How To Maximize Your Time, Improve Productivity, and Reduce Burn-out / by Jennifer Chan

I wear many hats: I’m a lawyer, blogger, freelance writer, and newly-minted podcaster. I am no stranger to feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, with burnout quietly knocking on my office door. In order to stave off breakdown, I’ve researched and tested methods to increase the quality and efficiency of all the tasks that demand cognitive exertion. After an extensive period of trial and error, I have narrowed down 8 specific tactics that have enabled me to make the most of my waking hours.

[1] START YOUR DAY OFF RIGHT. I leave this intentionally broad because I am cognizant that not everyone works comfortably in the morning. I am a morning person — or more accurately, I have trained myself to become as such — because it is more conducive to my lifestyle: I have to let the dog out in the morning, I have to leave for work at 8:00 a.m., it’s the most time I am able to work undistracted.

For those reasons, I wake up at 6:00 a.m on weekdays and at 8:00 a.m. on weekends. I ritualize the first two hours: I boil water in the kettle and scoop coffee grind into the french press, I collect my dog and put his coat and leash on him, I pour the hot water into the french press, I take my dog out to the back of the apartment building, we return and I take off his jacket and leash, I wash my hands, I pour my first cup of coffee of the day, I sit at my desk, I start to write.

This ritual is important for two reasons: (1) I start my day with two tasks that do not involve technology, (2) when I turn on my laptop I immediately start writing without skimming social media. Exercising this restraint allows me to start the day absent of distractions.

[2] TIME BLOCK YOUR TASKS. For years, I have been doing this and I was happy to see this mentioned in Cal Newport’s seminal book, Deep Work. When I arrive to the office at 8:30 a.m., I write a quick schedule of my day:

8:30 a.m. — 9:00 a.m.: respond to urgent e-mails and phone calls;
9:00 a.m. — 10:00 a.m.: research legal submissions
11:00 a.m. — 1:00 p.m.: client meetings
1:00 p.m. — 2:00 p.m.: lunch
2:00 p.m. — 4:30 p.m.: return non-urgent e-mails and phone-calls, draft correspondence, update my dockets, conduct intakes, etc.

This sets my expectations. I understand what exactly I will be doing that day. Anything that remains on my To-Do List but I know that I will be unable to complete that day will not be on there — it will be included in next day’s schedule. I am generous with the time I allocate to each task; I never feel rushed or hurried. As a result of this strategy, I produce high-quality work by devoting my attention to one task at a time.

[3] USE SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGICALLY. Simply put, tasks will take ten times longer if you check social media throughout your day. It is quite impressive how much you are capable of accomplishing when you are conscientious of where your attention is placed. Do not make things harder than they need to be: schedule in the times when you will check in on Quora, Twitter, Instagram, and everywhere else. Personally, I allocate myself small ten minute breaks between tasks and will check in then.

[4] ALLOCATE ADEQUATE TIME FOR REST. This may seem like counterintuitive advice, and for the longest time I did not believe it myself. But I assure you, this is imperative to not only your sanity but the longevity of your working life. We work better when we are alert. Alertness is derived from rest. The fetishization of busyness is singlehandedly destroying our health. There is no reason to work 60 hour weeks. If you are in the creative industry, it is essential to allocate time for contemplation. We need to spend time in nature, to connect with others, and to check in with ourselves.

[5] CAPITALIZE ON ‘DEAD TIME.’ My commute to the office is 30–40 minutes, depending on traffic. Part of this involves a 20 minute subway ride. Reading is an important facet of my life, especially as a blogger and writer, but sometimes I am too exhausted in the evening to read before retiring to bed. Instead, I stuff my iPad into my work bag and pull it out during my commute. Now, I no longer am too hard on myself if I fail to read at night because I know that I’ve read for at least 30 minutes earlier that day.

[6] GO TO SLEEP. Barring an unforeseen circumstance, I get 8 hours to sleep every single night. No productivity technique can compensate for the psychological effects that stem from lack of sleep. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived have difficulty retaining information, interpret events differently, experience impaired judgement, and lose their ability to access prior information. Obtaining 7–9 hours of sleep fosters creativity, memory processing, long-term memories, and more. Go to sleep.

[7] STRATEGIZE YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE. Most people, myself included, drink coffee first thing in the morning in order to wake up. This, however, is not when we truly need caffeine. According to research, our cortisol levels dip the most at certain times: from 9:30 a.m. — 11:30 a.m. and again from 1:30 p.m. — 5:00 p.m. If we drink coffee when our body actually needs it the most, we will gain much more of its benefits and reduce caffeine crash.

[8] FURTHER TO THE LAST POINT — UNDERSTAND YOUR ENERGY LEVELS. When are you most awake? Are you an early bird or a night owl? Much of being productive is attempting to solve one’s most difficult question: of which environment do you best thrive under. I am of the belief that this is under constant evolution.

The key, of course, is to be productive without sacrificing quality of work and quality of life. The inability to lose sight that the latter is more important than the former. For a period of time, I used to be entranced with the daily routines of creatives — as if I could replicate their lifestyle. But, I soon realized, that it’s not necessarily what fills your day as how it is arranged. I may not meet up with Simone de Beauvoir every afternoon to reflect upon my work as Jean-Paul Sartre once did, but I can spend time in nature or go for a coffee with a friend in order to relieve myself from the deep work that my jobs require. Take these tactics and interpret them as you like. This is only what works for me, and I do hope that this offers some value to you.