The quickest way to work is with a long chunk of uninterrupted time. With several hours at your disposal, you have a chance at biting off a serious chunk of those important tasks. But how can you do this when you don’t have a big chunk of time? How do you stay productive when you never get more than a half hour before your schedule forces you to do something else?
There are two main types of work: projects and events. Projects, aside from a deadline, don’t have set times they must be worked on. I’m writing this article just before 1:00 pm, but that isn’t because my schedule said to “Write article at 12:30.” Events, however, have predetermined times they need to be completed. I can’t just decide to show up to a class three hours late and still expect to be taught.
How do you get project work done when your schedule is a minefield of events?
Ideally, if your life consists of mostly project-based work, you have complete control over how you organize your time. You can batch tasks, get up early and compress work to finish a days worth of work into just a few hours. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most people.
Working with small pieces of time instead of large chunks isn’t as easy. It’s easier to procrastinate in the thirty minutes between meetings than it is to waste a four hour period. Navigating a tight schedule forces you to quickly switch mental states, going from one type of task to another.
Here’s a few tips for staying productive when being scheduled to death:
- Morning Ritual. The best way to reclaim a large chunk of time is to reorganize when you are awake. Early morning hours usually won’t be filled with events, so you can squeeze extra project time at the start of each morning.
- Plan to Work. If you see an unused 15, 20 or 45 minutes in your schedule, plan to use it ahead of time. Working when you feel like it isn’t an effective strategy if your day is fragmented. By planning ahead you can save time that would otherwise be lost.
- Say No. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you need to commit to an event. Project work can often have a longer impact than going to unimportant meetings and events people expect you to attend. The easiest way to survive a fractured schedule is to not make one in the first place.
- Make the Important Work Louder. Carry around a to-do list for work on your major projects and include deadlines. I’ve found that watching my to-do list is a good way to remind myself of tasks that would otherwise be pushed aside.
- Nuke the Procrastination Temptations. When you only have twenty minutes between tasks, it is tempting to just let the time slip away. Unplug the internet, phone or whatever your vice happens to be when you’ve saved a few minutes.
- Don’t Close Your Work. If I’m working on a project when I need to go elsewhere, I don’t close any of the windows, books or devices I’m using. This way I’m immediately reminded of my project when I get back. (Although this isn’t a good idea in a public place where your valuables could be stolen or copied.)
- Declare a Project-Kill Day. Clear your schedule for one day of the week and use it to make headway on important projects. If you can’t take down an entire day, at least try to secure a whole morning to devote to your projects. If you don’t make the time, who will?
- Don’t Multitask. One temptation to deal with pre-planned events is to work on several things at once. Writing an e-mail when talking on the phone, trying to finish a report during a meal or squeezing in work where it doesn’t belong. Multitasking is dangerous because few people are good at it. Instead of doing two things in the time it takes to do one, you end up doing two things, poorly, in the time it would take to do four.
- Be Portable. Depending on the nature of your projects, you might not be able to carry them around with you. However, just about everyone can take a book or laptop with them to get minor work done outside their office.
- Find Your Sweet Spots. A “sweet spot” is the area on a golf club or baseball bat that produces the perfect distribution of force for the ideal hit. When your day is scattered, you need to determine the “sweet spots” in your schedule. This could be longer stretches of uninterrupted time, or times when you have more energy. Once you find these sweet spots you need to make sure they aren’t wasted by procrastination or unimportant tasks.