Spending Time to Conserve Time: Four Ways to Find Out How Much Time You Really Have

“This thing all things devours:/ Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;/ Gnaws iron, bites steel; /Grinds hard stones to meal; /Slays king, ruins town, /And beats high mountain down.” – Gollum’s riddle for Bilbo in The Hobbit, by British professor and writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

If you haven’t already figured it out, the answer to Gollum’s riddle is Time, and no matter what we do, it seems there’s never enough of it. We all get the same 168 hours per week. So why is it some people get very little done, while others are paragons of productivity?

Simple: productive workers treat time as the finite resource it is, making effective use of every minute. They’re not necessarily smarter than you or work longer hours. They’ve learned the lessons of efficiency: they work harder and smarter. Rather than let themselves become overwhelmed or flail fruitlessly between tasks, they plan ahead, stay on course, exercise self-discipline, and work to continually improve.

Some are masters of delegation. A colleague once told me about a self-made millionaire who didn’t seem very smart at first glance. It turned out he surrounded himself with trustworthy people who were experts at his weaknesses.  His personal strengths lay in organization, good judgment, and fiscal responsibility.

No matter how overworked you feel, you probably have more time available than you realize. Ironically, calculating how much time you really have (or should have) requires some time investment—but it’s worthwhile, kind of like paying to have a diamond professionally assessed before you buy it.  Try these tips to get your time back.

  1. Test your multitasking skills. Only 2.5-3% of workers can truly multitask; the rest of us just switch rapidly between tasks. Every switch requires you to shift gears, clear mental buffers, and refocus on the new task—each of which takes time. One day, try juggling a couple of tasks at once, and note how long it took when you finish. The next day, focus on just one of those tasks until you complete it, shift gears, and focus on the other task until you’re done. Then compare your multitasking time to your singletasking time. You’ll probably find singletasking is faster.

  2. Keep secondary tasks secondary. Do you often tackle minor, low-value tasks until you can psyche yourself up to do your big tasks? If so, you’re wasting valuable time. Think about it: would it make any difference if you did all those little tasks at the end of the day, or even tomorrow? Larger tasks tend to be more time-sensitive. If a big project intimidates you, break it into subtasks you can finish in an hour or two at a time, while still meeting your deadline. Push the secondary tasks to the end of the list. Let them fall off if necessary. Now, how much time do you really have?

  3. Say “No” more often. Being a team player is one thing; taking on too many tasks because you don’t feel you can say no is a productivity killer. So next time someone asks you to be the group morale officer or attend a quick meeting, politely tell them your personal schedule is booked solid or you have a deadline looming. Return tasks to those they rightly belong to if necessary.

  4. Keep a time log. This is probably the most helpful and instructive of these four tips. For several weeks, include everything you do at work in 15-minute increments, including your breaks. Be unflinchingly honest. After logging your time for two or three weeks, I suspect you’ll be amazed by how much useful time just slips through your fingers. You may discover you spend more time around the water cooler or coffeemaker than you realize; your lunches are a tad too long; your little Facebook breaks cost you two hours a week; a task you thought took five minutes really takes 12; or you take too long to decide what to do next when you finish a task. Once you see it in black-and-white, you can sift through and decide how to fix the timewasters.

Getting Serious

With the possible exception of #4, you probably already know the things I’ve outlined here. But in the hustle-bustle of a busy office, it’s easy to lose yourself in the grind and forget basic time management strategy. Sometimes you just have to go back to first principals, get back on the strait and narrow path, and aggressively work to conserve your most valuable resource. When you care enough about your time to find what went wrong, you can use what you’ve discovered to refocus on what matters.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland