Whether you are job searching, studying or working, time management and efficiency are always a challenge. In an excellent article on this topic, Eric Barker interviews Dan Ariely, a well-known Behavioural Economist and expert on irrationality, on his research into the mistakes we make when we try to manage our time.
Ariely points out that:
1) The World Is Working Against You
More than ever, we are faced with multiple challenges on our time: advertisements, shopping, chatting, and breaking news all just a notification away. Ariely compares them to thieves with plans to steal our time and attention:
It’s like we’re surrounded by scheming thieves: thieves of our time, thieves of our attention, thieves of our productivity.
Ariely compares these distractions to the tactics of a pickpocket:
“I have a friend who’s a magician and he pickpockets people in his show. He said when he started he used to tap people to distract them. He’d tap them, they would lose their concentration and he could take their watch. He said now he realizes that merely asking people questions is enough to make them lose the ability to focus.”
The bottom line is that if you don’t make a deliberate effort to eliminate distractions, your precious time will be lost.
2) Control Your Environment
How to eliminate distractions? Take control.
One of the big lessons from social science in the last 40 years is that environment matters. If you go to a buffet and the buffet is organized in one way, you will eat one thing. If it’s organized in a different way, you’ll eat different things.
Banish distractions and control your calendar. Research has shown that productive employees work in environments that have fewer distractions – More privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.[Ariely provides some tips for managing your calendar here: VIDEO: How to Better Manage Your Calendar]
3) Write more down
Ariely points out that most people don’t write down the things they need to do, despite the fact that once something is written down, it’s more likely to be acted on. Tools such as reminder apps on a mobile phone, notes, or post-its work well, however keeping a detailed calendar works best.
Scheduling items into a calendar does ensure that you make the time to get them done, rather than wait for an opportune moment. Schedule blocks of time for all key activities and make sure to focus on your real priorities.
4) Timing is everything
Confirming what we all should know by now, Ariely acknowledges that our productivity levels are not consistent throughout the day. His research suggests that
…it turns out that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning. Not immediately after waking, but if you get up at 7 you’ll be most productive from around from 8-10:30
This window of time is the one where the most important and productive tasks should be done. However, Ariely’s research has found that we often waste that valuable time attending to what’s right in front of us, like Facebook and Email. Scheduling important activities into that window of time might be an effective strategy, ensuring that the time is protected.
5) The biggest time wasters
Ariely’s research identified the 4 biggest time wasters:
- Meeting are often scheduled as a matter of routine rather than priority, and are often prioritized unnecessarily. Don’t work around your meetings – instead, schedule meetings around your work tasks.
- Email can be a major time waster. Set aside a limited block of time for picking up emails, and switch off email while you are focusing on priority activities in your calendar.
- The idea that multitasking is an efficient or productive behaviour has been widely challenged. Setting a schedule, sticking to it, putting aside the distractions and doing one thing at a time is a highly effective way to get things done.
- Ariely points out that we often engage in “structured procrastination” – wasting time getting the easy (often more fun) things done first, with the hope that it will help motivate us to focus on those tasks that demand “deep work”.
So making to-do lists and crossing them off is an example of this. Because those things are easily measurable, they make us feel as if we’re achieving things. But real achievements take time. Progress is not always linear. Big projects aren’t always immediately rewarding. Things that are really complex don’t give us the same sense of momentary enjoyment but those are the things that give us the real sense of achievement and progress once we get to them. But I don’t think we get to them enough.”
6) Don’t consider email a break
Ariely suggests that:
People think that checking email refreshes them. It doesn’t. If you want to get refreshed, close your eyes, meditate, breathe deeply, or think about some things that are important. The reality is the right way to do things is shut your email down and focus on what you’re doing.
- Keep an up-to-date calendar with your priorities scheduled in.
- Focus on your important tasks in the morning, when you are most focused.
- Work on one task at a time.
- Keep distractions away, including email, which you should check only at specific times.