By Audrey Noble
“There isn’t enough time in the day” is a phrase people think and say all too often.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that productivity climbs each year—labor productivity increased 2.9% during the second quarter of 2018—we as humans can still be easily distracted, thanks in large part to our affinity for tech gadgets, social media and the fast-paced nature of our daily lives.
Still, it is possible to get through that daunting to-do list without losing your mind, and experts say the secret to reaching peak productivity is to change the way you define and look at time.
“Time is actually not intangible; it is concrete and measurable,” says Julie Morgenstern, organizing and productivity consultant and author of Time to Parent. “You can compare [organizing time] to organizing a closet. There’s a limited amount of space that is oftentimes crammed with way too much stuff that you can possibly fit.”
The goal shouldn’t be trying to accomplish every single thing we put on a to-do list, says Morgenstern. Instead, it should be about doing the least amount of tasks to create the most impact in achieving our set goals.
And it turns out, many of us are thinking about efficiency in the wrong way. “Productivity isn’t about how many things you checked off your list or how many hours you worked,” says Laura Stack, productivity speaker and founder and CEO of Leadership USA. “Productivity is about the results you were able to achieve in the time you spent.”
Whether you’re the quintessential procrastinator or boast a high level of efficiency, here, experts share must-do hacks to boost your productivity.
Create buckets of responsibilities
Experts say that organizing your responsibilities in a digestible way can instantly make you more productive. Morgenstern suggests organizing tasks by making categories to weed out the ones that aren’t urgent. “If you’re a writer, your responsibilities probably include ideating stories, researching, writing, editing, interviewing,” she says. “Everyone has three to five buckets. You have to make it simpler. The brain can’t keep track of more than that.”
Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, says you can broaden those categories. “Think through the upcoming week, and make a short, three-category priority list: career, relationships, self. Making a three-category list reminds you to put something in all three categories,” she says. “Doing this will massively increase the chances of a productive week.”
Make a schedule
“I think more time is lost to uncertainty,” says Vanderkam. “People don’t think about what they should be doing with their time, and so they just react to whatever comes in. You can get a lot more done in a lot fewer hours if you put some thought into planning your schedule.”
Making a schedule for all of your tasks is key to accomplishing more in a specific time frame, according to Stack. “Study your work requirements closely; triage your to-do lists; handle time wasters; and decide to do only what really matters,” says Stack. She adds that you should assign specific time slots for tasks, say no when appropriate and make decisions quickly.
And all of your to-dos should be incorporated into your schedule as opposed to just being jotted down in a list, according to Morgenstern. “A ‘to-do’ not connected to a ‘when’ rarely gets done,” she says. “A ‘to-do’ requires a certain amount of time in your day. If it’s just sitting on a list and you’re just waiting for time to materialize, it’s not going to.”
Practice ‘selective perfection’
Morgenstern urges clients to eradicate the notion of overall perfection. Rather, people should be more selective about which tasks they want to refine the most, and spend the majority of their time on those efforts. To do that, Morgenstern created a technique called “Max, Mod, Min.” Before starting a task, Morgenstern suggests writing out the maximum you can do for that task, the minimum and the moderate (a combination of the maximum and minimum).
“The idea is to identify concretely how much time each level of performance is going to take. It will also draw out the subconscious plan of what you were thinking of doing to accomplish this task,” she says. “Then you choose the level that is appropriate for this assignment at this moment of time in comparison to everything else that is on your plate.” This will provide perspective on how much time and effort you will actually need to put in.
Manage your capacity
Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking can sometimes result in even more wasted time. Stack stresses the importance of focusing—determine which task is the most important to get done that day and work down the line from there in order of priority.
She also suggests evaluating realistically what you can physically and mentally take on. “Focus on the physical factors affecting your energy,” she says. “Manage sleep, diet, exercise, and your own happiness.”
And if you’re worried something is taking more time than it should, instead of doubling up on tasks, Vanderkam says to track how long it takes for you to complete each task for a week. That way, you can see where your time is being spent the most and adjust accordingly to make space for the things that are most important.
Correction: Sept. 26 The original version of this story misstated the name of Laura Stack. Her name is Laura, not Lara.