We all have the same 24 hours in a day…right?
Not necessarily, according to a recent study from the Ohio State University: Researchers found that our time feels shorter when we have a task or appointment looming—and we’re less productive as a result. “We seem to overestimate the things that might happen to take up our time,” explains Selin Malkoc, a co-author of the study, “so we don’t get things done.”
A full schedule isn’t inherently bad; in fact, a study in the Journal of Psychological Science shows that we’re much happier when there’s a lot going on in our life. The key is to structure your day in a way works for you, not the other way around. That’s why this week, we’re sharing five scheduling tips to help you maintain maximum focus and productivity, even when your calendar’s crammed.
1. Hit the Ground Running
We all know how frustrating it feels when you have ambitious plans for the day…but the next thing you know, the sun is setting and your to-do list is still a mile long. That’s why it’s best to get up and get started first thing in the morning, says time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.
Mornings are prime for productivity, she adds, because “you haven’t fatigued yourself with things that have tried your patience all day, which is why you might have more discipline and focus.”
The research backs this up: According to behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, we tend to be most productive in the first two hours after we become fully awake.
2. Set a Timer
Many people resist working in smaller chunks due to the exact issue from the previously mentioned Ohio State University study: the false perception of time constraints.
To flip this self-defeating script, include an estimate for how long it’ll take to complete each task you add to your to-do list. This will help you make realistic decisions about how much you can fit into each day, and, as an added bonus, can make difficult tasks feel less intimidating. When you add a time estimate to a tough task, you can shift your focus from what that task entails to how quickly it will be over.
3. Take Micro-Breaks
Whether you work from home, in a cubicle, or at a call center, it’s crucial to spend some time recharging your batteries. Taking a few short breaks throughout the day can help you relax and increase productivity, with studies showing that employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who do not. Here are a few simple ways to take five:
- Stretch your shoulders: Raise both of your shoulders at the same time. Hold for a few seconds, release, and repeat.
- Clean your desk: Clear everything off your desk, wipe it down, and add back only what you’re currently working on.
- Laugh out loud: Share a joke, funny video, or uplifting story with someone.
4. Do an End-of-Day Assessment
Powering down your workday with intention makes it easier to leave the day’s stress behind, transition into an enjoyable evening, and prepare for a more productive morning.
Vanderkam recommends spending the last 30 minutes of your day in “triage” mode: Evaluate what you’ve accomplished, make a list of priorities for tomorrow, and review your calendar. That way, she says, “You can be strategic. Decision-making takes energy, and when you can show up and just start working, instead of deciding what you’ll do, you can channel all of your energy on execution.”
5. Don’t Schedule Every Minute
If you try to schedule every minute, “Inevitably, something will run over, and your schedule will fall down like dominoes. With open space, you can get caught up. You’re not late or rushing,” Vanderkam says. White calendar space allows flexibility for the meeting that runs long or the colleague who stops in to chat about her wedding plans, which makes it easier to stay in that sweet spot between hecticness and productivity.