How I Manage to Work a 5-Hour Workday

Credit: Kwanchai Lerttanapunyaporn/EyeEm/Getty Images

TThere was a time when I was proud of how long and hard I worked. When my most significant relationship was with a meal-delivery service that allowed me to chain myself to a laptop for 16 hours a day. When I missed important life moments of the people close to me — from weddings to baby showers to divorce parties — because I was tethered to a pitch deck or Ubering to another meeting or doing something I thought I was necessary to thrive as a marketing exec.

The office has become our place of worship, and long hours are our way of demonstrating our devoutness. Perhaps, as a result, we’re experiencing record-level rates of anxiety and depression.

My own devotion to the cult of overwork eventually led me to a nervous breakdown, insomnia, and a host of other health-related issues. Far too late, I reached a point when I was done crushing it, killing it, destroying it, or whatever other violent metaphor I happened to be channeling that day. I wanted a life. I wanted to spend my time with the people I love. I wanted to toast my friend at her divorce party. So I quit trying to work harder and learned how to work smarter.

By completely gut-renovating the way I approached my job, I now manage to work an efficient five hours a day. I don’t get less done; I just do it in less time, freeing myself up for the things that matter. Here are the strategies that got me there — maybe they’ll help you reclaim your time, too.

First, I tracked how I spent my time (spoiler: I was a mess)

For a month, I used a free time-tracking app to tabulate my movements over the course of a day. Where was I spending my time and energy? How long did it take me to perform certain tasks?

The results made me aware of epic time-sucks in my day. I learned that I wasted time tethered to social media and notifications. I threw hours into the bin thanks to task-switching. (Phone calls would drain me, and it would take an hour or two for me to return to work mode.) I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on administrative tasks — onboarding, invoicing, meeting scheduling. At the end of the month, I realized that the way I worked was costing me thousands a year.

I prioritized weekly time blocking

Some people do weekly meal planning. I’m now a devotee of weekly time blocking. Since I now know approximately how long it takes me to perform various tasks, I can map out blocks of time on my calendar for doing them. I break the tasks down into manageable components so I don’t spend a whole day, for example, creating a customer profile and journey map. Instead, I might do the research on Monday, build the profile on Wednesday, and create the journey map on Friday.

And since I found that I’m rotten at task-switching, I only schedule calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays, putting them all in one block and spending the hours afterwards recharging and planting more seeds.

I started “Mise en Place Sundays”

Sundays have become the time for my mise en place, a kitchen term that refers to gathering your ingredients in one place so your prep work is done before the actual cooking begins. For me, this means customizing my templates and the bones of the slides based on the client. I’ll pull stock photos, screenshots, or a client’s brand and product images into one folder. This way, when my time blocks for the week kick off, I can focus solely on the work.

I began making daily hotlists

Through tracking my time, I realized that I while may have a million things I could be doing, realistically only two or three of them are mission-critical to move a project forward. Now I look at my calendar each day and compose a hotlist of the three things I need to get done. Once those items are complete, I can work on non-vital tasks.

I’ve also become surgical about removing every single distraction during my work blocks. I get rid of all notifications from my phone and desktop. On my phone, I switch on airplane mode. The world ceases to exist (much to the chagrin of everyone I know who’s waiting for a text back).

I employed the Hemingway method

There’s a practice I use in my novel and essay writing: The Hemingway Method of leaving the page while it’s hot. When it comes to my daily time blocks, I stop work in the “middle” of things so I can easily resume my flow during my next time block. I always have something to return to that will excite me.

I automated whatever I can

I inventoried my repetitive and recurring tasks to design processes that would cut down the time I spent on them. For example, I created templates and automation in my onboarding process, reducing eight hours to two. No longer do I open a PowerPoint or Keynote file and start from scratch.

I made my daily “thinking and planning walks” non-negotiable

I walk from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. every morning, regardless of my schedule. In addition to helping me get in the right mental space to tackle the day, I’ve found that this is the time when I can let my ideas percolate and take shape.

I take my walks in silence, free of distraction, because I know the rest of my day will be filled with noise. That lone hour gets my body moving, my head ready, and my heart anxious to dive into the work I absolutely love — in healthy moderation.

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