We all have the tendency these days to think that we should be the first person in the office and the last person to leave – especially if it’s our own company we’re clocking into. But more and more research is revealing that working longer hours doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting more done. In fact, it’s likely that you’re actually less efficient.
Think about it: if you don’t give yourself a firm end time to your work day, then the work will just expand to fill all of your available time because there’s always going to be more work. You’re also more likely to procrastinate because you don’t feel the urgent need to drop everything at 5pm. That’s why a task that could take thirty minutes can end up taking nearly five hours on a particularly frustrating day.
So, it’s time to create strict working hours and learn to spend them so efficiently that you really can sign off the clock and not feel the nagging urge to attend to one more task.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Prioritize your to-do list – and make it short
You cannot have ten MUST DO tasks in the same day. There simply isn’t enough time (if you’re going to work sane hours) and you mostly likely don’t have the energy or attention span to do them well – even if you think you do. Most of us operate under the misconception that we’re terrific at multitasking, when the reality is that humans are incapable of multi-tasking, so all we’re doing is juggling multiple things simultaneously and giving none of them the attention they deserve.
Pick three to four tasks for each day that you absolutely must get done. It’s easier if you assemble your task list the day before, so you start each day knowing exactly how your time is going to be spent. Also give yourself a rough time estimate for each task (which is where timing yourself comes in handy, but we’ll get to that next). Then prioritize each task. What will take the most time? Which task is the MOST important? When are your energy levels best suited to the task? Most people have high energy in the morning and after lunch.
Instead of having your to-do list be an anxiety-inducing, unwieldy taskmaster, use it to structure your day. The shorter and more pointed you make it, the more productive you can be.
2. Get Into the Office Early
Instead of leaving later than everyone else, come in earlier than the rest of your office mates. If you’re in the early stages of your startup and you’re not actually going into an office, the same principle applies. Wake up earlier and get right to the most pressing tasks of the day.
Your energy will be higher in the morning, and it just sets a good precedent for how the day should go on if you start it with very focused work. By starting even one hour earlier each day, you may find that you can leave anywhere from 2-3 hours earlier, which increases your chances of having a fulfilling life outside of work. You do know that there is life outside of work, right?
It’s really important that you spend the early morning hours proactively attacking your tasks and not just reacting to what’s already on your plate – like email. Save checking email for a couple of hours before the end of the day, after you’ve gotten your main to-do’s completed. This gives you time to respond to any time-sensitive emails without allowing them to completely derail you from your task list.
3. Time Yourself When Completing Tasks
Timing yourself has two benefits:
- You will be able to more accurately see where your day is being spent
- You will be less likely to get distracted with the timer running
If you know there’s a timer, the chances of you mindlessly surfing the web or getting lost in your inbox decrease. You’re accountable now, even if it’s only to yourself. In the beginning, timing yourself will just give you an idea of how your day is spent. It may surprise you. After that, you can structure your day accordingly, as you will be able to roughly estimate how long a task will take to complete. You may find that something that took several hours in the past now takes less than one.
Timing yourself also forces you to become more focused. If you set yourself a time limit – say, uninterrupted work for twenty-five minutes – you will actually spend those minutes doing exactly what you’re supposed to be. Schedule in timed breaks as well! For every twenty-five minutes of focused work, give yourself a five-minute break. But when that five minutes are over? It’s right back to work.
Here are some software or sites that you can check out:
4. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
There is no way that everything you’re doing NEEDS to be done by you. Choose a day at the end of each month to look back at every task you completed in the preceding weeks. This is where holding on to your to-do lists and your time tracking becomes useful. How many of your hours were consumed by tasks that didn’t make you more money or weren’t strictly related to your job responsibilities?
Free your time up by delegating. If you don’t have anyone working directly underneath you in your company, consider outsourcing.
You might also consider looking into these services:
5. Set Hourly, Daily, Weekly and Monthly Deadlines
This may seem like overkill, but personal deadlines are BIG in motivating yourself. If you consistently meet your deadlines, you’ll also feel better about yourself and more inclined to keep doing well. Your deadlines don’t have to be huge. It’s more about adopting a micro and macro look at your short-term and long-term goals. Take time at the end of each workday to establish a rough outline of what you hope to achieve the next day, week and month. Then before you start each task, set yourself a deadline. It’s an easy way to keep on track when the temptation to chat with coworkers or check email arises.
6. Handle Unexpected Tasks Appropriately
It’s 4.39pm, you’ve committed to leaving the office every day at 5, and then an unexpected email comes in. Someone needs something and you need to decide what do. You can a.) Forget leaving early and spend the evening in the office or b.) Do what you can about the problem in the time you have remaining.
You have to set your own boundaries. Most things are not life or death, and your business will not crumble if you attend to it in the morning instead of immediately. It’s important to not let other people’s poor time management affect your own work schedule. Obviously, this is going to come down to personal judgment. If the task is truly time-sensitive, then you may have to stay a little longer. But first, try to see what you can get done within the time frame you’ve set for yourself. Is there a way to triage this problem so that it will be fine to be left overnight? You’ll probably do a better job of handling it first thing in the morning anyway.
7. Create an After- Work Life Your Excited to Return to
Gone are the days where there’s a clear separation of work life and home life. In some ways, this is good. Going to work shouldn’t feel like a burden or time where your “real” life is being put on pause. However, work shouldn’t be your WHOLE life. If you’re working insane hours, you’re not only not going to have the time to do anything with our out-of-work hours but you’re also going to be to tired to use whatever hours you do have. If you’re life outside of work consists of shoveling in take-out in front of the TV before passing out…yeah, you’re not going to be terribly excited to leave the office.
If you come in early and do focused, efficient work, you can leave the office with enough time in the day to actually do fun stuff. Join teams, have hobbies, and generally create a life that you’re just as passionate about as you are your work. As with all lifestyle changes, start slow. If you have been working ten-twelve hour workdays for the past five years, you can’t suddenly cut down to eight. Start by giving yourself more reasonable work hours (and stick to them!) and incorporate some of the practices mentioned here. The more efficient you become, the more confident you’ll start to feel about working less hours. The point isn’t to slack off or become lazy; it’s actually to become better at your job in less time.