How does the expression go? “A stitch in time saves nine”? But the stratospheric levels of modern busyness — juggling work, family and friends, exercise, social obligations (and social media) combined with the blinding acceleration of technology — has actually made us less efficient and more distracted. It seems we can’t focus or prioritize anymore, and time wasted is something we can never get back.
Efficiency is about working smart, and part of that is planning. If you can get back 30 minutes a day, that means you’ve saved yourself about 15 hours a month in down time. But it’s not just about the will to do it; it’s about knowing what techniques work best to make the most of your day with less stress and greater efficiency. Here are some easy-to-implement steps to take back those precious minutes. Some will apply to you, some won’t — but try each until you find the ones that fit, and then make them a part of your daily practice.
1 Do your toughest work in the morning. Okay, so not in the very early morning when you’re just trying to wake up and get some hot joe. A University of Michigan study found that adults had better mental acuity between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 a.m., and that sharpness declined in the afternoon. So finish the difficult and less desirable tasks first, because it’s easier to tackle a tough task when you’re fresh than later in the day when you’re mentally fatigued.
2 Make a daily plan. Before you dive in headfirst, write down your thoughts and goals for the day. This prevents your brain from kicking around multiple action items and allows it focus on just one; the next one will be sitting there when you’re ready for it.
3 Get your email under control. Checking your inbox every few minutes can be a massive waste of time. Establish set times in the day to check email — first thing in the morning, before lunch and at the end of the day. Whatever the frequency, try to keep it low and regular. Also, turning off audible and visual alerts certainly helps.
4 Remove distractions. You can’t do this all day, of course, but you can say, for a half hour, close your office door, silence your cell phone and close down your web browser in order to make the most of your time. Just think of how much you get done when you’re in the office by yourself on the weekends with no phone calls and no visitors. You can get at least a half hour of that on the weekdays if you so choose; just look really serious when someone comes by to chat.
5 Group like tasks together. It’s a mental change-up when you go from finishing a tough spreadsheet to leading a conference call to writing a thank-you note. Handle similar tasks back to back and you’ll find that the transitions are more fluid and you can stay on point.
6 Stay organized, and clean. You can have your office and living space aesthetically clean, but that doesn’t mean it’ll save you time. Keep all of your keys and daily accoutrements in the same place (a valet tray helps), keep your chargers centrally located and keep like items in a centralized location, and you’ll find that the time wasted looking for your stuff will give you back hours a week.
7 Use down time as up time. Sitting on the train for the commute home or parked in the waiting room at the doctor’s office? Get on the emails you didn’t respond to, re-organize your to-do lists and update them for the next day, write long overdue thank-you notes and read that book on procrastination you’ve been meaning to finish for so long.
8 Cut down on commitments. You’d be surprised how much crap you’ve packed into your week. From work committees to running clubs to intramural football and beer brewing classes, there’s no end to the seemingly important obligations. Whittle them down to a couple really important ones and fight the FOMO of the ones you’ll miss.
9 Don’t cook every day. Preparation is half the battle, so choose a couple of nights a week where you cook more than one meal, preferably on a weekend. This way you, you’ll save time in meal prep and cooking, and the mental preparation of figuring out what to cook.
10 Work it out. We all make excuses that we don’t have the time, but regular exercise provides not just health benefits but also boosted cognitive function and a solid routine. Also, if you work out at lunch time, you can get over that sleepy afternoon hump.
11 Get your errands done in one blow. Sure, it’s a pain to do all that schlepping around on a weekend morning or afternoon, but you’ll be shocked at how much time you save by cutting down on individual trips.
12 Don’t fall for the myth of multi-tasking. It doesn’t work, and your brain isn’t designed to focus on more than one thing at a time. Get one thing done quickly and well and move on to the next thing. It’s far more efficient than plodding your way through four things poorly.
13 Love automation. Still writing checks and mailing them to pay the bills? Do your banking and bill paying online and save yourself the headache. Also, set email filters, send calls directly to voicemail when you need to get something done and get the postal service to pick up your packages for free instead of going to the actual post office. Lots of life can be automated, and the short amount of time you put in to set this up will save you hours in the long run.
14 Prep the night before. You’re sluggish and scrambling in the morning, and you know it, so get everything ready the night before, and make that your habit. Pack your gym bag, your lunch and your work gear and you’ll be ready to get out the door that much faster in the morning.
15 Turn off the screens. Cut down on web surfing and mindless TV, especially in the wee hours. The bright light from your computer, tablet, phone and TV inhibits the body’s ability to generate melatonin, which cues you to get ready to sleep. So, cutting out that last YouTube clip can help get you more rest to be ready for the next day.