Your lives are always busy, I’m sure, but the holidays always seem to add even more craziness to everyone’s schedule. Christmas parties with family, friends and co-workers, gift shopping, decorating, Christmas pageants, caroling, bell-ringing, snow shoveling (unless you live on Guam like I do), making cookies, baking turkeys, and all the rest.
It’s enough to make you want to give up!
But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. If you’re a busy person (and who isn’t these days?), I’ve compiled some of my favorite time-saving tips — things I use in my daily life that I’ve found to work wonders for freeing up the schedule.
Why use these tips? First, to keep yourself sane during busy times as we all tend to stress out when schedules are packed. But second, and just as importantly, to make time for what you think is most important. For me, that’s my family, my writing, and exercise.
You might have other things you want to make time for. Here’s how to do it.
Tips for Work
Most of us spend the most time at work, so let’s start there. If you have a to-do list that’s a mile long — or worse yet, no to-do list at all — here’s what you can do:
1. Do less. This is my favorite productivity tip, as long-time readers know — simplify your schedule by doing fewer things but focusing on the important things. This will greatly increase the impact of the time you do work, decreasing the time you need to work. What about the tasks you don’t do? See the tips below for more on dealing with them.
2. Delegate. If a task needs to be done but is not one of your most important tasks, and it can be done by someone else, delegate it. Sometimes you can get rid of half your to-do list by finding others who can do the task as well or even better than you can.
3. Limit your workday (or adjust your hours). If you work more than 8 hours a day, by setting a limit of 8 hours you’ll force yourself to focus on getting the must-do tasks done within that limit. If you work 8 hours a day, try limiting yourself to 6 hours. You’ll find that you’ll prioritize, work more efficiently, and waste less time, so that you can get the work done within that time frame. I try to give myself a 4- or 5-hour window on most days. What if you can’t reduce your hours (maybe you’re required to work a certain number of hours)? See if you can shift your work hours either earlier or later than the rest of the crowd. That’ll reduce commute time if you don’t commute during the busy traffic hours, and if you work when almost no one else is in the office you can get tons more done.
4. Get the important stuff done early. Pick the top 2-3 things you need or want to accomplish today, and get those done first. While on other days you might push these important things back (and possibly not get them done at all), if you do them first the rest of your day will be gravy. In fact, if you have the freedom, you can sometimes even call it a day after you get the important stuff done — the rest can wait until tomorrow.
5. Ask your boss to re-prioritize for you. If you don’t have control over your schedule or to-do list, talk to your boss. Tell him you are trying to be more effective with your time, and you only have time for X number of things today (say, 3-4 things) … so ask him to pick those things for you. Tell him if you try to do everything today you’ll be less effective and may not get as many things done or do as good a job. This prioritizing is essentially what you’d do yourself (see the first tip) if you had the freedom.
6. Batch tasks. Instead of interspersing your work day with small tasks all mixed together, try to group similar tasks and do them at once. For example, instead of responding to emails throughout the day, batch them and do all your emails once (or twice) a day. Do all your paperwork at once. Make all phone calls in one batch. Do all errands at once. This grouping of tasks saves a lot of time and allows you to focus better on the important tasks.
7. Focus on one project and get it done. Instead of juggling a large number of projects, set aside a block of time to do one project until completion. For me, this often means setting aside half a day or a day (I try to break my projects down into manageable chunks) to work on a project, and I try to complete it if at all possible. Often this means getting all the resources and information you need beforehand, so you don’t have to look for it or wait on it when you’re ready to actually work on the project. This also means clearing my schedule, so I’ll get other tasks done beforehand and I won’t schedule anything else for that block of time. Then work on that project exclusively and try very hard to get it done. This, I’ve found, is often the most effective way to work on projects.
8. Avoid meetings. Not all meetings are a waste of time, but many are. If you spend a lot of 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.
9. Avoid long conversations at work. We’ve all had long conversations with co-workers that were very unproductive — often not related to work or anything important. Sometimes they’re long phone conversations. And while I like conversing with other human beings as much as the next guy — it’s important to maintain good relationships and friendships — at the same time you could be spending that time doing other things. I personally would rather get all my work done and go home and spend time with my family. So I try to stay focused on work rather than having lots of long conversations, although I’ll make an exception now and then.
10. Learn to say no. This is crucial if you want to have a simplified schedule. We all receive numerous requests each day, and all of them are demands on our time. If we say “yes” to those requests, we are giving up our time and committing to doing something for someone else. But if those requests aren’t in line with our priorities, then we are usually biting off more than we want to chew. So learn to say “no” instead. Often this is uncomfortable, because we fear it means disappointing others. But learn to tell people that you just don’t have the time to commit to this right now, and often they’ll understand.