zen habits : breathe

The Essential Time-Saving Guide for Busy People

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 — 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. Read more.

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.

Time-saving Computer Tips

1. Disconnect when possible. This is my favorite computer tip. When I really want to focus on a task, and really get it done, I will disconnect from the Internet. Sometimes this means just closing my browser, other times it will mean disconnecting from my wireless network, and still other times I unplug the cord. However you do it, disconnecting from the Internet is a great way to get things done. Of course, you’ll eventually want to re-connect, but having blocks of time when you’re disconnected can be extremely productive.

2. Quicksilver or AutoHotkey. Quicksilver for Mac users, Autohotkey for PCs. I’ve used both an find them to be indispensable tools for getting things done efficiently. For example, we all have documents, programs, folders and websites we go to frequently — set up a hotkey to open them with a keystroke. It takes a little learning to figure out how to set these up (but you can Google tutorials), and to set up each hotkey might take a couple minutes. But once they’re set up, you’re lightning fast. You can go beyond these hotkeys for more powerful combinations, such as a hotkey to email something or resize a photo or do a thousand other things — I have probably a dozen or so I use regularly that save me hours when you add them all up over the course of a month.

3. Keyboard shortcuts for email. Similarly, your email program almost certainly has keyboard shortcuts, and if you’re not using them you should learn them. By using shortcuts for opening, sending, filing, searching and navigating through emails, you can work through a batch of emails in no time. And if you add shortcuts (via Quicksilver or AutoHotkey) for commonly used text or signatures, you can zip through your replies faster than I can go through a batch of Oreos.

4. Email filters. Let your email program do your work for you. I use Gmail filters, but programs such as Outlook or Mail.app, or what have you, all have similar filtering features. Learn to use them and set up filters for your most common emails. This will usually happen over time as you notice that you’re getting a lot of a certain type of email. For example, I get certain stats and financial reports relating to my work that I have labeled and filed by a filter, so that they never see the light of my inbox. Then I can always go and look in that label (or folder) to read those reports if I need to, but don’t need to read them when I go through my inbox. I also use filters to automatically delete emails from people who send me chain and joke emails (harsh, I know, but I get tired of those), and to file notifications from services like Facebook, Twitter, Paypal and other services.

5. Limit IM, Twitter, forums, other social stuff. You can spend all day chatting with others, or Twittering or going on online forums or social media. And while all of these tools have good uses, they can take up too much of your time if you let them. Set limits for yourself — say one hour a day to do all of these things, at a certain block of time in your schedule. You’ll have lots more time for the important tasks.

6. Stop worrying about filing. I’ve written about this before, of course, but I don’t really believe in filing anymore. Everything I do is digital these days, both online and on my computer’s hard drive. And I learned from Gmail that you can just archive something and search for it later without any problems (I’ve been doing this for two years with no problems finding things at all). So I do this with everything: files on my hard drive, documents in Google Docs and Spreadsheets, other types of online files. And my filing time has been reduced to almost zero — while I used to spend lots of time filing each day.

Tips for Home

1. Keep things clutter-free. I’m a big fan of clutter-free homes and workspaces, not only for their nicer aesthetics but because 1) it helps you to focus on what you’re doing instead of being distracted by visual clutter; 2) it’s more serene and relaxing; and 3) it saves time. How does it save time? It makes things easier to find, easier to clean, easier to navigate, and reduces wasted time reshuffling, sorting, looking through, and clearing away piles of clutter. Read more.

2. Keep things in their place. Similarly, having a “home” for everything saves time. You can have an uncluttered home but not know where anything belongs … instead, have a place for everything, and put things back in that place when you’re not using them. Make this a key habit in your life — when you’re done with something, put it back where it belongs. It takes a few seconds to do that, and saves time cleaning up later, looking for things (how many times have you lost something and searched long and hard for it?), and generally keeps things neater and uncluttered.

3. Teach kids to clean up after themselves. If you’re a parent, you know that keeping an uncluttered household isn’t easy when you have little rugrats running around making a mess every minute of the live-long day. Start your kids, from an early age, with the habit of cleaning up after themselves when they’re done playing. So let’s say they take out a bucket of building blocks and make a huge mess — that’s OK, but when they’re done, help them to pick everything up, put them in the bucket, and put the bucket back in its “home”. My younger kids like to sing a “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere” song as they clean. Make it a game! With six kids, this has saved us countless hours of cleaning up after our kids.

4. Prep the night before. Whether you’re single or have a household full of kids, mornings might be a rush for you. Instead, create an evening routine where you get everything ready the night before, so you can start your day off right. This might not technically save time, but it gives you more time in the morning to focus on getting important things done rather than rushing through your routine.

5. Don’t watch too much TV. I personally have wasted entire days watching TV, so I know what a big time-hole television can be. Instead, limit your TV viewing time — maybe an hour a day? — and use the time you otherwise would have been watching TV on more important things — spending time with your loved ones, exercising, writing that novel you’ve been dreaming about.

6. Plan your weekly menu. If you plan out what you’re going to have for dinner (and even lunch) each day of the week, you can save a lot of time. First, you can go grocery shopping and get everything you need all at once — in fact, if you repeat the weekly menu the next week, you can do two weeks of shopping in one trip. Second, you can prepare food ahead of time (see next item), and pack your lunch easily for work. Third, you don’t have to worry about what’s for dinner each evening — it’s right there on the menu you posted on the fridge.

7. Cook big batches. I like to make large batches of food, which is especially helpful when you have a big family. I’ll cook up a big batch of chili, veggie soup, spaghetti, or other dish, and eat the leftovers for lunch or dinner (sometimes it can be several lunches and dinners).

8. Do all your errands at once. This is the same as the “batching” tip from the work section above (as is the previous tip, and the next tip). Write your errands on an errands list throughout the week, and do them all on one day. Plan your route so you do the least amount of driving possible, and get it all done quickly. Compared to running multiple errand trips, this method saves a lot of time.

9. Do your banking online, all at once. I like to do this once every week or even two weeks … I have all my bills ready to pay (actually, most of them are set up to be paid automatically by my bank’s bill-pay system), I reconcile my online bank statement, pay the bills, check my automatic savings transfers and so on.

10. Clean in one big rush. While I like to keep things clean by cleaning as I go, there’s also the sweeping and mopping and cleaning the bathrooms and things like that … and it’s a big time-saver to do it all in one big rush. My whole family will take different parts of the house, and we’ll do the cleaning all at once as fast as we can. We’re done in 30-45 minutes, and we can relax the rest of the day. Ahhh!

11. Get your workouts done in no time. If you don’t have a lot of time but want to stay (or get) in shape, try bodyweight exercises in circuits, but make the workout more intense by trying to do as many circuits as you can in a short amount of time. For example, do circuits of pullups, pushups, and bodyweight squats (5, 10, and 15 respectively) … and do as many as possible in 10 minutes (or 20 if you’re fit). Create your own circuits with different exercises, or look for similar challenges online to mix things up. Don’t do these intense exercises if you’re just starting out — just try to do a few circuits but not quickly if you’re still a beginner.

12. Keep a great big calendar. My family stays organized with a big calendar on our fridge (which I also manually sync with Gcal because I like Gcal). Everything goes on our calendar: parties, meetings, school events, soccer games, music lessons, birthdays, volunteering dates, and so on. This ensures that we don’t overschedule, that we’re all in sync with each other, and that we don’t miss appointments or events. And one big calendar saves time because we don’t have to keep checking with each other or looking at various schedules.

13. Get a babysitter or swap babysitting. If you are a parent and don’t have time to do things, hire a babysitter so you can find the time, or swap babysitting with another parent. My sister and I do this, for example — we’ll watch her kids some days and she’ll watch ours on others. It’s great because we have more time to do things, and our kids get to play together.

14. Consider hiring someone. Sometimes it makes more sense to hire someone to do something, especially if your time is worth more money than you’re paying that person. For example, if I have a large yard that would take me five hours to maintain (it’s pretty big), it makes more sense for me to pay someone as I can earn more during those 5 hours by working. Other things you might pay someone for: other home maintenance projects, washing your car, doing errands or laundry, doing your taxes … just about anything where doing it yourself isn’t cost-effective.

What are your time-saving tips? Share in the comments!

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