The Real Difference Between Really Productive People and the Rest of Us

Good time management is all about making the right choices.
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Good time management is all about making the right choices.
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Even people who work long hours have downtime. There are 168 hours per week. Subtract fifty for work and commuting, fifty-six for sleep (eight hours x seven days), and you get sixty-two hours left over. Few people spend that much time on other have-to-dos such as child care and housekeeping.

So the time is there. The problem, as any busy person knows, is that much of this downtime appears in small chunks. You have ten minutes until dinner is finished. You have six minutes before the subway comes. In Brigid Schulte’s 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she described these chunks as “time confetti.” Like confetti itself, these bits can be copious and yet relatively useless.

Some gaps are inevitable. That’s OK. It is also OK not to spend each chunk in some über-productive fashion. But from studying hundreds of people’s schedules, I do believe that the difference between time-management masters and everyone else is the ability to use these gaps in a way that makes for a good balance between efficiency and calm.

The most productive people I’ve studied have been able to do that by making certain choices.

Create fewer gaps. Much time confetti appears as transition times between activities. Our brains naturally need time to switch gears, which is why multi-tasking doesn’t work well, and distractions are so brutal for productivity. One study found that people took just over twenty-three minutes to resume the original task after an interruption. In those gaps, people do a variety of things, which often aren’t really work in the sense of advancing toward professional goals. Think checking headlines or social media. This is, technically, leisure time. It just doesn’t feel like it.

One way to consciously create fewer gaps is by blocking out larger periods of time for projects, and staying off email and the web during these blocks. Easier said than done, of course, but working at home occasionally can limit colleague distractions. You can close the door, or seek out a quiet conference room. You can put your phone in airplane mode. You can schedule low-priority activities back-to-back, so you don’t have gaps to fill.

The practice of schedule cramming, though, must be handled with care. High-priority activities deserve some padding on each side so that you can prepare and review. Scheduling two job interviews back-to-back is just going to make you stressed during the first one about being late to the second one and probably isn’t worth it.

Become aware of them. Given that some gaps are inevitable, time-management masters think about what to do with them. A key part of that is knowing when they occur. Try tracking your time for a few days and noting which open spots happen predictably (waiting for a bus) and which are more variable (phone calls that start late).

Cross something off your list. We all have small, nagging tasks we never seem to get to. Start creating a running list that you keep on your phone or at your desk, and you can use bits of time to work through them. Order a friend’s birthday present far enough ahead of time to get free shipping. Make that dentist appointment. Write the overdue thank you note. All these feel better than just checking headlines (again).

Chip away at a big project. If you use most of your bits of time for the same thing, you can devote a great deal of time to something you might think you don’t have time to do. For the past two years, I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, in which thousands of people aim to write a 50,000-word novel in the thirty days of November. (Key point: It doesn’t have to be a good novel. It just has to be done!) I generally couldn’t carve out two uninterrupted hours daily to write each day’s 1,700 words, but by using ten-minute chunks here and there, I hit my word count. Not all creative activities lend themselves to bits of time, but knitting or cross-stitching work. Many people want to sink into novels for longer stretches, but you can use five- to ten-minute breaks to work your way through nonfiction books or longer articles, if you keep them handy.

Do something good for you. According to the CDC, only 20.9 percent of adults meet the agency’s recommendations for strength-training and aerobic exercise. Perhaps the assumption with strength-training is that you need weights and a gym and 90 minutes, but five to ten minutes of push-ups, plank poses, and the like work, too. Yoga sessions also don’t require huge chunks of time; YouTube is full of ten-minute routines. Even just walking for five minutes here and there instead of checking the phone can add up.

Don’t try to squeeze in too much. Of course, it’s quite possible to push bits of time far beyond their limits. You have five minutes until you need to be in the car, so you unload the dishwasher, but it takes you eight minutes, and now you’re late. While the research finds that men and women experience time stress at about the same rate, women tend to take on more responsibility for the house chores that must be done continuously (tidying or laundry vs. discrete tasks such as mowing the lawn), and they are more often responsible for transporting children, which makes getting out the door a multi-step process that is ripe for small gaps. Time-management masters develop a good sense of how long things take, so they don’t fall victim to this trap. A good rule of thumb: Things take five minutes longer than you think they will. Don’t cut it close.

Consciously chill. If you have a busy life, sometimes the best thing you can do is to not fill bits of time. Observe that they are happening. Don’t pick up your phone. Instead, use the time to daydream. Look out the window, or go outside and stare at the clouds. Meditate for a few minutes, breathing deeply and focusing on the air going in and out. Doing that makes down time feel like down time—which time-management masters know is the point.

Photo Credit: Alexa Fernando