There are 86,400 seconds in a day, so why do we often go to sleep feeling anxious about not having achieved anything? Of course, you’ve just spent 30 of those seconds checking to see if the above figure is correct, while almost 30,000 more of them are spent sleeping (or trying to). If your daily commute takes an hour and you like to spend four hours each day just relaxing, that leaves you with about forty thousand seconds to get on with things. Assuming that work takes 8 hours out of that, there still remains more than ten thousand seconds to fill with the things that make your life better, or will in the future, meaning three hours to eat, study, dream and think.
Looking at it in these terms, twenty-four hours can seem like a lot, yet most days seem to fly by before you can say “productivity”. Four hours of pure relaxation almost seems like too much, while we can easily fit meals, shopping and arguing with strangers on the internet into three hours. The key to filling our days with achievement and actually enjoying those four hours of relaxation is not only about working harder, making lists or giving up the things we like, but instead lies in learning the habits of time efficiency. An interesting exercise is to keep a notebook in your pocket for a week and log what every ten-minute block is being spent on. Tallying up the results at the end of the week may be surprising: those phone calls you hate to make may only average a minute per day, while television probably eats more seconds than you imagined.
When we focus on a task, the information we need, where we are and what we’re aiming for all remain at the forefront of our minds. In this “zone”, it seems that problems can be solved with a flick of a mouse (or sidelined for later attention), we remember work we did years ago that happens to be applicable in this case, and we make progress as if sliding along ice. The moment this concentration is broken, we’re back to where we started, mentally, and regaining our prior motivation and laser-sharp attention takes several minutes even with our best efforts.
Most interruptions are not actually the result of legitimate breaks or the phone ringing, but rather self-induced. Bored with staring at this spreadsheet? Let’s check the inbox for the twentieth time today! Tired of reading? Time for some coffee, and making a fresh pot, and possibly a trip to the vending machine as well.
One innovative way of training ourselves not to hop out of our most productive mental zone is the Forest app. As you start it, a digital seed is planted and a tree starts to grow. If you touch your smartphone before a set period of time has passed, though, the tree dies and you feel a little like a murderer. Definitely recommended for those who have trouble staying off social media.
Spend less Time Waiting
There would be a Monty Python skit about standing in queues, if the amount of time lost to this inactivity weren’t such a tragic subject. While some time spent waiting for others is inevitable, making a habit of avoiding this loss will pay off hugely in the long run. Automating routine payments, visiting the post office once a week instead of daily, and asking for a call back rather than holding the line are all easy to do, yet people who aren’t aware of time never realize this. If you are spending too much time waiting in line, arrange to take your lunch break in the late afternoon and finally see what an empty bank branch looks like, or ask a cashier what times your favorite supermarket is least crowded.
Depending on your budget, a personal online assistant can help with doing things like answering routine email, searching for data on the internet and managing mundane but time-consuming tasks like data entry and collation. If this is not enough to free up sufficient time for you to actually have a life in, consider looking into concierge services for things such as buying groceries, picking up dry cleaning while the place is still open and walking the dog. While professional concierges (or “lifestyle managers”) can cost a fortune, many students, retirees and others are making ends meet by using their cars and their spare time to run errands for others.
Guard Your Free Time with a Flaming Sword
If you do not possess a flaming sword, roll up a magazine and use it to smack colleagues who phone you during the weekend with the words “I was just wondering”. You are obligated to be at work, thinking about work, during the time specified in your contract, but nobody ever established their personal happiness by slavish devotion to the interests of others. It is rarely a good idea to help others with their tasks before finishing your own.
The biggest enemy of productivity at work is not pointless meetings, slow internet or solitaire, but the time wasted by not knowing where to start on a project, browsing Facebook rather than getting on with an unpleasant task, making careless mistakes and other symptoms of fatigue and frustration. If you believe that how much you finish matters more than how much time you spend working on it, and that doing things right is better than doing them repeatedly, you will realize that stress and lack of personal time are not the symptoms of working hard, but of working badly.