How to Make the Most of Your Day (Without Working Overtime)
It's 2021. And busy braggers are still out there repeating their favorite line yet another time:
“I’m so busy.”
It might not officially be the most common way we answer the question “how are you?” but it’s up there. Being busy — or at least, pretending to be — has become the foremost status symbol of our time.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote in the New York Times. Claiming constant busyness, he says “makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.”
But rather than a badge of honor, being busy is more likely to signal that you’re not effectively managing your time. “Workaholics aren’t heroes,” said Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried. “The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way.”
You’re probably familiar with the Pareto Principle, which holds that 80% of your output should come from 20% of your time. Unfortunately, the time we use productively is dwarfed by the hours gobbled up by meetings, checking emails, and constant interruptions. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Conduct a time audit
Often it seems like hours of our day slip by unaccounted for. That’s because in general, we have a skewed perception of how we spend our time, with one study finding that only 17 percent of the population can accurately predict how long a task will take.
A time audit will help you figure out exactly where the 112 hours you’re awake each week are actually going.
Pick a week where your days are reflective of your typical schedule, i.e., no major holidays, cross-country moves, etc. Start by creating a table—either longhand or in a spreadsheet. Label each column by weekday, and each row in 30-minute intervals beginning when you wake up and when you go to bed. In each box, jot down how you’re spending your time.
At the end of the week, look back at your table and highlight the activities that occur most each day. Using a different color, highlight the activities that occur every day. From this, you’ll see two categories emerge: Time drains, or activities like checking your inbox and browsing online; and high-priority activities, like coding, writing articles and conducting project research.
Now that you can see where your time is going, you can work on using it more effectively. One strategy for this is called time blocking, which means plotting out each moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks. For example, if you find that “time drain” activities are scattered throughout your day, consider condensing them into one or dedicated blocks of time. In explaining time blocking in Forbes, entrepreneur Abby Lawson says,
“It rarely goes exactly how I have it planned, but what it does for me is it gives me kind of deadlines, and times during the day that I have to meet and be done with this certain task. It keeps me on task, and a lot less likely to go down the Facebook rabbit hole, or get distracted by something else because I know that if I take too much time on this task, it pushes the rest of my schedule back, and I won't complete everything that I set out to do that day.”
It’s true that the actual practice of time blocking involves some legwork. But consider this: Every minute you spend on planning saves you at least 10 minutes in execution.
Know when you work best
You know that period of time in your day when everything just seems to work? When your mind is sharp and functioning like a well-oiled machine? That’s the effect of ultradian rhythm, the 90 to 120-minute cycles that begin with a peak in mental energy, followed by a lull.
By being aware of your body’s rhythms, you can schedule your day around getting the most out of your peak energy minutes, completing complex and creative tasks when your brain is at its best. If you’re not sure when that is, author Yulia Yaganova suggests rating your energy, focus and motivation at the end of every hour over the course of three weeks. When you’ve identified your peak hours, schedule your time so that you’re working on your most mentally demanding projects during that window.
Unfortunately, the typical 9 to 5 setting doesn’t square with a lot of people’s optimal minutes. If you’re the one setting the office hours, consider implementing flexible work policies. Being able to work with my natural rhythms has been critical to my ability to grow my company, JotForm, and it’s important to me that my employees have the same freedom to work during their own prime times. Our flex policy has led to substantial spikes in productivity, and also contributed to building an enjoyable company culture that helps us attract—and keep—high-caliber talent.
Make your distractions count
Distractions are baked into modern corporate culture. Many organizations sabotage their own employees’ productivity by expecting constant availability, immediate responsiveness and excessive meeting attendance. According to one study, the average employee checks their email 74 times a day, and touches their smartphones 2,617 times per day.
In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport speaks of deep work as cognitively demanding tasks that require 100 percent of your attention. In order to achieve deep work, Newport suggests identifying your work habits and blocking out distractions for scheduled periods of time.
To figure out exactly what’s coming between you and deep work, make a list of everything that’s distracting you. It can be in a Google Doc or on a piece of paper; whatever it is, keep it nearby so that whenever you find your attention pulled away, write it down.
That said, not all distractions are the enemy. A study published in the journal of Cognition found that prolonged attention actually hinders performance, and brief periods of distraction improve decision making and creativity.
But rather than wasting time scrolling through social media, make your break time count. Get your blood flowing by taking a walk. Have a snack or enjoy a chat with a coworker. The Pomodoro Technique calls for a five minute break after every 25 minutes of work; others argue for a break every 75 to 90 minutes. However you choose to do your break, make sure you’re giving your prefrontal cortex—the thinking part of your brain—a rest. When you return to your to-do list, you’ll be energized, refreshed and ready to tackle whatever your schedule has in store.