5 productivity strategies that will give you extra hours in your week
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Aside from design related questions, this is the question I receive the most from friends, family, and strangers on the internet:
HOW THE HECK DO YOU DO IT ALL?!?!
Between running a business and life with our 3 small(ish) kids, our plates are pretty full. Most people assume that I'm working crazy hours (nope) or that I have a full time nanny (nada) or a household staff of magical mice that do all of my cooking and cleaning for me (I wish).
Yet I generally only work about 30 hours per week, almost never work nights or weekends, and still carve out time for hobbies. I cook dinner every night, bake bread every weekend, go to girls' night once a week, spend time with my husband, and sleep 8 hours a night. To say it another way, I have a life that is fulfilling but has MARGIN.
Productivity is my jam, you guys. If you told me I could either go to a really nice dinner OR go to a productivity seminar….it would probably be the latter. No, really. When I was 13 my dad gave me the book 7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens and I was thrilled. I am a giant nerd about this stuff. I promise that I have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, but through many years of study, trial, and error I've picked up some really useful tactics and habits to make the best use of my time.
It's not about working longer hours. It's not about working harder. It's about working smarter.
These are the exact strategies I use in both my family life and business life, and they work wonders for both. I’ve spent nearly 30 years testing out different methods, finding what works, and adapting. Hopefully you’ll find some gems that work for you as well.
Let’s jump in!
If you haven’t heard the term before, Batch Working is grouping like-tasks together and knocking them out all at once. Anyone who has worked in an office or tried to do literally anything with a toddler around knows that every time you’re interrupted and have to shift focus, it can take a long time to get back into the flow you were in. Same goes transitioning from one type of task to another. Researchers estimate that switching tasks can cost you 25 minutes or more of productivity. When you batch like-tasks together, you can execute them with more efficiency. Here’s how that can look in your home and at work:
Errands – running all of your errands back-to-back in one afternoon rather than doing one per day. Saves travel time that you would have tacked onto the end of each day, allowing you to get home earlier and making it easier to try and cook dinner at a reasonable time and eat with your family.
Cleaning – cleaning all of the bathrooms in your house at once, rather than doing one each day. You already have all the products and mindset that you need, and you can do it in half the time that you would doing them separately.
Meetings – batching days that you’re in meetings keeps you from being interrupted 5 days a week, giving you more focused time to get actual work done rather than just talking about doing work.
Creation – if you create anything in your job – social media posts, podcasts, software coding, TPS reports, you name it, you know that creation requires a lot of brain-power. You might also know that when you get in The Flow, you do your best creating. If it takes you, let’s say, 15 minutes each day to come up with what you’re going to post on social media, write out the captions, and post them. It’s very possible that if you allotted 30-45 minutes to write a week’s worth of social media captions all at once you could knock them all out. That’s a huge savings. And working on them all at once affords the opportunity to look at themes and align posts with your business goals, rather than scrambling for what to say on any given day.
How this looks in my life: On Mondays, I meet with my team and tackle admin tasks like planning our work week, writing proposals, strategizing business growth opportunities, and meal planning for the upcoming week. On Tuesdays, I am at my desk doing focused design work. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I batch meetings. And on Fridays I work on creative things, photographing our projects, writing blog posts, and social media (and try to cut out a little early to kick off the weekend with my family).
PAUSING THE INBOX
I’m going to let you in on a secret – I only check email a maximum of three times a day. Seriously! I started this very quietly a couple of months ago and I am happy to report that no Interior Design Emergencies have occurred that we haven’t been able to manage. Many of us have a bit of a problem when it comes to email and notifications in general. Because it’s right there at our fingertips we check it without even realizing it. When we’re bored, at a stoplight (DON’T DO IT), or when we’re struggling to accomplish the hard thing we should be working on and crave a mental distraction. Many office workers will open an email within 6 seconds of receiving it. You guys, that’s insane. We also have a distorted view of urgency with email and feel a compulsion to open it as soon as we’ve seen it.
As it turns out, though, email rarely is as urgent as it feels. We all know that we can get lost in our inboxes and never actually accomplish anything except sending more emails (which leads to even MORE emails). The notifications give us the false sense that everything is urgent, but taking a break from constant email checking gives you the space to realize that it really isn’t life or death.
The other thing – I don’t check email first thing in the morning. In fact, I don’t check it until 10 AM (with occasional rare exceptions if we are working on a deadline and I’m expecting some critical information). The reason is that if I check email first, whatever has arrived in my inbox overnight will feel more urgent than what I had planned to do. Then the important tasks get pushed back so we can tackle the seemingly urgent. Instead, I focus on completing one or two tasks that need to get done that day, then I check my inbox. Do you know why this works? Because if something is truly an emergency, people will pick up the phone and call.
How this looks in my life: I check the inbox at 10 AM only after I’ve accomplished something important, then again after lunch, and one last time as I wrap up my workday. This one tip alone has easily saved me an hour a day (likely much more) over the course of 3 months. That’s more than 60 hours. Think about what you could do with an extra 60 hours!
One very important tip – if you don’t put some boundaries up for yourself, you will check email without realizing it. Gmail and other providers have a feature that allows you to actually pause your inbox and keep incoming emails from showing up. That way you can still access your inbox should you need to search for helpful info inside an email to finish the task you’re working on, but you won’t see anything new coming. Automation is your friend here and will help you stick to your goal.
GET A SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR YOU
If you search “day planner” on the internet you will see approximately one trillion results. There’s a reason that there are so many – all of our brains process information differently. I am a naturally strategic person, so the inside of my brain looks a bit like an array of post-it notes that move around based on the due date, importance, and my desire to do them. They are also color-coded. My husband thinks that this is insane (and he is probably right). I never could take to a day planner, despite the hundreds of dollars I spent on them because I move things around too much. Also, I’m a bit of a perfectionist (understatement) and found that I had a hard time writing things down if I didn’t feel like I could easily change them later without it looking like a hot mess. I needed a solution that would move around seamlessly.
I’ve waxed poetic about Trello before, but it is a visual interpretation of what the inside of my brain looks like. It’s made up of boards (major categories) with lists (by day or type) and cards (the actual to-do items themselves), and each card can have checklists (steps to accomplish each task). And because it’s digital, I can revise, move around, add notes and images, and change it to my heart’s content.
I use this free tool for literally everything. From my Daily To-Do List to Meal Planning, managing our Client Projects, coordinating our House Move, our Marketing Content Calendar, and tracking kid’s sports sign-ups and summer camp schedules. I literally could not function in this life without it. The best part is that it has both a desktop and mobile version, so I am never without access to it.
My goal isn’t to convince all of you to use Trello, but rather to find a system that is sustainable for you. If you are not a digital calendar person, you can’t force it. If you need a paper to-do list because writing things down pen-to-paper is how you process information, by all means, do it. But do something. It’s been said that you either need to have everything in one place (a paper planner that you take with you everywhere) or have everything in every place (a digital system, like Trello, that’s on your computer or your phone). The Start Planner, The Simplified Planner, and The Best Self Planner are all ones that I’ve tried and very much liked, but just weren’t quite the right fit for me because what I needed was digital, but might be great for you if you’re a paper person.
PUT DOWN THE PHONE
Yes, this is the part of the post where someone tells you to spend less time on your phone to free up time for other things. And feel free to roll your eyes because we all know this, but still, we have a hard time doing it because our phones are so addictive. I also acknowledge that I just went on and on about having a mobile app to organize my life, but stick with me.
You don’t need me to tell you that we all spend too much time on our phones, because our weekly screen time report will tell us this every Sunday. For many of us, it’s 2 hours, 4 hours, even 6 hours per day that we are staring at these things. What I will tell you is a couple of things that have worked well for me, and they aren’t rocket science. They just require discipline.
First I started to take note of WHEN I was on my phone and spotted some trends. Like most people, I would do a little mindless scrolling before bed. And again first thing in the morning, sometimes before even getting out of bed. Also when I was transitioning out of work and into evening time with my family. And one very interesting one – I was grabbing my phone every time I opened a file and was waiting for it to load. What that tells me is that I was looking for filler during transition times. Rather than just waiting for the file to load, or greeting my family after work, or saying a prayer or reading a book before bed, or God helps me just to BE STILL for 10 seconds, I was looking for the internet to give me a little dopamine hit and tell my brain what to do next.
What this looks like in my life: the very simple solutions I put in place-
No phone in the bedroom. That way I can’t check it in the morning or before bed because it isn’t there.
No phone by my desk, unless I’m actually making calls or referencing/editing photos for projects or social media. That way I can’t check it when files load.
No phone in my pocket when I’m at home. That stops mindless daily (hourly…by the minute) checking.
So where does the phone go? Tucked away in the corner of our living room at the bar (I know you’re laughing but it’s not whiskey related). It’s there if I need it, but it turns out I don’t need it all that much.
And, the most effective of them all, I only check it for notifications while standing, not sitting. You’ll only scroll Instagram for so long if you’re not in a comfy chair.
Because I am a grown-up, I can choose to go get my phone and spend 30 minutes scrolling Instagram on the couch if I want to, but it keeps me from doing it mindlessly.
Am I perfect at this? Somehow holier than thou? NOPE. But having these boundaries in place makes it much easier for me to notice when I’m breaking them, and then I put things back in check. All of these habits within a week’s time cut my phone usage by about 60%. SIXTY PERCENT. I don’t get legalistic about this, and the goal isn’t to get the number to zero minutes per day. I still want and need to use the phone to make calls, text with friends, engage with our followers and friends on social media, and plenty of other things. But I’m no longer letting it run my days and am using it as the resource I intended it to be when I bought it.
WORK ON THE RIGHT THINGS
This is probably the most important point of all. I’m not exactly talking about being efficient here. Efficiency means doing the thing faster with minimal error. That’s good and all, but what I’m really going to focus on here is how to be EFFECTIVE, which is doing the RIGHT things in the most efficient way possible. You can be efficient in checking your email 20 times a day and have complex filing and labeling systems, but if what you really want to be doing is spending less time in your inbox and more time with your kids or carving out time to exercise every day, then what is email efficiency gaining you!? Probably getting you one step closer to burnout and zero steps closer to your dream life. So what should you be working on? Things that move the needle forward in your life and help you accomplish your goals, living the life you want to be living. Things that bring you fulfillment. Things that must be done. But not things that can be avoided that aren’t helping you in one of those areas.
A helpful exercise is employing the 80/20 principle. It was first implemented in economics but has a HUGE array of applications. Across almost any category, 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. 80% of the returns in your investment portfolio come from 20% of the holdings. 80% of your happiness comes from 20% of the people you spend your time with. And conversely, 80% of your problems can be traced to 20% of the people in your life!
Evaluating where you spend your time might show a similar pattern in your life and show you where you could be “cutting the fat” and where you should focus your efforts. Spending a fraction of the day journaling and working through thoughts and ideas I have yields 80% of the lightbulb moments in my business and parenting, so I’m going to spend more time there than in my inbox. Spending 20 minutes a week on my meal plan and grocery list frees up hours of extra grocery trips for forgotten items and mental energy figuring out what’s for dinner. On and on and on.
Of course, none of this is helpful if you don’t know what your actual priorities are. If you let your inbox and your calendar run you, you’ll look up in 20 years and not quite know how you got there. The first step to living a life of margin and fulfillment is figuring out exactly what will fulfill you. For more on that, check out our post on designing a life you love.
How this looks in my life: As I shared above with Trello, I keep a master to-do list of everything that needs to get done in my week. You'll see in the Trello image above that I keep a visual of my Vision Board that I update with each new year at the top of my to-do list; a visual reminder to focus on the things that are most important.
At the beginning of the week, I estimate how much time each task will take, and assign it to a day of the week, with the most important items at the top of the list. I’ll accomplish 1-2 of those things before I check my email. At the end of the day, I review what’s been done, identify any tasks that weren’t complete, and then decide to either: 1) move them to another day, 2) delegate them, or 3) evaluate if they are even necessary and possibly eliminate them altogether.
I’ve read dozens of books, listened to countless podcasts, and attended untold numbers of seminars on working smarter. If you find yourself wanting to dive into the topic further, here are a few favorites I recommend looking into:
The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. Focused mainly on business, but for anyone who has a job and would love to work less and free up time for more life.
Atomic Habits by James Clear. Great for anyone who wants to create better habits, reduce bad habits, and see results with their goals.
The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry. Even if you don’t think you have a creative job, chances are you spend time creating things. This will help you re-prioritize to encourage creativity and avoid burnout.
The Goal Digger Podcast with Jenna Kutcher. Great for entrepreneurs and hopeful entrepreneurs. Check out in particular the episodes on Batch Working, Mindset, and Defining Enough as an Entrepreneur.
The Franklin Covey Framework – If you really want to geek out, go here. This framework helps you evaluate tasks and identify their urgency and importance, helping you to focus on important things, reduce urgent things by planning ahead, and eliminate the unimportant things that are stealing your time.
I know that was a LOT of words and information to take in. If you’ve read this far, chances are that something inside of you is calling you towards being more effective and making the most of the limited time we have on this earth. Spending less time checking email and doing busy work and more time doing things that bring you fulfillment and joy. My advice is to start small and implement one of these strategies. Gain some momentum and go from there. These strategies can be life-changing difference-makers into living a life you love.
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