I’ll keep this brief: abstract concepts and general advice are all well and good, but sometimes you just need a few concrete tips. And look at that! I happen to have some right here.
Here are seven things you can do this very minute to take control of your time.
1. Put your phone in its place
Your phone may be the most useful tool you own, but its goals are not entirely aligned with yours.
- Your goal is to use your phone to make your life easier.
- Your phone’s goal is to get you to spend as much time as possible interacting with your phone.
To make sure you’re the boss of your phone (instead of the other way around) try this:
Turn off most notifications on your smartphone. And when you’re working, place it face-down on your desk.
You probably want to know when your Mom is calling you. You probably don’t need to know the second you’ve been tweeted at.
Use your phone, but don’t take orders from it.
2. Close your door
We’re afraid of seeming unfriendly, so we leave our doors open while we work. In doing so, we’re inviting interruption.
Consider closing your office door (or leaving it slightly ajar) for a good part of the day.
If you work from home, consider hanging a hotel-style “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door handle for a couple hours a day.
I love the way author Steven Pressfield puts it in this blog post:
Your time is just as legitimate as LeBron James’ or Mick Jagger’s or Jay-Z’s, and you have absolutely the same right to put up a wall of steel and do your work behind that wall for that period of time.
Now, don’t leave your door shut all the time. Maintaining good relationships with coworkers (not to mention bosses) requires face-to-face interaction. But people often casually interrupt colleagues who are deep in thought because they had no way of knowing the person was in the middle of something.
Help out those around you. Use your door to make it clear whether you’re deeply focused and not to be interrupted or between tasks and happy to chat about your weekend plans.
3. Set a timer
Avoid open-ended work.
Estimate how long your next task should take and set a timer for that amount of time. Try to have the task completed when the timer goes off.
You’ll often underestimate how long things will take, especially at first. But beating the buzzer isn’t really the point—the fact that there’s a timer running creates a tiny bit of accountability, and that accountability keeps you working efficiently.
4. Get back to basics with a simple question
Your to-do list surely contains a mix of critically important tasks, pretty important tasks, somewhat important tasks, and honestly-not-that-important tasks. Some tasks could even be cut out of your life with no negative consequences.
To sniff out unnecessary tasks, ask yourself this question: “What would happen if I just didn’t do this?”
Look, often the answer is “a very bad thing.” But occasionally, the answer will be “well . . . of course I need to do this, because if I don’t . . . huh.”
Your mileage may vary, but this is how I feel about washing our car (much to Sarah’s chagrin).
5. Minimize task switching
Picture your mind as a gigantic ocean liner. It takes a while to get up to speed, and changing direction is a big deal.
Business professor Sophie Leroy has done some fascinating work on the cost of task switching. In a 2009 article, she argued that “it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.” Dr. Leroy coined the wonderful term “attention residue” to refer to the brain’s preoccupation with the previous unfinished task.
The next time you sit down to accomplish something, force yourself to complete the task at hand before moving on to something else.
An ocean liner can’t turn on a dime, and neither can your brain. And speaking of task-switching . . .
6. Notice what makes you seek distraction
Here’s a fun mini-project: for the rest of the day, make a conscious effort to notice when you seek distraction.
- What causes you to reach for your phone?
- When you do find yourself absentmindedly typing “f-a-c-e-b“ into your browser?
- What happens right before you refresh your email inbox?
I do these things when I’m:
- between tasks
- facing a difficult or unpleasant task
- curious why my face-down phone is buzzing at me (see #1)
Knowing your weaknesses helps you keep yourself honest. It’s half the battle, really.
7. Use these 10 words to avoid overcommitting
Don’t let your mouth overload your back.
— Jim Rohn
I’m not great at saying “no”. If someone asks me to do something, my natural instinct it to say “Sure!”
“Sure!” has gotten me into a lot of trouble.
- “Sure!” leads to evenings and weekends with back-to-back-to-back events and no time for rest or rejuvenation.
- “Sure!” prevents me from saying “yes” to big opportunities because I’m already loaded down with little commitments.
- “Sure!” breeds resentment when I realize I’ve given all my time away to others.
I’m working to replace “Sure!” with “Let me check my schedule and get back to you.”
In the end, I still usually say “yes.” But taking some time to think before committing helps me make sure I’m saying “yes” on my terms. It keeps my attitude positive, too.
These seven tips have helped me immensely. If one of them caught your eye, there’s no need to wait. Try it immediately!