What I’m doing to manage my time better

We're wary of "time management" tips that enable us to try to do more than we should. But these tips are all about doing less of what you don't need to in order to focus on what's most important.

…it’s all about prioritizing, focusing and doing less.

Image by Djim Loic on Unsplash

I’ve always been an organized person who manages my time well. I rarely miss deadlines, and I often perform my best when I have the most on my plate. But succeeding at a challenging and relatively new job while starting a creative business is a lot to handle, even for uber-efficient me. So I set out to learn about time management and productivity from the experts.

First, a disclaimer: I have mixed feelings about “productivity hacks.” For people like me who repeatedly push themselves to a breaking point by doing too much, tips on how to be more productive can feel toxic — like justification for doing more when you should really be doing less. The simplest way to make more time for something is choosing not to do something else, not running yourself ragged trying to do five things (poorly) at once.

However, I know I’m easily distracted and could use my working hours better to free up time for the relaxation and fun I’ve been craving lately. With this in mind, I took two time management and productivity classes to see what I could learn. One was a webinar with Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, and the other was with Kelly Stocker, a consultant who specializes in productivity. Here’s what I got out of them.

Prioritize

Prioritization is key to both Wasserman and Stocker. They argue that a major reason we struggle to get things done is we try to do everything at once instead of identifying and focusing on what is most important.

Wasserman suggests making a list of six things to get done in a day with the most important ones at the top. Start with and complete the first before moving on to the second. If you don’t get through all six in a day, move the unfinished ones to tomorrow’s list.

Eliminate distractions

This is when things really started to hit home for me, especially as I realized I was checking email, preparing a box I needed to ship and heating up my dinner while I listened to Wasserman speak. Neither she nor Stocker is a fan of multitasking. Stocker really shook me when she said “There IS time in your day. You just need to eliminate distractions.”

On average, it takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task after you’ve been distracted from it. (At this point, I wrote “holy shit!” in my notes.) The “switching costs” associated with moving between tasks are steep — you can lose up to 40% of your productivity this way.

Notifications on our phones are a major culprit. Stocker pointed out that the average American gets 64 notifications a day, and we are totally addicted to our phones.

Pro tip? Turn off all notifications, or at least as many as possible. And get your phone the F AWAY FROM YOU. Simply having your phone within reach or sight wastes precious brainpower and hurts performance, as you subconsciously have to resist grabbing it.

Stop doing stuff you don’t have to

Wasserman blew my mind with this framework: the very first question you should ask yourself before starting something is, “Does it need to be me who does this?” If the answer is no, you should try to delegate the task.

Both sessions made me think critically about what I really needed to be doing, what I could ask others for help on (or delegate) and what I simply could not do. For example, I used to feel like I needed to be the last one on an email chain to say, “OK, thanks!” so people knew I was informed and super polite. I’ve (mostly) stopped doing that. Though that email is quick to write, there’s often no need for it and putting my full focus on that short reply, even for a moment, has switching costs.

Hacks I love

Wasserman and Stocker gave great suggestions of tools to help put some of their recommendations into practice. Here are the ones I liked best.

Put your phone on grayscale

I am very easily distracted by my phone. Did someone text me? What’s new on Instagram? Did so-and-so email me back? But it’s not just the notifications that pull us in, it’s the visual. Stocker describes the colors on our phone as skittles for our brain. Putting your phone on grayscale basically makes it less fun to use. In a very small experiment (sample size = me) I found that my screen time decreased by 40% the first week my phone was on grayscale. I now toggle back and forth between color when I need it.

Brain.fm

Composers and scientists designed Brain.fm to make music that helps you focus or relax, depending on what you need. I don’t fully understand the science behind this, but so far it’s working. Sometimes I don’t even notice the music. If I pay attention, it sounds like mediocre soundtracks from would-be movies about cool 90s hackers or jaunty baroque composers working on a new symphony (my interpretation  — Brain.fm would probably die if they read this). The music for focusing is like MAGIC. I noticed a difference the first time I used it in my noisy open floor plan office, and this notoriously cheap woman almost immediately flung $50 at it for the annual subscription. I cannot recommend this enough for people who have a hard time focusing, or work in distracting environments.

Got any time management tips to share? Leave them in the comments below.

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