There is just never enough time in the day to do it all, is there?

That’s one of the biggest issues people face when trying to be productive and effective. Too many jobs have an infinite capacity for work; you could do your job for 60, 80, or even 100 hours per week and still find stuff to do, right?

I believe that not only is the ‘forty-hour work week’ a total misconception, it is actually a damaging belief that many of us have been raised with and are now trapped by. When we are at a job that has a contractual agreement of some kind to do a set number of hours per week, we will fill those hours with work … regardless of our actual workload.

And when you really think about it, how illogical is it for companies to base staff contracts on hours rather than output? It makes no sense for successful profits or other results.

I have been fortunate enough to have received advanced training from a range of coaches and mentors on effective time-saving strategies. Not just managers trying to figure out how to get the most out of me within 40 hours, but people who have figured out how to be 50-100% more effective than their counterparts, in half the time.

Today, I would like to share my three top tips with you. The idea is that while any one of these strategies will greatly reduce time-wastage (doing more in less time and much less effort), the idea is to combine them all. These tips are just scratching the surface, and I highly recommend you research further into each of these principles:

1. The 80/20 rule of nature—Pareto’s Principle

Most high-achievers are generally good at prioritizing, but most are terrible at being able to let the lower priority tasks go uncompleted. Many of us will complete high priority tasks first, but then still spend many hours struggling through all of the other tasks, trying to reach the mythical ‘empty in-box’. If you are in a job that could provide enough work to keep you infinitely occupied, then you are chasing a rainbow. Most jobs can fit this description.

I believe we tend to fear ‘missing something important’, so we try do it all. Paradoxically, in doing this we actually compromise the quality of our most important work—a much greater risk to our career!

The Pareto Principle, a term coined by famous quality and performance researcher Joseph M. Juran, suggests that most circumstances in life follow this rule of nature: 80% of outcomes come from 20% of inputs.

In context, this means that most of your results are actually generated by a small portion of your time and efforts. Only 20% of the work you currently do is actually important to the results expected of you. It also indicates that the other 80% of the effort you are putting in will only be getting you 20% of the outcomes you desire.

I recommend that for the next month, you set aside 15-30 minutes per week where you will not get interrupted. During this time try this exercise:

  • Write down your entire task list of everything you do for work (later you can apply this exercise to your entire life—that’s when things really start to shift!) This includes everything from major activities and projects, down to answering emails and phones.
  • Write down a summary of what outcomes or results are expected of you—e.g. % of sales, things built, contracts written etc.—that are most crucial to your success.
  • Now go back to your full task list and uncompromisingly select the 20% of those (one in five) most directly linked to those outcomes and results. These are now your highest priority tasks, and your goal should be to increase the effort you expend in these.
  • Then go back to the remaining tasks on the list and rate them in terms of importance from least to most (e.g. one to five scale). The smaller the number, the more pointless the activity—these are your ‘80%’ activities. For each of the 20% activities you increase, you need to make room by decreasing or simply not doing one of these 80% activities.

Another way to do this is to ask yourself, “If I had to produce the same weekly results but I had to work one day less per week, what would I need to reduce or stop doing?”

Over time, with trial-and-error experimentation, you will become really clear about what matters and what actually doesn’t matter. You need to let things go, and sometimes you need to allow small negative things to happen in order to make room for much larger positive outcomes.

2. The email trap

I once did a totally informal little study where I found that I lost about four to six hours per week, simply transitioning from what I was doing to check my emails (and back again). This is a completely unproductive activity. All this does is:

  • Eat up hours where nothing is produced.
  • Force you to try and ‘find your place’ again in the incomplete task you were doing (which is more time lost and a complete loss of momentum).
  • Create anxiety about the new emails you now see as pending tasks, which will distract you until you deal with them.

I have since found the solution. I currently have an annoying auto-responder email message saying I only check emails at 11am and 3pm, and including my mobile number “if it’s urgent”. You don’t have to do this, but let’s look at the concept behind it:

  • By only checking emails twice per day, I force people to only contact me urgently when issues are genuinely urgent, which has cut down distractions by about 60-70% (seriously!)
  • 95% of emails do not need an urgent response and can wait a couple of hours. By dealing with emails in bulk, you cut down significantly on distraction and transition time. Teach others to not use email as a form of urgent communication.
  •  I only ‘touch’ emails once each. They are either turned into a task for later (so I can forget about it for now), dealt with there and then (for anything that will take me less than one minute), or they are deleted/archived.

3. Eating the Big Ugly Frog

My coach, Phil Drolet, taught me this one. It is amazing how distracting it is to have a big, ugly task looming in the back of your mind. Your inner attention keeps looking at it while you are trying to focus. This is usually a task that is:

  • Time intensive, or
  • Involves conflict, or
  • Perceived to be difficult (but in my experience usually turns out to be OK).

Try this for a week and see how you feel: Make ‘eating the big ugly frog’ (i.e. doing the hardest task) the first thing you do every day, even before you check emails or reply to phone messages. There are a few roles that require emails be checked first thing in the morning, but even then it’s usually only a few that need reviewing.

Believe it or not, you are most productive at the beginning of your shift. Use this energy to destroy that anxiety-provoking task, to give you complete peace of mind for the rest of the day. When applied alongside the 80/20 principle, doing this task is usually also the most effective thing you could do that day!

I also often see people bouncing around between two or three tasks of equal priority, instead of just doing one at a time. If this is you, I guarantee that you are losing hours per week, without gaining anything out of it! Research ‘mindfulness techniques’ and learn to do one thing at a time. Have a detailed to-do list that categorizes everything in terms of importance/priority, and then do each activity one by one. If applied properly, anything left over at the end of the day probably doesn’t even need to be done!

These days, it is pretty common for me to have nothing of importance to do after about 11:30am, simply because I follow these rules. Bring freedom into your life, by first letting go of the myth of the ‘eight-hour work day’, and second by disciplining yourself to follow these rules. Counterintuitively, there is freedom in following rules. Try it for a few weeks and tell me I’m wrong!

Have yourselves a productive, effective, time saving and carefree week!

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Featured photo credit: mbgrigby via photopin cc

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