As I’m writing this, it is one of those sleepy afternoons where I keep forgetting that it’s only Tuesday. I’m sitting in a coffee shop that’s barely turned on their AC for the season, so I can feel the early summer 80-degree humidity every time someone opens the door. I woke up early to get a lot done today, and I’m on my second iced coffee so that I can keep my energy up enough to get to a dance class before I head home for the evening.
It’s not that it’s been a long week for any particular reason — sometimes, working just feels like work, no matter how much you enjoy what you do. As I’ve progressed in my career as a freelancer, though, I’ve gone to greater lengths to keep an eye on my time. I only have so many hours to give, and I don’t want to spend every waking moment working. This is necessary to keep yourself from being overworked and stressed, of course, but working too much is also a surefire way to keep yourself from doing the best work you can. At least for me, nothing good is going to be produced on hour 14 of staring at my computer screen.
That’s why I’ve started holding myself to some loose rules for productivity — to see that the work I’m doing is actually of good quality, and to make sure I’m earning enough for the amount of time I’m putting into something (which is, of course, a luxury of a position to be in). I’m always interested in hearing others’ tricks for getting more out of the hours in a day, especially when they’re the kind of things that are such a part of our routine, we don’t even think about them. For example, I asked Peter to give me a quote for this, and his response was, “I don’t really…do that.” But I can tell you he owns about seven total work-appropriate shirts, and never spends time mulling over which one he’s going to wear that day; he just grabs the next one in the closet. He might not think about that as an extreme time-saver, but from my perspective, it totally is. (Granted, that might be partly just being a dude and feeling less pressure to doll up interestingly on a daily basis. But still.)
I reached out to some friends and colleagues (ones who had actual answers for me) about their most effective habits for getting the most possible done during work hours. Here’s what they had to say!
1. “I don’t go to bed at night unless three things are done: 1) My breakfast/lunch is packed 2) My bag (backpack/tote/whatever) is packed 3) My clothes are picked out and hung on my closet door. It’s very regimented, I guess, but in the morning, my average time to get out of the house is around 15 minutes (including a shower sometimes!). I have to be at work pretty early, so doing these tasks the night before is important to me, so that I don’t forget anything when I’m the worst version of myself (pre-caffeine).” — Laura
2. “Reduce the amount of choices you have to make, especially if you don’t care about them. For me, that meant going full ‘work uniform’ and buying multiples of literally the same outfit to wear every day, and I’ve been wearing that one ~look~ for about two years now. I know it’s not for everyone, but I never looked at clothes as an expression of myself…so I streamlined it and took the stress out of deciding if that skirt was meeting-appropriate at the same time. Honestly, I’m never going back — when this outfit bites the dust, I’ll buy ten of something else!” — Desirae
3. “I just optimize what times I know I work best during (usually 9-12, 3-4) and try not to schedule any meetings there. I also have a notebook with a running checklist I take to every meeting and add projects and due dates so I don’t have to always go back and search for them.” — Brittany
4. “I use my commute time to catch up on calls (with the safety of my bluetooth) to loved ones, making dog boarding appointments, make progress on home projects, etc. It’s amazing how much I can accomplish in 30 minutes. In my office, I squeeze in little exercises here and there throughout the day (eg squats or relevés in the restroom if it’s empty — takes very little time!) so I have a heads up on the physical stuff before I get home — this is especially helpful if I cannot make my Zumba or other class. It’s critical to me not to put off something I can get done now.” — Jan
5. “Just creating systems. Like a designated place where I leave my apartment keys, or automating my bills. Any system like that saves me time.” — Conor
6. “My two tricks for time management are routine and momentum. I try and recreate a situation historically conducive to productivity (in my case, it’s a coffee shop with headphones, a handwritten to do-list, and a full stomach) so that my easily-distracted brain knows it’s time for work, not binging Gilmore Girls a 50th time, and I try to start as soon after I wake up as possible. I’ve found that if I don’t do SOMETHING productive as soon as I’m awake and fed, be that household chores, answering emails, or other non-leisure activities, I’m useless for the rest of the day, because I wasted the momentum of getting out of bed. I also like to assign myself arbitrary deadlines for different tasks within my to-do list, because it’s easier to motivate myself to do one pre-established task or set of tasks per day than to look at a long, disorganized list of things to do before the end of the week.” — Bri
7. “Since high school, the thing that has saved me the most time and energy is having a good pre-bed/morning routine. Every night before work, I lay out my clothes and my bag and I assemble to basic parts of my breakfast to put in the fridge. The less thinking and stress I have in the morning the smoother I can get out the door!” — Hailey
8. “Having a routine. I don’t always stick to it, but a routine gives me more hours in the day, because I’m not spending tons of time making decisions about what I’ll do next.” — Marissa
9. “I’ve talked about this on TFD before, but using your commute wisely is such an integral part of my day. Most people see a commute as a necessary evil — a simple perception shift, and it’s suddenly your ‘me’ time. Read a book, listen to a podcast, call a friend or family member. Crazy morning? Get a jump on work by glancing at your email, checking in with your team, reading a motivational blog post (hey TFD!) and so many more. I’ve found I am able to get a huge jump on my day in the 15 minutes I spend on the train that sets me up for success (and helps me wind down when coming home).” — Tori
10. “I don’t have naturally good time management, but I started getting more stuff done at work when I stopped trying to worry about things like bullet journaling and keeping a detailed white board. I make lists, but I don’t make them too specific or set a time limit on when I want to get things done. I find sometimes, time management techniques can become just as much of a time-waster. I’ve definitely pissed a lot of time away just trying to create the look of being more organized. If you’re trying to get more stuff done, making your lists prettier isn’t going to help. Write stuff down on a plain piece of paper (or a white board) in whatever order you want, don’t worry about how it looks, and just enjoy the triumphant feeling of sloppily crossing things off your list.” — Bree
11. “In my work life, and to some degree my personal life, I live by the 80/20 Rule…80% of my profits come from 20% of my customers. With 80/20, you are always striving to make things more simple.” — Will
Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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