How to free up more of your time (Tips for an impactful workday)

28 Jan 2021

Get as much done as possible with as little effort as possible. The goal being to free up your time while still being able to do great work.

Here are a collection of tips I’ve learned and collected throughout my working career. They’ve help me ensure I get as much done as possible with as little effort as possible. The goal being to free up my time while still being able to do great work.

Implement at least a few of these systems and you’ll see you time open up for the things you love doing. You’ll get so much done you’ll be left wondering if there’s something you missed and should be doing.

No more than five hours of work per day.

The most any of us work is three hours per day but it is spread out across an eight-hour workday. Work is done in short bursts here and there throughout the day. Great work is rarely produced under this system. By working in one to two hour time blocks you will greatly increase the quality of your work simply because you will be able to get into a state of flow. You’ll find that imposing this restriction will have and incredible impact on your happiness, performance, and effectiveness. Read how this CEO cut his employees’ workday down to only 5 hours. The result: happier workers and soaring profits.

Work in no more than two-hour time blocks.

To reiterate, it’s incredibly difficult to focus on difficult tasks for more than a couple of hours. Don’t try and fight it. You will only produce lesser quality work. Rather, break things up in to dedicated working blocks. Spend a half an hour reading email. A couple of hours coding. An hour writing up a proposal. Then stop. Your mind will continue to process in the background but with a much lighter load. Then, when you return to pick up where you left off all those background cycles will come to the front and any difficult problems you had been working on will become much easier to solve.

Your home office must be separate from the rest of your living space.

You will hear this time and time again. You need separation in your life. Your mind is not good at switching itself off or between modes. Visual cues are strong signals that your mind picks up on. If you work laptop is there sitting on your coffee table your mind will not help but wonder what’s going on inside. You’ll instinctually pick it up, just to peek at what may be waiting in your inbox. Create a strong divide between where work is done from where you eat, sleep, relax, and entertain yourself. Satisfaction in all areas of your life will greatly improve if you do this.

Get lots of natural light throughout the day.

This one still surprises me but makes a lot of sense. Offices often have compact compact fluorescent light bulbs (those spiral lightbulbs) installed, which is great for energy savings but terrible for your mood and circadian rhythm. In a warehouse they make sense where focus and details matter. But they are terrible because they produce white light – especially when you weigh in the fact that you’re likely looking at a screen for hours at a time. Getting lots of natural light greatly improves your mood and sleep – both are critical for producing great work. What ever you can do to get more natural light, especially into your work area, the better. “According to researchers at Northwestern University’s neuroscience program, an abundance of natural light boosts morale, improves motivation and workplace performance and promotes feelings of peace and calm, while harsh, artificial light triggers headaches and tends to make people feel nervous, uneasy or fatigued.” – Natural light and mood, https://www.paracelsus-recovery.com/blog/natural-light-and-mood/

Have somewhere you can quickly jot down ideas or tasks that need doing.

Things pop into our heads all the time. It could be a task or and new product idea. We usually don’t want to forget these things so it’s good to have a place where you can quickly capture them – without getting sucked into the details – to ensure they’re not lost forever. This could be a physical pocket notepad or an app on your phone. The point is that it must be easy to access and easy to use. I have a page named “Pocket” in my Notion app on my desktop and phone that is a dumping ground for anything that pops into my head that I don’t want to forget. Then, once every few days or so, I revisit the list and move items to their appropriate place – whether it’s a to-do list, a backlog, or the trash. Fight the urge to get into the nitty gritty. The goal is to get things out of your head and archived somewhere.

Schedule everything, including breaks, meals, activities, et al.

This is an incredible way to stay disciplined. When things are scheduled you have no choice but to do them. Open you calendar app and deliberately block out times for everything you need to do. Be specific but not granular. For example, block out one to two hours for lunch, but don’t worry about blocking out time for cleanup. That’s a part of the meal. Here are some things you could consider scheduling: meals, work, exercise, reading, entertainment, and breaks. Once you’ve created your schedule, stick to it. It will surprise you how effective and efficient your days become.

Use a dedicated devices for work (or, at least, dedicated profiles).

Just like your work and living spaces should be separate, so should your digital work and personal spaces. Ideally this means dedicated devices – one computer for work, one for home – but this may not always be an option. In cases where it is not an option, create separate login profiles. For example, with macOS you can create one user for work and one for personal, then sign out and sign in when switching over. This way, all your digital files, emails, bookmarks, et al. will be siloed off from one another. You want to create a digital divide for the same reason you want to create a physical one – your mind is not good at switching it self off. You’ll be tempted to check emails or fix typos in a specification document or fix a bug in your code. Depending on how much time you spend on your computer or phone, this may be more important than your physical divide.

Spend time outside, every single day (leave your device at home or put in Airplane mode).

The impact on your mental clarity is immeasurable. Getting outside, away from all distractions opens your mind to things you never thought possible. The clarity just comes washing in. You’ll discover that most of the hard problems that are plaguing you at work are solved when you get outside and focus on the world around you. Your mind has a chance to open up and wonder. You’ll find yourself open to new ideas and new ways at looking at things. Ideally, get yourself into nature. The fewer distractions the better.

Use a CRM.

Any tool where you can save your customer list, track when you last contacted them, and what what you need to get done for them. The contact list that comes with your computer is probably not the best solution. There are plenty of free CRMs both for your computer and phone. Just pick and start using it. Here’s one that I have been thinking of moving to Monica. This ensures you’ll stay on top of critical work that needs to get done for you clients. Having a history of all your interactions with people helps in many ways. In just a few minutes you can get up to speed where you last left things off. Basically, you never want to forget to follow up with someone and CRMs help you do that.

Write a to-do list at the end of the day.

In order to hit the ground running every morning, you need to know where you priorities should be. You need a way to know whether you made progress or not. By spending fifteen minutes at the end of the day planning out what tomorrow will look like will guarantee that your time is spent efficiently. Then when you sit down to work, you know exactly what needs to get done. This does not need to be overly detailed. Just the top, say, three to five things that need to get done by the end of the day. This prevents you from wasting time in the morning trying figure out what you should be done. A time when you are at your most alert. Why waste energy on busy work that can leave you drained and sometimes feeling lost? Then, every morning, review the list and start the first item immediately.

Prevent interruptions and distractions.

You need to protect your attention at all costs. When you’re in the middle of solving hard problems or working your through a difficult project, you need you attention undivided. If something takes you attention away, even for a moment, can throw you off, having to reorient yourself from the beginning. When you’re in the middle of the kind of work that requires complete focus, do things like shut the door and put up a sign, disable alerts on your phone and computer, close your inbox, et al.