By Kevin Gray for MensJournal.com
You can't change the number of hours in a day, but you can fill them more efficiently, with less stress and mental effort. You've likely heard this before, and perhaps your past efforts at time management have been, well, a waste of time. But most people's attempts to increase productivity get derailed by two virtues of modern living: technology and options. Today's onslaught of tech -- smartphones, iPads, search engines, social media -- is fragmenting our attention spans, gumming our mental gears with useless facts, and turning us into surface-level thinkers. At the same time, all the communication choices we have today -- email, IM, text, Skype or Gmail chat -- are thwarting efficiency. But we don't have to give up technology to regain control. "You need to set expectations of yourself and other people," says Daniel Markovitz, a blogger on time management for the Harvard Business Review. "You need to say, 'Here's the Bat Phone number. Use it if there's an emergency. Otherwise, leave me alone to do my job.'" Here, eight ways to manage time.
Finish simple tasks.
Always complete easy tasks, like reading a memo -- never switch between small projects. "The mind holds only about seven pieces of information at a time," says Carnegie Mellon psychologist David Creswell. "If you switch to other tasks, those pieces of information get scrambled and need to be relearned. It's a complete time waster." Bottom line: Don't try to do two simple tasks at once.
Break up complex tasks.
Complex tasks like building a budget differ from simple ones: You can complete them more quickly and efficiently by breaking them up. Creswell found people who had to complete challenging tasks did so more effectively when they took a two-minute break and worked on something completely different -- for example, doing a crossword when trying to finish your taxes. "Your brain is unconsciously processing information during distractor tasks, and it does a better job," he says. "Even a two-minute period of checking email can have a beneficial effect." But note he's not advising multitasking here -- always learn the contours of a problem thoroughly before distracting yourself with a menial task for a few minutes. Also, choose something completely different from your main project. "The more distinct it is, the better," he says.
Willpower is key to efficiency -- and just like the muscles in your body, if you exercise it more frequently, you can improve it. Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister found that making people perform simple willpower exercises -- like using their nondominant hand to open doors or brush their teeth -- strengthened their focus during more important tasks. "When you practice overriding habitual ways, you are exerting deliberate control over your actions," says Baumeister. "If you can get people to do willpower exercises like these, it will improve how well they manage their time and help them develop the willpower to make better decisions." Hone your willpower by breaking a routine like driving the same way to work or by giving up a bad habit like junk food for a week. Willpower gets depleted when you use it too much -- which is why judges and surgeons, who make decisions all day, begin to make generic or underinformed ones later on. Avoid making major decisions after a series of hard choices. When possible, make the toughest decisions when your willpower is strongest -- in the morning for most, says Baumeister. You can identify this time by experience, he says. Are you more likely to forgo a workout in the morning or afternoon? Do you get more done at work when you first get in or before you leave?
Develop Google discipline.
Gorging on all the data available today has made us a nation of distracted thinkers. How many times have you searched for an answer online only to find yourself wandering through a hyperlink forest, gobbling up factoids, switching from LinkedIn to Facebook to email? Research shows when people look for an answer on the Web, they visit too many sites when only one or two would do. Limit your searching to what you need for a project. Whenever possible, turn off all other technology, like email and your phone, when completing a project on your computer.
Keep a calendar, not a to-do list.
To-do lists are ineffective because they lack context: Research shows people leave the most difficult tasks undone at the end of the day. Instead, Markovitz advises laying out blocks of time for each task. "I tell people to have a healthy relationship with their calendars," he says. "How can you prioritize if you don't know how much time you have? You need to make mindful decisions about the finite amount of time you have to work." Blocking out time provides structure and gives you micro-deadlines to complete tasks. Leave a few empty spaces for inevitable crises and interruptions, and to make room for tasks that may take longer.
Pull, don't push.
Most of us are bombarded with emails, calls, and requests that don't necessarily need our attention that moment -- or even that day. "People push information on us when it's ready, not when we need it," says Markovitz. Instead, Markovitz suggests pulling information when needed rather than passively receiving it anytime. How to pull, not push? If a project is complicated and involves multiple people, talk about it instead of emailing. Don't constantly check and respond to emails – process messages in batches, like once every three hours. Create an email signature that says you don't have time to respond to everything, and if it's urgent, to call. The same goes for meetings: Do you really need to be there? "You need to set expectations," says Markovitz. "You need to slow down the avalanche of information coming at you."
Limit your choices.
While you can't change the number of decisions you make for your job, you can limit daily choices at home. For instance, President Obama wears only blue or gray suits to curb unnecessary decisions. He also uses "decision" memos with three check boxes: agree, disagree and discuss. "Too much choice is paralyzing," says Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia University business professor. "You walk into your office and a bazillion people will come at you from every side -- emails, calls, meetings. Ask yourself: Are you being proactive or just reacting? If you're reacting, then half the day goes by before you say, 'Wait a minute, what am I supposed to be working on?'" Establish routines that let you focus on what you need to do first.
Prep the night before.
While it's important to get a good night's sleep, the time just before bed is ideal for getting your thoughts together for the next day -- and not just because it lessens what you have to do tomorrow. Scans of sleeping people show our brains work on solving problems when we're not awake, so reviewing a little work before bed helps imprint on your brain exactly what needs to be solved. "We've all had that aha moment in the shower the next morning," says Creswell. "That's because you've let the unconscious mind operate organically on the imprinted information." But avoid overly stressful projects before bed, which may cause you to toss and turn with worry. And don't work on anything with a screen within an hour of bed: Studies show the blue light in screens can lead to fitful sleep.