You’re a human living in 2017, which means you’ve probably got a lot on your plate. Aside from the demands of your work, you’re tending to relationships—with your family members, friends, and/or your significant other. You probably try to work in some time for hobbies, relaxation, and adequate sleep, though sometimes the balance can still be skewed. It’s a challenge to balance it all.
One question I often ask my clients is, “Are you doing too much? After all, feeling overwhelmed most often results from being over-scheduled and spread thin. Perhaps you’re engaging in a lot of tasks out of obligation rather than actual desire. If so, paring things down can be a good place to start.
But other times, feeling overwhelmed is simply a state of being, one in which you let all of your stressors stew in your head gets the better of you. What if you want to make time for all of your recreational activities, while also making sure to feel focused and productive during “to do list” time?
Well then: your other option is to increase your productivity. Easier said than done, I know.
The following suggestions are focused specifically on work, since most of my clients have found that concentrated periods of productivity at the office free up more personal time. Across the board, the key is being more present, and accountable with how you’re spending your time. So let’s get started:
1. Track how you’re using your time.
While these suggestions aren’t exactly in a particular order, but one is a good diagnostic “test.” Unless we have scheduled meetings or phone calls, we tend not to be aware of how exactly we use our time each day. To get a more accurate assessment, start by tracking your use of time for two weeks. Simply create a spreadsheet, and make a note of how much time you spend doing various activities each hour—from responding to emails, to procrastinating on Facebook.
Once you are able to identify your prime time-wasters, you can cut back accordingly, and be more productive
2. Move some stuff off of your plate (if possible).
If you’re a leader, or in a position in which you are able to delegate activities to others, then you might want to do a self-check to see if you are delegating as much as you should. Often, we get overwhelmed because we make too many assumptions about what others expect from us, even what we expect from ourselves. For example, you may think it’s easier for you to copy and collate those slide decks, but perhaps it just feels easier because you’re anxious about relinquishing control of the project. Get curious, and honest, and ask yourself, “Is this really the best use of my time?” You may find that your administrative assistant or colleague could handle it just as easily.
As you are tracking your time (in step 1), keep a list of those activities you are doing that could be delegated to others because (a) it’s their job or (b) it could provide them with an opportunity to learn new skills. Then, dole out the assignments. While you’ll need to check up on progress (and might have to do some training), this will help you to make the best use of your time over time.
3. Commit to doing things at a certain time of day.
Have you ever gotten to the end of the week and realized that too many of the items on your to-do list didn’t get touched?
You may not be intentional enough about scheduling. If you want to get more done, decide in advance when you’re going to do them, and write it down. Research has found that you’re much more likely to fulfill your commitments to yourself if you take this approach. The other benefit of this exercise is that it can help you re-prioritize or delegate as necessary. You may realize you don’t have time to complete all that you’ve committed to, and that will help you get more realistic about your priorities.
4. Be wary of perfectionism, and rein it in.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’re likely not making the most efficient use of your time. This statement isn’t meant to be critical, but rather to point out one of the ironies of perfectionism—that it makes you waste time and energy on things that can sabotage your productivity, and well-being.
Since you might be striving for perfection on tasks that just don’t warrant it, make a concerted effort to differentiate between the tasks that require “perfection” (e.g. a presentation to a sales prospect), versus those for which “good enough” would suffice (e.g. an email to your mom). Then, spend your time accordingly.
5. Give yourself a break from notifications.
Email is one of the of the biggest time-sucks that I hear about from my clients. Even if they commit to limiting email consumption to certain points during the day, the lure of the notification signal is too much to resist. If you’re in a position in which you don’t need to be responding to emails with immediate urgency (I think most of us are in that camp, regardless of urgent things can feel), then cut back on how often you’re checking them.
Turn off your monitor, mute the notifications, or put your phone in your bag so you won’t be tempted. It might feel hard to do at first, but across time, you’ll get used to it, particularly when you are able to appreciate the benefits of being more productive.
6. Skip the sleep sacrifice.
With all of the competing demands many professionals face, sleep can often be the first to go. If you sleep a little less, you can shove one more activity into your schedule, right? Not exactly.
Research suggests that this is flawed reasoning, as inadequate sleep is linked to fatigue, poor concentration, and decreased productivity. If you’re someone who tends to skimp on sleep, shift your priorities to include rest, and you’ll likely find that you’ll be much more efficient during your waking hours.
7. Procrastinate with intention.
AKA: Take breaks. It may seem like a paradox, but you can actually make better use of your time if you carve out time for intentional “procrastination” (e.g. not working) during the work day.
Breaks have been found to help you to refocus, increase job performance, and even increase your level of satisfaction. During those instances when you feel your energy and concentration waning, don’t try to will yourself through it with a clenched fist! Instead, take a 5-10 minute break. Then get back to work with a renewed sense of energy.
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