TIME advice

13 Highly Useful Skills You Can Learn in a Minute

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Know which side the gas tank is on without getting out of the car

Everyone loves a good life hack, especially if it’s super quick to pick up.

While one minute may not seem like a lot of time to master a useful skill, you’d be surprised just how much you can actually accomplish in 60 seconds or less.

With the help of a Quora thread on the matter, here are are several handy life skills you can pick up almost instantly:

1. Start everything with ‘why?’ in mind

“Always! Not only when it comes to business plans,” says user Charles Faraone. “Start with why for every decision impacting on your life, health, and happiness. Ask yourself why you’re eating foods that might not be healthy for you. Why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them. Why you’re avoiding doing what you know you should be doing. It’s an amazingly simple approach with huge potential payoffs.”

2. Save ink when printing

When printing documents, user Veijay Jain suggests simply changing the text from black to gray. This will make little difference to the quality of what you’re printing, and will not only reduce the amount of ink used, but it’ll also increase the printing speed. “Needless to say that by using less ink, you will be slowing down the process filling the mother earth with used cartridges, helping our earth remain greener.”

3. Stop an impending sneeze

User Alexander Freiherr offers a few methods for stopping a sneeze. “Squeeze your nose. Catch the part of your nose above the tip and stretch it out as if you are removing your nose out of your face. It should not be painful, but simply stretch out your cartilage, stopping the sneeze.

“Blow your nose. Use tissue and blow your nose when you feel a sneeze coming on. It should clear your sinuses of what caused the sneeze in the first place.

“Pinch your upper lip. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch your upper lip lightly and press it upward toward your nostrils. Your thumb should head toward one nostril and your forefinger toward the other, bunching up your upper lip slightly.

“Use your tongue. Press your tongue behind your two front teeth, where the roof of your mouth meets the gum palate or alveolar ridge. Press hard with your most powerful muscles against your teeth until the tickling sensation dissipates.”

4. Build muscle at your desk

Press your hands together as hard as you can, says user Ashwin D. Kini. You should feel pressure in your pectoral, shoulder, and arm muscles. This kind of isometric exercise requires minimal movement, but strengthens muscles.

5. Save time with computer shortcuts

User Jhasketan Sahu suggests the following for smoother web browsing:

To open a new Tab: <Ctrl><T>.
To close any open Tab: <Ctrl><W>.
To move from one Tab to another: <Ctrl><Page Up> or<Ctrl><Page Down>.
To reopen a recently closed tab: <Ctrl><Shift><T>.
To find specific text in a web page: <Ctrl><F>.
To increase or decrease the size of the text: Hold <Ctrl> and press “+” or “-” respectively.
To open a link in a new tab: Hold <Ctrl> and click the link.

6. Easily change text case in Word

Highlight the text you want to change the case of and press Shift+F3, writes Suvam Behera. Doing this once will convert the highlighted text to all upper case, twice will convert the text to all lowercase, and three times will capitalize the first letter of each word.

7. Never prematurely send an email again

“When you’re writing an email, fill in the addressee last,” says David Spencer. “This way, you will never accidentally click and send a premature email.”

8. Make anonymous phone calls

According to an anonymous reader who clearly values his privacy, to make an anonymous phone call on a cell phone in the United States, dial *69, the country code you’re calling — if you’re calling someone in the US, that’s 1 — and then dial the phone number. The call recipient will see a message like “unavailable” or “private number” on his caller ID.

9. Declutter your mind before bed

“At the end of the day for one minute summarize your day,” writes Mihalache Catalin. “What you did, what you could do but didn’t because fear or laziness stopped you. Why you did everything in that day. How to improve what you do. Do this always before you sleep and you will have a good night sleep.”

10. Always know if you’ve taken your daily medication

For medications you take twice a day, user Madhu Mita suggests flipping the bottle upside-down after you take it in the evening and flipping it right-side up after the morning dose.

For medications you take three times a day, place the bottle on the left side of you (you can do this with a bathroom sink or your desk) in the morning, in front of you at noon, and to the right of you after dinner.

“The pattern doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent: move the bottle after you take the dose, and you’ll be able to look back later and see if you’ve taken it.”

11. Conserve your smartphone battery

User Ashok Kumar says whenever you are not using internet on your phone through Wifi, turn your Wifi off. When out of range of a network, your phone continually polls for a network, which drains the battery.

12. Have a more productive day

“In the morning, when you get to work or school, the first thing you should do is to prioritize your day,” writes user David Palank. “Most people start by checking emails or phone calls. However, prioritizing is the most draining on the brain and should be done when your brain is fresh! This is the first step to productivity.”

13. Know which side the gas tank is on without getting out of the car

“If you look at the little gas indicator on your dashboard (instrument cluster), you should see a tiny arrow next to it,” says user Bharath Raj. “That arrow actually points to the gas tank (fuel lid) side of your car. Now you’ll never forget where it is again!”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider

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TIME psychology

How Successful People Increase Productivity

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

This upcoming weekend is the first online seminar that I’ve ever offered on how to increase productivity.

It’s unlike anything I’ve seen out there today and I think it has the potential to change how you invest your time and dramatically increase your productivity. The seminar is going to be fast-paced and full of ideas that you can immediately put into practice.

One thing that successful people do to increase productivity is they avoid to-do lists. These lists are rarely as effective as effective as scheduling time.

“Scheduling,” says Cal Newport, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.”

It’s really easy to add things to a to-do list. Because it’s so simple, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we’re not discriminating and we’re not as conscious about controlling our time as we should be.

As Steve Jobs said, it’s easy to say yes but the real value comes from saying no. Warren Buffett agrees: “You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

Most people have the default of saying yes to everything. Personal relationships aside, the default, however, should be no. This is how you increase productivity.

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email.

Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we’re intentionally blind to because we won’t like what we see.

Just as important, you need to think about your energy levels and when you schedule these tasks. This is another key to increasing productivity.

A lot of people I’ve offered productivity advice to spend hours a day on email. It’s not uncommon for people to tell me their job is moving email around. That’s how the modern office works right? While many of these people hate email, it’s not within their control (or mine) to change how the organization works. Instead I help them look at what is within their control — the time of day they invest in email. I’ve discovered most people use some of their most productive and high-energy time on … email. That means that some of our best mental energy is being used on the low value add task of email. A simple change to schedule “doing email” for times when we have less energy makes a world of difference to both productivity and happiness.

Being more productive isn’t always about doing more, it’s about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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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.


Your Cell Phone Is Killing Your Productivity, but Not for the Reason You Think

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If you think you can ignore those alerts, you're wrong

OK, so you know not to use your phone while you drive, but your phone distracts you way more than you realize, and it’s hurting your productivity even if you never rear-end a fellow commuter because you’re trying to answer a text.

Unfortunately, even if you’re diligent about avoiding the siren song of that chime or ringtone that indicates a call or message, just hearing the notification is enough to derail you, the researchers find. “Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering,” they write. “Mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device.”

It’s a tough balance. For many of us, our cell phones are a lifeline to our non-work lives when we’re toiling away during the day. We want to be reachable in case of an emergency, but the constant stream of notifications is death by paper cuts to our productivity.

In a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers found that experiment subjects performing a task that required intense focus performed poorly when they received notification of a text or call on their phone during the experiment.

When the notifications broke their concentration, the subjects had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make rapid guesses. Subjects who received notification of a call — even if they didn’t pick it up — were three times likelier to make mistakes. The researchers had subjects — who didn’t know the point of the experiment — use their own phones, which they say made it more likely a notification would be distracting, since the subjects were expecting those interruptions to be personally relevant.

The reason for these results is that, in spite of all the multitasking we do, our brains aren’t really that good at it. We only have so much attention we can devote at a given moment, and more tasks mean that our concentration is divided. According to the researchers, even though the actual moment of interruption from a phone notification is brief, it disrupts our thoughts for a considerably longer period, making it tough to get back on track. Maybe you’re wondering who it is, or maybe you think of someone it could be and remember that you need to tell them something. Suddenly, you’re down the mental rabbit hole and your concentration is shot.

Researchers call the degree of distraction “shocking,” with error rates about the same as if subjects actually had answered the call or text, according to findings of other research about phone-related distracted driving to which the researchers compared their findings.

In the paper, the researchers points out this discovery could have implications for efforts like “don’t text and drive” campaigns, which just say you shouldn’t view or answer texts or calls, not that you should silence your phone entirely. (That’s actually the researchers’ next project: Seeing if just getting a notification while behind the wheel impairs your driving.) “These findings highlight the need to adopt a broader view of cellular phone related distraction,” they write.

TIME Careers & Workplace

7 Ways Productive People See Life Differently

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They find ways to do their best work even on their worst days

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Some people are more successful than other people — a lot more successful.

Sure, they work hard. And they work smart. But they possess other qualities that make a major impact on their performance:

1. They see disapproval as fuel.

Work too hard, strive too hard, appear to be too ambitious, try to stand out from the crowd. It’s a lot easier and much more comfortable to reel it in to ensure you fit in.

Pleasing the (average-performing) crowd is something the most successful people don’t worry about. (They may think about it, but then they keep pushing on.)

They hear the criticism, they take the potshots, they endure the laughter or derision or even hostility — and they keep on measuring themselves and their efforts by their own standards.

And, in the process, they achieve what they want to achieve.

2. They see fear as part of the process.

One of my clients is an outstanding — and outstandingly successful — comic. Audiences love him. He’s crazy good.

Yet he still has panic attacks before he walks onstage. He knows he’ll melt down, sweat through his shirt, feel sick to his stomach, and all the rest. It’s just the way he is.

So, just before he goes onstage, he takes a quick shower, puts on fresh clothes, drinks a bottle of water, jumps up and down and does a little shadowboxing, and out he goes.

He’s still scared. He knows he’ll always be scared. He accepts it as part of the process. Pre-show fear is like lunch: It’s going to happen.

Anyone hoping to achieve great things gets nervous. Anyone trying to achieve great things gets scared.

Truly productive people aren’t braver than others; they just find the strength to keep moving forward. They realize fear is paralyzing while action creates confidence and self-assurance.

3. They find ways to do their best work even on their worst days.

Norman Mailer said, “Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.”

The most successful people don’t make excuses. They forge ahead, because they know establishing great habits takes considerable time and effort. They know how easy it is to instantly create a bad habit by giving in — even just this one time.

4. They see creativity as the result of effort, not inspiration.

Most people wait for an idea. Most people think creativity happens. They expect a divine muse will someday show them a new way, a new approach, a new concept.

And they wait… and wait… and wait.

Occasionally, great ideas do just come to people. Mostly, though, creativity is the result of effort: toiling, striving, refining, testing, experimenting… the work itself results in inspiration.

The most productive people don’t wait for ideas. They don’t wait for inspiration. They know that big ideas most often come from people who do, not people who dream.

5. They see help not as a weakness, but as essential to success.

Pretend you travel to an unfamiliar country, you know only a few words of the language, and you’re lost and a little scared. Would you ask for help?

Of course. No one knows everything. No one is great at everything.

Productive people soldier on and hope effort will overcome a lack of knowledge or skill. And it does, but only to a point.

The most productive people also ask for help. They know asking for help is a sign of strength-and the key to achieving more.

6. They see starting as important…

At times we all lack motivation and self-discipline. At times we’re all easily distracted. At times we all fear failure — or even success.

Procrastination is a part of what makes people human; it’s not possible to completely overcome any of those shortcomings.

Wanting to put off a difficult task is normal. Avoiding a challenge is normal.

But think about a time you put off a task, finally got started, and then, once into it, thought, “I don’t know why I kept putting this off — it’s going really well. And it didn’t turn out to be nearly as hard as I imagined.”

It never is.

The most productive people try not to think about the pain they’ll feel in the beginning; they focus on how good they will feel once they’re engaged and involved.

And they get started. And then they don’t stop.

7. … and they see finishing as everything.

More than anything, successful people finish — no matter how high the barriers, how many the obstacles, how great the challenges… they see things through when others would have given up.

(Unless there’s a really, really good reason not to finish — which, of course, there almost never is.)

The most successful person know they can’t always be first but they can always be last: the last to stop, to quit, to give up.

And in that way, they win.

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.

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17 Ways to Boost Your Morning Routine

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Check the next day’s weather before you go to bed

Your morning sets the tone for everything you’ll accomplish all day. If you’re rolling out of bed after hitting snooze a dozen times, you’re doing it wrong.

Turn your pre-work ritual into a finely tuned machine of productivity with these 17 tips that’ll put you in boss-mode before you’ve even left your house.

1. If you’re awake before your alarm, get out of bed

Giving up those extra few minutes of rest when you realize you’ve awoken before your alarm may be the hardest thing you do all morning. But if you’re tempted to go back to sleep, don’t. You’ll fall into a deeper sleep cycle, and it’ll be all the more painful to get up nine minutes later.

2. Try an “inverted snooze”

The trouble with snoozing is that one is never enough. It may sound like a new age yoga proposition, but the theory suggests that pressing snooze can be good for you—if you get out of bed. After you hit the button, you have to stay out of bed for the next nine minutes, rather than in it. Use that window like a gift of free time to do something you’d skip otherwise. Make your bed, listen to music, meditate. After the time’s up, you’ll be moving and ready, rather than inclined to press that button a few more times.

3. Put your alarm on the other side of room

Sometimes you need a little tough love. Set that blaring alarm to eardrum-piercing volumes and keep it at least 10 feet away from your bed, so you’ll need to get up to turn it off. Look at that, you’re up!

4. Drink lemon water instead of coffee

Hear me out. We’re not saying give up coffee completely, just make warm lemon water the first beverage of the day. According to Life Hack, it’ll help get your metabolism going, and its incredibly sour taste may shock you awake. Save your first cup of coffee for when you get to work.

5. Time the length of your morning routine

Do you know exactly how many minutes it takes you to get ready each morning? Probably not. You have a rough idea, and that’s why you’re always late. One day, get out a timer and find out your average time, from the alarm-sounding to the door-slamming. From here on out, you’ll be able to budget your time more accurately.

6. Get out of bed and exercise

Exercising in the morning will give you a solid sense of accomplishment, sure, but it’ll also jump-start your metabolism and make you feel more energetic all day.

7. Ditch the iron

Who has time to iron their dress shirts in the morning? Literally no one. Get a travel steamer for your apartment, which smoothes out wrinkles just as well without all the hassle of an ironing board.

8. Leave your keys on top of the things you most often forget

If you packed a lunch the night before but can’t ever seem to remember it, stash your keys on top of it, even if it’s in the fridge. That way, you can’t walk out the door without grabbing it. Ditto for a gym bag, backpack, dry cleaning, or whatever else usually slips your mind and thwarts your daily productivity.

9. Check the next day’s weather before you go to bed

That way, if you know you’ll need an umbrella or a raincoat, you can set it out in advance. Boom. One less thing to worry about in the morning.

10. Store your toothbrush on the outside of your shower

Brushing your teeth in the shower saves time, but you don’t want to keep something that goes in your mouth in an area prone to mold and mildew. Attach a cup to your shower handle or wall so you can grab it while you’re already in there and multitask, but stow it somewhere dry when you’re done.

11. Invest in a microfiber towel

For about 12 bucks, score yourself a time-saving shower buddy. These towels are typically used for camping, since the fibers are hyper-absorbent and will dry you off in half the time.

12. Set your coffee maker the night before

Take back those precious minutes you waste waiting for coffee to brew. Many coffee makers have preset functions so you can have your joe warming up the minute your alarm goes off. If you’re craving tea instead, don’t add grounds, and have instant hot water at the ready.

13. Chug a liter of water

Your body needs hydration to maximize productivity throughout the day, so start early and reap the benefits. You’ll especially want that H20 10-15 minutes before a workout to get the most out of it.

14. Catch up on emails while doing push-ups

Short on time but don’t want to sacrifice that morning burn? Good, you’re a champion among men. Put your tablet on the floor below your face and read any pressing emails while you’re mid-push-up.

15. Keep emergency breakfasts at work if you’re late

You need energy in your mornings to function without crashing, but don’t kid yourself, you’re probably not whipping up egg benedicts while leisurely watching the Today Show. Stash some instant oatmeal or protein bars at your desk, and it’ll make going over those morning emails more bearable once you get into the office.

16. Get disposable coffee cups for your commute

You don’t have time to savor it while you’re scouring your apartment for your missing sock anyway, so get some paper to-go cups so you can drink on the way to work. They may be worse for the environment than a normal travel mug, but you’ll never have to worry about forgetting to take it home from the office.

17. Write your to-do list on the morning commute

Since you won’t have service underground anyway, open up the notepad on your phone and jot down any pressing jobs for the day so you can prioritize your efforts. When you get off the subway, you can email the list to yourself and check those items off throughout the day, like the task-crushing machine you are.

This article originally appeared on Supercompressor.

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5 Ways to Organize Your Desk

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Follow the 'essentials only' rule

Having a clean desk is an essential part of killing it in the workplace. Sure, some creative geniuses thrive in chaos, amid piles of papers, stacks of books, and even last night’s congealed takeout. But let’s be honest—a messy cubicle isn’t going to impress the boss. Having an organized space can also help spark productivity (i.e. you won’t have to waste precious time digging for your iPhone under the clutter). So, we turned to expert organizer Jennifer Ford Berry, best-selling author of the Organize Now!, for her best workspace makeover secrets:

1. Follow the “essentials only” rule.

Keep the items you need to get your job done within arm’s reach—and only those items. Desks get cluttered when storage space isn’t utilized and the top is filled with too many photos of your pets. Make sure your daily use items—laptop, project folders, writing utensils, and so on—get prime real estate over figurines and photos of your dog.

2. Invest in desk accessories.

To keep your essentials handy yet organized, get a desk caddy that’s perfect for pens, Post-its and so on—like this one, in which you can also store and charge your cell phone. Also buy a shallow tray: You can stack folders for current projects and other to-dos you are working on.

3. Store the rest.

Items that you use once a month or less should not be stored on top of your desk. In fact, if you find that you’re keeping items you don’t use very often in your desk drawers, consider removing them completely to make the space as open as possible. (If you need supplies, that’s what the office copy room is for—no need to stockpile stuff at your desk.)

4. Make it a clean slate.

Always give your desk a sweep at the end of the day so you can sit down to a fresh start the following morning. (Invest in some sanitizing wipes and do a quick wipe as well to keep those office germs at bay.) This is the perfect thing to do when the day is winding down and you’re work is done, but you don’t want to be the first one to leave.

5. Deep clean four times a year.

If you follow the above tips, your desk will stay tidy. Still, you might want to schedule time in your calendar every quarter to do a quick purge through your desk—especially if crazy hours or big projects get in the way of your organization routine. Toss out unwanted files, get rid of nearly-empty pens, clean out the clutter from your drawers (yes, that includes your old candy stash), and consider refreshing the space with a potted plant. Voila! You’ll be re-energized and your desk will the envy of all of your coworkers.

This article originally appeared on Levo.com

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TIME psychology

A Brief History of the To-Do List

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Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

The to-do list is something I talked about in my webinar on productivity, specifically, I argued that to-do lists were evil from a productivity perspective. This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A brief history of the to-do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

“The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn’t a lack of goals, however, it’s too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time. If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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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

How to Focus on the Things That Matter

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

How Can You Spend Time Wisely?

We all wonder where the hours go. There’s a good reason for that — we’re absolutely terrible at remembering how we really spend our time.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

Hunting through data from the American Time Use Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other time diary projects, I came to the inescapable conclusion that how we think we spend our time has little to do with reality. We wildly overestimate time devoted to housework. We underestimate time devoted to sleep. We write whole treatises glorifying a golden age that never was; American women, for instance, spend more time with their children now than their grandmothers did in the 1950s and 60s.

Nowhere is this truer than with work. Are you a workaholic spending 75+ hours at work a week? Then you’re probably off by as much as 25 hours.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

These curious blind spots continue into the realm of work. People who get paid by the hour know how many hours they work. People who inhabit the world of exempt jobs have a much more tenuous grasp on this concept but, as a general rule, the higher the number of work hours reported, the more likely the person is to be overestimating. A study published in the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review that compared estimated workweeks with time diaries reported that people who claimed their “usual” workweeks were longer than 75 hours were off, on average, by about 25 hours. You can guess in which direction. Those who claimed that a “usual” workweek was 65– 74 hours were off by close to 20 hours. Those claiming a 55– 64 hour workweek were still about 10 hours north of the truth. Subtracting these errors, you can see that most people top out at fewer than 60 work hours per week.

It’s no shock that we don’t spend time wisely — most of us have no idea where the time goes.

We do know some of the culprits. TV. Web surfing. And email. Oh yes, email.

Knowledge workers spend 28% of their time with email. 58 percent of smartphone owners don’t go an hour without checking their device. 9 percent check it during religious services.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on the social economy, knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their time wading through their inboxes. According to Lookout, the mobile-security firm, 58 percent of smartphone users say they don’t go an hour without checking their phones. And not just waking hours. Lookout reported that 54 percent of smartphone users check their phones while lying in bed. Almost 40 percent say they check their phones while on the toilet. Some 9 percent admit to checking their phones during religious services.

Why can’t we focus? Dan Ariely says it’s an issue of visibility.

Calendars are great for showing things that take 30 minutes but can’t help us judge progress on big projects or creative endeavors that take 30 hours.

Via Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series):

The next thing working against us is the calendar. It has a tendency to represent tasks that can fit in thirty-minute or one-hour blocks. And tasks that take, say, fifty hours— which could be how long it takes you to complete a meaningful creative task— don’t naturally get represented in that calendar. Then there’s opportunity cost. With money, opportunity cost is the fact that every time you spend three dollars on a latte, you’re not going to spend it on something else. With time, there is also an opportunity cost— but it’s often even harder to understand. Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, let’s say, e-mail versus doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours.


How Do You Break Free?

In my interview with Cal Newport he said that the emphasis on productivity tricks was problematic. It’s only part of the solution — and not the important part:

There’s this notion that productivity alone, if you could just get the system right, is going to give you a meaningful career. I think a big shift is happening in people’s thinking as they realize “No, no, productivity can’t do that for you.” It can’t help you crack the new theorem or the new big product. What it can do is help clear the deck so that you can then start the sort of hard work of building and applying skills that leads to the really valuable stuff.

We spend time wisely when we plan:

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings, though meetings with employees were correlated with higher sales; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.

It’s even a good idea with your free time.

Caterina Fake points to management expert Pete Drucker who says working at home in the morning is the only real solution.

Via The Practice of Management:

The only published study of the way chief executives actually spend their day has been made in Sweden by Professor Sune Carlsson. For several months Carlsson and his associates clocked with a stop watch the working day of twelve leading Swedish industrialists. They noted the time spent on conversations, conferences, visits, telephone calls and so forth. They found that not one of the twelve executives was ever able to work uninterruptedly more than twenty minutes at a time—at least not in the office. Only at home was there some chance of concentration. And the only one of the twelve who did not make important, long-range decisions “off the cuff,” and sandwiched in between unimportant but long telephone calls and “crisis” problems, was the executive who worked at home every morning for an hour and a half before coming to the office.

So what do you need to do?

Plan ahead and protect a period of time every day, probably in the morning, and use it to do the long term things that matter.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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MONEY productivity

4 Mental Blocks That Keep You From Being a Work Superstar

Dag Sundberg—Getty Images The average attention span of a human is now less than that of a goldfish.

Show your brain who's the boss.

You may not realize it, but your brain is working against you.

Think about it: How many times have you tried to focus in a meeting, only to succumb to a burning desire to check your Instagram?

Or how about the time you were told to come up with 10 new ideas—and found you couldn’t even brainstorm one?

Turns out there are a slew of psychological tendencies that can get in your way at work, affect your productivity and even hurt your rise through the corporate ranks.

And as much as you may believe you’re the master of your mind, with all those synapses firing constantly there’s sure to be some brain activity that’s conspiring against you.

But we’re here to help you show your brain who’s boss.

Here are four all-too-common behavioral phenomena that have the potential to waylay your best professional intentions—along with some advice from psychologists on how to transcend them.

Brain Blocker #1: The Goldfish Effect

Here’s a fun fact: The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.

Here’s another one: According to research by Microsoft, the average attention span of a human now maxes out at eight seconds—that’s down from 12 in 2000.

That’s right—a fish can now concentrate longer than a human.

The reason we suffer from the Goldfish Effect? Our always-connected society leaves us in a constant state of sensory overload, making every digital notification suddenly the most important thing to attend to.

How It Can Hinder You at Work: Between responding to emails, fielding multiple chats and actually answering questions in real life, you get so bogged down in the minutiae of the day that by 5:30 your to-do list has only gotten longer.

And if you pride yourself on being able to juggle multiple tasks, you may be fooling yourself—University of Utah research suggests that only 2% of people are actually effective multitaskers.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin: What you drown out can be just as important to your brain’s efficiency as what you absorb, according to a recent University of Rochester study.

Researchers found that people with high IQs were also the best at filtering out background stimuli—suggesting that smart people are good at suppressing information that is less important to the task at hand.

But if you’re not a natural at ignoring the not-so-crucial stuff, it is something you can get better at with time, says Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and author of “Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy.”

The key is to start small. Define a limited period of time—say, five minutes—when you’ll commit to focusing on just one task, like answering a lengthy email.

“If that doesn’t work, start with one minute, or even 30 seconds,” Michaelis says. “Then gradually add increments of time. Before you know it, you’ll be able to suppress that nagging wish to see what’s happening on Facebook.”

Brain Blocker #2: Imposter Syndrome

You hold the corner office, but do you still have a nagging feeling that you’re undeserving of your accomplishments?

If so, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome—the idea that your success has been a fluke and you’ll be “found out” for not being as talented as everyone thinks.

By some estimates, more than 70% of people have felt this way at some point in their lives. But despite it being extremely common, clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love,” says imposter syndrome is rarely discussed, which can leave you feeling like you’re the only one in the office harboring such thoughts.

How It Can Hinder You at Work: “This syndrome can cause a wide variety of fear-related behaviors, not to mention increased stress and relationship strain,” Lombardo says.

For example, you may refuse to accept coaching because you’re afraid colleagues will discover you’re a fraud. Or you may tend to get upset at other people’s incompetence in an attempt to hide your own. You may even become a micromanager because you believe mistakes on your team hint that you’re in over your head.

And, most obviously, you may avoid gunning for promotions because you’re afraid you’re not qualified.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin: One big sign you’re suffering from imposter syndrome is that you feel inadequate—despite what the evidence shows. But could you really have faked your way through record sales figures or multiple promotions?

So when doubt starts to set in, it helps to take stock of your past successes.

Maybe it’s reminding yourself of a company award, rereading old client praise or digging up a stellar performance review. The key is to own your accomplishments, rather than chalk them up to luck.

“Then the next time that inner critic creeps up and says, ‘Who are you to be doing this?’ you can stop and answer that critic with past data,” Lombardo says.

Brain Blocker #3: Thought Suppression

Remember when your mom told you not to even think about touching that cookie jar, which just made you obsess over that chocolatey goodness more?

You were engaging in the thankless task of thought suppression, or the idea that you can will your brain not to think about something. Well, the problem is that research has found thought suppression actually has the opposite effect.

Harvard professor Daniel Wegner discovered this in a classic experiment that involved thinking about a white bear. Those who were instructed to suppress thoughts of a white bear actually ended up thinking about one more than those who were told they could think about white bears freely.

How It Can Hinder You at Work: Anyone who’s been in a tough work situation knows it’s futile to heed the advice of well-meaning friends who say, “Try not to think about your boss/that big project/the mistake you made.”

Your brain, it turns out, won’t let you replace negative thoughts with flowers and puppies. Rather, you focus on them all the more—which can ramp up your stress levels, leaving you mentally exhausted at the end of the day.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin: As with imposter syndrome, failed attempts at thought suppression are the result of a too-loud inner pessimist you can’t silence.

So instead of avoiding a stressful situation or wasting energy trying to control how you feel about it, roll up your sleeves and work through the issue.

“Many people believe they can reason their way through their feelings,” Michaelis explains in his book. “[But] the reason you can’t use your rational mind to control your emotions is because your feelings are stronger than your thoughts.”

His advice? Accept the reality of whatever outcome your negative voice says is coming—but have your actions reflect the opposite.

For instance, if you always tell yourself you’ll blow a big presentation because you’re a horrible speaker, pretend you’re a great one—and approach your practice run-through with that confidence.

“By facing and embracing your fears, you let go of the need to control them,” Michaelis says.

Brain Blocker #4: Design Fixation

Ever get so obsessed with the first idea that comes to your head that your brain can’t even entertain the idea of, well, other ideas?

Then you’re likely a victim of design fixation, a phenomenon in which people’s past experiences end up limiting their ability to embrace new ones.

Its name comes from the challenge designers and engineers face when they have to come up with novel solutions—only to feel stunted because they can’t get past established ways of thinking.

How It Can Hinder You at Work: Design fixation can strike at any time in the workplace, whether it’s not being able to embrace a new workflow or being resistant to adopting a new company logo.

But there’s a reason why design fixation is nicknamed “first is worst” syndrome: It inhibits creativity. Plus, if you’re not able to embrace change, you’re limiting opportunities to advance your skills—and climb that career ladder.

How to Outsmart Your Noggin: Step one, Michaelis says, is to flood your head with as many different ideas as possible—the good, the bad and the ugly. The notion is that doing so pushes your brain to keep working when it’d rather sit back and relax.

“Part of [why you get] stuck with your first idea is that, once you have an idea in mind, you don’t have to keep thinking,” he explains. “But if you force yourself to consider alternatives, you might just stumble upon something better.”

Michaelis’s second suggestion is a bit more outside the box.

“If you pair your first idea with something distasteful—like a picture of some garbage or a negative smell—you might bring down your natural tendency to like it,” says Michaelis, who’s used this tactic with clients. “If you still like it after it’s been paired with an ‘aversive stimulus,’ it’s probably an idea worth keeping.”

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MONEY productivity

6 Tricks to Keep From Vegging in Front of the TV After Work

couple on couch watching tv
Getty Images

We’re too pooped to do anything but work and watch TV

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual survey of how America uses its time last week. Compared to 2003 when the survey started, we spend more time working and watching TV. We are sleeping a bit more these days, but that extra shut-eye and screen time comes at a price. We spend less time socializing, eating, and engaging in religious or volunteer activities.

“I think that people are working a lot harder and there’s just a lot more that they’re expected to do,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “I think it may just be overload. It’s easy just to veg out and watch TV when you feel like everything at work is just in overdrive. There’s a tendency to not want to be exposed to it when you get home,” he says.

Cohen and other experts say there are some things you can do, though, to resist the siren song of the recliner at the end of the day. Follow these and you might find that you have to start DVRing those nighttime shows.

Plan ahead before you leave the office. “Take time toward the end of each day to plan ahead for the next day,” says James Craft, professor of business administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Doing this before you leave work will keep you from starting the day stressed out, or getting absorbed in reality TV to escape the stress the night before. Craft suggests identifying a few specific goals or tasks that must be done that day, then gathering the contact info, files, documents, or other material you’ll need to jump right in.

The same pre-planning trick also works for after-work activities. “Schedule activities in advance so you have a plan of commitment,” Cohen says.

Cut the caffeine. “Reduce coffee and sodas to keep you going at work,” advises career coach Todd Dewett. You don’t have to give it up entirely, but cutting back — especially in the afternoon — will help you avoid crashing right when you get home. “Instead, for one third of your caffeine consumption substitute a short walk,” Dewett suggests. “This is a great way to cognitively rejuvenate without caffeine.” Earlier research has found that taking walks during the workday boosts well-being and motivation, so it has a double benefit. Even five minutes can do the trick.

Give yourself something to look forward to. “A person needs to have something to do that they enjoy, is different, and that they can anticipate,” Craft points out. “That way, they’re not just going home with nothing to do but flop down and watch TV.” Put something you like to do on your schedule like any other appointment and that Law & Order marathon suddenly looks less appealing. For example…

Make plans with other people. Most of us are less likely to bail on a planned activity when other people are participating, too. “Include friends and family in physical activities,” says Chris Boyce, CEO of corporate wellness company Virgin Pulse. “Suggest that everyone goes for a walk after dinner instead of zoning out in front of the TV,” he says. Even if it’s not strenuous, the activity is good for you, and spending time socializing instead of sitting in front of a screen will recharge your mental batteries, he says.

Kick the habit. “People get used to telling themselves that they’re exhausted and just don’t have the energy for anything else except television,” says Joseph G. Gerard, assistant professor of management at Western New England University. Sure, TV engages without demanding anything from you, but spending your evenings in front of a screen can become a habit before you even realize it. “It’s easy… to get caught up in a favorite show or two,” Gerard says. “A lot of people don’t realize when they fall into bad habits.” Experts say it takes several weeks to break a habit, so plan for a couple of months of TV alternatives, he advises. If you stick with it, you’ll probably find that vegging out has lost its appeal.

Put down the phone. A lot of the expert advice to find another engaging activity is a moot point if you’re going to be bent over, tapping on a screen. It’s not necessary to go into full-on detox mode; just put the devices down somewhere for two or three hours in the evening so you can do other things without interruption. “When you’re always attached to your phone, you’re going to sit on the couch. You’re going to be less active,” Cohen says.


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