How to squeeze an extra hour out of every day

How to squeeze an extra hour out of every day: Listen to the sound of the sea. Never multi-task. And don’t answer your phone! As we head back to the office, a new book on the habits of the super-successful shows us

  • Three friends quizzed 300 top business people including the founders of Spotify
  • They discovered how to banish time-wasting habits and improve productivity
  • It’s possible to reclaim almost half of your working hours by the end of the year  

Whisper it: as we trickle back to the office, many of us are starting to realise just how much time we waste there. If home working taught us anything, it’s that we really don’t need all those team meetings, that we get more done without the endless interruptions of the open-plan office and that answering the office landline is often a pointless exercise.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if you could reset your work‑life balance and spend more time with loved ones and less with your boss — just like you did during lockdown? If, instead of working 40 hours a week, you could do everything you needed to do, be just as effective (if not more so) and earn the same amount of money in a little more than half that time? That’s hours every week for you to spend in your garden. It’s afternoons spent with the children. It’s free time to plan next year’s holiday or a new business.

To us, three friends and colleagues (one venture capitalist, one app developer and one eco-clothing entrepreneur), this sounded like a very tempting idea indeed…

Will Declair, Bao Dinh and Jerome Dumont shared their advice for reclaiming 16 hours a week from the office (file image) 

But how? We asked the people who’ve already done it. In hundreds of hours of interviews, we quizzed 300 of the world’s top business people, including the founders of music app Spotify and the now-ubiquitous Zoom, to find out what they did to use every second out of their day and still leave time for themselves.

We gathered dozens of nudges, hacks and new perspectives to banish time-wasting habits, improve concentration and up productivity.

In total, we reckon their advice has the potential to reclaim 16 hours a week from the office. That means completing a 40-hour week in just 24.

By and large, these are tiny changes, so your gains might not seem significant at first. But the snowball effect of these small improvements will eventually make the difference.

If every week you make a change that saves just 1 per cent of your time, by the end of the year you will have reclaimed almost half of your working hours. So read on to revolutionise that work-life balance…

USE THE PIZZA RULE TO SAY NO TO MEETINGS

Here’s one of the most useful bits of advice we received: ‘If you’re not turning down at least 20 per cent of meetings, you’re not managing your time properly.’

For most employees, time wasted in meetings is a source of enormous frustration. So before you agree to a meeting, whether online or in person, ask yourself: ‘If I were sick, would this meeting be rescheduled?’ If the answer is no, then you’re not likely to have enough of an impact to make it worth your while.

Research shows the most productive people focus 100 per cent on what they are doing at a given moment (file image)

Decline the invitation by politely explaining that you don’t think you’d bring much to the table, but you’d like the minutes.

And if you’re hosting, follow the example of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who operates the Two Pizza Rule: if your meeting requires more than two pizzas to feed the group, there are too many people in it. In other words, keep the size to six maximum — four if you love pizza.

AVOID MULTI-TASKING TO BOOST PRODUCTIVITY

Alternating between tasks gives the illusion of productivity — you think you’re working full-speed ahead, responding quickly to a multitude of demands.

But multi-tasking is a big enemy of getting things done. This principle even has a name: Carlson’s Law, after the Swedish researcher Sune Carlson who theorised back in the 1950s that it takes less time and energy to complete a task in one go than if you stop and start.

Switching between tasks also diminishes your intellectual capacity. Professor and psychologist Glenn Wilson led a study that showed we risk losing the equivalent of ten IQ points if we’re interrupted while solving a problem. That interruption could be as simple as receiving an email. The most productive people focus 100 per cent on what they are doing at a given moment.

Will Declair, Bao Dinh and Jerome Dumont recommend doing tasks that will take you less than two minutes to complete immediately (file image) 

BEWARE OF THE ‘ZEIGARNIK EFFECT’

That’s the phenomenon, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, that says an unfinished task takes up more space in your brain than a completed one. It’s the reason that jumbled mental list of stuff you need to do each day clouds your mind and stops you concentrating.

The best solution is to write it down. You know all about written to-do lists, of course, but you’re almost certainly not using them to their full potential. The fact is, you should be using them obsessively.

The moment you agree to do something, write it down — no questions asked. Same goes for good ideas. Whether on a smartphone, a Post-it Note, or a piece of paper, it doesn’t matter. Systematically noting down each task also increases the likelihood of actually getting it done. One study showed that people who write down tasks (rather than just thinking about them) achieved, on average, 40 per cent more of their goals.

FOLLOW THE TWO-MINUTE RULE

David Allen, author of the bestselling Getting Things Done, came up with a powerful strategy he calls the Two-Minute Rule.

It’s simple: if a task on your to-do list will take you less than two minutes to complete, do it. Immediately. You’ll save yourself the time you’d have wasted re-reading it throughout the day or trying to squeeze it somewhere else into your schedule.

You’ll be surprised how many of our daily tasks actually take less than two minutes to complete.

WORK TO THE SOUND OF THE SEA

Research from the University of Chicago suggests a light distraction in your ambient environment benefits the creative process (file image)

Or the ambient chatter of a cafe, or a thunderstorm or birdsong, or any number of free soundscapes available online to help you concentrate. Noisli (noisli.com) is one of the best — with soundscapes designed to improve focus and productivity.

According to a study from the University of Chicago, a light distraction in your ambient environment actually benefits the creative process.

STOP ANSWERING THE PHONE TO ALL AND SUNDRY

Several entrepreneurs told us they tend not to answer the phone if they don’t recognise the caller, and many take it a step further by not answering the phone at all.

This makes sense in a way: most of the time, the person making the call is doing so because it’s convenient for them, though this is rarely the case for the person on the receiving end.

You probably should pick up if it’s your boss or an important client, but draw the line there.

Some of the people we spoke to suggested leaving a voicemail encouraging callers to send a text rather than leave a message, as in: ‘Hi, you’ve reached Sara. I don’t listen to my voicemail but send me a text and I’ll get back to you soon.’

PRACTISE THE ‘INBOX ZERO’ METHOD

This is a classic method for increasing productivity and the premise is simple: keeping your inbox empty keeps your mind calm.

Think of your inbox like your letterbox at home: when you pick up your letters from the doormat, you don’t leave a few — so why treat your inbox any differently? The best way to achieve this is by archiving your emails. That way, they stay invisible while remaining accessible via the search bar.

Our entrepreneurs also advised not to check your emails more than three times a day (for example at 10am, 2pm and 6pm). Most employees do it every 15 minutes! Think of it like laundry: you don’t wash clothes individually, you wait until you’ve got enough for a full load.

Will Declair, Bao Dinh and Jerome Dumont advise jogging 30 feet to motivate yourself (file image)

PUT THE BIG ROCKS IN THE JAR FIRST

Imagine you have an empty jar in front of you. Beside it, there are piles of rocks, pebbles and of sand. Your job is to fit as much into the jar as you can. Which order do you put them in?

In his bestselling book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses this metaphor to illustrate the way we tend to structure our work day.

The jar represents your day, the rocks represent the most important tasks you need to get done, the pebbles your secondary priorities and the grains of sand all those little to-dos that don’t provide much value. The best way to put them in is rocks first, pebbles second, sand last.

This is known elsewhere as The Rule Of Three. Before they start work each morning, top entrepreneurs focus instead on identifying the three most important tasks to complete that day — the big rocks.

JOG 30 FEET TO SPARK YOUR MOTIVATION

We tend to think that we need to be motivated to make something happen. Turns out, it’s the opposite: we need to make something happen to be motivated. If you want to motivate yourself to go for a run, jog 30 feet. If you want to motivate yourself to write a presentation, penning the first few words will alleviate empty-page anxiety.

The trio said it’s important not to feel guilty about taking a real lunch break or about scheduling some downtime between meetings (file image)

DON’T WORK WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO

Do not read work emails outside of office hours. If you read a work email on a Sunday, when you’re unable to do whatever is required straight away, you are feeding that cloud of intrusive thoughts with unfinished mental to-dos.

Leave your emails for Monday morning. If your colleagues want to work weekends, that’s up to them — but let them know that you won’t.

REMEMBER TO TAKE A PROPER BREAK

Charles Darwin divided his working day into just three 90-minute sessions; the rest of the time, he was out walking in the woods or reading. A break isn’t just time spent not working or being lazy, it’s fundamental for efficiency and creativity.

Don’t feel guilty about taking a real lunch break or about scheduling some downtime between meetings. One of the entrepreneurs we spoke to told us he draws a distinction between cerebral tasks that require deep focus — which he does at the start of the day — and jobs that don’t, which he leaves until later. If you’re really wiped, do what pilots do and take a power-nap.

DITCH 80 PER CENT OF YOUR WORK

Or: done is better than perfect. In the late 19th century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto came up with a rule that ‘80 per cent of the effects are produced by 20 per cent of the causes’.

Meaning that by concentrating most of our efforts on the 20 per cent of the work that really matters, we can achieve almost as much as if we spent five times longer on every detail.

You’ve effectively been given permission to put aside 80 per cent of your less-valuable to-dos in order to concentrate on the 20 per cent that make an impact.

For example, if you have to put together a presentation, focus on the one argument that will have the most impact on your audience and cut out the rest.

Accept that you don’t need it to be perfect; in reality, you just need to get the job done.

THE EXTRA HOUR, by Will Declair, Bao Dinh and Jerome Dumont, will be published by Virgin Books on August 20, £9.99. © Will Declair, Bao Dinh and Jerome Dumont, 2018. Translation copyright © Danielle Courtenay, 2018.

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