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3 Ways To Get More Out Of Your Day

February 2, 2011

By Jordan Hanlon

It is New Year’s Resolutions time and we are all very motivated to lose weight, stop smoking, learn how to do this or that, find love, whatever it may be.  We also still need to get our jobs done and over the past 2 years with the economic downturn many companies have had to lay off employees, which mean doing more with less.  Now other than simply working more hours how can we do this?

Throughout my career as a student, professional and in any of my other activities I have been obsessed with productivity.  My biggest pet peeve is simply wasted time and effort; it simply drives me insane so whatever activity that I do for work or pleasure I want to make sure that I am getting what I want out of it.  Now, here is the part where I get to brag a bit, please see what my life consists of:

  • Full-time employee at Skyline for international trade show exhibits
  • Part-time job
  • Volunteer one night a week
  • Member of Toast Masters (I’m a brand new member)
  • Ultra marathoner- I run 50-100 miles a week/ workout 5-7 days a week
  • I have my own (shameless plug, I know)
  • I read 1-3 books a month
  • I am currently teaching myself how to play guitar
  • Just started to learning German (New Year’s Resolution)
  • I do have a social life, time to relax and I do sleep at night, a little anyways.

I do not have a wife/husband and kids so you got me there, but I believe these three methods will allow you to do more of the things you enjoy, whether that is spending time with your family or running 100 miles.  Here are the methods that I have learned that have really helped me get the most out of my time.  I have broken them down into the three most significant areas that have helped me, because we need to focus on the biggest bang for your buck.

1. Take Back Your Schedule

Simply put, if you allow 2 weeks to complete a project, guess how long it will take?  Everyone has deadlines and those of us in the trade show display world know this as well as anyone, but if we only allow work to take up only so many hours of our day and work relentlessly to maintain that schedule you will be amazed at how you are able to accomplish.

Parkinson’s Law:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Think back to the day before you went on vacation or the time you had that last-minute change that you somehow were able to accomplish before the deadline.  Yes, it may have been a miracle but more than likely you were conforming to the constraints that were put upon you.  These constraints, whether they are exterior (say, show deadlines) or interior, you are personally putting a deadline on a project, forcing you to be more productive.

Another great example of this is Cal Newport, who is a MIT Grad student that managed to write 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers, maintain a blog and still be finished by 5:30pm every day.  Cal sets his ideal schedule and works ruthlessly to maintain it; he does an amazing job of not allowing work an unlimited amount of time.

The point here is you need structure to your schedule otherwise you will be lost and always casing one project after another.  This also helps you to identify where or when you are most productive which can help you to further structure your schedule to benefit you the most. (Read more about how Cal Newport does it here, and read Cal’s own blog.

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, says to “Treat Time like you treat Money.”  We are great at allocating money and budgeting our finances (well not all of us) but we are often very poor at budgeting our time.  You can always make more money; you will never get back the last two weeks or 2 years of your life.  Make sure you have an idea of how much time you are spending on project and tasks so you can budget it accordingly.

2. Manage your email account

For most of us our lives are run by emails, sending, responding and organizing your emails, so short of not using email at all we need to better utilize this method of communication so that we don’t need to spend unneeded time on emails.

First, empty your inbox, yes that is right have NOTHING in your inbox. A friend of mine had 149 unread messages his inbox, the amount of time he is wasting simply reading, rereading and trying to find emails makes me cringe.  I use Randy Pausch’s method of touching an email only once.  Your inbox is NOT a To Do list!  Once you have read an email respond to it, file it in an appropriate folder or DELETE it.  If you use MS Outlook you can convert old emails to PDFs and store them for those you can’t bear to part with emails ( tutorial). Entourage has a similar feature for you Mac users.

For those of you who have thousands of email in your inbox this will take some leg work up front, but I promise you the return on investment will be well worth it.  Just think it is 4:59 pm and you check your inbox and it is empty!  It’s a great feeling.

Now that your inbox is organized let’s take a look at some other areas that will help you maintain that clean inbox.  Email was originally designed to be a method of communication that would allow a person to send someone a message without interrupting them.  Is this how your email works?  Probably not, if you are like me a year ago there was no chance of missing an email.  I’d get an email and it would show up on my screen with a pop-up alert, a notification sounds, my phone would vibrate and ding to let me know I had an email.  This is great but it was a constant interruption; I work with a lot of international offices in many time zones so I would literally get email 24 hours a day.  I could not go 5 minutes working on a project without an email popping up.  Then I’d have to read it and then respond to it, which meant leaving the task I was doing and respond to it.  I’ll talk about the negatives of this in more details in the following section.

Now we have turned email, supposedly a method of communication, into a distraction device.  So instead, turn off all your email notifications and alerts, and then designate periodic times in the day to check emails.  Trust me, if there is an emergency and someone emails you and cannot wait a few hours then they will call.  Now this will be very difficult for some people (as I once was) who are addicted to emails and responding to them right away, but having this constant interruption will greatly decease your ability to focus on the tasks you are working on, plus you can always check your email whenever you want but it will be on your terms not others.

3. No Multi-Tasking and No Interruptions

The Four Hour Work Week is a great book that outlines many great principles that will help you get the most out of your day and one of the main principles that author talks about is NOT multi-tasking.  Yes that’s right, multi-tasking can actually make you less productive because it prevents you from focusing in on your important tasks.    Consider that:

  • The average employee has 52 hours of unfinished work on their desks.
  • On average you are distracted from you task at hand every 11 minutes.
  • It takes an average of 25 minutes to fully return to that task once interrupted.

Source: National Association of Professional Planners

  • 20%-40% of productivity is eaten up by task switching.

Source: 2005 Michigan Study

Just think of where you get the most work done, is it at your desk at work?  Often people will say that it is when they are on a long plane or on the bus or late at night, places where there are no interruptions.  Try and create a work space that is free of interruptions as much as possible.  Jason Fried is the co-founder of 37signals, makers of Basecamp and other web-based collaboration tools, and co-author of Rework.   In this video Jason talks about why work doesn’t happen at work (he also touches on why meetings are really not that important but that a topic for another post).

Randy Pausch also talks about limiting the amount of access that other people have to you, and no this doesn’t mean you need to be anti-social, it simply mean that if you are able to better focus on your work you will be able to be more efficient thus having more free time to do whatever you want.

Here are some quick tips from Randy Pausch:

  • Remove the extra chair at your desk, it encourages people to sit down and chat away.
  • Get a headset for your phone, if you ever need to be put on hold simply continue working and enjoy the free music.
  • If you have to have a meeting, schedule it at 11:45am or 4:45pm.  You won’t believe how quickly you are able to move through material when people are hungry or trying to leave.
  • Whenever you receive a call let the person know you only have a minute to talk and if you to talk about more detail send an email so that you can read it and get back to that person when you are free.

By clearing the clutter in your work space, eliminating interruptions such as email alerts, other employees and not multi-tasking, you will actually get more accomplished.

Resources:

Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. I highly recommend his lecture on Time Management.

Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week and Productivity Guru.

Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habit of Highly Effective PeopleFirst Things FirstPrinciple-Centered LeadershipThe Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness" The 8th Habit.

Jason Fried, presenter of Ted Talk on “Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work,” co-founder of 37signals, makers of Base camp and other web-based collaboration tools, and co-author of Rework.

Cal Newton, author of How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)and  How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Lessand the shortest titled of his books, How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students.

 

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