In the book, “168 Hours,” by Laura Vanderkam, one of the most common excuses we all use for failing to do the things we want to do is savaged in a full-frontal assault.
In other words, Ms Vanderkam draws our attention to the fact that we all have 168 hours in a week, and then looks at a large number of case studies of different highly-successful and motivated individuals who have managed to utilise those precious hours in ways that show the rest of us up for the time-wasters we are.
To illustrate the depth of the self-delusion that many of us inflict upon ourselves, the author refers to a particular question posed in a magazine that invited readers to write in their responses to.
That question was, “what would you do if you had an extra 20 minutes in the day?”
Answers ranged from things like working on a novel, to starting up a side business, and all sorts of other lofty and ambitious aims.
In reality, though, we essentially all have far more than 23 minutes in a day, but statistics show that a large number of us spend hours of their free time watching TV, instead of writing the next great novel, or learning how to play the violin.
Time-management is one of the biggest and hardest questions out there – and particularly in a professional context.You don’t just want to hold meetings at work, you want to Make Your Meetings Count. And you don’t just want to sit in front of the computer twiddling your thumbs while you try to make sense of the spreadsheet in front of you – you want to actually see and feel the tangible results of your hard work.
Here are a few tips for optimising your professional time.
Keep a general-purpose to do list, but plot out each day’s “to dos” on an hour-by-hour schedule
To-do lists often get a bit of a bad rap, but that’s mostly because of the fact that we so often use them in exactly the wrong way.
For a to do list to be effective, it needs to encompass all the priority actions that come up in your personal and professional lives, and it then needs to subdivide them by type, and allow a bit of flexibility for taking items off.
Ideally, your to do list should find its home within an indexed journal or Filofax.
What actually ends up happening, far more often, though, is that we will jot down a haphazard collection of to-do lists on stray pieces of paper as and when different ideas occur to us, and will then stress ourselves out to an unbelievable degree while trying to keep track of, and tick off, all those different items in as little time as possible.
The operation quickly becomes something like trying to herd cats.
It’s important to keep in mind that to-do lists are best used as, more or less, “reference material.
If you set yourself a goal of ticking off every item on your to-do list each day, you are bound to fall short, and to then feel wave upon wave of negative emotion that would have much better been avoided.
The trick for striking the right balance here is to not write out daily “to-do lists,” but to plot out each day’s “to dos” on an hour-by-hour daily schedule. In this setup, you’ll use your main to-do list in order to track and pull out the most important tasks to add to your calendar each day.
Using a daily calendar spread as the basis of your daily to-do list is a productivity trick used by some of the most renowned figures in business. And it works for a variety of intuitive and straightforward reasons.
First and foremost, when you plot things out on your daily calendar, by the hour, you are forced to confront the question of just how much time you actually have available to spend on any given task.
It’s far too easy to think, in the abstract, that you have unlimited time for productivity on a given day. In fact, though, you don’t. So anything you can do that reminds you of just how limited your time really is, and forces you to prioritise and be realistic with it, is priceless.
Brainstorm in communal environments, but find ways to isolate yourself when it comes time for “Deep Work”
Cal Newport is a computer scientist, professor, and the author of several hit books that get to the heart of some of our biggest questions when it comes to boosting productivity, enjoying success in the workplace, and securing a path to progression in our careers.
Between his books “Deep Work,” and “Digital Minimalism,” Newport builds a strong case that coming up with the initial seed of different ideas is often something best done in a communal setting, because it allows for multiple people to balance multiple different ideas off of each other.
The real core of Newport’s productivity-worldview, though, is that when it’s time to actually work – it’s essential to gain some isolation from everyone, and everything else, and to commit wholeheartedly two focused “deep work.”
Today, as never before, “shallow work” is an extremely insecure setup – and the more your job depends on account of work, the likelier you are to be replaced by a computer or robot within the next couple of years. That’s Newport’s take on it, anyway.
Deep work – also known as highly-focused work – allows you to really leverage your skill set and insight on the deepest possible level, so that you can achieve a level of quality that stands head and shoulders above your rivals.
It’s important to strike the right balance here. If you do most of your brainstorming in private, and most of your work at a shared desk, you’re likely wasting a lot more of your time – and potential – than you should be.
Limit the digital distractions in your life
It’s really difficult to make the best possible use of your time, if Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, and whatever sites you might like visiting for your daily dose of web comics, are only ever a click away.
However things might have been in the past, the number one distraction that seems to face would-be productive workers today,is the Internet and the myriad traps and delights it offers.
All of this can be understood in the context of evolutionary psychology; we are all naturally inclined to seek novelty and reward, since that would have been useful in order to motivate our hunter-gatherer ancestors to explore new terrains, and keep metaphorically “putting food on the table.”
Today, though, those same drives have been hijacked by “supernormal stimuli” – in other words, things that are brighter, shinier, and more addictive – but also far more artificial – than those things we would have originally experienced in our environment. And that’s where the Internet comes in.
If you can limit digital distractions in your life, you’re well on the way to massively boosting your productivity, and your overall time management. After all, what would you really do in order to procrastinate, if you didn’t have the World Wide Web at your disposal?
Maybe you would read a book, go for a long walk, or get a head start on filing your tax return. But, all things being equal, none of those things seem to have quite the same “draw” as falling down a click-hole and reading back-to-back comment threads on a controversial news story.