Choosing wise ways to use our time is critical to reaching our goals. After all, “Time is a precious, nonrenewable resource,” says author Brigid Schulte of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. “It’s all those small decisions we make with what to do with five minutes here, 10 minutes there, how to spend the afternoon, that really wind up defining your life.”
When you’re bogged down with a never-ending to-do list, try some (or all!) of these time management hacks.
1. Track Your Time
Set up a log to record your minutes. “If you want to spend your time better, figure out how you’re spending it now,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. She recommends keeping a time log for a week; the format doesn’t matter.
“You can write it down in a journal [or] use a spreadsheet or a time-tracking app,” says Vanderkam. One app to check out is RescueTime. For $9 a month (with a 14-day free trial), this program will clock your daily habits to show you how long you’re away from your computer or on certain sites or applications, provide weekly reports of your productivity, and even (if you want) block you from distracting websites.
At least one-quarter of your activities will likely fall under the category of “low-value” tasks that are either “relatively easy to drop, delegate, or outsource,” saving you up to 10 hours of time a week for more important duties, according to the Harvard Business Review.
2. Take Breaks
“We only have 90-minute attention spans,” says Schulte. “The brain can concentrate on anything if it knows a break is coming soon. Choose your most important task and do it first when your willpower is strongest and your mind freshest, then plan to devote your attention in 30-, 45-, or 90-minute ‘pulses.’ Then take a break.”
Schulte adds that insights are even more likely to hit when we’re taking that break, so don’t think of that time you use to take a walk or daydream as goofing off.
3. Use the 6-12-6 Rule
We squander nearly one day a week “managing communication,” like emails and phone calls, according to a new Bain & Company study of CEOs. Kathryn McKinnon, time management expert at McKinnon & Company and author of Triple Your Time Today! 10 Proven Time Management Strategies to Create & Save More Time, is not surprised: “The issue is not whether we have enough time. The real issue is how we choose to spend the time we have.”
McKinnon’s solution to the rabbit hole of email correspondence? Block out set times to check on communication instead of going online all day long.
“Shut off your phone and close email to tune out distractions while you’re working on your priorities,” she says. McKinnon recommends applying a 6-12-6 rule to email correspondence. “Check it only for 20 minutes at 6 am, 12 pm, and again at 6 pm. “Set yourself up for some easy wins by not living by your inbox.”
4. Use Technology to Your Advantage
Contrary to how busy we feel, “we’ve actually gained extra time,” McKinnon says. ”The emergence of new technologies has created vast efficiencies in our productivity and reduced the actual amount of time and effort it takes to do many of our tasks and jobs.”
For example, for organizing your files and documents, McKinnon recommends Evernote, a free online tool. Evernote makes it easy to keep your projects, ideas and even images together. Plus, the software allows you to record meetings or speeches to cut down on your note taking and the means to share your new and improved files with colleagues, taking efficiency to a new level.
5. Use Music to Help You Focus
Get the most out of your working time by listening to music. Then cut down on the time you’d waste figuring out which tunes to play by checking out Focus@Will, a cool site and app that offers specially selected music “optimized to boost your concentration and focus.”
This is no Pandora. Using scientific research to back up its selection, the site contends, “When choosing music for a workplace, it is best to use music that workers neither like or dislike.” To find out what tunes this could possibly include (hint: there’s a lot of classical instrumentals), sign up for a 30-day free trial or pay a monthly fee of $5.99.
6. Use an App to Track Time
“Don’t be a clock watcher,” says Rachelle Isip, an organization, time management, and productivity consultant for The Order Expert. “Try setting an alarm or timer as you work. This way you can pay more attention to what you’re doing without interruptions to check the clock. You may even find you’ll finish your work faster using this method.”
For freelancers or business owners, Isip recommends Harvest, a website and app set up to track billable hours on various projects. Plus, you can add staff members to your membership and send out invoices to clients. Harvest offers a 30-day free trial and, if you like what you see, you can pay a monthly fee starting at $12. At that price, it’s still a lot cheaper than hiring a personal assistant.
7. Rise and Shine
If after all these changes you’re still not finding the time to add something to your life, Vanderkam suggests getting up earlier. “Mornings are a great time for getting stuff done, particularly personal priorities that life has a way of crowding out.”
Vanderkam should know: Besides being a journalist and author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, she’s also a mother of four. Getting up at the crack of dawn doesn’t mean depriving you of sleep, either. “Most people spend a lot of time puttering around awake before bed. So go to bed earlier and turn those unproductive evening hours into productive morning ones.”
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