Make It Happen

9 Radical Time-Management Experiments That Can Improve Your Life

If you want to gain back control of your time, here’s what you need to do.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 
Middle aged man working at computer with two kids on his lap

Let’s calibrate expectations, right here, at the top. You’re probably not going to wake up at 4 and be done meditating, exercising, and journaling by 8. Sorry. That’s just not realistic for you or most people, let alone parents. Reading about these time-management techniques won’t transform you into someone who is.

Now that we have that out of the way: let’s talk about time. You’re probably wasting a lot of it. We all do. Modern technology makes it difficult for humans to stay focused on a single track for long. The moment that we set a priority, we unconsciously reach for our phones or open a browser tab because we were beckoned by an alert or because we’re acting without thought.

Luckily, it’s possible to reclaim the time lost to devices and other distractions with creativity and conscious effort. California time management coach Alexis Haselberger, whose clients include tech giants like Google and Lyft, says that while trying to wring maximum productivity out of every second usually results in disappointment and burn-out, making wise use of our limited time can lead to not just more productivity but also personal fulfillment. “At the end of every day, we should feel like the things we did today were more important than the things that we didn't do,” she says

We asked Haselberger and other productivity experts for out-of-the-box time management tips for, their advice ranged from physically separating yourself from time-consuming devices to taking the time you need to recharge. Here’s what they recommended.

1. Turn off Notifications… Forever

Our devices ding at us all day with news out emails, texts, news, social media activity and more. Over time, it saps our ability to drive our own agendas and set our own priorities. “When we are reactive all of the time, it’s easy to let the day happen to you,” says Haselberger. “You wake up, check your messages, respond to them, then try to get things done. Then it's 6 p.m. and you've been working hard all day but haven't crossed a single thing off your to-do list.”

That’s why she recommends turning off nearly all device alerts aside from meeting notifications that help us meet obligations we’ve made to other people. Don’t worry about missing anything urgent without notifications. If someone really needs our immediate attention they’ll call. “Nobody relies on written communication in an emergency,” Haselberger says, adding: “I've never had somebody turn all their notifications back on afterwards.”

2. Set Timers Tuned To Your Attention Span

The Pomodoro time management system encourages people to focus on a single task by setting explicit time limits for how long you work. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and gets its name from the distinctive tomato-like timers used by the technique’s inventor Francesco Cirillo.

Cirillo advocated for 25-minute bursts of timed work but Haselberger notes that you don’t have to be locked into 25 minutes if that time isn’t right for you or the task.

“Not that many people can break their whole day into 25 minute chunks,” she says. Instead, she advises matching the time period to your attention span. “If you have a 45 minute detention span, then why are you breaking it up in the middle of that,” she asks. “Or if you have a 10 minute attention span, why are you trying to double down on that if that's just gonna be wasted effort?”

3. Gamify Everything

The challenge of trying to beat the clock can add welcome intensity and drama to otherwise boring tasks. Setting a timer and rushing to finish writing an email or folding laundry before the alarm goes off can be an effective way to pick up our pace and avoid drifting into time wasting distractions.

“Many things can help us think of something as a little game,” Haselberger says. “If I have 15 minutes, how many emails can I get through? Can I get through more than I got through the last time I had 15 minutes?” Even if the timer goes off before you’re done, you will win, as the 15 minutes you spent working without interruption almost certainly puts you in a better position than before you started.

4. Batch Tasking

Jumping between different types of labor costs more time and effort than most of us suspect, with research suggesting it takes 25 minutes for people to acclimate to a new task. Batch tasking, where people engineer their schedule to group similar tasks together, could get that time back. When your job expects you to be on call all the time, creating a batch task schedule can be challenging but it can be possible with creativity.

Texas business consultant Danielle Langton says some of her clients have been able to get their days with phone calls/Zoom calls down to two days a week. “They set boundaries around the time they were willing to schedule calls,” Langton says. “It leaves the non-call days open for completely different tasks.”

5. Body Doubling

Body doubling involves having another person working alongside you, either in person or virtually, who keeps you accountable and on-task. It’s often recommended for people diagnosed with ADHD and struggle with executive function, the mental processes behind planning, attention, memory and multitasking. Ideally, your accountability partner acts like a chill but still stern overseer who stays perched over your shoulder to make sure you aren't getting too off track while making the work more pleasant through their company. “It may be a helpful productivity strategy for anyone who struggles with initiating and completing tasks,” California therapist Noemi Fernandez says.

6. Make Distractions Inconvenient

When you pick up your phone, at least half a dozen extremely effective means of distraction appear under your thumb. Cell phone use can eat up huge chunks of your work day if you let them. Haselberger recommends grouping apps like TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter into a folder labeled “time sucks” that’s as many swipes away from the phone’s home screen as possible.

“You can still get to that stuff, but you have got to type in Instagram or swipe to it and locate it in a folder,” she says. And then you put it down and realize you didn't do the thing I intended to do when I picked up my phone. Sometimes just having a little bit of friction is really helpful to make a decision.

7. Sentence Your Phone to Jail

With cell phones, sometimes it’s not just a few bad apps causing the problem. Even if you curate your apps with extreme care, you still can’t trust yourself with a phone. Haselberger says that several of her clients use timed locked containers to keep themselves from accessing their phones while they work. The technique works because locking the phone away completely removes the temptation to pick up the phone. “It is much easier for humans to remove temptation than it is to resist it,” Haselberger says.

8. Wager on Whether You’ll Finish

For some, knowing you need to do something and that you’ll benefit by doing that thing isn’t enough incentive. Sometimes social approval or money needs to be on the line for it to feel real. Apps like Stickk allow people to wager money on completing tasks in time. Get it done and you win. If you didn’t cross the finish line, you pay. Or, if you don’t want to bet money, designate a friend as an accountability partner to track your progress and give you push-back when you slack off or don’t follow through. “I would never do this personally, but it's effective for some people who are indebted to external expectations,” Haselberger says.

9. Prioritize Rest

When we’re busy and overwhelmed, sleep usually becomes a casualty because we need to devote all of our waking hours to the task we need to complete. But, Langton notes, working less and resting more is often a better use of our time than round the clock marathon work sessions.

“It might sound counterintuitive, but for some people, working less actually helps them be more effective,” she says. “From time to time, I ask my clients if they’re prioritizing sleep, movement, and rest so that they can be super effective and efficient during their work hours.”

While the need for sleep varies, research shows that people are generally far more productive when they’re well rested. “Your brain needs sleep and when it doesn't have it, you’re more careless and more distractible,” Haselberger says. Whatever you’re looking to do, that’s just sound advice.

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