Does it feel like there are just not enough hours in a day? Do your dreams of finishing work on time and heading out to do something exciting with friends seem to get pushed to the bottom of an every expanding ’to do’ list every day? Are you falling behind and worrying about your productivity?
Life is hectic for most of us. The pace of work has only increased since mobile technology meant that we could be ’in the office’ at any time of day, wherever in the world we are. No wonder many of us are looking for ways to add hours to the day, to spend more time with family and friends, fulfill those projects we keep on thinking about, or even just get the damned ’to do’ list done once in a while.
There are ways to snatch back time in your schedule. Choose from strategies you can try on your own, like adopting better methods of prioritisation or productivity based time management, or opt for things that you need some work based support to achieve, such as asking for flexible working hours to achieve more and boost your career, or ditching the time drains that assault us all in the office.
Unfortunately I do not have access to a time twisting wormhole to extend the day beyond our allotted 24 hours. The good news is that before you resort to anything drastic, there are some simple steps you can take to gradually take back time, and add hours to your day.
1. Get Flexible
If you are looking to get back a significant chunk of time in your day, then the best way for many of us to achieve this is to ask for flexible working which allows us to ditch the commute - if not every day, then at least every now and again. It is quite difficult to make commuting time count - hence the number of people staring glassily into space on the train every morning - so if you can, try to get rid of the journey altogether and win back hours to your day.
If you’re in the UK, every employee now has the right to request flexible working - albeit, companies also have the right to refuse this request if it might damage the economic or organisational performance of the business. In an ideal world, see if you can switch some of your hours to working from home, which will immediately give you time back. If this is not possible, then consider a request to work compressed hours, under which you might work your total weekly hours over four days instead of five, for example, or even just a change in shift start time to have your commute outside of rush hour.
If it is completely impossible to change your working pattern, then at least use the commuting time more productively - catch up on calls if you work in the car, read or listen to relevant podcasts if you use public transport. You can even do basic admin work or place internet shopping orders to help you keep on top of your household chores while you travel. The more you get done now, the more time you will have during the normal working day to catch up and keep up.
2. Escape Email
Email is a fundamentally selfish tool. Researchers from Loughborough University in the UK found that in workplaces, 70% of emails are attended to within 6 seconds of their arrival - making them as disruptive to the focus and concentration of employees as a phone call. On average it takes 64 seconds for an employee to recover from an email interrupt, and to return to their work at the same work rate at which they left it - which sounds like a small amount, but quickly mounts up to eat your time and destroy productivity.
To feel like you have more time in the day, control your email compulsion by checking mail only at set intervals. Tim Ferriss, author of ’The 4 Hour Work Week’, advises using an out of office reply which explains that you check mail only relatively infrequently to avoid colleagues staring anxiously at their own PCs awaiting a response. If there is an emergency, you will get a call. If it is not an emergency then it is better dealt with in a batch at an allotted time, freeing up hours in your day.
3. Get Your Priorities Straight
If your issues stem more from your own time management than the structure of your working day, then a powerful tool to improve productivity and therefore win back hours is to improve your prioritisation. Review your ’to do’ lists over a week. How much is on there, and how important is it really? If you had to plot your activities against a matrix that was split into important and urgent, then where would your time be spent usually? Do you have lots of time doing things that are urgent - but not important, or do you find yourself procrastinating with activities that are neither urgent nor important?
Think about the proportion of your time you spend in each type of activity, aiming to get the important things done first, ideally before they become critically urgent.
If you’re finding that your focus tends to wander, and before you know it, you’re down the rabbit hole of cat videos and ’hilarious’ memes, give the pomodoro method a go. The idea, in a nutshell, is to focus in short intense bursts (known as a pomodoro), of 25 minutes at a time. This should be enough time to get things done but not enough for your mind to wander too much.
Take another short - five minute - break, before getting back to it. By structuring time around your attention span, rather than trying to force yourself into an unrealistic structure of concentrating for four hours at a time, you will get more done, giving you that feeling of more hours in the day, every day.
5. Learn to Say no
A final step - if you’re feeling brave - is to learn to say no, to additional workload, ’development opportunities’ and pointless meetings. How many weeks have been filled with these activities, squeezing out your actual work priorities and leaving you playing catch up?
Back to Tim Ferriss again. If you can get through the first couple of chapters of his bestselling book.there are some good pointers to be found about avoiding draining office meetings. Agree to attend the meeting if you can deal with the agenda item that is important to you first, and then leave the meeting citing an important secondary task; demonstrate your productivity outside of meetings to back up this approach, and be persistent in avoiding meetings which do not directly relate to your primary focus. Keep smiling and proving your way works best, and you’re onto be a winner.
Getting back hours on your normal day requires some strategic thinking, and a little bit of risk. If what you’re doing now is leaving you stretched and unsatisfied, and ultimately unable to complete your work tasks in a way that allows for some balance between professional and personal time, then you need to do something different.
Try some of the small adjustments suggested here to start the ball rolling. Winning back time for yourself often means you can’t please all the people, all the time. Grit your teeth and have a go - once you see the impacts of these small things on your work and personal life, you will see why the trade off of going from Mr Nice to Mr Effective is well worth it.