It would be nice to have unlimited time. You could catch up on those dusty tasks at the bottom of your to-do list. Or get through all your brain dump notes.
So, is there a way to be a superhuman who can achieve higher-quality work in less time? The short answer is yes. You can learn to improve your productivity and time efficiency, but finding methods that work for you may take a while.
What is time efficiency?
Productivity focuses on achieving more effective results within the same period. Like finishing a project on time without needing significant changes or revisions. Great – now you can shift your entire focus onto the next project.
Time efficiency is doing the same task as before, but completing it faster (or with fewer resources). It could be your weekly report that usually takes you two hours, but now you get it done in one. Your increased efficiency could be down to creating a template, using automated tools or turning notifications off to stop distractions.
For organizations, we can see time efficiency as streamlined processes and technology. For example, simplified communication, easy information access and manual processes swapped for automated ones. Some companies can increase time efficiency by better supporting remote and hybrid workers across different regions whose most productive hours will differ, a recent study found.
The benefits of being more efficient with your time
Being more efficient will allow more time to spill into other areas of your life. The hour you saved by completing a weekly task faster (without compromising the quality) will give you the headspace for other things on your agenda. Or you may use it to take a break from your desk to stretch and clear your thoughts.
Time efficiency doesn’t mean cramming as much as possible in one day. Or only doing many minor tasks to get a false sense of achievement as you tick them off one by one.
The goal is to learn strategies to help you spend less time on some tasks while working towards those that contribute to meaningful goals – both on a personal and organizational level.
For example, Katie Barber, a social media and marketing strategist, is diligent about her time efficiency – the more time efficiently she gets something done, the better value it brings to her clients.
“I can work intensively and then go and do something I enjoy, instead of having to hang around until 6pm. It’s made me a happier, healthier person, and this shows up in the quality of my work.”
How to increase your time efficiency at work
You don’t have to wait for the following Monday or for a New Year’s resolution to change your working habits. Start with a straightforward change today and test it for at least a week. If something doesn’t feel right, the method may not work for you, even if another colleague swears by it.
1. Assess how you’re spending your time
You can run a time audit to find out where you actually spend your time. Accurately tracking your activities for a week will give you a starting point to evaluate where your time goes.
Use pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or an automated time-tracking tool like Timely. It’s too easy to guesstimate how long a task takes, but seeing the actual data helps spot room for improvement. You may notice you can batch similar jobs, consolidate meetings or move more complex tasks and deep work to when you feel most productive.
2. Set realistic goals
Unless we define our destination, how do we know if we are on the right path? Setting realistic goals makes priorities clear. This becomes more necessary when you are overwhelmed with tasks of equal importance. Reminding yourself of your goals can help filter out tasks not worth your time – at least for today.
As a team member or business owner, you likely already have organization-wide goals to work towards, but you can also add individual goals for a sense of fulfillment and progress. Even if you don’t achieve them, the main thing is to be kind to yourself – a study shows it’s okay not to hit your goals. But focusing on negative self-reflection is counterproductive. Instead, set your sights on what’s ahead.
3. Be ruthless with prioritization
Do your to-dos look more like a shopping list than an actionable plan? If all your tasks are a priority, none of them are. You also risk choice paralysis — with so many tasks of the same importance, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
To help plan, you can try the 1-3-5 rule – by splitting your tasks into categories based on complexity and importance. Each day you aim to complete one big task, three medium and less demanding tasks, and five small ones you can tick off quickly. Learning to prioritize tasks even without following this method will bring structure to your day.
4. Be strategic about how you’re scheduling your work day
The one-size-fits-all approach to a work schedule is a thing of the past. Your mental health, family situation, and even your circadian rhythm can all affect your peak productivity hours, which may not align with a traditional work schedule. While freelancers already have control over their schedules, now also employees increasingly look for companies that offer flextime.
Take it from Rachel B., a freelance content marketer and SEO specialist. After vigorously tracking her time spent on different tasks, Rachel shifted to a non-linear work schedule to correspond with when she was most productive.
Now her days start with lighter tasks and research to “warm up,” followed by diving into the most demanding tasks before a break in the afternoon. In the evenings, Rachel will often complete lightweight tasks like admin, marketing and outreach.
To protect her focus hours, Rachel works mainly asynchronously with clients, aside from kickoff or ad hoc project calls, and bundles meetings on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
5. Avoid multitasking and distractions
Human nature says we focus on one task at a time, according to a neuropsychologist. Unnecessary context switching by jumping from task to task is inefficient – your brain becomes overloaded, just like your browser with too many tabs open.
You can indeed do some lesser tasks simultaneously. But anything that asks for quality should have your full focus to avoid errors and a dip in performance.
While your email inbox or Slack pings with a notification in the background, you may find some of these methods (or a mix of them) help bring your focus back to your current priority:
- Pomodoro technique using a timer and breaks between focus blocks
- Time blocking to complete a task in a limited given time
- Task batching to focus only on a series of similar tasks
- “Eat the Frog” method for completing your most important, valuable task (frog) first thing in the morning to set you up for success throughout the day
If nothing else, put your phone into airplane mode and disable any notifications on your desktop, so you’re not enticed to check out the latest message before finishing your task.
6. Cut down on unnecessary meetings
Do you feel like all you do is attend meetings but don’t have time for actual work? It may be time to set stricter boundaries before accepting the next meeting request in your inbox.
For example, Vanhishikha Bhargava, a content marketer and founder of the agency Contensify, ensures each meeting has an obvious purpose and a hard stop.
“Previously, we’d want our conversations to flow naturally, and they’d result in calls going on for almost an hour, eating into the productive time of the team or breaking their flow of work entirely,” she says. “So if the agenda is not set clearly and has too much wiggle room, we reschedule the call.”
She takes a focused approach to client meetings, too. Collecting all comments and required changes before the call gives each discussion a clear direction. Her clients and team also use an ever-growing document for asynchronously brainstorming ideas because “oftentimes, the best of ideas get lost in calls.”
7. Have the right tools in your tech stack
Leaving repetitive or tedious, time-consuming tasks to software can relieve some of your workload. A good tech stack should help your efficiency, not hinder it.
Eric Doty, Content Lead at Dock, knows it’s easy to try to do everything yourself. For him, efficiency starts with a “no-busy-work mindset.”
“Many of us cling to repetitive tasks because they’re comforting, mindless work – they’re a nice mental break. But once you start automating these tasks, you’ll realize that you actually free up your time and mind for more meaningful work.”
He uses tools to automate as much as possible but checks if it’s worth doing it first. If a manual task has cropped up at least five times, it’s likely worth automating it.
There are plenty of no-code tools and product integrations, and you can start with one central platform. As you learn which parts of your workflow you should automate, you can add rules — like “when a client fills out a contact form, send a project questionnaire” – and other integrations your platform permits.
“At Dock, we’re pretty bullish with our tech budget. If a tool costs $50/month and can save me even one hour of time a month, that’s already a positive ROI. That said, I prioritize adding tools that reduce existing work rather than adding to it,” says Eric.
8. Take breaks
A mental and physical break is not just a bonus for completing a task faster. It’s a necessity for a balanced lifestyle. Behavioral economist Nathalie Rachel Sinyard confirms this.
“This mindset shift is really foundational to wellbeing, but you do need to be intentional, and even a little stubborn about it, as it’s not the default in our present culture at all. One quite confronting way to think about it is to ‘take a break or your body will take one for you’ – or you will be finding yourself so run down and catching every virus so sooner or later you’ll be forced to take a break.”
Like a time audit, Sinyard recommends doing one for your body, mind and behavior. Some easy-to-spot burnout signs include sleeping less to work more, regular tiredness even away from work, frequent headaches and poor eating habits.
For a gentler approach to prioritizing breaks, Sinyard suggests looking at the bigger picture to realize you need “a marathon, not a sprint mentality to succeed in the long run.”
“Building in ‘pit stops’ like an elite racing team where you take time to rest, nourish, repair, actually supports peak performance. There is also good evidence that you need regular breaks and fuel to make good decisions regularly, to avoid fatigue, and also to integrate insights and consolidate learning.”
Small steps towards long-lasting time efficiency
Ultimately, the value you bring to any organization (or your business) doesn’t rest solely on how efficient you are at what you do. But adapting some of the methods above can help you gain clarity and control over time spent working and resting.