- By Gwen Moran
Want to cut back on the hours you spend at work? We asked two time management and personal productivity experts, Peggy Duncan and Laura Vanderkam, for their advice. Here are their six rules.
1. Track your time better. Chances are you’re not aware of some of the biggest time-wasters that keep you from focusing on your work, says Duncan, the Atlanta-based author of The Time Management Memory Jogger.
For a few days, keep a precise time log, jotting down everything you do during the workday and how long each task takes. That five minutes you think you’re spending on Facebook or Twitter? It might really be 45 minutes. The quick chat with a neighbor who calls every day could actually be tying you up for a half-hour.
Those little chunks of time can add up to many hours during the course of a week. “Once you see how you’re really spending your time, you can make meaningful changes,” Duncan says.
(MORE: Make Your Home Office Work For You)
2. Eliminate interruptions. When your workflow is constantly disrupted, it’s time to take back control, Duncan says.
Block out specific hours when you won't allow yourself to be interrupted. That means these are the times when you won’t answer the phone, read email or check Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
If you need an electronic nanny, use a free program like AntiSocial for Macintosh or Freedom for either PC or Mac to block Internet and email access. You can also program these tools to block specific sites if you can't afford to give up online access but want to avoid temptation.
One of my favorite anti-interruption tricks is to set a timer for 30 or 60 minutes then try to get as much done during that period as possible. This personal version of “beat the clock” is a great way to keep focused, helping me to get my work done faster so I can end the day earlier.
3. Set up an email-reading schedule. “Lots of people are on email so much it actually pushes ‘real work’ out of their core business hours,” says Vanderkam, who lives outside Philadelphia and is the author of the new bestseller What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.
Limit your email checks to a couple of times a day if you can. If your work demands that you respond to email more frequently, try this approach each hour: Work for 45 minutes, then allow yourself 15 minutes to check and answer email. Don’t let the “ding” of your email box distract you during your dedicated worktime.
4. Streamline, streamline, streamline. Look for more efficient ways to accomplish routine tasks by eliminating steps and developing electronic systems for handling them day after day, Duncan says.
For example, if you run a small business, you might be able to use a customer relationship management program to reduce the time you spend on accounting, invoicing, marketing and customer communication. If you’re already using Microsoft Office’s suite of products, integrate your Outlook contact files with other programs so all your customer data is housed in one place.
PC World magazine has a good slideshow of 10 free or inexpensive add-on services for your Quickbooks accounting software that can save you time and money.
(MORE: 5 Ways to Tame Mental Clutter)
5. Get organized. If it takes you more than a few seconds to find what you need on your computer or in your office, poor organization is probably to blame, Duncan says. Get in the habit of viewing documents on your computer screen instead of printing them out and then foraging to find them.
If you run or work at a document-intensive business, a good electronic filing system is essential. Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft’s SkyDrive let you easily store and share documents, allowing you to download a mobile app and access your documents from any Internet-enabled device. (You can find more free apps to supercharge your business in my blog post, "How to Use Cloud Apps to Boost Your Small Business.")
6. Schedule some downtime. Carve out an hour or two after work to exercise, set aside time to read a novel in the park or just take a few days off to unwind. Just be sure to shut off your computer and cell phone.
“Electronic temptations will take any time that is available,” Vanderkam warns. “You can end up with a life where work just bleeds into everything else and you never have any time for yourself.”
If you haven't planned a weeklong summer vacation and you're able to take one, you should — there's now proof that taking a break from work is good for your health. A May 2012 study by the University of California, Irvine and the U.S. Army found that being cut off from work email for five days reduces stress.
Don't worry: your work will still be there when you get back.