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How to Ruthlessly Reclaim Work Day Time

How to Ruthlessly Reclaim Work Day Time


    When you’re starting a small business or working from home as a freelancer, you need to make every minute of time count; it’s a race against the clock to break even before your new endeavor uses up your savings and breaks you.

    But there are always a million and one things that interfere with and take over your day. Your to-do list of twenty items that you intended to tackle by the end of the business day has reduced in number by only one or two tasks, and you’ve got more to add for tomorrow.

    You realize you’ve got to get ruthless and cut away every minute you can manage to shred. Thursday recently wrote about 8 great ways to be ruthless with your time. Here are some more ways to be ruthless with your time, but this time we’re focused specifically on when things don’t go quite as planned. Here’s how you can get started.

    Life-Story Phone Calls

    There are many busy people in the world who, like you, know they need to get off the phone and get back to work, but you’re bound to get someone on the line who wants to share their life story or form a deep and meaningful relationship over the phone. It could be some lonely hack from your PR firm or the janitor you’ve hired for the new office, but for some reason you can’t seem to shake them.

    1. Ask for an email

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    One simple way to get someone off the phone is to ask them to send you ‘the details’ in an email. This tip works when you’re dealing with someone who needs to send you some kind of information. After they’ve agreed, thank them, give them your email address, and say goodbye before quickly putting down the phone. Don’t hesitate, or you’ve blown your chance.

    It’s firm, but still polite enough to use on business calls.

    2. Provide Contextual Cues

    Taking a hint from The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie, start your call with something like “Hello, what can I do for you?” There’s a reason you hear this every time you’re dialing into a call center or a big business – it’s to avoid any bush-beating and get right down to business. They know time is money, and so do you – don’t feel like you’re getting too “corporate” by using this technique. It focuses the other person on the issue at hand, which is especially effective if you know someone who tends to waffle before they get to their problem – not after.

    On the other end of the call, you can use a cue to signal that the end is near. You can usually tell when you’re a few minutes from the end of a speech because the speaker starts dropping hints (if you’ve done this and heard a sigh of relief, it may be time for a new career path!) – the same can be done on the phone. Phrases like, “before we hang up,” or “one last thing before I go” tell the individual on the other end that you’re out of time and can’t chit-chat. Fortunately, most of the time they get the message using this tactic.

    3. Last Resorts

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    When worst comes to worst, there’s always a solution.

    Unnecessary Demands

    It’s amazing how often people you work with or, if you’re not self-employed, people you work for are so willing to put extra demands on your time knowing that you’ve got a full plate. If they know you’re good with computers – but you aren’t the company tech support guy – and constantly ask you to fix their self-inflicted tech problems, or if your boss keeps asking you to take on advertising projects even though your role is public relations, what do you do?

    A combination of firmness, honesty and tact is required. If you try to find excuses that aren’t based on the honest truth of the situation, you’re only going to make more problems for yourself here. Next time you’re getting nagged to take on somebody else’s job or clean up after your co-workers, gently remind them that while you’d love to help, you’re swamped with the work you’ve got and it’s really outside of your field.

    The key is to be politely firm, and though some people find this incredibly difficult at first, it will really be one of the biggest time savers you implement.

    Email and Feeds

    I talk about dealing with your email and feeds effectively frequently because I find that of all the connected people I know, this is the one thing that kills time more than anything else – even though it can be one of the least time-consuming parts of your day. Since I’ve done this topic in-depth so much already, I won’t repeat it again – check out this article for a primer on how to deal with the overload of information in your day more effectively.

    Work-at-home, not housework!

    If you work from home, according to some recent statistics I’ve read there’s a pretty good chance you have a spouse (and/or kids) there too.

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    One of difficulties I had when I started working from home was being asked to put towels on the line or do dishes while I was in the middle of writing an article. Thus, I lost my train of thought and had to spend way more time than I should have catching it again, and if you succumb as I did, you will lose far too many business hours.

    Now, you don’t want to put the wife in a bad mood – we’re all smart enough to know that! – and avoiding the housework is a surefire way to do just that. But you must have a conversation where you set the limits of your working hours and under what conditions you may be interrupted.

    In my house, we’ve agreed that if the door to my office is closed and I am on the other side of that door, it means I’m working and can’t be interrupted unless it’s an emergency. If the door is open but I’m clearly working, it means I’m not working on something that requires total concentration but shouldn’t be interrupted unless it’s ‘important’ – a step down from ’emergency’. What constitutes ‘important’ and ’emergency’ needs to be defined, because you and your partner will certainly have ideas that differ.

    If I keep up my end of the deal and don’t spend twelve hour days working in my office and help out around the house afterwards, it leads to you being way more productive, and less tension in the air around the house. Often the hidden bonus is that she’ll get sick of waiting and do it all herself. Yes, that was a joke. Especially if she’s reading this.

    When Technology Ruins the Day

    First off, two tips I cannot stress enough:

    1. Always have a bootable back-up, somewhere.
    2. Always have a non-bootable data back-up, somewhere else.

    If you follow both of those rules you will be back up and running in minutes for 90% of the cases where your day would normally be lost to ‘computer troubles’.

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    I have also previously talked about my system of synchronization which keeps essential data – though not big files (for example it doesn’t sync my master recordings, which are more valuable than my contacts and email archives) – that is required for day-to-day operations on each device. For me, this includes a Mac mini desktop, a laptop and a PDA phone.

    If you’ve got a spare machine around, get it loaded up, and get it to sync off your bootable back-up frequently. This is a bit of a luxury, but if you can do it, knowing that all you have to do is plug in a new machine and power it on before getting back to work is a great feeling. You may only have to catch up on a couple of days (or, with diligence, hours) of work, which is much better than weeks, months or years.

    As a last resort, keep a pen and pad handy, and ensure that you at least have a back-up of your contacts somewhere that isn’t prone to electronic or mechanical failure! You’d be surprised how much you can get done if you have to, with just these tools.

    What about you?

    Do you have work day time-wasters you can’t seem to make go away? Let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can come up with a solution.

    Or, if you’ve managed to deal with some problems we haven’t listed here, let us know how you solved them!

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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