The overlooked productivity hack that will improve your work-life balance
Being a human task planner never helped me become more flexible, and I always struggled with finding free time for unexpected tasks or events. I love to micro-manage my tasks and remain aware of what I finished and what I did not. Still, when it comes to flexibility, delaying, or rescheduling, I freeze.
In the past, this lack gave me headaches, until one day, while scheduling a meeting with a friend, I noticed how flexible he was. When I told him our calendars do not match and that I would have to meet him another time, he quickly managed to change his schedule to suit me.
So once we met, I asked him how he did it and what he canceled. And he told me something that I still clearly remember.
Do you know how many hours your workweek takes you?
I did not.
For me, this week, it is 30. I am pretty busy, but I can take this morning to have dinner with you, tomorrow I am having lunch with a friend, and Friday afternoon I still have some time to watch the tennis match.
Soon I understood he had an awareness of his job beyond my expectations; he was so flexible and free with his time because he understood that:
Versatility is not about planning a task but the knowledge behind how much time it takes you to finish it.
How to achieve Flexibility in 3 Steps
Past that day, I was so fascinated by my friend’s ability, I trained continuously to reach the same level of freedom. Achieving versatility became a mantra for me because it allowed me to have more free time to dedicate to my hobbies, which was addictively fulfilling.
Now, I know exactly how much time it takes me to write an article, edit it, and publish it, for example. The same happens for any of my tasks, even at work. I know how many hours I need to code a web page, create a secure transmission between two hosts, or anything else related to my job.
However, since my job allows me to work on different projects continuously, I had to develop a three-step technique to achieve the same awareness for each of the new tasks that I have to perform daily. So here is how to achieve more flexibility and free time in only 3 steps.
First Step: Track the Actions
Every time I need to work on new tasks, I start by splitting them into measurable ones. Then, I consider only those recurring because they are the only ones I can improve and fasten through repetition and automation.
Usually, I will have many sub-tasks, so to track them, I group them by similarity. For example, publishing an article and publishing a promotional post on Twitter are similar. The same goes for writing 500 words of an article and editing them, which takes me about the same time.
In the end, I split all the tasks into two categories — low and high-intensity. Ordinarily, the high-intensity ones require a lot of energy, like writing articles, while the low-intensity ones require less effort, like publishing them.
Second Step: Measure the Timings
To achieve more flexibility and free time, once I highlight which actions to track, I note the timings when I start and finish them.
During this preparatory step, I often notice how my completion speed shrinks each time I repeat a task. This depends on many parameters like my efficiency, the time of the day, or my mindset.
Motivation also has an enormous influence, for example. If the task triggers my curiosity, I will perform faster on it.
The same happens with sleep quality. If I am well-rested, I am more productive, while if I sleep poorly, I am considerably slower.
So each time I finish a task, I consider these borderline situations. If I collected enough data, I do not weigh those timings. While in other cases, I discard the best timings to avoid task underestimation.
This is a draft of the template I use to track my timings, which I always keep at hand.
You can download a clean version here.
Third Step: Schedule the Week
After the first transitory days, my timings usually settle. This is the signal I use to switch to the next step and finally plan my week efficiently.
First, I define which tasks I need to perform during the week, then I calculate how many hours they will take me, and I split them between days.
Being aware of the required time slots allows me to schedule each task correctly and also cut out some hours as free time.
Also, I make sure to schedule high-intensive tasks in the morning when I am well-rested and more productive. While low-intensive activities, especially those related to creativity, are programmed for the evening when creativity flows easier in my mind.
Flexibility and Free Time come with Correct Planning
Sir Francis Bacon once said:
“Knowledge is power.”
and I don’t like to use clichés, but he was right. If you are aware of your timing and know exactly how much it will take you to perform an action, it will be much easier to plan your tasks. You will manage the uncertainty without too much effort and still have plenty of free time to dedicate to your hobbies.
First of all, this knowledge allows you to schedule recovery time between tasks. So even if something unexpected happens, you can use up those time frames to solve it, which empowers your adaptability. Also, by scheduling correctly, you won’t ever finish a task at the last minute. Your versatility allows you to complete tasks days, or even weeks, before the delivery schedule.
Another thing that I noticed is that when I am highly motivated, I don’t need the scheduled free time, so I start working on the next task. This allows me to finish the day way sooner than expected, which gives me more free time in the evening.
Still, you have to pay attention to skipping too many free time sessions since you may run into burnout.
Achieve flexibility and free time now!
If you want to implement this time-tracking technique, choosing the correct time frame becomes necessary after a while.
When you track your timings, they may be multiple of an hour, or they can be spurious. My activities, for example, always took time frames multiple of half an hour. So every time I scheduled one of them, I used half an hour as a unit of measurement.
This helped me in three ways:
- First of all, shorter time frames allow easier scheduling, reducing the waste of crucial minutes of work.
- Second, short time frames align better with our focus capability as human species. In fact, the attention span of an adult is about 20 minutes, so I won’t bother forcing myself to work more than that.
- And third, by splitting more, I also have the illusion of achieving more, thanks to the trigger of the proximity principle that boosts my motivation.
So if you want to achieve flexibility in your workday, you need to remember three things. Track the actions, measure the timings, and schedule the week. That’s all you need.
This is how you achieve more flexibility and free time.
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Article first published on Curious, a Medium publication.