Struggling to get everything done during your work day?
You’re not alone. A few years back, I realised I needed to manage my time more efficiently. So I did what any business owner and copywriter would do (wouldn’t they?). I researched the virtually limitless number of time management strategies and productivity tips, tools and techniques out there.
Here’s the ones that got me most organised:
- Stop overestimating how busy your are
- Learn how to say no
- Do less
- Delegate more
- Eliminate distractions
- Diary your day differently
- Define the hours you work (and the ones you don’t)
- Structure your day
- Design your day more like this
- Track your time
In November 2016, I realised my time management strategies sucked (lemme know in the comments below if any of this sounds familiar)…
This year, you gained 8 pounds.
You skipped the gym more than you went.
You sat at your desk (or a desk in a hotel) almost every single day of the year. At least 360 days of it. And when you were at a desk, you were there for eight or ten – sometimes 14 – hours at a time. Even on Sundays. You published a tiny selection of posts.
You cancelled your vacation to Hawaii. “Too busy.” <– who does that?
You vividly remember the ONLY Sunday this year you sat in the backyard and read a book.
You published a tiny selection of posts.
You barely finished this post on time.
Few would disagree: you have become absolute shit at managing your time.
And it’s not like you don’t get suff done. You do.
You’re good at planning and executing and… well, you used to be good at focusing. But if we’re being honest: if you were focused, you’d have more to show for the year.
Yes, you got some good stuff done this year. You presented new talks at half a dozen conferences. You ran tests. You did good stuff – but you felt completely and totally slammed at every single turn. What do you have to really show for all the time you sat at your desk?
Not as much as you ought to.
It’s time to:
Stop overestimating how busy you are
Time management strategy #1 is about being honest with yourself.
Because as Laura Vanderkam wrote in her New York Times article on busy people who aren’t:
Professionals tend to overestimate work hours; we remember our busiest weeks as typical. This is partly because negative experiences stand out in the mind more than positive ones, and partly because we all like to see ourselves as hard-working.
You think you’re working your can off. You think there are simply no other hours in the day. But you’re wrong. One study found that people who estimate 75+ hour workweeks are off in their estimate by an average of 25 hours.
Let’s take that further and say this: even if you’re sitting at your desk for 75 hours a week, you’re probably not seeing 35 extra hours worth of productivity, versus a 40-hr week, are you?
It’s time to do more with your time and work fewer hours, Joanna.
Learn to say no
Time management strategy #2: It’s time to stop saying yes to everything.
Maybe you had to say yes to everything in the earlier years of Copyhackers. And you are almost certainly right – and, hell, even if you’re wrong about that (which you don’t think you are, and I’d have to agree), who cares about then? Let’s talk about now and going forward.
And let’s start by trying to be more like Warren Buffet in the way we manage our time:
“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
James Altucher (who nearly gave you a heart attack when he started following you on Twitter – yes, you’re calling that out because it was cool) adds:
“If something is not a ‘Hell Yeah!’ then it’s a no.”
“Designing your time each week only works if you have the right mind-set; it’s not only okay, but necessary to say no. The days simply aren’t long enough to do every task asked of you.”
I know what you’re thinking: how can I be sure I’m saying no to the things that deserve a no?
Let’s look back at the things that you’ve said yes to over the past few years and note whether they’ve paid off:
- Client work: Ugh! The pay off is there re: money and case studies. But you’ve gotta be way more realistic about what companies you can work with. Your minimum project is $60,000, and that’s just the way it is. It’s important to find a way to minimize the time wasting that happens when marketers that can’t afford you go through the back-and-forth of pretending they might find the budget. Verdict: Only say yes to the ones you’re instantly excited about and that can afford you.
- Being on podcasts: Most of the podcasts are now cancelled, their content gone. Verdict: Only say yes to the ones you’re instantly excited about.
- Speaking at in-person conferences: Some conferences have been spectacularly good for your life. Others have resulted in emails from people that can’t afford your services. And all of them require that you take a lot of time to create a great deck as well as take a few days away from productivity. Verdict: Only say yes to the ones you know will help you grow Airstory.
- Sitting on panels for online conferences: You get to meet or reconnect with cool people! And it’s nice to support other businesses. But has a single online panel turned into money or traffic or real brand awareness/ growth or anything that can make you say it was worth the time away from work? No. Verdict: Say no to all panels for online conferences that won’t help you grow Airstory.
- Running online training for other brands: I’ve done this for MarketingProfs, among others. I love MarketingProfs, but there was a lot of back-and-forth emailing and meeting that went into making the most recent training happen. The pay off? Not feeling like a jerk for saying no. Verdict: Say no to all online training for other brands.
- Training in-house teams: This happens so rarely that it’s not exactly worth entertaining anymore. Good money and good travel stuff, but you know you’re not satisfied by “money wins.” Verdict: Nah, no more.
So maybes for client work, podcasts and in-person conferences.
And nos for online conferences, online training for other brands and in-house training.
Okay. Good. Now you’re getting somewhere.
When you say yes to everything, you leave little time for the things YOU want to work on. Shouldn’t your ask of yourself come before someone else’s ask?
The answer is yes. It should.
You’re going to laugh at this one, but time management strategy #4 is about doing less.
As Jordan Bates explains, the idea of doing less is just about doing what matters:
Slow down, notice what needs to be done, and concentrate on those things. Do less things that create more value, rather than more things that are mostly empty.
I know, I know: you’d love to do less. It’s not like you WANT to be at your desk all the time…
…or do you?
Okay, instead of getting all passive-aggressive with you, let’s address this “do less” idea.
What could you do less of without negatively impacting your business, your advocates / fans and the people that work for you? You could try:
- Following up with your bookkeeper to see if you can offload all the accounting stuff, including payroll – why are you doing anything more in QB than running reports?
- Not exploring new ideas for products, services, calculators, quizzes, apps, events…
- Saying no to online summits, online events, in-house training and other
- Actually saying no to all new client work – you were inspired when Nathan Barry said, almost 2 years ago, that he wasn’t selling ebooks anymore because he wanted to focus on ConvertKit… so why not inspire yourself and just. say. no.
- Getting your VA to actually take over your inbox and calendar
That brings us to this nagging opportunity you just can’t seem to get your head around no matter how you try…
Author John C Maxwell sums up time management strategy #4 with this quote:
“If something can be done 80% as well by someone else, delegate!”
Lord knows you have tried your hardest to hire and outsource.
The hiring stuff… let’s not go there.
The outsourcing stuff has worked pretty well – even the times that haven’t gone great (e.g., hiring that dev on Upwork and learning, weeks later, that his “solution” when building and bug-fixing was to delete any code that conflicted with his, which resulted in the deletion of more than one fully functioning, entirely fundamental feature).
You can’t expect to delegate everything. But the stuff you’re not doing well should DEFINITELY be on the table for outsourcing / delegating. You’re not even 80% good at:
- Proactively reaching out to basically anyone
- Helping team members understand what they’re doing, um, inaccurately or un-good-ly
- Getting proposals to people
- Answering the second email — the first one, yes, but not the one that comes after they write back
And what’s worse: you don’t want to get better at those things. So why TF are you spending your already limited time on them?
You know what to do.
Today, distractions take a toll on everyone. So Joanna, time management strategy #5 is about focus. You’ve gotta stop reacting to everything like:
- Slack notifications
- Email checking
- The lure of a tab you haven’t clicked on in 15 mins (15 minutes!?!?! ermagerd!!)
- Fleeting thoughts that take you away from the task at hand
- Texting – especially when something’s loading on your computer, rendering your computer temporarily out of service, and you couldn’t POSSIBLY just SIT STILL AND WAIT for it to load
- Shoulder-tap-esque “can you look at this?” and “how’s that post going?” chats
- Vanity checks: new followers? new subscribers? new shares? new clicks?
You’re in constant Go Mode – and that manifests in small but harmful ways. For example, how many times this year have you signed up for a service only to have to wait for a confirmation email – and in that 2-second period between the thank-you page and your inbox, you pop into Twitter? Happens all the time. And you don’t even tweet anything! You just look. OMG, what a fucking waste of time! Sorry to swear at you, Jo, but fuuuuuuuuuck. What’re you, a squirrel? Do you run on instinct alone? Is your attention span that shitty?
If you’re being honest (instead of being easy on yourself), you’ve gotta make these changes:
- Turn off Slack desktop notifications <– won’t be easy
- Turn off Facebook desktop notifications <– won’t be easy
- Schedule when you’ll check your inbox <– won’t be easy
- Zero-in on times to take meetings in Calendly (so you own your calendar)
- Focus on one task at a time <– won’t be easy
- Stop using your browser tabs and inbox as a to-do list <– won’t be easy
- Figure out how to get Trello to speak to your calendar
- Figure out what your priorities really are (uuuuuugh) <– won’t be easy
You’ve gotta get each day under control.
If you don’t, you absolutely will lose your mind.
Do this with your diary
Time management strategy #6: diary your day differently. To stop what some designer at Google decided to do to turn your life into total hell:
As you know well, your calendar:
- Shapes your entire day, and
- Is broken up into half-hour segments.
But your day is not a series of hours or half-hours.
It’s a series of minutes.
According to author Kevin Kruse (referenced here), who interviewed the world’s most successful people about their time management, while most of us default to hour and half-hour blocks of time in our calendars, Olympic athletes and business leaders:
“know that there are 1,440 minutes in every day and that there is nothing more valuable than time. Money can be lost and made again, but time spent can never be reclaimed.”
Productivity consultant Jason Womack seconds the call to better action in fewer minutes. He’s found that:
“In 15-minutes of prepared, focused work, you can often get more done than in one hour of unprepared, unfocused work.”
So your goal is to think about your time in minutes.
Not hours. And not days.
Which means all of these minute-killers are what Bobby Boucher’s mama would describe as the devil:
- Hopping on a “quick call”
- Replying to an email with “thanks”
- Going into Slack when there’s no red dot (i.e., you’re not tagged)
- Scheduling a 30-min call when you’ll only talk for 15
Time to stop doing that stuff.
You’ve gotta think of your day minute by minute… and schedule everything accordingly:
Define the hours you work … and the ones you don’t
Time management strategy #7 is about deciding how many hours you should clock each day.
Some recommend that you work 40 hours a week or less – anything more than 40 hours brings diminishing returns. Others cap their week at 50 hours, with 9 or 10 hours of time clocked a day. Meanwhile, Basecamp’s Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson suggest we fire workaholics – they’re not the heroes TV makes them out to be. And that final point is especially important for you to keep in mind.
Other people aren’t looking out for YOUR calendar.
They’re not jackholes, of course. But they certainly don’t lose sleep when you pull an all-nighter.
You are your own happiness advocate.
You must protect your time.
There’s no reason to believe you should work more than 10 hours a day or 50 hours a week, so let’s start there. …At this point, Workaholic Jo is getting pretty antsy. And she should be. It’s time to fire her. We’re going to replace her with an efficient, focused version of you who works for just 10 hours ad day.
Ideally, those 10 hours will be consecutive. To reference DHH again, when you’re planning each day:
“Only plan for 4-5 hours of real work per day.”
This should make perfect sense to you. This summer, when you were so swamped this summer, it was because you were trying to get three or four big tasks done in a day – and each of those tasks would require two to three hours to complete. Even on the low end, you’re looking at committing six hours of your day to real work; on the high end, twelve hours. While still doing all the normal biz stuff that takes up your time:
- Emailing clients
- Planning blog posts
- Emailing your list
- Hiring people and contractors
- Training people and contractors
- Paying bills and entering them in QB
- Ignoring the bookkeeper when she emails you about the bank statements not reconciling
- Running 10x Freelance Copywriter sessions
You cannot do more than one medium-sized thing a day.
Structure your day
In the quest to solve my time management challenges, I’ve chipped away at reading a ton of posts over the last few weeks.
One of the biggest takeaways, hands down, is time management strategy #8: Some parts of your day are more precious. So allocate your hours – I mean minutes – wisely.
Mornings and early afternoons are best spent on creative tasks. That’s the time when your focus and logical reasoning peak and you’ve got more mental energy.
Mid-late afternoons and early evenings are for more reactive, repetitive tasks.
That means, it’s time to put meetings in their place (it’s in the afternoons). And while we’re at it let’s stop the meeting madness from now on by:
- Setting a default meeting time of 20 minutes <– too-long meetings are evil
- Making sure every meeting has an agenda <– agenda-free meetings are evil
- Not holding unnecessary meetings <– setting up a meeting when email would do is evil
So yeah. Fewer meetings. And in the afternoon only. Like so:
Here’s what else smart people say you need to get on stat…
Design your day
What if instead of managing your time… you designed it? Time strategy #9 makes your day instantly more interesting, right? Plus, it puts you in control: you’re the designer, not just the manager / coordinator. You’re the Jonny Ives of your day, not that passionless to-do-list slave you reported to a thousand years ago.
Thomas Davies, former Googler, recommends designing your day using quadrants, like so:
I start by dividing my work responsibilities into four quadrants:
- People development (managing my teams, coaching, mentoring)
- Business operations (data analysis, running sales meetings)
- Transactional tasks (one-off things like responding to an email or reviewing a budget)
- Representative tasks (serving as a face for the business, like having drinks with customers or speaking at conferences)
You can label your quadrants however you like, but remember: you only get four of them.
To illustrate, S N Phadke offered this illustration for his interpretation of Davies’ idea here:
The idea with the four-quadrant life is to plan everything that goes in your day, which is too often too quickly overtaken by emails, meetings and demands that seem urgent (i.e., they’re urgent to the person giving the command). It ends up feeling like there’s more to do in a day than there are minutes to do it in. And that leads to burnout.
So, what should go on the quadrants, Joanna?
It’s different for everyone.
Davies recommends this:
To figure out what [the quadrants] are, start by making a list of your normal tasks and responsibilities. Take a look at your calendar and review the meetings you attended in the last couple of weeks. Review your recent to-do lists and big projects from the past three months.
Then group all those recent and semi-recent tasks, big and small, into the four most obvious categories. Yours will be unique to your job, but a transactional quadrant, for instance, is useful for one-off tasks. When you do this, you’ll have a high-level view of all the things you could possibly spend your time on, which makes it easier to plan and balance all your day-to-day and week-to-week responsibilities.
Next year you need to do less, methinks. Or do more of one thing and less of a bunch of the other things.
But for now, here are the four quadrants:
- Business operations
- Transactional tasks
- Representative tasks
- Executional tasks
Some days Biz Op will be the biggest part of the day. During conference season, it’ll be representative tasks. During launches, it’ll be executional tasks. But to keep your sanity, you’ve gotta stop trying to do everything full-force all the time.
Davies adds that:
Not all tasks are created equal. One quadrant will probably have lower-value tasks relative to those in another – and that’s the point. You probably won’t spend an equal amount of time working on tasks in each quadrant. It isn’t about segmenting your day into neat 25% chunks – most jobs are too unpredictable for that. Instead, the key to using them effectively is to be mindful that if you focus on business impact and personal enjoyment, you can achieve great things while maintaining balance: You can design what you do, rather than just do what you need to.
You like this idea.
Start tracking your time
What’s that browser extension you installed to track your time?
Time management strategy #10: Rescue Time
Right, how’s that been working out for you?
Oh, you haven’t used it? I see. So you’re the kid that shows up without her homework done and is like, “How come I’m not learning anything?”
Joanna, how am I supposed to help you if you refuse to be helped? Rescue Time is installed. Now just go enable it. And then check it. …Done? Good.
Once Rescue Time helps you see what you’re pissing away your time on, you can prioritize your options, cut or reduce the time-wasters and ultimately estimate your time better. Why is that so important? Because you’re not working this Saturday because you spent the week watching cat videos. You’re working because you estimated your demands like a bonehead.
Naturally, estimating well is… tough. So here’s how to do it better than you’ve been. Expert Steve Pavlina uses something called the “fudge ratio” to figure out how far from accurate your time estimate for a task is. As Mihir Patkar explains:
Write down the list of tasks you have, or break big projects into smaller tasks, and assign how much time you’ll need for each. When you complete a task, write how much time it took you. When you’re done with all the tasks, add up the actual time and divide it by the total estimated time.
So let’s say you thought it would take you 10 hours to put together a deck for a webinar. You use Rescue Time to see how long you actually took, and you find out it was 18 hours. That means your fudge ratio is 18/10, or 1.8. You took 80% longer than estimated to complete the webinar deck. Any wonder you’re working all weekend?
The more frequently you calculate your fudge ratio, the better you’ll understand how far off you’re likely to be with your next estimate. You’ll have a strong average in place, and you can use that to correct yourself going forward.
So when you quote or create a new estimate, you can say, “Okay, I’m usually off by about 40% with my estimates.” And then add 40% to your estimate for the project in question.
Like that? I thought you might.
Time management strategies and tips are limitless, aren’t they?
You could waste days just trying to figure out how to stop wasting minutes.
The thing is, you already know that you’ve got a problem – and that, like most of the people on the plane, you’re distracted, Joanna, and prone to letting in the interruptions.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way, does it?
You’ve listed out some pretty solid next steps in this Note to Self. Now your challenge is to spend December getting your sh*t in order so you, y’know, actually make next year a better year.