Of course, you cannot actually add more time to the 24-hour day or 168-hour week. But talk to productivity experts and highly productive sorts and you’ll find that a few techniques dwarf all others in terms of helping people spend more time on what matters and less on what doesn’t. If you free up two hours to spend on the good stuff, that’s the next best thing to manufacturing time. Here’s how to escape the ceaseless ticking.
1. Plan your days
Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, spent a year test-driving productivity techniques on his blog, A Life of Productivity. He says that the best tactic he’s found for working intentionally is what he calls the Rule of 3. “At the start of the day, before you start working, you simply step back from your work and ask yourself: by the time the day is done, what three main things will I want to have accomplished?” Figuring out what’s most important keeps you from losing hours as you blindly respond to whatever comes in. It also encourages investing time in high-yield activities such as mentoring new employees.
By thinking through your days, you can also match the right kind of activity to the right time. Deep focused work is best done when you have a lot of energy. “People who are high achievers are ruthless schedulers,” says Wendy Murphy, an assistant professor at Babson College who teaches organizational behavior and management. “When are you most able to focus? Schedule the type of work you need to do during the times you have the most energy to do it.”
2. Manage distractions
Between social media alerts, emails, and drive-by visits, people can be distracted dozens or more times per day. Since one study found that people take 25 minutes to resume interrupted tasks (after dabbling, on average, in more than 2 other “work spheres” in the meantime), pushing distractions to predictable times can easily save hours. “Schedule time in your calendar for email/social media or when you will have interruptions,” suggests Murphy. “For example, professors have ‘office hours’ when they expect to be regularly interrupted by students. Is there a time of day when you are regularly interrupted? Plan for it.”
You might also consider more radical solutions. One study found that people spend 47% of their time on the internet procrastinating (indeed, you may be procrastinating now!) That’s why Bailey says that “Whenever I hunker down to work on something important, I almost always disconnect from the internet.”
3. Don’t do what others can do (or that doesn’t need to be done).
If you’re in upper management, you can easily spend 50% of your day in meetings, which comes out to 4 (or more) hours a day. If 25% of those meetings didn’t need to happen—a conservative figure based on surveys, and how much people despise meetings generally—killing them would buy you an hour per day right there.
The problem is that it’s hard to rescue the time once a meeting starts, and many people are so busy going from meeting to meeting that they don’t triage their schedules ahead of time. The solution is getting in the habit, on Friday afternoons, of looking at your calendar for the next week and asking what can be skipped or killed. Five minutes can buy back hours.
You can also figure out what others can do, at work, and at home. If you spend a lot of time cleaning your house, hiring help or lowering your standards can easily save an hour a day. Indeed, you can outsource almost any personal task. Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking, and a producer at Fox News Channel (FOX), uses Fancy Hands, a virtual assistant service, to free up time. “They make reservations for me, book cars to the airport, send gifts, do research on restaurants. I used them a lot when I planned a trip to Italy. I had them find me the best hotels and restaurants using TripAdvisor (TRIP). That way having a narrowed down list was much easier to choose from—instead of ‘all the restaurants in Rome,’ I had a list of the top 5. I also use them for customer service stuff. When an order goes wrong or I need a refund they handle it for me. They can basically do any virtual task,” she says.
4. Change your schedule
Chances are, the reason you want more hours in your day is that you’re too busy with work and family obligations to tackle your personal priorities. But most people, even busy professionals, have leisure time. The problem is that much of it occurs late at night when people are too tired to do anything but watch TV. The solution? Go to bed earlier, and wake up earlier. Most people feel more productive in the morning, so turning the TV off earlier turns unproductive evening hours into productive morning hours. Rather than spend an additional 90 minutes puttering around the house or watching Netflix at night, you wake up at 5:00 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. and have 30 minutes to exercise and an hour to work on your novel. Wake up early on weekends and you’ll add even more productive time to your days.
Of course, even without shifting your schedule, limiting TV (or streaming) time will add space to your life. The average American with a full-time job still manages to watch 1.79 hours of TV each weekday and 2.79 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Nix that and the time can be used for other things. One option: “Schedule time at least twice a week for contemplative reflection,” suggests Luke Anear, CEO of SafetyCulture, an app focused on workplace efficiency and safety. “This resets focus and provides space for intuition to rise to the surface. With a clear mind you can accomplish your work faster!”
To be sure, even in most information jobs, working from home daily won’t fly. But once or twice a week buys back massive time on those days. It’s not just the 50 minutes of average daily commuting telecommuters save on the days they work from home. Much of the time people clock getting ready in the morning is about getting out the door; about half of the 45 minutes the average person spends daily on personal care could be saved. Settling in at work takes time, as does going to a coffee shop on the way in or to a cafeteria or restaurant for lunch. Many people make stops on the drive home that may not be necessary. Chop the 45 minutes the average person spends daily on “purchasing goods and services” in half and you’re close to the 2-hour mark already, to say nothing of reduced interruptions.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time (Portfolio), a book based on time diaries of 1001 days in the lives of professional women and their families.