5 Ways To Be Ruthless With Your Time

27 April, 2015

Nathan Morris

Nathan Morris


There just isn’t enough time. How much work do you have today? How many projects are you committed to? How many phone calls will come in today, how many meeting do you have to attend? Are you going to be able to clean out your overflowing inbox? The answer is too many, and no, you won’t be able to clear your inbox. There aren’t enough hours in the day. By the time your head hits the pillow each night and you reflect, it’s frustrating to feel your time could have been spent better. Maybe you should have said no to consulting on that extra case, maybe you’re regretting watching half an hour of animal rescue videos during lunch (you cry every time, but don’t worry, we all do), maybe you were drowning in emails or Debbie sucked you into an unplanned meeting. You groan, knowing you have all the more to do tomorrow, and stress over how little time you have.

You’re not alone. Everyone struggles with time management: lawyers, doctors, parents, students, everyone. Time management is such an issue that there is a billion dollar industry with specialists working around the clock to come up with solutions. Time management consultants are in high demand, with the best in their field averaging salaries between $120,000-$180,000 (a modest estimate). Time management is a problem, and we’re all looking for help.

You don’t have to seek the advice of a consultant or drop hundreds on a seminar. Tomorrow is a new day, and your time doesn’t have to be wasted. Your time is precious, and you can learn how to be ruthless about managing and protecting it right now.

1. Say No

Easily the best and hardest method to ruthlessly manage your time. We can’t be productive when we take on too many commitments, and a lot of those commitments come from our inability to say no. Whether we are workaholics who crave an intense workload, excited about new projects coming in, or people pleasers who just want to help our colleagues, we’re saying yes to it all. In fact, research shows that we overcommit and say yes because we feel uncomfortable saying no, and are twice as likely to say yes when confronted in person. If we do manage to say no, we often cave in later to requests out of guilt for saying no in the first place. People will even agree to unethical requests rather than risk the discomfort of saying “no”; that’s how hard it is.

Learn from Sir Arthur Boyle – or, rather, from his acclaimed character, Detective Sherlock Holmes. In both Doyle’s books and the BBC TV series reboot, Sherlock, Holmes is portrayed as a genius (actually, he would correct us to say a high functioning sociopath) consulting detective whose intellectual prowess and deductive abilities are extraordinary, to say the least. Sherlock knows the power of his abilities and skills, and he knows his purpose and priorities. He understands the value of his time and is ruthless with it. Holmes continuously searches for a challenge, and shuns dozens of potential cases, knowing that most are a waste of his time.

We’re not all brilliant detectives saving the world every other day, but our time is just as valuable and should be spent with just as much care. Learn the art of saying no.

  • Know the value of your time. Time is a gift, a universal equalizer. We’re all given the same amount of time, but what matters is how we spend it. Is it worth your time to consult on an extra case, or could your time be better spent on your own cases? Should you attend that networking cocktail party and sift through dozens of people to find one worthwhile connection? Consider your options carefully. Need help understanding the value of your time? There’s an app for that!
  • Set and express boundaries in advance. When you know your boundaries, you are able to say no more easily in the moment. When colleagues know your boundaries ahead of time, they are more likely to show consideration and understanding when you say no.
  • Practice saying no to smaller requests to build up your confidence and clear clutter from your commitments.
  • Say no firmly but politely. Learn from Sherlock’s time management, not his attitude.
  • Don’t apologize. How many times do you start by saying “I’m so sorry, but I can’t because  – “. Apologizing sounds like admitting fault. It’s your time and energy, you don’t have to be sorry for valuing or being strategic about it.

2. Plan and Prioritize Your Day

While it is common to have a calendar with meetings, projects and deadlines, most people aren’t invested in scheduling out their days. This gives a general feel of what your day or week might look like, but leaves you responding to most of your workload, instead of strategizing and preparing for it.

  • Keep a detailed calendar. Begin by outlining your month, then start detailing the weeks and days as they come closer. It shouldn’t be just meetings – cases, consulting, projects, deadlines, breaks, etc.
  • Each night, go over what tomorrow looks like. Your day is more likely to run smoothly when you think about your to-do list, your priorities, and evaluate what unplanned issues might arise.
  • Utilize your most productive hours to focus on priorities. Studies show we are most productive during the two hours after we are fully awake and after we’ve taken breaks. Treat this time as precious and plan accordingly.
  • Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize! Check out our post on the Pareto Principle to get you on the right track.
  • Plan to make decisions early in the day to avoid making poor decisions out of fatigue.
  • Fit smaller tasks into small time periods. Make phone calls in the car, text while you are waiting in line for coffee, etc.

Update your calendar as you go so it accurately reflects your day. You can go back to see where your time is going, and make changes based on your goals.

3. Shut Down Distractions

The IDC surveyed 7,446 Americans and found that we are more reliant on and devoted to our phones than ever, checking our phones at least 150 times a day – 14 of those just to see Facebook – and spend an average of 94.6 minutes texting. All it takes is one cat video, and down you fall into the Internet rabbit hole. Phone calls, talking with co-workers, and impromptu meetings make up 43% percent of work interruptions. With so many distractions, how can you be ruthless with your time?

  • The phone has to go. Turn off the sound, put it in your drawer, or shut it down.
  • Set time blocks aside for non-urgent calls, and let your assistant or voicemail deal with the rest.
  • Avoid impromptu meetings at all costs. These pull you off track and take twice as long as scheduled meetings.
  • Use anti-distraction apps to help track and eliminate distractions.

4. Stop Multitasking

Multitasking is bullshit. Human brains aren’t equipped to manage the stress of multitasking, so while you’re working on cases, writing emails, texting, reviewing your presentation and checking social media, you’re actually working less, stressing your brain and even damaging your health. Check out our previous post on multitasking to learn what’s going on in your brain when you multitask and how to stop this bullshit behavior.

5. Burn Your Inbox to the Ground

Just kidding. (But don’t we all want to?) In 2013, technology market research firm, The Radicati Group, reported the average corporate employee receives about 105 emails a day, with 19% of those emails being spam. Now we receive about 121 emails each day, and that number is set to grow to 140 by 2018. While email is a critical tool for business communication and information sharing, workers are now spending at least 13 hours a week on emails. That’s 28% of our time spent on reading and responding to email, with a high percentage of that time wasted on dealing with unimportant emails or spam. Dealing with emails is an endless, mind-numbing task that can even cost you IQ points. Save your lighter fluid, and:

  • Set aside a period of time for emailing. No more reading work emails when you aren’t at work, and don’t read or respond to emails as they come in.
  • Organize emails by action; use folders for “Action Items,” “Waiting,” “Reference,” “Archive,” etc.
  • Not all emails are created equal: unsubscribe, archive, and delete. Get those subscriptions out of your inbox, archive emails that should be kept, and delete the rest.
  • Short and sweet; be precise in your communication to cut down unnecessary back-and-forth emailing.

I took care of those emails for you.

Time is an invaluable, finite resource that should be treated as precious, managed and protected ferociously. However treasured, time is a struggle for everyone; rarely have I met anyone who is inherently gifted with time management expertise. Ruthlessness with your time is a learned skill, so start by following these five steps, and you can’t go wrong.