Is one of your 2018 resolutions to be more productive, but you’re not sure how you could possibly pack any more tasks into your schedule? We all know the feeling that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. As a professor, I’m responsible for teaching new material to my undergraduate students, helping my graduate students get their research published, and coming up with new ways to understand the world around us. I’m also a single mother raising six-year-old twins, one with special needs. So trust me when I say that I get the feeling of having too much to do with too little time.
In considering what I can, in fact, control, I’ve begun to embrace how I work instead of how much. My inspiration for this goes as far back as the Industrial Revolution, when factories pushed their workers to produce more by logging additional hours, only to find that, once workers began to exceed about 48 hours per week, productivity leveled out. If you’re a knowledge worker — someone who needs an active and creative brain to excel — it may actually pay to work fewer than 40 hours per week. Just six hours of work per day on mentally challenging activities may be your ideal maximum.
So, how can you get more done this year while working less? Here are my top three road-tested recommendations.
1. Set your limits
I tracked my time for a week to see how much I work. The tracker revealed that I work roughly 42 hours a week and that works for me. Sure, I don’t always complete everything on my to-do list during the workday, but I’ve learned to be okay with that. After all, things are never really “done” – new tasks pop up all of the time, and, if I don’t guard against it, I could have an endless supply of draining duties that split my focus and actually hinder my productivity in the long run. Take an audit of your time and figure out where your tipping point is. Ask yourself: How much time do I need to put in to tackle the necessary tasks? At what point am I losing focus and hindering my productivity? When am I doing my best work? Where does my output lag? What is my most sustainable schedule? Then, once you’ve identified your limit, honor it. For those who have to work more than a typical work week, try to arrange your time for mentally challenging activities when you are most able to tackle them. For most people, that is often early in the workday. Know what makes you the best version of yourself and protect your time as best you can. This will enable you to optimize your time at work and place your full attention on what you aim to accomplish. At the same time, it will allow you to honor your life outside of the office by turning off your work-brain and focusing on your friends, family, and passions.
2. Take active control of your time
It is crucial to know your priorities and plan accordingly. How much time do you want to devote to each project? How much time do you have available? Be realistic and honest with yourself. Pay close attention to how long it takes you to complete any given assignment, and then plan ahead and build that block of time into your calendar. When I get an email that requires follow up, I preemptively carve out an appropriate amount of time to complete that follow-up task on a date a few days before it’s due. The task of handling the follow-up appears on my calendar just like a meeting would. That way, I know I will remember to complete the task and I am confident I will have enough time to do so. Without this method, I may find myself scrambling to get things done at the last minute and failing to appropriately plan the rest of my schedule. I find that on weeks when I forget to schedule my time I feel more frazzled, as if I’m constantly playing a game of “catch up.” These are the weeks when I find myself falling behind and failing to complete what I set out to accomplish. Don’t fall into this trap. Build a sustainable, reasonable schedule and stick to it. This will help you set your limits and work smarter. I urge you to be conscious of your time and to own it, not the other way around. Let’s start prioritizing our time off of work as much as our time at work.
3. Outsource as much as possible
I have the privilege of making a decent salary that affords me the ability to outsource a lot of the things that I don’t like to do. I have a housecleaner to handle the deep cleaning around my house, but more importantly, I have a cadre of sitters who not only watch my kids, but do my laundry, prep meals ahead of time, run errands etc. I also make use of delivery services (for groceries, meals, shopping) to reduce my time spent doing things that I don’t enjoy. This may not work for everyone, but recent research suggests that people who spend money to save time report overall more life satisfaction. So, find the job you like the least and figure out how you can afford to not do it. You will be happier, I promise.
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