It started with a reader wondering if we’d write a very specific post:

It sounded like a great topic. I’d love to be able to get more done each workday myself, and I figured that if I wrote about it, maybe I’d learn something important in researching.

This is not helpful, I thought as I read articles and blog posts telling me how to hack my day and squeak more work out. The articles all had some clever trick, some useful tools, the greatest app ever to increase productivity (usually only available on iOS, this Android user noticed), but nothing in particular stood out. Much of it was based on what worked for the writer (which, alas, is where I fear this post will eventually end up, too), but I wanted something more universal, or something with a bit of research behind it.

And then I finally realized the obvious:

Fitting 20 hours of work into a 10 hour day is impossible. You cannot stretch, bend, or add to the time in your day.

This question was not really one asking me to mess with the time-space continuum, or to find ways for people to work harder. The truth is, you don’t actually want to cram 20 hours of work into a 10-hour day. What you really want is a 10-hour day (or even eight). You want more of your time back to yourself, but you still have work that has to get done.

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This was a question of balance of work and life with a limited amount of time. How can I make the best use of my time while working, and how can I make the best use of my time when I’m not working? Let’s answer the former first, because without that figured out, the latter (non-work time) will be sacrificed and not exist at all.

What You’ll Do During Your Workday

You can’t really save time; there’s no bank where you save it and can later use some when you’re running short.

But you can use time better as you travel along with it so you reach the point when your time is finally yours to control all that much earlier. Blogger Gregory Ciotti does a fantastic job of digging into the psychology of getting things done.

1. Break your time into specific chunks.

By setting aside specific time periods, you preserve the “sanctity” of them. In other words, if you say that you will write for 30 minutes, this means you will not let other duties happen during those 30 minutes. If you’ll do research or find posts to curate for 30 minutes, that’s all you’ll do.

Why is this helpful?

Some scientists believe we don’t have unlimited willpower (ego depletion), and that the longer we slog away at something the more likely we’ll fail. We burn through limited willpower.

If you get into the habit of breaking your time into chunks, you don’t rely on willpower. You rely on the disciplined habit of time chunking, after which you can take a break (a reward, which replenishes you), and the do the next thing.

Forget willpower; build habits instead.

Work. Stop. Break. Work. Stop. Break. Etc.

  • Have a place to take a break.
  • Have something to do on that break that doesn’t involve a bad habit (unhealthy snacking) or work.
  • Be sure you get back to work after the break is completed.

It might seem like you’re burning through time “not doing anything”, but you will find that at the end of the day, you’ll have at least the same amount done (if not more) and not feel nearly as burned out and tired.

do big projects first

2. Be deliberate, and do the hard stuff first.

Recognize this scenario?

You have several writing projects you need done for tomorrow, your time is limited, you’re stressed about it, and so you determine that this is the perfect time alphabetize all of your books.

I do this constantly. Big project, it’s terrifying, it’s imminent, I decide to wax the floors.

We want to feel like we accomplished something, and we also tend to avoid anything that’s difficult. So, we find some kind of easy busy-work that makes us feel like we were working and alleviate a bit of guilt.

All we did, of course, is ensure we’d be in a panic and eventually exhausted in order to meet a deadline, leaving us feel like we don’t have enough time to get our work done.

Do the hard stuff first. Get it done. The little things take care of themselves.

3. Admit you are a terrible multi-tasker.

If you’ve ever thought of yourself as a great multi-tasker, able to do lots of things at once, you’re lying to yourself. Studies have shown again and again that we do not multi-task.

We multi-ignore. We multi-forget. We multi-disorganize. We multi-fixate. We get multi-overwhelmed and multi-gaze off into space.

The truth is, people work best on one thing at a time, otherwise we lose our focus, we make irrelevant things important, and we can’t organize our thoughts well.

Work on one blog post at a time. Work on one content marketing project at a time. Start it, see it through. Don’t pick up another in the midst of it. You’ll do everyone a disservice by the time you’re done. Give yourself permission to dive into a project, full immersion.

Do not fall for the trap of feeling like you’ve accomplished a lot just because you multi-tasked.

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4. Actually finish the project.

If you don’t finish, it’s going to sit at the back of your mind and pick away. You’re better off finishing a project than leaving it unfinished. It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, this inability of people to let an unfinished project go.

Set deadlines for yourself. Set them even (or especially) if you have a “real” deadline down the road. Bring your deadline up tight and set the goal to get the work done. As Ciotti points out (using several studies) setting deadlines and monitoring what we do helps us finish or accomplish a goal.

So, you have a 2,200 word blog post to write, but it’s not due until next week?

Tell yourself the deadline is tomorrow and get to work. Otherwise you’ll probably find yourself, the day or night before, working frantically to finish and cursing the fact that you “always have to work.”

What You Will Do When Not At Work

For some, this isn’t even a concept. Everything is work. For those of you who don’t find that acceptable, keep reading.

1. You will say no.

Say no. Just say it. Say no to yourself. Say no to others.

Say no to the idea of staying up late to keep working so you can get a head start on tomorrow’s work so that tomorrow you can do it again to get another head start until you realize you never seem to get ahead despite all of the head starts.

And, according to blogger James Clear, if it’s yourself you’re saying no to in order to build good habits, consider saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”–the first empowers, the second reminds you of your limitations and frustrates.

Instead of “I can’t work late” as you try to convince yourself to turn the computer off and spend time with your family, tell yourself “I don’t work late.” It’s a huge difference. Can you hear it?

2. You will end the day on a final productive note.

Close out and wrap up the loose ends of the day so you don’t have to drag them into the next. Those loose ends have a funny way of never going away otherwise. Clear out your email inbox. Write down all the ideas that are banging around in your head and put them in a notebook. Free up some space and some silence.

Ciotti recommends ending the day by making a list of the top few items you want to get accomplished the next day, instead of waiting until the morning to plan your day.

However you do it, clear out the day so you can wind down and get sleep that sets you up fresh for a new day, not a new day plus yesterday’s leftovers.

3. You will have a cut-off valve.

Too many late nights has always been a problem for me.

Perhaps you can see that thread running through this post.

I quickly find myself in a three-week bout of 1:30 am bedtimes and it adds up quickly in lethargy, struggles to stay away, poor eating choices (which compound the problem) and, when it comes to work, a thick-headed approach to writing blog posts.

What’s your cut-off valve?

I read an article several years ago about New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez which told of how he set an alarm clock that would go off at exactly the right time it would take him to get ready for bed and be in bed by a set time.

Granted, this might not have worked magic in Sanchez’s situation, but the idea was he and his trainer established a “cut-off” time, and worked backward. That specific time was protected and not flexible. Everything else had to line up and fall behind it.

What is your cut-off time? When do you stop working? Do you stick with it or find yourself fudging around it?

Time Management Has Nothing To Do With It

Manage your energy, not your time. – Tony SchwartzClick To Tweet

The key is to stop thinking in terms of time management, but energy management.

We cannot get more time, but we can handle how we use it differently, and make decisions according to how much energy we have. If you have so much work to do that you can’t get it all done and you are exhausted, the question isn’t how to find more time.

It’s how to remove some of that work load.

It’s how to replenish our energy with rest, relaxation, a change of surroundings, and good food.

(And also: Please do not try manipulate time. That would cause huge problems for the rest of us.)

Is there a topic you’d love to see us write about? Leave it in the comments section below.