32 ways to find time for what matters

Paul Boag

One of the most quoted barriers within organisations is a lack of time. But is that justified and if it is what can we do about it?

I tell my clients to do a lot of different things. From creating service manuals to educating colleagues and running usability testing. I also talk to my peers who run agencies about the need to blog or improve the customer experience. But whatever advice I give I get the same old excuse – “I don’t have time”.

I have little sympathy with this argument. We all have the same number of hours in the day. We are all under pressure from bosses or clients to deliver. But some seem to manage to do the important tasks, not just the urgent ones. Some find the time to be strategic, while others spend their whole time fire-fighting. So how do they do it? Well, here are 32 small changes you can make which will find you the time you need.

1. Skip meetings where possible

We all know meetings waste a huge amount of time. Avoid them where possible. One option is to write a short paper for the meeting outlining your thoughts. If people have questions they want you to answer, offer to document your answers in advance. Both approaches might help you avoid attending.

2. Group meetings

Don’t allow your meetings to happen throughout the day. This breaks up your productive time and destroys its effectiveness. Instead ask to reschedule meetings so they all happen together. If you cannot do that, at least have a couple of days a week where you don’t book meetings.

3. Avoid attending entire meetings

Often meetings cover many topics and not all will be relevant to you. Ask for an agenda and offer to attend only the parts for which you can provide value. If necessary say you have something that clashes and you can only attend part of the meeting. This isn’t a lie. You have your actual work that clashes with the meeting!

4. Make sure you schedule all meetings

Discourage people from dropping in for a chat. This kind of interruption destroys your flow. Instead get them to schedule your time in advance. This gives you control over when they happen. A tool like Calendly might help with this.

Calendly is a great tool for quickly scheduling meetings that would otherwise interupt your flow.
Calendly is a great tool for quickly scheduling meetings that would otherwise interupt your flow.

5. Have do not disturb times

Establish regular times in a day when you aren’t available to speak to. Put a sign on your desk making it clear that you aren’t available to chat. But do give times when you will be available again. It is surprising but most people will respect your desire to focus.

6. Wear headphones

If you want to focus, wear a pair of noise cancelling headphones. If you don’t like listening to music, put on some white noise. This will stop you getting sucked into office conversation. It is also the universal sign that you don’t want people interrupting you.

7. Work unsociable hours

If you can, start early and leave early. Or if you are a night owl, start late and leave late. This way you have at least a part of the day when fewer people are around to disturb you. You can use this time to work on what is important to you, without your boss looking over your shoulder.

8. Work from home

Where possible, work away from the office. Whether it is at home or in a coffee shop, getting away from colleagues will allow you to get much more done. It isn't as easy to interrupt you and you have more flexibility over what you work on when.

9. Don't multitask

We suck at it! Switching tasks is always a huge time suck. That is why meetings and email are one of the biggest productivity killers. Focus on one thing at a time and avoid distractions.

10. Avoid synchronous communication

Avoid realtime forms of communication such as instant messaging or telephone. These demand your attention and interrupt your flow. Let the phone go to voicemail and set instant messaging to busy. Then respond to them on your own schedule.

11. Close that email client

Don’t respond to email throughout the day. The more emails you send, the more email you will get. Instead respond to email three times a day. In the morning, at lunch and at the end of the day. In time cut this down to first and last thing. Rarely are emails so urgent that they need responding to straight away. If you do have emails like this then set up specific notifications just for these. That way you aren’t interrupted for less important emails.

12. Batch tasks

In the same way you should batch responding to email, you can do this with any type of task. Deal with all phone calls at the same time and do all your admin together. Jumping between different types of tasks is hard for us to adapt too. It undermines our efficiency.

13. Break down bigger tasks

Break tasks down as small as possible. This means you can utilise even the smallest gap of time to be productive. For example I wrote an outline for this post while waiting for my wife. The bigger the task, the harder it will be to find time to do it.

14. Set a time limit for everything

Many tasks grow to fill the available time. You can spend weeks agonising over a design if you have the opportunity. To avoid this set a limit on how long you will spend. Getting things done and moving on to the next thing is more important than perfection.

15. Take shortcuts with the unimportant

We are often given tasks that we consider unimportant. Don’t waste time doing them perfectly. Instead get them done as fast as possible and move on to something that actually matters. Just because you have to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it well!

16. Over estimate the unimportant

When estimating, always over estimate how long it will take to do the unimportant things. Equally, under estimate what actually matters. This encourages colleagues and management to focus on the right things. But it also allows you to invest the extra time from unimportant tasks in what actually matters.

17. Block out time in your calendar

Make use of your calendar! Many designers and developers only put meetings in their calendar. But this implies that only meetings matter. Instead put all your work in the calendar and block out time for your actual work. Meetings should fit around your work, not the other way around.

If your calendar only contains the occassional meeting it looks like people can book up your time whenever they want.
If your calendar only contains the occassional meeting it looks like people can book up your time whenever they want.

18. Present a reasoned no

Be willing to say no to work you consider unnecessary. But do so with a reasoned argument. Most of all have a consistent argument that you apply the same to everybody. For example take the time to write a policy about how you decide what you work on.

19. Say yes, but with consequences

When you cannot say no (for example to your boss) agree, but explain the consequences. Being confrontational with a boss rarely works. But explaining to them what will have to go on hold if you work on their project can help.

20. Delay the unimportant

When you have to work on something unimportant, delay by asking for more information. For example, ask colleagues to complete a briefing document before you start work. I have known more than one project to disappear because somebody asked for it on a whim.

21. Shift the workload

Where possible delegate. Give stakeholders in a project responsibility for certain deliverables (e.g. content). Don’t begin work until they deliver. They will often never deliver and the project will get dropped.

Also don’t struggle with a task that is not your area of expertise, ask for the help of a specialist. They will do it faster and free up some of your time.

22. Speak to your boss

Don’t presume your boss will be unreceptive to your suggestions. Many bosses appreciate employees who suggest improvements. But be ready to present a good argument and be willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. Start with suggestions that don't need extra investment but just need a bit of your time. Keep bigger projects until you have built some goodwill.

23. Ask for forgiveness not permission

Sometimes the best approach is to do what needs doing even if it is at the cost of other projects. You can always ask for forgiveness afterwards, while still achieving your aims. But remember, you can only get away with this once or twice so use this technique wisely.

24. Work to rule

If you have an hours lunch, take it. If you work 9-5pm, then stick to those hours. Then take the time you used to spend above and beyond that to focus on work projects that matter to you. Your boss can hardly complain as you are still putting in the extra hours at work. You are just focusing on your own agenda in your own time.

25. Collaborate on what matters

When you are working on something important, try and work on it side by side with other stakeholders. If possible go and sit with them. Things will move much faster if you can work on a project together. Email and meetings slow progress on important projects, so don’t rely on them.

26. Work in focused bursts

Setting aside big blocks of time is important. But remember that you cannot work for extended periods. Take regular breaks, between short intensive bursts of work. Consider using something like the Pomodoro technique to give you some structure.

27. Have a system and stick to it

Whether you are talking about filing, naming conventions or task management, have a system. You lose a surprising amount of time because you are badly organised. Time is often wasted trying to find information. You can forget some tasks completely if they are not all kept in the same place.

Have one place you hold all your tasks and stick to it.
Have one place you hold all your tasks and stick to it.

28. Automate where possible

If you find yourself doing the same thing several times, look to automate it. This might be pushing content live or sending the same email. There are loads of opportunities to take the manual labour out of so many tasks.

29. Find the right tools for the job

Take some time to find tools that make your job easier. You can waste so much time struggling with inappropriate software or ageing hardware. These are the tools of your trade and you need to invest in them.

30. Prepare for the next day

End each day by putting in place the things you need to start the following day at full speed. It only takes a few minutes to ensure everything will be at your fingertips the next morning.

31. Know your body

Remember you are not a machine. Your productivity will vary. Exercise and eat well. But most of all get to know when you are most productive. Design your schedule so that you can focus on important tasks in these times. For example I know I am most productive in the afternoon so I do email and meetings in the mornings.

32. Always keep moving forward

But the most important thing in this list is to always keep moving forward. Too many people fail to take action because they want things to be perfect. That or they fear the consequences of getting things wrong. Just making a decision and taking action is the most important thing you can do. Otherwise you can waste days procrastinating and reworking ideas. As Nike likes to say ‘Just Do It!’