You’ve heard the lament: There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Maybe you feel that way. Rather than frying your brain and your nerves working even longer hours, productivity professionals and researchers say you can take steps to become more efficient in the time you spend on tasks, professional or personal. Here are some of them.
Clear the clutter. Lots of people are disorganized, swamped in clutter, says Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta-based personal-productivity expert, coach and author. “They can’t find what they need, especially on their computers. People do things for years without looking at how they do them.”
She instructs clients to evaluate how they spend their time by maintaining a time log for several days in which they record what they do during the day, each task’s importance and what interruptions stymied them.
“Then you have a clear sense of all your time wasters.” Duncan says. Once you do, she adds, you can think more clearly and prioritize the tasks that need to be done first.
Get out of your head. Visionaries and entrepreneurs often have a grand idea but no blueprint to make it happen, says David Allen, author of the best-seller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, and a California-based productivity expert. The problem: “Most people don’t break it down to the next single physical action they need to take. For the most part, people are way out ahead of themselves.
“Most people don’t have a clue how to get oriented,” Allen continues. “Your brain is trying to multitask and just can’t do it. If you’re just keeping things in your head, you’ll be driven by the latest thing or loudest thing in your head. Define what the outcome you’re after is. What’s the next action you need to take to move the needle toward that?” And then the next and the next until you have a map toward your goal.
Make a checklist. We often put off tackling something that is especially daunting. Again, compile a list of steps you need to complete the job—but to motivate yourself, cross each step off as you do it, even if it’s only one little thing to move you forward, Duncan says. With each item checked off, the task becomes smaller and more manageable.
“Your best days are days when you get a little bit of stuff done that impacts on bigger stuff,” Allen adds.
Develop a toolbox. “All the work I need to do, all the commitments I have, I have it externalized so I can glance at those quickly and decide whether I want to do any of them,” Allen says. Allen employs everything from jotting notes and keeping a physical in-basket to digital tools such as Talking Alarm Clock to avoid this. He recommends that clients experiment with various digital aids such as Microsoft Outlook, IBM Notes and iPhone Reminders, to name but a few.
Assess the pros and cons. Most of us have between 30 and 100 projects we need to address at any one time, Allen says, from the mundane to the momentous. These, he explains, are things that require more than one step to finish, whether shopping for car insurance or cutting costs in your business.
“An important thing for everybody to ask themselves is, What’s the value if I get this thing done, and what’s the risk if I don’t?” Allen says. “That helps people reframe inside their heads. I hate doing my taxes. Great. If I don’t [do them], what’s going to happen?”
Ditch the distractions. Maybe you think you’re a master at multitasking, immune to distractions. Odds are you’re wrong. Lots of research reveals that we accomplish more by doing less. Researchers at Stanford University, for example, put 100 students through a series of three multitasking tests and concluded that the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers. The former were “suckers for irrelevancy,” said one of the researchers. “Everything distracts them.”
If your computer audibly alerts you to each new email, turn off the sound, Duncan advises. Silence your cellphone. “People have this 911 emergency mentality. Then they get distracted and go into something else. Just focus on one thing and finish it or get to a good stopping point” before perusing emails, social media and voicemails, she says.
Less is more. Florida State University psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson and fellow academics have studied musicians, actors, athletes and chess players and found that working in highly focused 90-minute segments, followed by substantial breaks, reduced mental exhaustion and maximized productivity. Also, “elite performers” in various fields typically spend no more than four to five hours a day at their chosen field, according to Ericsson.
“When people are expert performers, they seem to be fully focused on the need to concentrate,” Ericsson says. “You need to pace yourself. There is a need here for basically having a chance to relax.” In other words, avoid burnout.
This is one of the maxims at The Energy Project, a consulting company founded by author and former journalist Tony Schwartz, whose clients have included Google, Coca-Cola and the Los Angeles Police Department. “We’re not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time,” the company maintains.
Rest assured. No matter how organized you are, your efforts at being more productive may be for naught if you’re constantly fatigued. Many of us are. A 2011 survey conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers and others estimated that insomnia is a $63 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy due to lost productivity.
And a study by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that participants who were limited to an average of 5.6 hours of sleep per night took longer to perform tasks such as finding information quickly and accurately on computer monitors than when they had adequate sleep. Their speed progressively declined with each successive week of weariness.
Sleep needs vary, but most adults require seven to nine hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Getting enough sleep at night is ideal, but napping is another way to mitigate sleep deficits. Numerous studies have shown that napping improves memory, learning and creative thinking.
Sleep experts say a 20- to 30-minute nap is ideal. A study of air traffic controllers found that those who slept an average of 18 minutes during a 40-minute nap session performed best on tests measuring vigilance and reaction time. Other research shows that longer naps produce even more benefits. But long siestas often aren’t feasible for busy people, and they can produce more post-sleep grogginess and disrupt nighttime sleep.
To nap successfully, keep the room temperature comfortable. Limit noise and light filtering in. Don’t snooze late in the day.
David Allen is among the napping advocates. “I’m going to take a nap after I talk to you. It’s better than a cup of coffee.”