‘Work smarter not harder’ is one of the most popular catchphrases fueling the information age. Yet most of us frequently overlook the fact that time is the only true luxury we have in life. Being more productive doesn’t make you stronger, cooler, or wealthier. It allows you to get more done in less time so you can use the time you save to get more enjoyment out of life.
Here are 50 ideas to help you do just that:
- Do what you don’t want to do first. – If you handle the toughest tasks first when your mind is fresh, you’ll get done quicker and make the rest of the day more enjoyable.
- Focus on high impact tasks. – Figure out what will have the greatest impact today, and make sure you address the most important stuff first. Don’t get caught up in odd jobs, even those that seem urgent, unless they are also important.
- Don’t confuse being busy with being productive. – Stop and ask yourself if what you’re working on is worth the effort. Is it bringing you in the same direction as your goals? (Read The Success Principles.)
- Accept imperfections. – Perfectionism is the enemy of completion. Don’t ignore the forest for the sake of one lonely tree. Most of the time small imperfections aren’t even noticed, so don’t waste all your time on them.
- Create and refer to a TO-DON’T list. – A to-don’t is a list of things not to do. It might sound funny, but it’s useful for keeping track of unproductive habits, like playing online flash games, checking Facebook, etc.
- Use productive shortcuts. – There are productive shortcuts for almost everything you do. Finding and using them can save you a few minutes here and there on a daily basis. If you use a computer, learn the keyboard shortcuts for the programs you use most often. If you can permanently delegate one of your regular tasks to someone else, do it. Is there a route to work with less traffic? Where can you hit two birds with one stone?
- Narrow the number of ventures you’re involved in. – Productivity is not usually my challenge, narrowing the number of ventures to be productive in is. Even when you have the knowledge and ability to access super-productive states, you get to a point where being simultaneously super-productive on too many fronts at once causes all activities to slow down, stand still and sometimes even slide backwards.
- Pick-up the phone. – We’ve become so accustomed to communicating digitally, sending emails, IMs and texts, etc. that we forget we can get some tasks accomplished in a fraction of the time with one or two quick phone calls.
- Use technology to automate tasks. – From creating email filters, to automatically backing-up your hard drive, to automatic bill paying. The more you automate, the more you can get done without with the same level of effort.
- Learn to search Google effectively. – If Google is the portal to the information superhighway, Google’s advanced search operators are the most efficient vehicles on the road. Once you learn them, you will find what you seek in half the time, every time. For example, with Google, you could search for “life lessons” site:www.marcandangel.com to find all of the life lessons posted on our blog. Spending less time looking for information means that you can get more done.
- Group similar tasks back-to-back. – Switching gears between different types of tasks can be tough. It takes most people several minutes to get into a productive mental groove geared for a specific type of task. Therefore, it makes sense to group similar tasks in an effort to minimize the number of rough patches, and thus wasted time, between task orders.
- Pay attention and get it right the first time. – The better listener you are, the more you will learn. The more you learn now, the fewer questions you will have later, and the less time you will spend searching for answers. And obviously, doing things right the first time eliminates future delays.
- Eliminate all distractions for a set time. – Distractions are everywhere. They arrive via email, cell phone, coworker inquiry, etc. I’ve found that cutting out all distractions for a set time is one of the most effective ways to get things done in less time. You can’t remain in hiding forever, but you can be nearly four times as productive while you are.
- Plan ahead and start early. – 10 minutes of dedicated time planning each evening will save you from 30 minutes of ad-hoc preparation each morning. Likewise, starting your morning on purpose 30 minutes early will likely inject at least 60 additional productive minutes into your day. Think about it.
- Organize your space. – How much time do you think the average person wastefully spends searching for items they’ve misplaced? Keeping both your living and working spaces organized will undoubtedly allow you to get thing done more efficiently.
- Choose a dedicated spot. – Don’t put your car keys, cell phone, etc. in a different spot each evening after work. Choose a dedicated spot and make it a habit. There is nothing more frustrating in the morning than looking for the stuff you need. Morning scavenger hunts are a huge waste of time.
- Productively use waiting time. – Waiting time does not have to be wasted time. When you are waiting at the doctor’s office, the post office, or on hold for the next available representative, what simple tasks could you complete while you wait? How about sorting through your snail mail or email, writing those thank you notes you’ve been putting off, reading the book you keep meaning to read, reviewing/editing your to-do lists, etc.
- Stop over-analyzing things. – There comes a time when you have to stop evaluating something and just bite the bullet and do it. Contemplating taking action isn’t taking action. It gets nothing accomplished.
- Handle 2-minute tasks immediately. – “The 2 Minute Rule” is single greatest tip I picked up from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. If you roughly estimate that a task is going to take you less than two minutes to accomplish, do it right now. It’s a waste of time and energy to keep small tasks like this on your to-do list on in the back of your mind.
- Make reservations. – When a one minute phone call now can save one hour of waiting later.
- Ask more questions. – The trial and error process can be a huge waste of time. Often people view asking questions and relying on others as a weakness, but they are sadly mistaken. Asking legitimate questions will bring you closer to the people around you and likely save you a huge chunk of time. Win-win.
- Buy in bulk and cook in bulk. – Buying stuff and cooking food are two of the most common unplanned consumptions of time. Most people buy replacements in small amounts only when they need them and think about food only when they’re hungry. The problem is these issues will often arise at inopportune times. The most efficient way I’ve found to counteract this is by doing bulk loads of both. I know I’ll always need gas in my vehicle. So instead of putting in $25 here and $25 there, I top off my tank every time I’m at the station regardless of the sticker shock. Likewise, I know I’m going to be hungry at lunch time every day this week. So on Sundays I’ll grill up five extra chicken breasts and make a chicken wrap or sandwich for every day of the week.
- Standardize common tasks. – If you find yourself performing the same set of tasks on a regular basis then it makes sense to establish an efficient, standardized way of accomplishing them. Are certain tasks easier to perform in the morning? Are there additional resources that can be utilized only at a certain time? It’s up to you to find an efficient pattern, standardize it and follow it.
- Stop consuming the headline news every day. – Most news has no long term value. Mainstream media primarily focuses on ‘what’s hot now’ instead of ‘what will be useful tomorrow.’
- Stop mindlessly browsing online ad infinitum. – Web browsing is one of the immense black holes in time spending. Before you realize it, you may have spent hours browsing while generating very little value.
- Turn off the TV. – Nuff said.
- Make better usage of commute times. – Listen to audio books, make calls, do some proactive time planning, etc. I use Evernote on my iPad and capture tons of ideas and thoughts when I’m commuting and traveling on business.
- Write things down. – Nobody’s memory is perfect. If you don’t take notes and setup to-do lists for yourself you will end up wasting time several minutes of time every day trying to remember things that would have taken you seconds to write down.
- Consolidate all daily errands into one trip. – Consolidate all of your errands into one trip instead of driving back and forth several times from home to the store to home to the bank to home, etc.
- Exercise daily. – I know it sounds counter-intuitive. You have to spend time exercising. But exercise boosts cognitive function, creativity, problem solving and productivity. In fact a NASA study showed employees who exercised daily worked at 100% efficiency after seven hours, while those who didn’t saw a 50% drop, meaning it took them twice as long to accomplish the same thing. (Read The 4-Hour Body.)
- Use a timer. – I use a timer to limit the amount of time I spend on daily tasks such as email, returning calls, cranking through my to-do lists, etc. This keeps me from getting overly distracted from the truly important tasks I must accomplish during the day.
- Harness the power of teamwork. – I heard a story once about some horses that were in a competition to see which could pull the most weight. One horse pulled 3,000 lbs and another one pulled 4,000 lbs. Someone suggested the horses team together to see how much they could pull. Most guesses were in the 7,000 lb to 10,000 lb range but when those two horses worked together, they pulled an amazing 20,000 lbs. That’s the power of teamwork. Good teamwork can get a large project completed in an amazingly short amount of time.
- Just say NO! – While saying yes can take us down some wonderful roads, there’s also a ton of value in saying “no.” We’re only given a certain amount of hours in our lives; do you really want to give yours away so easily? If you don’t have to time to commit to a new project, complete a favor, or serve on another committee, it’s a good idea to just say “no.”
- Focus your attention on one thing at a time. – Cutting out multitasking (or “multi-slacking” as I call it) leaves you to focus more intently on one task and finish it to completion, rather than having many tasks started and nothing finished.
- Create productivity triggers for yourself. – If you’re fighting yourself every step of the way, forming diligent habits is hard. You need to create triggers to help you out. A simple example would be packing your gym bag the night before to keep you from having an excuse not to go to the gym. Or put the books you need to take back to the library in front of the door, so you can’t leave the house without seeing them and remembering they need to be returned.
- Touch inbox items only once. – This one is difficult for most people (myself included), but it really makes a difference. For new email or other communications, look over it and decide what to do with it right away: archive, respond, flag for follow-up, etc. Regardless of how you process communications, just make sure you deal with them once rather than wasting time by looking at them without taking decisive action.
- Clean up your inbox. – Your inbox (email and otherwise) should only be for priority communication; otherwise it just wastes your time. Set-up email filters to keep things organized and filter spam in your email inbox (here’s how in Gmail).
- Use time multipliers. – Effective delegation of lower priority tasks is a time multiplier. Eliminating time wasting activities is a time multiplier. Screening phone calls is a time multiplier. By practicing creative procrastination on anything that doesn’t propel you toward your goals, you can multiply the amount of time you have to achieve those goals.
- Relocate closer to your place of employment. – In every major city in the world there are people traveling over an hour to reach their work destination from home. This is a huge chunk of time that could be used far more productively.
- Avoid meetings. – Not all meetings are a waste of time, but many are. If you frequently spend time in meetings, but would rather be doing your actual work instead of listening to other people talk about things they could have sent you in an email, see if you can get out of some of those meetings. You’ll get a lot more done.
- Let your mouse do the walking. – Shop online, rent movies online, pay bills online, etc. It’s so much more efficient.
- Keep it simple. – Keep your to-do lists and planning simple, and don’t waste time playing with new tools. There’s always going to be shiny programs that promise to make your day faster and more efficient. Stick with one, and learn to rely on it.
- Tell other people and hold yourself accountable. – It’s always a smart thing to tell people what you’re working on. If you tell your colleagues or friends that you’re going to get something done, it motivates you to see it through to completion. People who have a support system almost always find it easier to make things happen.
- Hire someone. – Sometimes it makes more sense to hire someone to do something, especially if your time is worth more money than you’re paying that person. For example, if I have a large yard that would take me five hours to maintain (it’s pretty big), it makes more sense for me to pay someone as I can earn more during those 5 hours by working. Other things you might pay someone for: other home maintenance projects, washing your car, doing errands or laundry, doing your taxes … just about anything where doing it yourself isn’t cost-effective.
- Spend minutes now to save hours later. – During happy hour last Friday I spent some time listening to one of my colleagues confess her utter distaste for the Windows 7 Start menu. “The system is organized all wrong. The programs I need are buried and the ones I never use are right at my finger tips. I waste so much time digging through menus,” she said. “But you can easily rearrange that,” I replied. She looked down with a despondent expression on her face. “I know,” she said. “Someone else told me that too, but I haven’t taken the time to figure it out.” Bottom line: Sometimes you have to spend a few minutes now to save hours of grief in the future.
- Practice the 80/20 rule. – Generally speaking, the 80/20 Rule states that 80% of our results come from 20% our actual work, and conversely, that we spend most of our energy doing things that aren’t important. Figure out what that 20% is comprised of and focus as much of your energy as you can on it. (Read The 4-Hour Workweek.)
- Time box. – Assign a set amount of time per day to work on a specific task or project. Focus entirely on that one thing during that timeframe. Don’t worry about finishing it, just worry about giving it your undivided attention for the set timeframe. (This is the opposite of having fixed goals. For example, you don’t get up until you’ve written a thousand words, or processed 25 orders, or whatever.)
- Remove information sources containing little value. – Unsubscribe from RSS feeds and newsletters that give no bang for their buck, and set up quick email filters to delete or de-prioritize the junk mail that isn’t easy to unsubscribe from.
- Don’t underestimate the time it takes to do something. – Know the opportunity cost of your actions and how long something will truly take to do. All things being equal, the best solution is the one that takes the least amount of total time (including maintenance time for fixing and support). What might have been a great idea with an hour of projected work would likely be a horrible idea if it took all day.
- Start now. – In the end, all the tips in the world won’t make as productive as you could be if you simply started to get things done right now. Don’t waste another minute! START!
Photo by: Brandon Christopher Warren
marc van der Linden says
Interesting list! Very useful tips! I believe many of them I already do, and they are truly helpful.
Numberf 47 is new to me: “Time boxing,” but I don’t completely understand the purpose of focusing on the time spent’ on a subject instead of the result. Could you elaborate?
Hey, that’s really productive article. This will help me a lot in saving my time. But can you elaborate on point #7?
Secondly, time wasting activities should be minimized to enjoy everyday activities like washing our own car etc etc….
For linden, I would say that time boxing is like dividing a huge task into regular chunks.
E.J. Apostrophe says
The 80/20 rule is very powerful and I am learning that this one rule is quite life changing. Who came up with this rule, do you know?
Thank you for this list. I alo found interesting point 47, but I understand it. Working for exmaple with technical staff you never know how lng it will take you if you are presented with technical problems. So rather sit and work productively for an hour, and come back later for anotehr hour. Sometimes you cannot say I will finish the work in an hour.
I also like number 5 – To Don’t list. I have never heard of it before but will start compiling one.
A Happier Self
This list is excellent. I do many of the items now but this list shows me that I can do more. I think my employer could learn from this list too. Number 40 would save a lot of time at work as I’m always required at meetings that I think, did I really need to know any of what was said?? An email would’ve been far quicker.
Ken Wert says
Great list of time-savers! I love the idea of a To-Don’t List! Employing the ideas here can not only lead to greater time efficiency and productivity, it can also lead to much less stress and therefore much more joy at work and everywhere else. More time for other things that might otherwise get squeezed off the agenda too.
Imagine how many improved marriages there could be if everyone freed up a couple hours a day by using the time-savers you listed and used that time to build stronger relationships with spouse and kids! Maybe our divorce stats wouldn’t look so discouraging!
The first task – “Do what you don’t want to do first” is smart, but insanely tough. Let me try 🙂
I admit, I skimmed through most of this list. But, the ones that stuck out most to me was of course, 1, then 5, 8, 28, 34, 46 and 50. Great Stuff!
If someone committed to this list his or her productivity would soar. I intend to follow it starting today. Thanks Marc 🙂
Lucas Dellaretti says
Great advice for getting things done… something I need help with sometimes. Thank you.
I am really loving this site! You guys rock and you so inspire me in my dreary day to get things done with positivity!
@Linden: Yeah, Saira hit the nail on the head. Time boxing is a method for staying on point with numerous long-term tasks by dedicating a set amount time each day to each task.
@All: As always, thanks for the kudos. 😉
E.J., it’s called the Pareto Principle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle
Monica Ray says
Love this list, I need to print it out and put it next to my computer 🙂 Thanks!
Michael Tucker says
Great Article…I love suggestions # 5 and #19!
Stephanie Lomond Merrill says
#5 is very important and often left off the proverbial list! Your post is so well mapped out. As you say, understanding what NOT to do can eliminate many hours of what feels like wasted time–or hours that just seem to evaporate!
I think in today’s world the 5th one in the list is most useful: Preparing a ‘not to do list.’