Do you ever wonder how some people seem to pack more into their day than you do? Are their hours longer than yours or are you just slow at getting stuff done? I’m going with neither — it’s possibly just how they spend their time and how they control it versus it controlling them…
Have you ever tracked your time? Try doing it for a week and see what you discover. What are the big chunks of your time taken up with? How much wasted time is there? Is any of your time taken up with things you could actually hand over to someone else? Looking at your week’s activities, which could you have done without and what could you have done in that time instead?
As much as doing the business changing tasks first (prioritising those things that will make a difference to your business over the day-to-day stuff), another factor in your success is where you put your focus and what you spend your time on.
Don’t get me wrong — I agree that time you enjoy wasting isn’t time wasted, and I’m guilty of spending too much time reading online business publications instead of doing my actual work at times, but have you ever spent a full afternoon on something you know should have taken you an hour? Have you wasted a day on something that on a good day you would have completed before morning tea?
There’s this thing called Parkinson’s Law that says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It means, people tend to use all the time they have, even if the task only requires a fraction of that time. Scarcity is the driver of creativity.
Seth Godin describes this as our natural instinct to “fill the bowl”. We are used to filling coffee to the brim of our cup, to eating whatever portion we are served, to spending just as much as we make. So Seth says that if you want to do less of something, get a smaller bowl. It seems to simple but it’s true: to spend less time on a task, give yourself less time!
Think of stand-up meetings. They’ve been designed for this exact reason — give people a comfy chair and a yummy morning tea and the meeting time will swell but the results will be the same as if they’d had a focused, short stand-up meeting.
Now, we can’t all be machines, working efficiently every minute of the day, but there are things to keep in mind to help you stay productive:
- Remind yourself of why you need to limit the time spent on a task. Sure, you can spend 5 hours on a newsletter but is that really a good use of your time? Looking at your hourly rate, how much does that 5-hour newsletter cost you to produce? Tell yourself you have 3 hours to complete it and then get busy on something else. Set yourself some limits and boundaries.
- Don’t let non-important tasks gobble up all your time. Have you ever had a day where you can’t recall what you achieved but you’ve been busy all day? Often it’s those small, unimportant tasks that suck up all your time — instead, start with the biggest, ugliest, hardest task. That way, at the end of the day, you’ll know you’ve achieved the most important thing if nothing else. But guess what? Chances are you’ll still have time to fit in all those small tasks — you’ll just get them done in less time a la Horstman’s Corollary (work contracts to fit in the time we give it) and Stock-Sanford Corollary (if you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do).
- If the thought of doing the hardest job first thing in the morning is too much to bear, then block out your first hour for more trivial tasks — allow yourself 60-minutes to clear emails, check social accounts, return phone calls etc but once that time is up, you need to get stuck into the elephant, one bite at a time. Don’t allow other people to steal your attention with requests (unless that is actually your role) — stay focused on what you need to do and then respond to them once you’ve completed your big task.
- Try time blocking. Go through your tasks and assign timing to them. Give yourself a two-hour block and see how far you get on your task. Control your day so your day doesn’t control you.
- If you sit down to work and realise your to-do list doesn’t have a full day’s work on it, think about what else you could do with your time. Instead of sitting there and spending all day on a few tasks that should take you a couple of hours, ask yourself whether you’re better to go and meet a supplier, walk the shop floor, look at your priority list and get stuck into something big or — and this is important — maybe even take the morning/afternoon/day off. The less time you have to do something, the less time it will take you. Don’t feel like you need to sit at your office desk just because, otherwise you’ll just fill the available time (Parkinson’s Law) and have an unproductive day.
- Time is limited — it’s up to you how you choose to use it so use these choices to motivate you to keep an eye on how long tasks take you. Want to get to the gym, play a game of golf or pick up your kids from school? Make that your motivation — organise your schedule and time so that goal is a non-negotiable and it will help you spend the right amount of time on things.
Of course, there are some of us who literally don’t have time, no matter how wisely we spend it, but if you’re in the bracket of someone who feels like your time spends itself and you’re not in control of it, try some of these tips to harness your productivity and let me know how you go!