How much spare time do you have in your day?
If you said none, you are like many busy people.
You would also be wrong, almost certainly.
If you find yourself struggling to get everything done during your day and wishing you have more time, do this exercise for a week.
Make a daily planner with fifteen-minute increments. You can create one easily in Excel or find one online. Fifteen minutes may seem like too small an increment but bear with me. Depending on the type of tasks you perform, you may need to go even more granular, but certainly not less.
Five-minute increments would not be unreasonable for this exercise. You may find after a day that fifteen minutes is too large a gap.
If you are good at Excel, that would be the best option as there will be calculations later on.
You can make it for twenty-four hours, block out your sleep time, or just use your waking hours, or restrict it to your workday. If you are like many busy people, your ‘work’ hours are somewhat fluid, so having more hours on the calendar is better than less. Print out five or seven of these, depending on whether you want to include weekends.
However you set it up, use it. Starting tomorrow, first thing, fill in every blank on the sheet with what you are doing. Be as specific and detailed as possible. Half measures will get you nowhere. Be honest with yourself. If you take a short walk but are thinking about the project you are working on, it’s still a walk. Put that down.
At the end of the week, take each day and separate everything into three categories. You could use different color highlighters if you did it on paper or a simple formula in Excel. The three categories are:
- Non-Work Essential
- Spare Time
The second category probably needs some explanation. This would include your commute if you are using your full day. It would also include meals and restroom breaks. Things that aren’t work, but you can’t, or shouldn’t skip. Coffee breaks and the like are up to your discretion. If you feel they are essential parts of your day, put them in the second category; otherwise, they are spare time. When I did this exercise, I put two short breaks in category two and the rest in spare time. However you do it, you still need breaks. Take them.
Now, drum roll, please, add up the spare time for each day and total it for the week.
Wow. You really goofed off, didn’t you? Just kidding. But the point is, there are a lot of empty minutes in your day. Time that could be filled by being more productive.
Before we get into the specifics of how this would work, let’s take a little side trip. By no means do I mean that you should hit the ground running in the morning and go non-stop until you hit the bed. Rather, what I am trying to get you to see is that you may feel like your day is like that, but it’s not in reality. You have a lot more spare time than you think.
You just need to use it better.
So, let’s do that.
Remember the old science experiment from fifth grade with the jar full of marbles you filled with water? If not, I’ll refresh your memory. It went something like this. The teacher filled up a jar with very large marbles and then filled the jar with water. The water was then poured out and measured. You used smaller and smaller marbles until you ended up with BBs.
The original point of the experiment was that the water volume was the same because even though the marbles were larger, so was the space between them. But the experiment also showed something useful to us in this research. With the large marbles, the water was separated all through the jar. This is your day now. With the BBs, all the water was together, so there appeared to be more of it.
That’s what we are going to do now.
Go back to your daily schedules and lay them out side by side. Look for repeating patterns. Look for things that you do multiple times during the day that could be consolidated. Checking email is by far the number one violater in this category. Do you spend five minutes each hour checking email? Five minutes every half hour?
Don’t do that.
The ideal would be three times a day, first thing, at lunchtime, and last thing. If that gives you the twitches, add in two more at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. More than that is wasting time. It probably still only takes you five minutes, but you are doing it much less. Those saved five minutes could add up to an extra half hour or more a day.
And we are just getting started.
The other side effect of checking emails too often is it sets up wrong expectations with your co-workers. If you always respond to every email immediately, they will expect that. Retrain them. Reset their expectations.
Where I worked, there was a woman in the next office. Several times a day, it went like this. I would hear her clattering on her keyboard. Then silence for five seconds. Then she would appear at my door. “Did you get my email?” It took months of saying, “No, I’ll check it in a bit,” to train her. She knew that I wouldn’t stop what I was doing to read her email, but she also knew that I would get to it soon and get back to her. Those interruptions eventually stopped.
There are probably several other similar tasks that you do more often than you need to. Consolidate. Free up some time. Or at least, move the free time together. Use BBs instead of marbles.
Next, look at things you do every day by rote. Things you do every day because you do them every day. Is there something you don’t need to do? Or at least not every day. What would happen if you didn’t do that thing today? What is the worst-case scenario? Are there things you could do every other day, or once a week? Or not at all?
Finally, look at all of the things that take up the least amount of time. Everything that gets completed in fifteen minutes or less. If you used five-minute increments, how many things do you have that only took five minutes. Take a look at everything in that category. Could they all be done at the same time? Or in two periods, morning and afternoon?
It takes not only mental energy but time to move from task to task. It takes time to ramp up to something new and time to put it away. Save that time for the larger projects. If you cram all those five-minute tasks together, I guarantee you the total time spent will be less than you are spending today.
Now, re-do that experiment for another week with your new practices in place. How much extra spare time do you have?
By simply rearranging and consolidating your work time, you will significantly increase your spare time, which in turn will boost your productivity.