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Published:Jun 23, 2020

You Don’t Need More Time. You Need Healthier Systems.

Ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day?

We’re all guilty of falling into that trap from time to time — wishing we just had another hour or two, 25 or 26 hours in a day instead of 24. All the things we could get done with just that little bit of extra time. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Or is it?

Do we really need more time to get more things done?

What if the problem isn’t the number of hours in the day at all, but how you’re using them?

The reality is that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, yet most of us feel like we’re too busy and wish we had more hours to get things done. But time anxiety actually has nothing to do with how much time there is in each day. It has to do with the systems we use to make the most of the time we do have.

You don’t need more time to get more stuff done.

You need better systems. You need to better prioritize your work, and then do the work in a way that ensures you max out your productivity.

If you’re thinking that’s easier said than done, well, you’re right. But we’ve got the strategies you need to deal time anxiety and get more done — without spending a single moment more time working.

It Takes More than Time to Get Things Done

When people say, “I could do that if I just had more time,” or “I’ll get to it when I have the time,” they’re missing a key fact: It takes more than just time to get things done.

Cal Newport, the author who gave us the idea of “deep work,” created a formula to illustrate this.

Quality of Work = Time Spend x Intensity of Focus

Quality of Work = (Time Spent) x (intensity of focus)

If we use that formula, we have to accept that forcing more time into the equation can only go so far, because time isn’t the only variable at play here. 

But hey, who’s to say Newport’s formula is the end-all, be-all to whether you could get more done if you had more time? 

Well, there’s more.

A recent study by vouchercloud suggests we’re only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes during an eight-hour workday. That’s right. In the eight hours you spend at work, you’re likely only really working for less than three hours.

So no matter how many hours you add to the workday, you’re not likely to accomplish much more. You could work eight hours, or 10, or 12, and research shows you’ll still only do 2 hours and 53 minutes worth of productive work.

More time is just not the answer. So what is?

Healthier Systems Will Help You Get More Done

It’s not about time. It’s about the systems you have in place. Specifically, three that we’re going to focus on here: Prioritization, time management, and focus.

Prioritizing Work Gets You Out of the Urgency Trap

Most of us suck at efficiently prioritizing our work. Think about it — how often do you start your day with mundane tasks that aren’t even that important? And how often do you freak out about an extensive to-do list where every item feels crucial?

These are both signs you’re not prioritizing well.

Prioritization can be tricky — it’s something that a lot of people struggle to do well. These tips should help.

First, Consolidate

The first thing you should do is consolidate all of the tasks you need to do into a single list. It’s not important how you do this or where you store your list. You can automate task creation and store your to-do list in Trello. Or you can write things on a sticky note on your desk. Just pick a system that works for you and get all your pending tasks in one place.

Second, Analyze

Now it’s time to analyze your list. There are a few different ways you can do this.

One way is to sort your tasks into four areas:

  • Do: Complete this task right now. Good for small tasks that can be done quickly, or for very urgent tasks, like a project that’s due today.
  • Defer: Complete this task later. Good for tasks that are important, but not urgent.
  • Delegate: Assign this task to someone else. If there’s anyone on your team who has the free time and the right skills to help you out with a mountain of work, never be afraid to ask for a hand on a task.
  • Delete: Remove this task from your to-do list. Good for tasks that are not urgent, and don’t add a lot of value, like busy work.

Another great way to analyze your to-do list is by using a priority matrix. Steven Covey offers a great one in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Analyzing your list this way helps you visualize the relative importance of each of your tasks compared to the rest. It helps you prioritize what needs to be done immediately, what needs to be done soon, and what can wait.

Third, Tackle

And lastly, using the insights you gained from analyzing your list, it’s time to start tackling items. The ones that are most urgent and time sensitive while also being valuable and important are likely where you’ll want to start. If you finish those and have time leftover, you can move on to tasks that are important, but less urgent. The most important thing is to avoid tasks that are not urgent and not important. Those are often time wasters, and are generally better off removed from your to-do list.

Time Management Helps You Tackle More To-Do List Items

Having a prioritized to-do list is the first step toward good time management. But it’s not the only way engineers can better manage their time.

Wasted time is a big problem at work, and it’s not necessarily your fault. There are so many distractions in any office (or in your home, if that’s where you work from). And humans just aren’t wired to be naturally good at efficient, effective time management. It takes dedication and practice.

So, to make the most out of the time you spend at work, try these time management tips.

  • Plan time for planning. Now that you know how to make an organized, prioritized to-do list, make it a habit to create one for each day or week. Work to-do list organizing and prioritizing time into your schedule. Remember that time spent planning for a productive work day is not wasted time — it’s valuable and will help you get more done.
  • Split up big tasks into all their small parts. When you’re making your to-do list, take a closer look at any tasks that are so huge, they feel too daunting to complete. Is there any way to break them up into smaller, more manageable steps? If so, do that, and then continue with prioritizing your list as usual.
  • Identify your time-wasters. Everyone has time-wasters. Maybe you get sucked into perusing social media or scrolling through news sites when you sit down at your computer. Maybe you’re easily distracted by the temptation of socializing with your team members during work hours. Try to identify habits you have that actively waste time at work. Once they’re at the front of your mind, it’ll be easier to stop yourself when you start wasting time.
  • Take breaks. Research shows that human brains are just not wired to be super productive for long stretches of time. Taking breaks, stopping for a lunch hour, and quitting work at 5 p.m. to go home may feel like you’re not working when you could be, but the reality is you need time off work to give your brain a break so you can get back at it, refreshed and productive, later.
  • Remember that good is better than perfect. Spending hours and hours in pursuit of perfection is a waste of time. It’s OK for a project to be good, but not perfect. Spend that time making lots of good projects, rather than one perfect one.

Focus Helps You Do Deep Work

It’s time to come full circle, back to Cal Newport. Remember his formula back at the beginning of this article? 

Time Spend x Intensity of Focus

That formula says high-quality work takes two things: time, which we already know is finite, and focus

By tapping into your ability to be highly focused on whatever task is at hand, Newport says you can do “deep work,” which is “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate,” he writes.

Deep work isn’t easy to achieve, but it’s one of the best ways we can counter the age of distraction we all live in, and do our best, most productive work. Newport suggests practicing deep work — it takes time to get good at it, like any other skill. 

He also recommends having a deep work routine, so your brain knows when it’s time to get down to business. That means having:

  • A location that’s specific to doing deep work. Somewhere that’s comfortable, quiet, and completely free from distractions is ideal.
  • A duration in mind for your deep work session. If you’re new to deep work, start with 15 minutes and work your way up to longer sessions.
  • Structure that determines what deep work looks like for you. For example, can you have drinks and snacks, or will those distract you? Can you get up and move, or should you stay in front of your screen the entire time?
  • Requirements for accessing deep work, so you’re ready to go when your session begins. This means you won’t waste any of the duration of your deep work session setting your phone to silent or picking out the right music, because those things will be done before you start.

24 Hours in the Day Is More than Enough

None of us needs more hours in the day. In fact, 24 is more than enough, since no one should be spending more than eight of them at work on a regular basis.

By practicing and combining skills that create better work systems, you can instead make the most of your work time and get important tasks finished — without needing more time.

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Rethinking Timekeeping for Developers:

Turning a Timesuck Into Time Well Spent

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