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What Science Can Tell Us About How to Allocate Time to Achieve Highest Efficiency

What Science Can Tell Us About How to Allocate Time to Achieve Highest Efficiency

Although different people may have different working habits, scientists have discovered many key ingredients which everyone can learn to structure an efficient working day. In today’s fast paced, high expectations, profit pressure economy, we all need to be super productive at our work. So, how can we structure our day overall to have the best chance at the highest productivity possible?

Personally, for about a decade of my career I just gave up on sleep. I didn’t see any other way to get all that had to be done completed. I ignored people who told me that I would burnout and couldn’t live like that forever. I was known to get up at 3:00 a.m. and was often living on four hours of sleep during the week. I would try to catch up a bit on weekends by sleeping in until maybe 6:00 a.m. Kids don’t recognize weekend hours! Eventually, I just gave up out of sheer exhaustion. I was miserable. I was unhappy, and it was affecting those around me. The more years that past me by, the more I realized I hated living that way. So I gradually made healthier choices and started sleeping a normal, healthy amount each night. I went to bed even if I wasn’t caught up at work.

What I did do after that change was focus on productivity. I now had less hours to work with, so I became devoted more than ever to making the most of my time.

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Here are some ideas to implement into your own work day and some of the science behind why they are likely to work:

Fuel Yourself

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    Research has shown that low glucose levels can affect our willpower and that restoring low glucose levels can reboot willpower. Let’s face it, much of our workday involves willpower to stay on task and not let ourselves get distracted with the multitude of other more entertaining options. We can check our phones, check social networking, shop online or visit with our co-workers. Or, we can focus and work on the tasks at hand, getting more done. So, if willpower is highest when our bodies are properly fueled, then the time invested in eating healthy meals and snacks is worth it. There are also good arguments about how proper nutrition can also affect our decision making. Dehydration also has a negative affect on our functioning levels, so make sure you are getting your daily water intake as well.

    Work on the Right Priorities

    to do list

      The Pareto Principle has been applied in many facets of life. The basics of the principal says that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your actions. So, we need to be very sure we are working in our top 20% and doing the right things. Do you know what your boss’s top three priorities are for you? How will you be your job performance be judged? Determine what you have to do to get your next raise or promotion. Those tasks are the top priorities you have for the day. If anything remains undone, they need to be tasks that matter the least to you and your team. It may make you feel good to clean up your stale e-mail, but if it comes at the cost of serving your top client….. well, that’s not a good task to work on.

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      Many of us have a tendency to work from a master to-do list. This technique is not very efficient because it is not designed to identify your top priorities. So while you keep a master list of all your to-do items, you should also have a short list of those items that accelerate your work performance the most. The rest can be set aside for another day.

      Quit All Multi-tasking

      Some people pride themselves, and even brag about, their ability to multi-task. They truly believe they are working through two tasks at once. What science tells us, though, is that the human brain is not well equipped to multi-task. When you multi-task research has shown that it takes longer than if you did the two tasks sequentially, and quality is lost in the process as well. So quit multi-tasking altogether. The only exceptions would be times when your brain is involved in a more passive than active activity. For example, while you wait in the school pick up line, you can listen to audio books or articles. When you are running on the treadmill, you can listen to motivational speeches. When you cook dinner, you can listen to the news on TV. Those types of passive activity tasks can be layered together.

      Eat the Frog

      frog

        “The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex. But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.” ― Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time    

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        In his book, Brian Tracy explains his theory of why we should “eat the frog” first thing. By this he means to pick the biggest, ugliest task on our list that we are avoiding. The task you are avoiding is often the one that needs to be done the most. The avoidance tendency comes from the fact that it’s difficult and daunting. Its daunting because  there are some risks involved or we know its very important. So, the first thing we do every day should be to “eat the frog.” Then the day has to get better!

        Take breaks

        take break

          Although we can’t get more than 24 hours in a day, we can manage the energy that we have during each hour. Many studies have shown that the mind works most effectively when given frequent breaks. One study indicated that the brain requires approximately 20% of our energy to run, using a huge amount of energy for an organ of its size! The brain is even working hard while we are resting, which may explain why sometimes the answers you needed hours before suddenly come into your thoughts when resting or sleeping. Further, our focus can be helped by taking frequent breaks. Some studies correlate our waking cycles to our sleep cycles. These cycles tend to move in 90 minute increments. So, many productivity experts suggest a work period of 90 minutes followed by a significant break of 20-30 minutes.

          Some experts use The Pomodoro Technique , which utilizes shorter work periods of 25 minutes and shorter breaks of 5 minutes. Experiment with what seems to produce the best results for you. One very helpful tool if you have trouble focusing for periods of time is set a timer and don’t change tasks until the time is up.

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          Capture Ideas

          How many times have you had an amazing idea at an inopportune time? Do they actually come at any other time? It may be when you awaken in the middle of the night or during your morning shower, and you think, “I will remember that. That is a great idea!” How many times do you forget what it was later? Our minds hold a miraculous amount of information in very fine detail. The tricky part is accessing it. Science tells us some reasons for why that is so difficult. What if instead of rely on our hit and miss ability to recall our ideas we turn our inopportune times of amazing ideas into more opportune times? Keep a notebook by your bed. Keep a notepad in your car or purse, and as soon as you have something brilliant pop into your head, take thirty seconds to write down as much as you can about it.

          Finding success in our lives is all about working smarter, not harder. Take advantage of the fact that your brain is literally working around the clock for you. Set up tools to gather up those great ideas! These are just a few of the most crucial tools to consider when trying to get more productivity out of your day. Other techniques many experts suggest include the following:

          • Have an end time to your work day
          • Group similar tasks together
          • Done is usually better than perfect
          • Rise early and have a morning routine
          • Exercise daily

          What have you discovered that works for you that has catapulted your productivity? I would love to hear about them!  Everyone can benefit from accomplishing more in less time!

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          Dawn Hafner

          Dawn is a Practical Life Coach who offers concrete tools to help people implement life changes.

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          Last Updated on November 26, 2020

          How to Use Time Blocking for Productivity (A Complete Guide)

          How to Use Time Blocking for Productivity (A Complete Guide)

          Time is our most precious resource, especially when trying to achieve our professional goals, but most of us are bad at managing our time—or at the very least, we could be better. Fortunately, there are potential solutions. Time blocking is a strategy that forces us to think more critically about the time we spend and how we’re spending it, and if harnessed properly, it can greatly improve your productivity.

          Time Blocking: The Basics

          Time blocking is a strategy in which you’ll break your time down into discrete “blocks” or set increments wherein you’ll accomplish specific tasks.

          For example, in an 8-hour day, you might work with 16 30-minute time blocks, assigning tasks like “email catch-up,” “daily meeting,” or “project B” to each 30-minute block.

          Here’s how to be successful with time blocking:

          1. Understand the Philosophy Behind Time Blocking

          First, understand why time blocking is so popular (despite so many other time management techniques in use). The task of time blocking is relatively simple, but the thinking behind it is more multifaceted.

          Time blocking helps you achieve several goals simultaneously. It helps you treat your time like a resource, budgeting it the same way you would your income. It helps you track your time and identify sources of waste.

          It forces you to dedicate your attention to concrete intervals and, therefore, helps you prioritize. It also gives you a consistent system you can apply to any important task[1].

          The Complete Guide to Time Blocking

            2. Commit to Single-Tasking

            The science has been clear for decades now: multitasking simply doesn’t work.[2] No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, chances are, you’d be much better off focusing on one task at a time.

            In fact, studies have shown that multitasking reduces productivity by 40%.[3] Time blocking forces you to avoid multitasking if you’re implementing it properly.

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            For a given time block, set only one task; for example, during your 30-minute “finish sales proposal” task, don’t allow yourself to get distracted by emails, phone calls, or other unrelated tasks. This change alone can make a massive difference in your productivity.

            3. Decide on Your Chosen Increments

            So far, we’ve used the example of a 30-minute time block, but this isn’t a requirement. Time blocking can work no matter what kind of increments you’re working with. In fact, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is notorious for his ability to block his days down to 5-minute intervals.[4]

            Different people function well in different systems, so consider your options carefully; smaller time intervals allow you to be more precise with your schedule, but they can also be more stressful to manage. If you’re not sure, start with something broader, like 45-minute or 1-hour intervals.

            4. Decide Which Parts of Your Day to Time Block

            You don’t have to block out your entire day, especially if you’re just starting out, so think about which times of your day you’d like to block off.

            For most newcomers, this means blocking out the “core” of your day—something like 10 am to 4 pm—after your morning routine is over, but before your daily wrap-up. For more advanced time blockers, it’s better to block your entire day, from start to finish—even your personal life.

            5. Choose the Right Documentation Strategy

            Even if you have a photographic memory, you’ll find it hard to keep your time blocking schedule clear in your head. Instead, you’ll need to rely on some kind of documentation system.

            The exact system isn’t important, so long as it works well for you. A good calendar app or Google Calendar should be able to help you block off your time in regular intervals, and set alarms so you know when one time period is up.

            If you’re old fashioned, you may use a written planner or even a series of sticky notes to help you keep track of your day. In any case, some kind of automated timer is a good way to keep yourself aware of time’s passing.

            6. Provide Yourself a Buffer

            Before and after each block of time, give yourself a small buffer of extra time. For example, if you’re working with 30-minute chunks of time, give yourself 5 additional minutes to serve as empty space between tasks. If you want to keep your schedule tidy, work for 25 minutes, and leave 5 minutes to spare.

            This will help you finish tasks that don’t fit neatly into your original time blocking plans since most incoming work isn’t so naturally organized.

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            7. Block Time for Warmups and Cooldowns

            If you’re like most people, you don’t begin the workday at peak productivity. It takes you time to start up your devices, get coffee, read emails, and just “settle in” overall before it’s time to work. At the end of the day, you’ll be interested in finishing things up and preparing to leave.

            Don’t be too harsh with blocking these time periods; instead, treat them as a unique, open-ended block. For example, you can block most of your day in 15-minute intervals, but leave yourself a 1-hour “warmup” and 30-minute “cooldown.”

            8. Block Time for “Deep” Tasks

            Deep tasks are tasks that require your total focus or tasks that serve as major projects rather than individual, small responsibilities. They should be blocked in a way that allows you to focus on them exclusively; any block assigned to a deep task should include no other tasks or allowances. Even so, a single block may not be enough; don’t hesitate to assign multiple blocks to the same important work.

            Check out the following video to learn how to be productive with deep work:

            9. Block Time for “Shallow” Tasks

            Time blocking shallow tasks works a little differently. Shallow tasks are tasks that don’t require much time or attention, and they tend to accumulate throughout the day. You won’t need a full block to work on any single shallow task, so instead, consider blocking shallow tasks in groups.

            For example, you could dedicate a block for checking “email, social media, and project management platforms,” or “catching up on communications.”

            10. Block Time for “Reactive” Tasks

            Reactive tasks are informal tasks that are hard to predict and even harder to prioritize. They often come in the form of interaction.

            For example, you may need to manage an ongoing dialogue with your employees to coordinate work on a specific project. Again, you’ll want to consolidate these tasks in a block for the entire category.

            11. Block Time for Breaks

            In a strategy that’s all about productivity, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of breaks. But you’ll need to block time for breaks the same way you would any other task—or else you’ll run the risk of burnout.[5] This includes not just lunch, but also smaller breaks throughout the day.

            Small interval time blocking, like intervals of 10 or 15 minutes, works best here. If you’re working with 30-minute blocks, consider hybridizing individual blocks with both breaks and work.

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            Check out this article to learn why breaks are so important.

            12. Create a Replicable Formula

            After you’ve blocked time for a few shifts, try to create a template you can use for all your future time blocking needs. Assign blocks for all your predictable, routine tasks, then leave room in the rest of your schedule for less predictable priorities or those that are determined on a per-day basis.

            13. Be Prepared to Estimate Poorly (at First)

            Most people are terrible at naturally tracking their own time and even worse at estimating how long tasks take.

            When you write out your first draft for time blocking, be prepared to feel embarrassed at how wrong you were about the true length of even your most common tasks. To compensate for this, try to overestimate the amount of time it takes to do a given task, giving it more block space than you think it needs.

            This may interfere with your productivity slightly the first few days you try it, but once you get a feel for how long each type of task takes, you can gauge your time blocking much more accurately.

            Better yet, use a time tracking app to get an accurate calculation of how long you actually spend on routine tasks so you can improve your estimates and cut down on the learning curve!

            14. Notify Others That You’re Time Blocking

            Give a heads-up to your bosses, coworkers, and partners that you’re going to be time blocking. When you start this practice, your habits are going to change.

            You might take longer to respond to certain emails, you might be more cutthroat when it comes to meeting timing, and you’ll almost certainly be more regimented in how you work throughout the day. People will be far more understanding if they know the reason why.

            15. Schedule a “Catch up” Day

            Even with time blocking, things will slip through the cracks. You’ll miss a handful of tasks, or you’ll need another hour or two to finish up that important project.

            To avoid stressing yourself out, simply give yourself a free catch-up day that’s at least somewhat block-free. It’s beneficial to give yourself the extra flexibility as you finish your priorities.

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            16. Be Prepared to Revise Your Approach

            Studies suggest the “best” time blocking strategy for an average person is working for 52 minutes, then breaking for 17.[6] But this won’t necessarily work for you. Everyone has unique preferences and working styles, which will be more conducive to alternate time structures.

            Some people need longer, less frequent breaks, while others need shorter, more frequent ones. Be ready to revise your approach as you learn more about yourself.

            17. Expand Time Blocking to Other Areas of Your Life (If It Works for You)

            Spend a few weeks blocking time in your professional life and evaluate how it works for you.

            Does it seem to be making you more productive or more stressed?

            If time blocking during your work day makes you more productive and doesn’t increase your stress, consider applying it to other areas of your life in the long term. Block out time for home chores and socializing the same way you do with projects and tasks at work.

            However, if blocking time is too regimented or simply isn’t effective for you, don’t be afraid to keep it restricted to work, or abandon it entirely.

            Conclusion

            Time blocking isn’t the right strategy for every professional or every situation, but if considered and executed properly, it can save you a ton of time—and directly boost your productivity.

            Use it to get a better understanding of how you’re spending time throughout the day, improve your focus, and effectively prioritize simultaneously.

            More Tips for Better Time Management

            Featured photo credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production via unsplash.com

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