Four Ways to Free Up More of Our Precious Time
Time is a precious resource. According to the American Time Use Survey Summary, employed adults in the US will spend around 2,000 hours a year working. Each day, that same set of people will spend a little more than 15 minutes exercising, a little less than 15 minutes relaxing, about 10 minutes reading, and…more than 2 hours watching TV.
When we put this against the backdrop that the average American has less than 79 laps around the sun, I think how we spend our time matters.
Whether you’re trying to be more focused in the workplace or out on your own, time management is the place to start. Let me introduce my Four D’s of time management, in order of impact:
Delete the tasks that just don’t add value
Delegate and outsource tasks that someone else could do
Downsize the tasks that are taking more than their fair share
Delay the tasks that seem urgent but aren’t important
I’ve visualized these in the below graphic. Feel free to share, copy, print off and post somewhere visible — even make it your desktop background.
To say that these Four D’s changed my life isn’t exaggerating. I’ve freed up days of time each month by getting rigorous around these ideas. And, regardless of the path you are on in life, you can, too.
Step One, Audit Your Time
Before thinking about the Four D’s, I challenge you to take 30 minutes out of your day and list out each and every task that you do during the week. Think about them in categories, like work tasks or leisure activity or admin to-dos. Think about them in chunks of your calendar, like mornings or Mondays.
Try to get to a detailed list of the tasks that you take on and where you spend your time each day. Note down how much time or energy you spend on each task. Note down how important or valuable each task is.
This is the starting point for making deliberate changes that free up time, targeting first the tasks that take the most time and deciding what strategy to take based on how important each is.
Say “no” and eliminate unnecessary tasks that don’t add any real value. If the task isn’t going to meaningfully contribute to some kind of important outcome, why do it? This is actually a great question for reflection — why do it?
Sometimes we fall into the trap of doing things that feel busy but aren’t productive. Or things that we are just doing as habits but never really questioned why. My cardinal sin here is doing things because I think it will look good to others, without regard to whether it matters or note.
This is hands down the most impactful way to free up precious time. The rub, though, is that it’s not easy and it can’t be done for everything. Not every task can be deleted, and when you nix a task you lose whatever value it offered, even if it was small. But I guarantee you that there are hours of things we do each week that don’t really move the needle on what matters.
Say “no” to too much work or the wrong type of work. Decline meeting invites that aren’t essential. Carve out more time from being reactive to really focus on the things that add value. When we notice that we’re in “firefighting mode,” this is a good clue that we need to start deleting and spend less time on the back foot.
Easy to say, hard to do. I mentioned in my article on delegation that Delegation is a superpower for leaders — it’s one of the most powerful ways to scale yourself and your impact. I strongly believe that great leaders delegate better than average leaders.
Delegating a task is not quite as impactful as just deleting a task, but the benefit here is that the task is likely to still get done. Note that I said “likely.” We take some risk in delegation, risk that things might not be done on time or to the same standard that we have for ourselves.
In fact, to really be powerful at delegating we can’t just choose to pass on the tasks that we think will be done as good or better than we could do it. Rule of thumb: if it can be done by someone else with about 70% the same level of quality and/or speed, delegate it.
In leadership positions, this means spending more time coaching, as an investment. But it’s not just for leaders. “Delegate” is just a loose synonym of “outsource.” I don’t have any direct reports right now, but I outsource my calendar management, some design work, software development, taxes, research, housekeeping, and many other to-dos based on one simple question: would I do this for someone else at the same rate I would pay someone else to do this for me?
For each task and meeting, reevaluate the objective to check that it’s being done in the most effective manner. Not everything can or should be deleted or delegated, but maybe it can be downsized. I had a client who was getting frustrated with long and inefficient meetings, so she would just cancel at the last minute and avoid them. The middle path? Cut the time of every meeting in half and force a quicker cadence.
Look through your list of actions and change the level of your involvement to reflect the priorities. De-scope projects that aren’t well-focused and put that energy toward better things. Reduce the frequency or duration of meetings.
The last arrow in your time management quiver is to simple delay or defer a task until later. This can be dangerously close to procrastination if taken too loosely, but bear in mind that this is fourth in the order of impact. It’s not to say that delaying is never a good idea, it’s just not usually as effective as deleting, delegating, or downsizing.
The key metric to evaluate here is whether a task is urgent or important. Counterintuitively, important always outweighs urgent. Urgent tasks take up all our attention, but if they’re not really important then it should be attacked with one of the Four D’s.
The next time you make a to-do list, highlight the tasks that are important and underline the tasks that are urgent. Attack the actions that are both, but then build a plan to not let urgent alone get in the way. When delaying, be deliberate. Set a clear expectation to those who might be affected by the task you’re delaying that it’s not a real priority right now.
Time is a precious resource. I’ve found a huge amount of value in treating it that way, using the Four D’s to help help cut out the fat.
Delete the tasks that just don’t add value and get ruthless about what matters. Delegate and outsource tasks that someone else could do — ask if this is really something that you would do if it wasn’t yours already. Downsize the tasks that are taking more than their fair share of your time and resources, including meetings and projects. Finally, delay the tasks that seem urgent but aren’t important, being clear about this move to others.
I hope that the Four D’s help you to create your own space freedom, whether it’s at work, home, or somewhere in between. I’d love to hear what you learn, what works, and what doesn’t.
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in The Startup