Sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything we want to. But once we take a look at exactly where our working day goes, it’s not surprising. Most of us are far less productive than we think, and it’s not that we’re not working – it’s because we’re not working intelligently.
The most basic way to increase productivity is simple: it starts with defending the time you have each day, so you get exactly what you want from it. Here’s how to go about working smarter, not harder.
Identify where your time is going
First things first – it’s easier to increase your productivity when you have a clear overview of where your time is actually going. Once you can identify where your time gets syphoned off and which tasks are taking too long, you’ll able to figure out what to adjust.
Tracking your time is a no-brainer here – just make sure you choose a software that automates the task so you don’t waste more productive time in the process. AI-powered apps like Timely are hugely illuminating for this – they can show you how you spend your time down to the app or webpage used. You get a full picture of all the time you spend on travel, emails, meetings, calls, communication, project management and, well, your actual work.
Learn to say “no”
We all want to be helpful, but being polite and obliging shouldn’t come at the expense of meeting your own goals. If you work in an office, you’ll likely already know how many unexpected tasks can land on your desk each day. Maybe someone asked you to “quickly” help them with an urgent task; perhaps someone asked you to sit in on an important meeting. Take a tip from Bill Gates… learn to say "no"!
Just because a meeting is important doesn’t mean you’ll learn anything from it – and if you don’t learn from it or contribute in a meaningful way, you shouldn’t be there. While it’s nice to show moral support, if a job isn’t your duty and doesn’t aid your objectives, it’s just a waste of time you could be spending on something that’ll actually benefit you.
Learning to say “no” also applies to new work. This can be difficult for freelancers and consultants; when you move from job to job without any real security, saying no can result in a fear that you’ll never work again. But remember, if you’re not able to do a good job on the work you already have, few people will want to hire you for future work! Prioritize the jobs you have now, not the ones you might get later.
Know your habits
Once you’ve tracked your time you’ll already be more familiar with your working habits – both good and bad. While addressing the bigger issues may take more consideration, now is the time to recognize, and then shake off, any minor bad habits you have. When analyzing your time, key things to look out for are:
Multitasking: On paper this can be an enviable trait, but it has its drawbacks. If you’re constantly flipping from job to job, not only is your attention spread too thinly, but you need to refocus and recalibrate every time you begin a new task. This can cost 23 minutes a hit!
Routines: What working routines do you have? While there’s nothing wrong with having a routine, may of them are unproductive. Routines, like habits, act like a shortcut for our brain, so they can prevent us from being aware of where our time is really going. Scrapping old routines is like a workflow spring cleaning; get rid of old, tired routines and discover fresh new ways of working. Here are a few ideas to get you going.
Procrastination and passive work: We all need a break now and then, but procrastination is rarely the answer. If you need a break, take a real one; mindlessly scrolling through social media will always be empty and aimless. Similarly, keep an eye on how much time you’re spending on passive work – e.g. replying to emails or making calls. You might think you’re being useful, but does it really count as “productive work”?
Work on what’s important – not what’s urgent
Many people spend too much time on jobs that are urgent, but not actually important. This is very counterproductive; with a few exceptions, you should always prioritize what’s important, rather than what’s immediately pressing. Called the "Eisenhower Principle", after the American President who utilized the technique, this strategy highlights the importance of being effective as well as efficient.
So how do you decide which jobs are important and which are urgent? Important tasks result in us achieving our objectives; urgent tasks need instant responsiveness, and are frequently associated with achieving another person’s objectives. Think long-term, and don’t be swayed by jobs that may be urgent but really, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty inconsequential.
One big benefit of defending your time is that you’re left with more space in your schedule, so be smart and use this for uninterrupted productive work. Consider trying time blocking, a time management strategy where you break your day into units and spend a predetermined time period on each task.
Let’s say you freed up five hours in the afternoon – the smart thing to do would be to block out three of those hours to work on the job that’s most important to you. Having finite portions of time helps improve focus and stay on track, too; because you only have a limited amount of time on a task, you’re less likely to get distracted.