It's 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and despite facing several critical deadlines, all you want to do is take a three-hour nap. We all know that proper sleep, diet and exercise helps us better forge through the workweek. Same goes for practicing mindfulness, ignoring social media and building vacations into our calendar. But often that's not enough.
Luckily there's more you can do to work as productively as possible and maintain a balanced life outside work. Following are seven suggestions for mastering your schedule:
1. Chart your energy peaks and valleys. Do this for at least two workweeks, right down to the half-hour. Schedule the concentration-heavy work around the peaks and the lighter tasks (or better yet, screen breaks) around the valleys. For many people this will mean doing creative, billable work like writing, designing and software development from morning until early or mid-afternoon and saving correspondence and administrative tasks like invoicing and finalizing contracts for later in the day. “When I make the most of my highest-energy, super-creative time, from about 6 a.m. to noon, I can move editorial mountains," says writer and editor Jill Rothenberg. “It's when I do my best writing, whether on a story of my own or for clients."
2. Put technology to work. If you have yet to automate the administrative tasks you find yourself repeatedly performing each week, you're missing a prime time-saving opportunity. Meeting bookers like Calendly and YouCanBookMe eliminate emailing back and forth about schedules. Invoicing tools like FreshBooks and PayPal's invoice template simplify invoicing, payment tracking and sending reminders about unpaid accounts. Task managers like Any.do and Things make it easy to create, revise and prioritize to-do lists as priorities fluctuate during the week.
3. Track your time. Ever look at the clock at 4 p.m. and wonder where the day went? Time trackers like Timely and Harvest can fix that. If recording how long you spend on each project and task shows you've only been productive half the workday, you have some distractions to eliminate. These apps also make it easy to record your hours for clients that pay by the hour. Plus, having an accurate measurement of how long each task or phase of a project took will help you better estimate your time on future projects, which will help you make more accurate bids. “I spent many years just guessing how much time I had put into a project," says graphic designer and photographer Erik Bell. “Time tracking has been a huge help."
4. Hack your inbox. If you're still trying to file each client email you receive in the proper folder or -- shudder -- concerned with getting to Inbox Zero, you're wasting precious time you could spend on billable work. Bell happily gave up email folders for Google's Inbox app and never looked back. Now, he says, “I just have a range of tags that I'll apply to emails before I archive them. They're easy to recall at any time as a bundle or by doing a quick search. Also junk, promos and other categories of emails get automatically sorted." And don't forget Unroll.me, the app that helps fight the inbox madness by swiftly unsubscribing you from all the email you never wanted clogging your inbox in the first place.
5. Ace working from anywhere. We all have chunks of time during the week when we're stuck waiting, whether at the mechanic, the doctor's office or the carpool pickup lane. Aimlessly scrolling through Instagram is not the best use of this time. Chipping away at that client presentation or project proposal is a much better use of your time. “I had to go to the DMV twice this week," says Margaret Meg Littman, writer, editor, and owner of Nashville Paddle Co., a stand-up paddleboard company. “Each time, laptop on lap, editing articles."
6. Measure productivity in output, not hours. If you're like most, your ability to focus flags with your energy during the day, often two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through. Thinking you can get more done by extending the workday from 8 or 9 hours to 11 or 12 hours is a fallacy. Chances are you'll spend those extra hours working at a snail's pace, making mistakes, or worse, goofing off entirely. Don't believe it? Use a time-tracking app for two weeks and see for yourself. After a certain amount of time, you can't crank out any more copy, illustrations or web pages. Know when it's time to call it a day and start fresh the next one.
7. Treat downtime like it's your business. Dinners with friends and family, appointments with yourself at the yoga studio, tickets to your favorite band -- all this should be non-negotiable, same as that client meeting you would never dream of missing on Monday morning. Change the mentality that you can always show up late, cancel personal plans or skimp on exercise, sleep or eating right because work got too crazy. Treat your health and personal time like it's your job, so you stay refreshed on the job. That said, pay attention to how many nights on the town you can reasonably wedge into the workweek. Indulging in downtime should make your feel more balanced, not more harried.
You may think you don't have time to load a new tool or change your ways of working. But the small amount of time you invest to tweak your methods could save you several hours each week or month. And that's time you can use to recharge for your next big project.