The world of work is very different than it used to be. Data from the Pew Research Center suggests that 35% of people whose jobs can be remote are working from home full-time. Further, self-employment or freelance work often means wearing multiple hats over the course of the week. While having a varied and flexible work schedule is nice, it can also mean time management and productivity challenges compared to the traditional 8 to 5 workday.
The good news is – whether working from home, the office, or both - there are productivity hacks for effective time management and boosting productivity. In this article, we provide a range of strategies - different people find that different methods work better for them.
Organizing for Effective Time Management
Placing all life responsibilities onto a calendar and to-do lists can help clear the mind and focus more easily on the task at hand. It also takes away the need to rely on memory.
The latest research found that people who use paper planners, versus those who use mobile device calendars, made higher-quality plans and more successfully carried them out. The researchers explain that a paper calendar allows people to see a broader time period. This gives a big-picture perspective while planning. All information is also viewed more easily on a paper planner, whereas on mobile devices, you have to click on an event to see its details.
Planners with monthly and weekly pages, and a few blank pages for to-do lists, can be the most useful. Furthermore, if folks use them for both work and personal activities, they can avoid scheduling conflicts and have a sense of their work-life balance.
Here are ways to use paper planners to enhance productivity:
- Noting deadlines. Place deadlines, meetings, and events on the monthly pages. Also note regular tasks such as taxes, car servicing, and the annual vet appointment.
- Color coding. Use different colors to designate time off, bills, deadlines, and meetings. This makes it easier to see what’s coming due and when a particular event is occurring.
- Writing to-do lists. Write all regular to-dos in categories. For example, regular activities (cleaning and laundry), projects (home repairs), work-related tasks (invoicing), and hobbies or bucket list items. These serve as a good reminder and help to make steady progress on longer-term projects.
- Planning ahead. Spending 15-30 minutes on the weekend to plan the upcoming week is a great way of improving efficiency. Look at your calendar over the next few months to see approaching events and deadlines. Prioritize based on due dates and work complexity. On the weekly page, place tasks for each day on one side and that day’s schedule on the other. Then look at your to-do lists and write any tasks needed from those as well.
- Designating days. Those who wear a few hats in the week can benefit from devoting an entire day to wearing just one. Switching between multiple responsibilities can make it difficult to complete projects because no specific one gets a significant amount of time. For example, if Mondays and Tuesdays are days to meet with clients, Wednesdays and Thursdays can be reserved for writing.
Establishing a Daily Routine
Having a routine helps regulate the body’s internal clock. This facilitates quality sleep, which is needed to be productive. What’s more, a routine can support healthy habits, like eating regular meals and going to bed and getting up at consistent times. A few helpful aspects of a daily routine can include:
- Getting up earlier. Some research suggests that early risers feel better mentally and emotionally. Getting up early also provides more time to work during the day and, in turn, have more off-time in the evenings. Furthermore, more business hours are available for you to contact organizations.
- Getting dressed each day. Even when working remotely, some people find that wearing regular clothes can help them get into the work mindset. It can also make it more satisfying to relax in pajamas later.
- Considering individual needs. For those who are most alert in the morning, that might be the time to write, and the afternoons can be the time for running errands, for example.
Breaking Down Large Projects
Tackling a project like a 50-page report can feel overwhelming. However, just a bit of planning can alleviate anxiety and foster progress. Two key things to do include:
- Breaking it up into smaller tasks. This can be, for instance, research, an outline, each chapter, editing, and final proofreading.
- Setting mini-deadlines. Set shorter deadlines for each task by considering how long it will take and working backward in your calendar from the final deadline.
Setting Measurable Goals for Boosting Productivity
The key to productivity is to set measurable goals. This can also be a time-saving strategy. SMART is a great acronym to use:
- Specific. Be clear on the task you are broaching.
- Measurable. Establish a quantifiable outcome.
- Achievable. Have a realistic goal that sets you up for success.
- Relevant. Prioritize.
- Time-bound. Give yourself a time limit.
For a 2000-word article due in 3 days, a strong goal would be “From 8 am to noon, I will do the research and complete my outline.” This is referring to a specific project, a measurable outcome (an outline); it is achievable because the time frame is appropriate, it is relevant because the project is due in 3 days, and it is time-bound (4 hours).
Vague goals, like “today I’m going to write for 4 hours,” are not as useful. They can lead to spending time in front of the computer and going down the research rabbit hole resulting in only one written paragraph.
While it may seem like multitasking can increase productivity, it is actually counterproductive. The truth is, the brain cannot focus on two or more tasks at once without slowing processing and making mistakes. The way to fight the urge to multitask is to minimize distractions.
Between calls, texts, social media, and emails, there is always something pulling for everyone’s attention. Here are some tips for staying focused:
- Create a workspace. Set aside a space in your home for work. This can also help put you in the work mindset.
- Keep devices separate. Reserve the phone for social media and games and stay off those sites on the work computer. Website blockers are useful for this.
- Turn off unnecessary notifications. Unimportant notifications – such as social media and email - can be silenced during work time.
- Be purposeful with email: Check email at only certain times per day. If working on time-sensitive matters with others, email notifications can be set for only those from certain people.
- Use the day’s to-do list: Not only can the list help avoid procrastination, but it can also keep your attention focused.
Delegating for Maximizing Productivity
Those with an overflowing plate may benefit from pausing and asking themselves if they can delegate any tasks to coworkers. Folks may ask for help from someone who is reliable or more skilled at the task than they are. Or, supervisors can delegate to supervisees by:
- Playing to their interests and goals
- Providing the needed resources
- Giving specific parameters like objectives and deadlines
Additionally, little chores also add up to a significant amount of time and take away focus. If the kids are on summer break, they can be in charge of walking the dog or helping Grandma take her medication on time.
Using Little Tricks for Big Gains
Small time-saving strategies can help make each day as productive as possible. Different approaches work for different people, so the key is to use techniques that work for you. Additional time management tips include:
- Planning meals. Plan meals based on your schedule for the upcoming week and shop for needed ingredients just once. This helps avoid having to make last-minute decisions or trips to the store.
- Using short breaks effectively. Thirty minutes in between meetings is a great time for small tasks like making phone calls, going to the mailbox, or sending emails.
- Using long breaks wisely. Use large chunks of time for in-depth tasks like writing or studying.
- Touching things only once. The “touch it once” rule means immediately acting on something while it is in hand. For instance, right after checking mail, going ahead and sorting it, shredding credit card applications, etc. Creating a mail pile just gives a dreaded mini-project at the end of the week. Or, when coming across a recipe of interest, writing down the needed ingredients right then, saving the trouble of having to remember to make the list later.
- Knowing when 80% is perfect. Perfectionists can find it hard to call a task “done.” But for some tasks, 80% is all that is needed. For instance, an email to the boss should probably be proofread, but not one informing book club members of details of the next meeting.
- Organizing the computer. This can be one of the most useful time management techniques. Create shortcuts on your desktop for files and folders you always open. Create templates for documents you write regularly, like invoices.
- Backing-up files. Prepare for tech snafus so that you don’t lose your work: at the end of each workday, make copies of your documents onto a jump drive.
- Using self-rewards. Some people find that giving themselves little rewards throughout the day keeps them motivated. For instance, get on social media only after finishing the chapter you are writing.
- Looking forward to things. Planning for dinner with friends in the middle of the week, for example, can also be a motivator for completing tasks.
Taking Care of Yourself
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say productivity improves with good health. Humans can only do so much if they do not feel their best.
Here are some ways to sustain energy and well-being:
- Eating healthy. A balanced diet is important for energy and long-term health.
- Getting enough sleep. Too little sleep slows people down the next day and negatively affects health in the long run.
- Exercising. Keeping the body active has positive effects on mood and energy. Some people exercise in the morning to get energized for the day. Others prefer to exercise in the afternoon when they feel less mentally alert.
- Taking breaks. Sitting for too long can tighten muscles and strain the eyes. Set an alarm to stand up regularly and stretch. The American Optometric Association suggests the 20-20-20 rule: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away.
- Interacting with others: Working from home can cause loneliness. Scheduling time with friends, working in a coffee shop, or volunteering are just a few ways to combat this.
- Calling it a day. Work and personal time can blend together. Checking email in front of the tv means less focus on your favorite show as well as on your correspondence. Moreover, emails will always be rolling in. Pick a consistent time to end the workday to maintain a healthy balance of work and rest.
- Unwinding. Give yourself time to relax before bed, whether that’s by streaming your favorite show, reading a book, or spending time with loved ones. This also helps with sleep.
- Being creative: Schedule in time for hobbies. Having a creative outlet or expressing another facet of yourself improves well-being.
- Having a play day. Give yourself 24 hours per week to do whatever you want, whether it be going to the park or engaging in a hobby.
In today's ever-evolving work landscape, embracing productivity hacks is essential for effective time management. Whether working remotely or in the office, implementing strategies like organizing with paper planners, establishing a daily routine, breaking down large projects, setting measurable goals, avoiding multitasking, and minimizing distractions can significantly boost productivity. Additionally, taking care of oneself through healthy habits and creative outlets contributes to overall well-being and enhances work-life balance. By incorporating these techniques, individuals can navigate the dynamic world of work with greater efficiency and satisfaction.