In the spirit of the topic let’s get right to it:
1. Eliminate one ego commitment.
We all do things that have more to do with ego than results. Maybe you serve on a committee because you like how it looks on your resume. Maybe you teach at a local college because you like the words “adjunct professor.”
(Or maybe, like me, you write a weekly column for your local newspaper mostly because you like when people recognize you at the grocery store.)
The things you do mostly for ego are mostly a waste of time. Think about something you do mainly because it makes you look important, smart, or cool. If it provides no other “value,” drop it.
Anything you do that serves the greater glory of you is a waste of time; besides, the best glory is always reflected, not projected.
2. Create a happy shelf.
I had a shelf full of old Photoshop books. I hadn’t opened them in years so I replaced them with family photos.
Makes me happy. When I’m happy, I do better work. You will too.
3. Stop looking for that (meaningless) extra 10 percent.
I’m somewhat competitive. When I start to do something, within a short period of time I start wanting to do it better than other people.
(Okay, I’m overly competitive.)
Take cycling. I’m faster, fitter, etc. than the average person. But compared to the fast guys, I’m nothing. They can drop me within a few miles. Drives me crazy. Makes me ride more and train more and spend tons of hours on a bike—and for what? So I can hang with them for a couple more miles? So my time up a certain mountain is only 30 percent slower than theirs instead of 40 percent?
That kind of improvement has no real importance. Sure, I may get in a little better shape, but at that point the improvement to my overall health is incremental at best. And in the meantime I spend hours on cycling that I could spend on working towards more important goals. Or I could just spend more time with my family, the most important goal of all.
So this year I’ve stayed in good shape but I don’t worry about working to keep up with the fast guys: One, I never will, and two—it really doesn’t matter if I do.
Think about something you already do well but are trying hard to do even better. Then weigh the input with the outcome.
Sometimes “good” truly is good enough, especially if that 10 percent gain is hugely disproportionate to the pain required to reach it.
4. Rehearse how you’ll say no.
It’s important to know, with grace and tact, how to say no.
Most of us default to “yes” because we don’t want to seem rude or unfriendly or unhelpful. Unfortunately, that also means we default to taking on more than we want or can handle.
Maybe your response will be as simple as what I plan to use, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time.”
Whatever you decide to say, rehearse so it comes naturally. That way you won’t say yes simply because you think you should; you’ll say yes because you think it’s right for you.
5. Eliminate one “fun” commitment.
I played fantasy Premier League soccer. When I thought about it, though, I had no idea why. I could rationalize that it created a nice break. I could rationalize it was like a “mental health” activity that let me step aside from the stress and strain of business life. I could have, but that wasn’t true.
I just did it because I had always done it, and once I started every year I didn’t want to quit because, um, I’m not a quitter. (I know that sounds stupid, but I’m willing to bet you do at least one thing for the same reasons.)
Look at the things you do because you’ve always done them and decide if it’s time to stop. Here’s an easy test: If you wouldn’t do something while you were on vacation, there’s no good reason to do it when you’re not.
6. Set limits.
Deadlines and time frames establish parameters, but typically not in a good way. We instinctively adjust our effort so our activities take whatever time we let them take.
Tasks should only take as long as they need to take—or as long as you decide they should take.
Try this: Decide you’ll only spend 10 minutes a day on social media. Just 10.
The first day you’ll get frustrated because you won’t get everything done you “need” to get done. The second day you’ll instinctively skip a few feeds because they’re not as important. The third day you’ll re-prioritize and maybe use a tool like HootSuite to get better organized.
By the fifth day you’ll realize 10 minutes is plenty of time to do what you need to do; all that other time you used to spend was just fluff.
Pick a task, set a time limit, and stick to that time limit. Necessity, even artificial necessity, is the mother of creativity. I promise you’ll figure out how to make it work.
7. Rework your nighttime routine.
Every day the first thing you do is the most important thing you will do: It sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Prepare for it the night before. Make a list. Make a few notes. Review information. Prime yourself to hit the ground at an all-out sprint the next day; a body in super-fast motion tends to stay in super-fast motion.
8. Rework your morning routine.
Then make sure you can get to that task as smoothly as possible. Pretend you’re an Olympic sprinter and your morning routine is like the warm-up for a race. Don’t dawdle, don’t ease your way into your morning, and don’t make sure you get some “me” time (hey, sleep time is me time). Get up, clean up, fuel up—and start rolling.
My elapsed time from bed to desk is about 15 minutes so there’s not much I can improve there. So I started taking a different approach. I once checked email first thing; now I get at least one important thing done.
Sprinters don’t do cool-down laps before they race. Neither should we.
9. Refine one repetitive task.
Think of a task you do on a regular basis.
Now deconstruct it. Make it faster. Or improve the quality. Pick something you do that has become automatic and actively work to make it better.
Even if you only save five minutes, that’s five minutes every time.
10. Eat one meal differently.
Eating can take up a lot of time, especially if you eat out. Deciding where to eat, what to eat, driving and ordering and waiting and lingering… ugh.
Pick one meal to eat efficiently. Turn 30 to 60 minutes of dead time into 10 minutes of refueling and recharging. Bring something healthy you can eat at your desk, like tuna and a salad or fruit. Or eat a meal replacement bar. Use that meal to fuel up in a healthy way. Then move instantly on to doing something productive.
You’ll feel better. And you’ll get more done.
11. Outsource one task.
I was raised to think that any job I could do myself was a job I should do myself.
Then I realized the kid down the street could cut my grass. He could use the money. I could use the time.
12. Fix that one thing you tend to screw up.
I’m terrible about putting meetings and phone calls on my calendar. I figure I’ll get to it later… and then I never do. Then I spend way too much time, often in a panic, trying to figure out when and where and who…
All that time is wasted time. So I committed to a process, not a goal: I immediately enter every appointment into my calendar the moment I make it — regardless of what else I might be doing.
You probably have at least one thing you tend to mess up. My wife often misplaces her car keys, and when she does she (and I) spend too much time (because any time is too much) looking for them.
Maybe you don’t file stuff properly. Maybe you put off dealing with certain emails and then forget them. Maybe you regularly find you’re unprepared for a call or meeting.
Whatever your “thing” is, fix it. You’ll save time and aggravation.
13. Take advantage of your commute.
According to the Census Bureau the average commute is 25 minutes. ( Here’s a cool map showing average the commute times across the U.S.) That’s almost an hour a day you’re probably wasting.
Make it productive instead. Review your to-do list and think of the best way to knock off those tasks. Listen to a podcast or audio book. Make a couple of calls — not ones requiring focus or important decisions, but ones to check in, review progress, network, etc.
Shoot, learn a language. Studies show speaking at least two languages may slow the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s in an aging brain. (Reason enough, eh?)
Don’t let your commute be dead time. Get things done you won’t have to do later; if nothing else you’ll get to do something you actually enjoy during the time you free up.
14. Pick one task during which you won’t multitask.
Plenty of research says multitasking doesn’t work. Some research says multitasking actually makes you stupid.
Maybe you agree. Maybe you don’t. Either way, I feel sure there is at least one thing you do that is so important you should never allow a distraction or a loss of focus.
Choose an important task and when you perform it turn everything else off. Focus solely on that task. See if you do it better.
I bet you will, and I bet you’ll extend the practice to other tasks.
A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn .