nor Important.
- Identifying your MIT. Your MIT is simply your most important task that comes before anything else. No exceptions.
- Creating a “done” list. Seeing what you’ve already accomplished lets your track your progress and spot recurring priorities.
After pinpointing your priorities, add them to your calendar. It’s just a simple way to guard your time and reject the unnecessary. Additionally, you should also be able to figure out what can be rescheduled, delegated, or deleted from your lists.
Manage your energy, not your time.
“Whenever someone says they need to get more done during the day, the answer is always to improve time management,” writes Choncé Maddox in a previous Calendar article. That’s not to say that you should through time management out the window. It’s just that time is a limited resource.
“The amount of time you have will never change,” explains Choncé. “What you do with your time can change, but it is heavily dependent on your motivation and energy levels.”
Because of this, “it’s much more important to manage your energy over managing time,” she suggests. “All the buzz about time management hacks can be helpful to a certain point, but ultimately, you need to start by managing your energy first if you want to be more efficient and have a better-balanced schedule. Here’s how to get started.”
While this may seem overwhelming, if you’ve begun working on any of the recommendations listed, you’re already on your way. Examples would include scheduling your priorities and working when energy levels are highest. You could prioritize physical activity and taking frequent breaks to rejuvenate.
Almost is good enough.
Does this mean you should just go through the motions? Of course not. You should always put your best foot forward.
However, that’s different than being a perfectionist. Remember, perfectionism is just a figment of your imagination. And, if you keep trying to obtain it, you’re only setting yourself up for failure.
A better approach is to think done instead of perfect. Just make sure to do the best you can. And, then you can move on to your next priority without falling behind.
Re-use previous materials.
“Your ability to reduce time by reusing and recycling work will vary depending on your particular responsibilities,” writes time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders over at HBR. “But where you can, copy, paste, and edit. That could happen with emails, presentations, pieces of training, proposals, and almost any other type of activity where you’re communicating something very similar. ”
“This strategy has proven most helpful for my coaching clients who give presentations or who teach,” adds Saunders. “When you’re pressed for time, fight the urge to entirely update or overhaul materials, and use something you already have to save hours and deliver the best content. Top speakers tend to give the same speech again and again because practice makes perfect.”
You could also review your calendar from last year to identify any recurring entries. For example, you notice that you have a weekly brainstorming session on Tuesdays at 3 pm. You could get a head start on next year’s schedule by making this a repeating event.
Another idea would be to recycle your content. For instance, you could turn high-performing blog posts into a slide deck or chapter of a book.
Be aware of emotional exhaustion.
“Emotional exhaustion refers to a specific state that includes not only physical symptoms of exhaustion, such as fatigue, headaches, sleep difficulties, and appetite changes but a distinct psychological experience of frustration, low motivation, helplessness, hopelessness,” explains clinical psychologist Deborah Offner, Ph.D.
“Emotional exhaustion is wider-ranging and longer-lasting than ‘a bad week,’” adds Dr. Offner. “It includes a constellation of physical and psychological symptoms that are caused by significant and prolonged stress in our professional or personal lives.” It’s also “a component of, or maybe a precursor to, burnout.”
In short, when you’re emotionally exhausted, you’re exhausted. Why? Because you have exceeded your capacity for emotional stress.
Eventually, if not addressed, this can lead to:
- Feeling hopeless, depressed, and irritable.
- Disconnecting and withdrawing from what’s around you.
- A lack of motivation.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Physical fatigue.
- Strained relationships.
If you notice any of the signs above, then you’re obviously not going to be as productive. More importantly, you’re putting your health and wellbeing in peril. To counter this, eat well, use coping skills like mindfulness, asking for help, and even taking a leave of absence to recharge.
Sharpen your saw.
Another way to avoid emotional exhaustion? Keep your saw sharp.
The idea comes from the story of a woodsman who was determined to cut down a tree. Despite all his elbow grease and grit, his blade was dull. But, the woodsman was too busy trying to stop to fix this problem.
Stephen Covey took this idea and listed it as Habit 7 in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For Covey, this “means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”
The idea is that you rest before you’re tired. As opposed to working non-stop, you should make it a point to take care of your health. You know, get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise. Using something like the Pomodoro Technique can encourage you to take breaks throughout the day.
Additionally, you can also use downtime to learn and grow. When you do, you can strengthen and develop new skills that can help you work faster. But, another facet of this is delegating or outsourcing things that you aren’t proficient at.
Reverse engineer your calendar.
“Fix your ideal schedule, then work backward to make everything fit–ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way,” suggests author and Georgetown University professor Cal Newport. “My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions.”
The idea here is that this gives you control over your schedule. So, if you have a block of time reserved for uninterrupted work, then guard that at all costs. Anything of less importance can get scheduled later.