What would you do if you had more time? It’s a question many of us consider occasionally, but usually only as a daydream. We’ve become convinced that, because of technology, 21st-century life means irreversibly longer days and more stress. As a result, many of us end up unproductive, unfulfilled and unable to focus on the things that really matter.
The truth is, however, technology isn’t just the problem – it also can be part of the solution. With the right tools, we can be more effective in our work and more fulfilled – if we use them to eliminate distractions, not create them, and to prioritize our commitments, and not respond to everything that crosses our path. Here are a few options that can help you win back at least a few minutes every day – and turn your daydreams into reality.
- Evernote is perhaps my favorite productivity tool. I use it for note-taking, to build my to-do list, save Internet bookmarks and remember things I’d otherwise forget. Evernote is an app that reduces your dependence on other apps, serving as an all-in-one tool that syncs between all your devices. If I could recommend just one tool from this list, it would be Evernote.
- Social media is one of our most prevalent productivity drains. While it has become integrated into many jobs, it often commands far too much of our time – and leads to far too much dissatisfaction – as we slip into aimlessly scrolling through our news feeds. You could cancel any social media accounts that don’t add value to your life, of course, but that’s not always practical. StayFocusd and Freedom can help you put self-imposed limitations on the time you spend on a given website – including, of course, social media. It’s a great way to stay honest about how you spend your time and begin changing habits that no longer serve you well.
- If social media is a primary focus of your work, there are ways to be more productive without limiting your access. Hootsuite, for example, is a social media dashboard that lets you post to multiple platforms and schedule posts ahead of time. You can use Hootsuite for free if you only need access to three social media profiles, or pay a monthly fee to tap into more profiles and features.
- Social media isn’t the only culprit; email can be as much of a problem – if not more so. A good place to start is eliminating the emails you don’t want in the first place. Unroll.me makes it easy to identify what newsletters and other recurring email lists you’re on and quickly and easily unsubscribe from those you’re no longer interested in. Best of all, it’s free.
- Managing your inbox isn’t always as simple as unsubscribing from a newsletter, however. Other more sophisticated tools can allow you to retain emails while automating next steps. Rules (in Outlook) and Filters (in Gmail) are two examples that can streamline your inbox and prioritize what arrives there. For example, I set a rule in Outlook that sends messages I’m copied on – where I’m cc’ed, but not in the “to” field, that is – to a different folder (which I creatively call “cc”). These messages are, almost without exception, lower-priority ones that require no action from me. Accordingly, there’s rarely an immediate need for me to give them my attention, so I can check this folder once a day or so without missing anything important, while slimming down my inbox and making it much more likely that the truest high-priority messages stand out.
- Sometimes email just isn’t the best tool for a given job. Consider the challenge of scheduling group meetings and all the back and forth that results from trying to find a date and time that works for everyone. Use Doodle instead. Attendees answer a poll to indicate their availability, choosing what works for them from a list of options. This one’s free, too.
- You can even do a little time travel with email. Boomerang (for Gmail) and Delay Delivery (in Outlook) allow you to schedule emails ahead of time, getting tasks off your plate and deferring messages that are better sent later. Let’s say, for example, a customer asks you to follow up on a given conversation in a couple of weeks. You can try to keep that request in your brain. You can add it to your to-do list. Or you can get it done right then and there, scheduling the message to appear in your client’s inbox precisely when he or she asked for it.
These are just a few of dozens of examples. The bottom line is there’s a solution for nearly every challenge if you’re willing to experiment and change the way you work. The key is remembering that you’re in charge of technology, not the other way around. Taking control is the first step toward taking back more of your time.