TIME psychology

How to Stick With Good Habits Every Day by Using the ‘Paper Clip Strategy’

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James Clear writes at JamesClear.com

Paper clips create a visual trigger that can help motivate a consistent habit

In 1993, a bank in Abbotsford, Canada hired a 23-year-old stock broker named Trent Dyrsmid.

Dyrsmid was a rookie so nobody at the firm expected too much of his performance. Moreover, Abbotsford was still a relatively small suburb back then, tucked away in the shadow of nearby Vancouver where most of the big business deals were being made. The first popular email services like AOL and Hotmail wouldn’t arrive for another two or three years. Geography still played a large role in business success and Abbotsford wasn’t exactly the home of blockbuster deals.

And yet, despite his disadvantages, Dyrsmid made immediate progress as a stock broker thanks to a simple and relentless habit that he used each day.

On his desk, he placed two jars. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. This is when the habit started.

“Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”
—Trent Dyrsmid

And that was it. 120 calls per day. One paper clip at a time.

Within 18 months, Dyrsmid’s book of business grew to $5 million in assets. By age 24, he was making $75,000. Within a few years, outside firms began recruiting him because of his success and he landed a $200,000 job with another company.

Habits That Stick vs. Habits That Fail

When I asked Dyrsmid about the details of his habit, he simply said, “I would start calling at 8 a.m. every day. I never looked at stock quotes or analyst research. I also never read the newspaper for the entire time. If the news was really important, it would find me from other ways.”

Trent Dyrsmid’s story is evidence of a simple truth: Success is often a result of committing to the fundamentals over and over again.

Compare Trent’s results to where you and I often find ourselves. We want to be consistent with our workouts, but struggle to make it into the gym. We know we should write more Thank You notes or eat healthier meals or read more books, but can’t seem to find the motivation to get it done. We’d like to achieve our goals, but still procrastinate on them.

What makes the difference? Why do some habits stick while other fail? Why did Trent’s paper clip habit work so well and what can we learn from it?

The Power of a Visual Cue

I believe the “Paper Clip Strategy” works particularly well because it creates a visual trigger that can help motivate you to perform a habit with more consistency.

Here are a few reasons visual cues work well for building new habits…

Visual cues remind you to start a behavior. We often lie to ourselves about our ability to remember to perform a new habit. (“I’m going to start eating healthier. For real this time.”) A few days later, however, the motivation fades and the busyness of life begins to take over again. Hoping you will simply remember to do a new habit is usually a recipe for failure. This is why a visual stimulus, like a bin full of paper clips, can be so useful. It is much easier to stick with good habits when your environment nudges you in the right direction.

Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Everyone knows consistency is an essential component of success, but few people actually measure how consistent they are in real life. The Paper Clip Strategy avoids that pitfall because it is a built-in measuring system. One look at your paper clips and you immediately have a measure of your progress.

Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation. As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit. The more paperclips you place in the bin, the more motivated you will become to finish the task. There are a variety of popular behavioral economics studies that refer to this as theEndowed Progress Effect, which essentially says we place more value on things once we have them. In other words, the more paper clips you move to the “Completed” bin, the more valuable completing the habit becomes to you.

Visual cues can be used to drive short-term and long-term motivation. The Paper Clip Strategy can provide daily motivation, but you start from scratch each day. However, another type of visual cue, like the “Don’t Break the Chain” Calendar that I described in my article on the Seinfeld Strategy can be used to showcase your consistency over longer periods of time. By stacking these two methods together, you can create a set of visual cues that motivate and measure your habits over the short-run and the long-run.

Creating Your Own Paper Clip Strategy

There are all sorts of ways to use the paper clip habit for your own goals.

  • Hoping to do 100 pushups each day? Start with 10 paper clips and move one over each time you drop down and do a set of 10 throughout the day.
  • Need to send 25 sales emails every day? Start with 25 paper clips and toss one to the other side each time you press Send.
  • Want to drink 8 glasses of water each day? Start with 8 paper clips and slide one over each time you finish a glass.
  • Not sure if you’re taking your medication three times per day? Set 3 paper clips out and flip one into the bin each time you swallow your pills.

Best of all, the entire strategy will cost you less than $10.

  1. Grab a box of standard paper clips (here is a cheap set).
  2. Get two standard paper clip holders (here you go).
  3. Pick your habit and start moving those bad boys from one side to the other.

Trent Dyrsmid decided that success in his field came down to one core task: making more sales calls. He discovered that mastering the fundamentals is what makes the difference.

The same is true for your goals. There is no secret sauce. There is no magic bullet. Good habits are the magic bullet.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com about building better habits and improving your mental and physical performance. For more useful ideas, join his free weekly newsletter. This piece originally appeared on JamesClear.com.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

How to Be More Productive When Working From Home

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Dress for the job

Many entrepreneurs, especially those in the startup phase of their companies, have a home office. While working from home certainly has its perks – the office space is free and the commute is short – it can also have its downsides. Constant distractions, lack of interaction with coworkers and undetermined working hours can interfere with your productivity.

Follow these tips and don’t let your home office interfere with your business’ success:

Set boundaries.

As much as possible, avoid answering personal phone calls or doing your laundry during the workday. Ask yourself if you would do this activity if you worked in an office. If not, then don’t do it while working at home. Jill Celeste, a work-from-home marketing coach since 2011, had to set boundaries with her mother who used to call during the workday to chat. “[Now], her call goes to voicemail and I return her call in the evening,” says Celeste.

Take a lunch break.

One of the disadvantages of working from home is the lack of a communal space (also known as the “water cooler”) where you can take breaks to recharge and refocus your energies. The good news is you can still get this recharge break while working at home. Take your dog for a walk around the block or go for a short run around lunchtime so you return to work feeling re-energized.

Dress for the job.

Your office may only be steps away from your bedroom, but that doesn’t mean you should show up to your desk in the same clothes you wore to bed. “If I work in my pajamas or sweatpants, I feel less productive and less serious about the work,” says Brian Dear, CEO and cofounder of the online-therapy startup iCouch. “It’s easier to get distracted because there’s not a mental separation between working and just being at home relaxing.”

Have a routine.

Create a workday routine just as you would in an office. “When working from home, I’ll make myself a coffee and small bite to eat before starting work, knowing that I will not stop until lunchtime,” says Simeon G. Howard, director at City Office, a worldwide virtual office and office-space provider, who regularly works from home. When working from home, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to finish work early or take an extra long lunch, but sticking to a routine is key to ensuring your home office doesn’t turn into an excuse for slacking off.

Remove home distractions.

“It’s important that your home workplace is just as serious as an office,” says Dear. Treat your home office as your office – meaning no kids toys on the floor or TV in the room. Find a place for your home office that is removed from family distractions and surround your workspace with work-related things rather than family calendars, recipe books and stacks of laundry – things that remind you of all the personal chores that need to be done. If possible, dedicate a separate room in your house to be your home office and shut the door while you’re working so everyone else in the household knows not to disturb you.

Get out of the office.

Working from home can get lonely. And when you live and work in the within the same four walls, you can easily get bored of your surroundings. Debra M. Cohen, president of Home Remedies, says she tries to devote one hour a day to doing something relaxing outside her office. “The change of scenery and social interaction helps me think more creatively and I’m much more productive when I’m back at work,” she says.

This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.

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TIME psychology

The Myth of Multitasking: Why Having Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work

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James Clear writes at JamesClear.com

We need to say no to being busy and say yes to being committed to our craft

The word priority didn’t always mean what it does today.

In his best-selling book, Essentialism (audiobook), Greg McKeown explains the surprising history of the word and how its meaning has shifted over time.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.

Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.

People and companies routinely try to do just that. One leader told me of this experience in a company that talked of “Pri-1, Pri-2, Pri-3, Pri-4, and Pri-5.” This gave the impression of many things being the priority but actually meant nothing was.

–Greg McKeown, Essentialism

The Myth of Multitasking

Yes, we are capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.

What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once. Multitasking forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.

Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another. A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.

In other words, because of email alone we typically waste one out of every six minutes.

While we’re on the subject, the word multitasking first appeared in 1965 IBM report talking about the capabilities of its latest computer.

That’s right, it wasn’t until the 1960s that anyone could even claim to be good at multitasking. Today, people wear the word like a badge of honor as if it is better to be busy with all the things than to be great at one thing.

Finding Your Anchor Task

Doing more things does not drive faster or better results. Doing better things drives better results. Even more accurately, doing one thing as best you can drives better results.

Mastery requires focus and consistency.

I haven’t mastered the art of focus and concentration yet, but I’m working on it. One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.

Here’s what my current weekly schedule looks like…

  • Monday – Write article.
  • Tuesday – Send two emails (one for networking, one for partnerships.)
  • Wednesday – Write article.
  • Thursday – Write article.
  • Friday – Complete weekly review.
  • Saturday – OFF
  • Sunday – OFF

The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that responsibility. Your priority becomes an anchor task, the mainstay that holds the rest of your day in place. If things get crazy, there is no debate about what to do or not to do. You have already decided what is urgent and what is important.

Saying No to Being Busy

As a society, we’ve fallen into a trap of busyness and overwork. In many ways, we have mistaken all this activity to be something meaningful. The underlying thought seems to be, “Look how busy I am? If I’m doing all this work, I must be doing something important.” And, by extension, “I must be important because I’m so busy.”

While I firmly believe everyone has worth and value, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe being busy is what drives meaning in our lives.

In my experience, meaning is derived from contributing something of value to your corner of the universe. And the more I study people who are able to do that, people who are masters of their craft, the more I notice that they have one thing in common. The people who do the most valuable work have a remarkable willingness to say no to distractions and focus on their one thing.

I think we need to say no to being busy and say yes to being committed to our craft. What do you want to master? What is the one priority that anchors your life or work each day?

If you commit to nothing you’ll be distracted by everything.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com about building better habits and improving your mental and physical performance. For more useful ideas, join his free weekly newsletter. This piece originally appeared on JamesClear.com.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

20 Simple Productivity Tricks Anyone Can Use

Use your mind for thinking, not remembering

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Even though we all want to be more productive, it’s hard to make major changes. Small changes are easy– and can be incredibly powerful. That’s why the following 20 tips are simple enough you can immediately incorporate them into your daily routine. Some tips will help you better use your time. Others will help you harness your energy. Others will help you stay more focused. No matter what, they all work. So try a few – or try them all!

  • Count Your Blessings Before Bed

    Take a second before you turn out the light. In that moment, quit worrying about what you don’t have. Quit worrying about what others have that you don’t. Think about what you dohave. You have a lot to be thankful for. Feels good, doesn’t it? Count your blessings every night and you’ll start the next day in a much more positive way.

  • Use Your Mind For Thinking, Not Remembering

    Here’s another Getting Things Done tip. Don’t clutter your thoughts with mental to-do lists or information you need to remember. Write all those things down. Then you can focus on thinking about how to do things better, how to treat people better, how to make your business better. Don’t waste mental energy trying to remember important tasks or ideas. That’s what paper is for.

  • Turn Off Alerts

    Your phone buzzes. Your email dings. Chat windows pop up. Every alert sucks away your attention. So turn them off. Go alert-free, and once every hour or so take a few minutes to see what you might have missed. Chances are you’ll find out you missed nothing,but in the meantime you will have been much more focused.

  • Be Inspired By Small Successes

    Change is tough. Habits are hard to form. If you want to learn a new skill, don’t decide you’ll become world-class. The goal is too big, the road too long. Instead decide you’ll learn to do one small thing really, really well. Then build on that. Success, even minor success, is motivating and creates an awesome feedback loop that will motivate you to do another small thing really well. One step at a time you might someday become world-class… which, after all, is how that works. Start small, stick with it, and someday your big dream will be a reality.

  • Stop In the Middle

    Take it from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day…you will never be stuck.” His advice applies to all kinds of work. When you stop in the middle of a project you know what you’ve done, you know exactly what you’ll do next, and you’ll be excited to get started again.

    This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article above was originally published at Inc.com.

TIME psychology

How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the ‘2-Minute Rule’

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James Clear writes at JamesClear.com

Every goal can be started in 2 minutes or less

Recently, I’ve been following a simple rule that is helping me crush procrastination and making it easier for me to stick to good habits at the same time.

I want to share it with you today so that you can try it out and see how it works in your life.

The best part? It’s a simple strategy that couldn’t be easier to use.

Here’s what you need to know…

How to Stop Procrastinating With the “2–Minute Rule”

I call this little strategy the “2–Minute Rule” and the goal is to make it easier for you to get started on the things you should be doing.

Here’s the deal…

Most of the tasks that you procrastinate on aren’t actually difficult to do — you have the talent and skills to accomplish them — you just avoid starting them for one reason or another.

The 2–Minute Rule overcomes procrastination and laziness by making it so easy to start taking action that you can’t say no.

There are two parts to the 2–Minute Rule…

Part 1 — If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.

Part I comes from David Allen’s bestselling book, Getting Things Done.

It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on.

If a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then follow the rule and do it right now.

Part 2 — When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.

Can all of your goals be accomplished in less than two minutes? Obviously not.

But, every goal can be started in 2 minutes or less. And that’s the purpose behind this little rule.

It might sound like this strategy is too basic for your grand life goals, but I beg to differ. It works for any goal because of one simple reason: the physics of real life.

The Physics of Real Life

As Sir Isaac Newton taught us a long time ago, objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion. This is just as true for humans as it is for falling apples.

The 2–Minute Rule works for big goals as well as small goals because of the inertia of life. Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it. I love the 2–Minute Rule because it embraces the idea that all sorts of good things happen once you get started.

Want to become a better writer? Just write one sentence (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll often find yourself writing for an hour.

Want to eat healthier? Just eat one piece of fruit (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll often find yourself inspired to make a healthy salad as well.

Want to make reading a habit? Just read the first page of a new book (2–Minute Rule), and before you know it, the first three chapters have flown by.

Want to run three times a week? Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, just get your running shoes on and get out the door (2–Minute Rule), and you’ll end up putting mileage on your legs instead of popcorn in your stomach.

The most important part of any new habit is getting started — not just the first time, but each time. It’s not about performance, it’s about consistently taking action. In many ways, getting started is more important than succeeding. This is especially true in the beginning because there will be plenty of time to improve your performance later on.

The 2–Minute Rule isn’t about the results you achieve, but rather about the process of actually doing the work. It works really well for people who believe that the system is more important than the goal. The focus is on taking action and letting things flow from there.

Try It Now

I can’t guarantee whether or not the 2–Minute Rule will work for you. But, I can guarantee that it will never work if you never try it.

The problem with most articles you read, podcasts you listen to, or videos you watch is that you consume the information but never put it into practice.

I want this article to be different. I want you to actually use this information, right now.

What’s something you can do that will take you less than two minutes? Do it right now.

Anyone can spare the next 120 seconds. Use this time to get one thing done. Go.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com about building better habits and improving your mental and physical performance. For more useful ideas, join his free weekly newsletter. This piece originally appeared on JamesClear.com.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Warren Buffett’s ‘2 List’ Strategy: How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities

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James Clear writes at JamesClear.com

Eliminate ruthlessly and force yourself to focus

With well over 50 billion dollars to his name, Warren Buffett is consistently ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. Out of all the investors in the 20th century, Buffett was the most successful.

Given his success, it stands to reason that Buffett has an excellent understanding of how to spend his time each day. From a monetary perspective, you could say that he manages his time better than anyone else.

And that’s why the story below, which was shared directly from Buffett’s employee to my good friend Scott Dinsmore, caught my attention.

Let’s talk about the simple 3-step productivity strategy that Warren Buffett uses to help his employees determine their priorities and actions.

The Story of Mike Flint

Mike Flint was Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.

Here’s how it works…

STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)

STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.

Note: If you’re following along at home, pause right now and do these first two steps before moving on to Step 3.

STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

The Power of Elimination

I believe in minimalism and simplicity. I like getting rid of waste. I think thateliminating the inessential is one of the best ways to make life easier, make good habits more automatic, and make you grateful for what you do have.

That said, getting rid of wasteful items and decisions is relatively easy. It’s eliminating things you care about that is difficult. It is hard to prevent using your time on things that are easy to rationalize, but that have little payoff. The tasks that have the greatest likelihood of derailing your progress are the ones you care about, but that aren’t truly important.

Every behavior has a cost. Even neutral behaviors aren’t really neutral. They take up time, energy, and space that could be put toward better behaviors or more important tasks. We are often spinning in motion instead of taking action.

This is why Buffett’s strategy is particularly brilliant. Items 6 through 25 on your list are things you care about. They are important to you. It is very easy to justify spending your time on them. But when you compare them to your top 5 goals, these items are distractions. Spending time on secondary priorities is the reason you have 20 half-finished projects instead of 5 completed ones.

Eliminate ruthlessly. Force yourself to focus. Complete a task or kill it.

The most dangerous distractions are the ones you love, but that don’t love you back.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com about building better habits and improving your mental and physical performance. For more useful ideas, join his free weekly newsletter. This piece originally appeared on JamesClear.com.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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4 Strategies for Keeping Your Inbox Empty

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Choose the strategy that works best for your work style

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No matter how much time we spend trying to optimize our inbox—from batch checking messages to adding bells and whistles—email takes over our lives. Looking at my stats from last month, I received and processed over 10,000 emails (eek!), so finding the right way to manage all this online correspondence has been critical for my day-to-day sanity.

Turns out, though, the “right way” to manage email depends a lot on your own personal style. I’ve rounded up some of the most popular and successful strategies so that you can decide which one is best for you:

1. LIFO: Last In First Out

This technique is predicated on letting the old stuff deal with itself. It’s the most common way that people deal with their inbox, reading through email top-down (a.k.a., starting with the most recent email received).

This is highly convenient and intuitive, but there are two primary risks of this strategy. The first risk is that you’ll likely end up with inconsistent responsiveness. On days that you have a lot of time to spend on email, you’ll reply to contacts lightning-fast. On days that you’re busy and in meetings, you’ll have messages pile up and get buried under newer emails.

The second risk is that you may miss out on good opportunities because you didn’t follow up in time. If you choose to use this strategy, but want to mitigate these risks, I would recommend blocking an hour or two once a week during which you switch to the reverse chronological approach (conveniently outlined below). This way, you’ll clear out anything old that might be important.

2. Reverse Chronological

The opposite of LIFO, taking a reverse chronological approach means dealing with the oldest emails first. If you use Gmail, you can switch the sorting of your inbox, by just clicking the email counter in the top right corner.

With this strategy, you’ll often be confronted with harder emails you’ve been putting off, which is great for any chronic procrastinators. However, there is one downside to this strategy. If you work someplace where you constantly receive urgent emails that really do need to be answered right away, it might be risky to take a reverse chronological approach. With that said, you can definitely combine this strategy with LIFO during the actual workday if that’s the case.

3. Yesterbox

Famously used by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the Yesterbox technique focuses on dealing today with all of the email you received yesterday. Hsieh explains:

“Your ‘to do’ list each day is simply yesterday’s email inbox (hence, ‘Yesterbox’). The great thing about this is when you get up in the morning, you know exactly how many emails you have to get through, there’s a sense of progress as you process each email from yesterday and remove it from your inbox, and there’s actually a point when you have zero emails left to process from yesterday. There is actually a sense of completion when you’re done, which is amazing.”

This is a great strategy for anyone who feels like they’re constantly drowning in email. While I recommend reading his entire how to, the best part is definitely the amount of control you’ll regain over your inbox. Unlike other methods, your target remains the same as the day goes on, and you’ll find over time that you get a better handle of how long email will take you to get through. Did you receive 25 emails yesterday? OK, that might take you a little over an hour. Have a big day with 70 emails coming in? You can plan ahead and block additional time to manage the volume.

4. Inbox Zero

A term coined by Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is an email strategy by which the goal is to always keep your inbox 100% empty. There are some big benefits to this: Everything is always handled, and you don’t waste time re-reading an email for the third time before actually taking action. This strategy is good for Type-A list-makers (like me!) who like to have complete control on their inboxes. But from my experience, it’s easy to let your inbox dictate your life if you take this too far. Pro tip: Couple Inbox Zero with Boomerang for Gmail, an app that lets you file messages out of your inbox until the date and time of your choosing, so you can decide between actually answering and delaying for later, as need be.

If you’re trying it for the first time, I recommend checking out Lily Herman’s week-long challenge to stay at Inbox Zero before you start.

After trying each method, I can say with certainty that choosing a strategy is all about matching your personal preferences with any habits you’d like to encourage (or discourage). You may find that mixing and matching works best for you. I went a long while at Inbox Zero and have decided that the stress of getting those last few done wasn’t worth it. But I do keep my inbox under 20 emails by the time I go to bed each night—just short enough that I can see all of them on my screen for a quick check that nothing fell through the cracks. As long as you’re not a slave to your inbox and anyone who needs to hear from you is getting an answer in a timely manner, who’s to judge?

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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5 Ways to Make Your Workday More Productive

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Eliminate distractions in your daily routine

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It’s easy to get distracted given the countless details that come with running a successful business. If you’re ready to outshine your competitors and take your business to a whole new level, there are five things you need to start doing today:

Outsource

Proper investment of time versus money is an art. Smart outsourcing ensures that a qualified professional handles every aspect of your business and frees up your time to focus on the parts of your business you’re best at.

If you’re used to running a one-person operation, it’s natural to feel anxious about giving up control and trusting others with your hard-earned money. The beauty of outsourcing is that it doesn’t have to come with high financial risk — since you don’t have to commit to hiring full-time or permanent staff, you can try it out in small steps.

Try an experiment: Identify one relatively simple task and outsource it to an independent contractor for a temporary position of a week or two. Commit to using those extra hours to work on something you’ve been putting off. At the end of the week, evaluate your results. You might be surprised at the time you end up saving for a minimal investment.

Automate

Evaluate your current strategy to ensure that you’re automating everything you possibly can without detracting from the quality of your product or service. If you’re still struggling to keep on top of everything but you’re not sure what to change, you may need to consider adjusting your business model or product offerings.

For example, if you find yourself spending intensive hours each day addressing queries about minor items, you may benefit from trimming back your product line, instead investing in a PPC campaign to promote higher ticket items that require less customer maintenance. In many cases, less is more.

  • Use an autoresponder to send out pre-written email blasts to your subscribers.
  • Introduce a policy to curate a higher percentage of your content.
  • Use HTML forms to streamline staff intake processes.

Improve

Successful entrepreneurs learn by doing. It’s entirely possible to build a multimillion-dollar business without ever having gone to college, but if you really want to maximize your long-term potential, you can’t neglect to invest in self improvement.

There are an abundance of quality learning resources available online. Sites like CourseBuffet make it easy to browse an array of free courses offered by top universities. You can also try out subscription-based learning services such as Lynda.com. If you’re interested in improving your skills in SEO, social media marketing or web analytics, check out Udemy for a wide variety of affordable courses to help boost your business.

Simplify

Perhaps the most common obstacle to success for today’s entrepreneur is lack of focus. Allowing yourself to become distracted at the most critical times of the day can be detrimental. Try out these tips for eliminating distractions in your daily routine:

  • Check emails only at certain times of the day.
  • Resolve to put aside any interesting blog posts or articles you come across during the day.
  • Each morning, identify one major task and assign the best hours of your day to work on getting results.

Re-energize

We all do our best work when we’re feeling inspired. It’s crucial to take some real time off every now and then — that is, time spent thinking about anything other than your business.

Often, all it takes is a change of pace to break the cycle of monotony and get re-energized. For example, if you’re an extrovert, attend after-work meet-ups with locals who share your interests. If you enjoy reading, ask your friends what books have inspired them lately and set aside some reading time during your daily coffee breaks. Once you’re feeling rejuvenated, take advantage of the opportunity to tackle that big fish you’ve been putting off.

Old habits are hard to break, so don’t be discouraged if it takes some time to find your groove. Once you do, you won’t look back.

Robert Sofia is a best-selling author, award winning public speaker, and financial industry thought leader. He has developed marketing strategies for Fortune 500® companies, consulted with over 1,000 companies nationwide, and is the cofounder of Platinum Advisor Strategies – ranked #362 on the INC 5,000 list of America’s fastest growing privately owned companies in 2013, and #10 on the Agency 100 list of the nation’s fastest growing agencies.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

This article was originally published on StartupCollective.

TIME apps

21 Best Apps for Business Travelers

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Equipping you for flight check-ins to electronic signatures to ATM search

The days of paperless travel are upon us, with digital boarding passes, e-confirmations and online travel booking on the upswing. Business travelers need little more than a smartphone or tablet to manage anything from signing contracts to logging expenses and work hours.

These apps do it all, from checking you in to your flight, getting a legally binding John Hancock on those forms, and finding the nearest Wi-Fi, ATM and food stops.

Breeze through travel

Organize your bookings

One of the original must-have travel apps, super-itinerary-maker TripIt pulls together confirmations for hotels, flights and other bookings, combing your email for anything resembling a reservation or sending confirmation emails to your personal email address so that reference numbers are close at hand wen you need to check in. The paid Pro version offers real-time alerts for flight changes, help finding alternative flights and a fare-tracking service that lets you know when you may be eligible for fare refunds.

Price: Free on iTunes and Google Play; $0.99 for the premium version (no ads) on iTunes and Google Play; $4.09 per month subscription for Pro (premium features)

Board by smartphone

PassBook, a surprisingly underused built-in feature of iPhones running iOS 6 and up, automatically saves boarding passes and hotel confirmations from apps including United Airlines, British Airways, Starbucks, Hotels.com and Starwood Hotels. Hit “Find apps for Passbook” to load the ones you use; after that, any bookings you make will automatically land here, to be easily retrieved and scanned for check-in or boarding.

The Android equivalent is PassWallet. Samsung users can download Samsung Wallet from Google Play or the Samsung App Store.

Breeze through the airport Along with showing you the latest status on your flight and gate number, GateGuru displays info about the airport you’re in, giving you the low-down on where to eat, drink and score free Wi-Fi. The Travel Stats tab shows how many miles you’ve flown, which airports you’ve visited and how you rank compared to other GateGuru users. Indispensable for frequent travelers to make the most of a layover.

Price: Free at GateGuru

Get more work accomplished

Scan with your smartphone

Instead of painstakingly angling your phone’s camera just so, load up Scannable and point it in the general direction of the document to be scanned. It uses contrast levels to figure out what you want scanned, then automatically scans the image, straightening and whitening for a professional-looking document. Multiple pages can be scanned one by one and collated into a single PDF, then sent via email or saved to your Evernote account.

Price: Free at Evernote

If you’re a OneDrive user, Microsoft Office Lens lets you scan business cards, contracts, photos, diagrams and other workday minutiae to be deposited into your OneDrive account for later organizing. Choose from one of three image types (photo, document or whiteboard), point your phone at the item to be scanned, hit the shutter and save the scan. Unfortunately, you can’t yet scan multi-page documents, but the app is a handy way to save hard-copy information to your cloud storage.

Price: Free at OneNote

Digitally sign documents

Not all digital signatures are created equal. Though you may have used an image of your scanned signature to “sign” some documents, most legal experts don’t recommend this less-than-legally-binding method for important documents. For high-level contracts requiring a digital signature, use an app like CudaSign, which allows you to trace your signature with a finger using legally recognized eSign technology. Upload documents from email attachments, Dropbox or the camera roll, and add fields for customers to input extra info. CudaSign is encrypted with bank-level security and works with forms from Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, Office 365 and more.

Price: $1 per user per month or free trial at CudaSign

Another app for legally binding, secure e-signatures, HelloSign offers the added benefit of integration with Google Apps; documents sent via Gmail for signing have an additional “Sign” icon for one-click access. Documents can also be pulled from Dropbox, Box, Evernote and OneDrive and edited with your company’s logo. Like Cudasign, HelloSign is encrypted with bank-level security.

Price: Free for three signatures a month or from $13/month at HelloSign

Edit and collaborate

If you’re a Google Drive user, you know that Google Docs is an indispensable way to create and edit documents on the go. You can access any file in your Drive and make changes that can be picked up across all your devices. Like the desktop version of Google Drive, you can invite people to work on the same document, with or without an Internet connection.

Price: Free at Google

Make notes and oversee projects

For individual users, Evernote is a brilliant free digital notebook for memos, research and thoughts plus ways to categorize it all. From a business slant, features include the ability to share notebooks with multiple collaborators and oversee a workspace consisting of dozens of notebooks and collaborators.

Price: Free for individuals or $8 per user per month for business users at Evernote

Create graphic reports

If you’re working on a report or presentation, the beautifully minimal Pages is the go-to for iPad. The app supports multi-touch gestures to zoom and move around the page, with 60 templates for text, images and graphs and support for Microsoft Word. There’s a tracking option to record changes with comments and highlight features when working on a collaborative document. If your colleagues use iDevices, you can AirDrop them the document; otherwise, send a link, which always links to the most recent version.

Price: $11.99 at iTunes

Locate conveniences on the go

Find the ultimate meal

If you have a food craving, FoodSpotting will fulfill it. Instead of finding food by restaurant, search by dish. Want dim sum in Hong Kong or fish and chips in London? This app will point you in the direction of the restaurants that serve the best versions, as decided by reviews from other diners.

Price: Free at FoodSpotting

Get your bearings

Need an ATM, a parking garage, a gas station? AroundMe finds the nearest services based on your GPS location, giving you map directions, contact details, website details and Foursquare tips.

Price: Free at AroundMe

Translate the local lingo

Word Lens, which was recently purchased by Google, scans foreign text and translates it into your home language. At the moment, the app supports English, German, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian and Portuguese. Download the app for free with an English/Spanish conversion; for a limited time, the other language packs are free to download too.

Price: Free at Quest Visual

Navigate a new city

Figuring out the bus system in a new city is right up there with navigating a maze blindfolded. HopStop is particularly useful when you arrive in one of the 68 major metropolises it supports, offering bus, subway and walking routes for getting from here to there, along with schedules and transit maps. Cities supported cover North America, Europe and Australia.

Price: Free at HopStop

Hail a cab

Sometimes cabs are the only alternative—and that’s when Uber, now active in 66 countries, comes into its own. In cities where public transport may not be all that, an Uber ride usually arrives in good time. Thanks to the cash-free payment system, you won’t even need any local currency.

Price: Free at Uber

Stay organized

Make your data go further

The Facebook-owned Onavo Extend can save you money on data bills by compressing the sites and emails you access. Adjust the image quality you want to view (a lower image quality saves you more data), and view reports on how much data you’ve saved. Yes, information about your data use does get shared with Facebook, but its uses are strictly practical—for example, telling who is using what mobile services and how to optimize data such as ads for viewing on mobile devices.

Price: Free at Onavo

Score free Wi-Fi

When you’re outside the United States, you probably don’t want to use your data plan at all. WiFi Finder scans for nearby Wi-Fi hotspots using your phone’s GPS, so you don’t need be online to find Wi-Fi. Its database covers 144 countries with over 145,000 logged hotspots in the iOS app and 550,000 in the Android version and the ability to filter results by what type of facility the hotspot is located in—say, a restaurant, hotel or coffee shop—and whether it’s free or paid.

Price: Free on iTunes and Google Play

Convert between currencies

If you’re country-hopping, you’ll need a handy guide for converting shekels, rupees or euros back to the greenback. XE Currency is a no-nonsense way to sort it out, with a table for adding currencies you want to convert to your home currency. You can also add a currency widget to your iOS notification center or Android home screen with live-updating rates.

Price: Free at XE

Record travel expenses

Even if you’re not a convert to IFTTT, the app that links your various web accounts to automate actions, Do Button is unbeatable for saving your business trip expenses. Download the Do Button app, load the recipe for “Save receipts to Dropbox,” and fire it up to snap pictures of your receipts, which get saved to a specific Dropbox folder. Send the link to Accounts to recoup your costs.

Price: Free at IFTTT

Track work versus play

Most of us mix business with pleasure, and that’s just fine. But if you’re getting paid by time spent on work, it’s worth downloading Hours to note how much time you’re spending per project (or networking cocktail event). Set timers by activity or project, including leisure time, and then tap a particular task each time you switch. Reports on the time spent on each project can be exported and shared via email.

Price: Free for iOS at Hours Time Tracking

Android users can go for aTimeLogger, which has a less modern interface than Hours but similar features. The app offers tons of preset categories such as internet, transport and entertainment. Simply tap to start timing. Reports can be generated for date ranges to view the proportions of time spent on different activities.

Price: Free at aTimeLogger

This article originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Careers & Workplace

This Simple Exercise Will Make Sure You Spend Time on What Makes You Happy

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Here's a simple three-step solution

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Wake up. Go to work. Stay a little late. Come home. Make dinner. Go to bed. Do it all over again.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily grind. Before you know it, a week has passed, the month ends, the year is over, and you haven’t done a thing that mattered to you. Somehow, you managed to be busy and bored all at the same time.

So, how do you break the cycle? Is there a way to actually spend time on what makes you happy—to separate the urgent from the important?

Marika Reuling, chief of staff at Harvard University, might have a simple three-step solution.

Step 1: Start a Life Audit

At the 2015 Greater Boston Women in Leadership Symposium, Reuling spoke about completing a life audit once or twice a year to help her reevaluate how she spends and prioritizes her time. To get started, you’ll need a bunch of sticky notes, a pen, a blank wall or floor, and privacy. You should probably turn your phone off, too.

A life audit, as serious as it sounds, is simply the process of writing down every tangible goal or vague ambition, both professional and personal, on a Post-it note and sticking it on a blank wall. Ximena Vengoechea, after completing her own life audit, suggests shooting for at least 100 wishes for yourself.

Step 2: Define Your Vision

From there, try to place each of your goals into a bucket: travel, health, family, career, and more. Whatever theme comes up can have its own bucket. Move the sticky notes around until they’re all under the right theme, and consider whether these themes capture what you want your career and life trajectory to be. Continue adding more sticky notes, if necessary.

What you have in front of you now are guidelines for how to spend your time in a way that’s rewarding for you. For Reuling, this step helped her realize she needed something in her professional life that allowed for more artistry. Now, not only does she help manage resources and staff at Harvard, she co-runs a vineyard with her husband in Sonoma Valley, California.

Step 3: Design Your Day

Now that you have your guidelines, plot your day around these goals. Mark each note with an “S” for short term, an “L” for long term, or an “E” for every day. From there, you can decide how to work toward your short and long term goals. This is where you want to get specific. Set weekly or monthly goals and be exact about the time you hope to spend.

Reuling suggests using the Timely app (or something similar) to help you plan and keep track of how you’re spending your time. If you’re having trouble figuring out where you can actually fit more into your day, consider doing a time audit to see where you’re spending all your time and whether it makes sense or not.

Working toward a hundred goals big and small may sound like a daunting task—and it is, but no one ever said you had to do it alone. As Reuling concludes, “Think about your team, both at work and at home.” No one ever found success on their own, so don’t forget to lean on others as you try to break the cycle and refocus your goals.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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