If you’re looking for advice on how to make time for your most important work each day, you’ve no doubt run across this famous quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”
Yes, Abe. We get it. It’s much more efficient to give yourself the right tools and make a plan before you dive headfirst into a problem. Yet how many of us do that with our workdays?
Instead of making the right plan and setting up the right tools, time management strategies, and workflows, we sit down in the morning and imagine a checkered flag waving in front of our eyes. Before we know it, we put the pedal to the floor until we either get to the end of the day or run out of gas (aka burnout).
But it’s insane to think we can keep up with this pace of life for long. Instead, we need to find ways to get more from the limited time we have each day. We need to sharpen our axes. We need time multipliers.
The multiplier effect: How certain strategies have an outsized impact on your day and your life
In the most basic sense of the word, a “multiplier” is a person, tool, or strategy that creates a disproportionate result compared to the investment.
For example, if you invest $100 into your banana stand and it results in $1000 of sales, then that investment is a multiplier.
Another simpler idea is a hammer. It amplifies your effort to produce more output (and is a hell of a lot less painful than trying to pound a nail into a wall with your bare hands).
We all love this idea of getting something for (almost) nothing. And luckily, you can do the same with your time.
A time multiplier is a strategy or tool that creates more free time for you in the future. It’s the time management equivalent of sharpening your axe.
As leadership consultant Rory Vaden explains on the TED blog:
“Rather than asking ‘What’s the most important thing I can do today?’, time multipliers ask ‘What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?’
“In other words, by thinking about how we use our time today, we can free up our hours in the future.”
To-do list: Multiply your time by learning to properly prioritize tasks
One of the simplest ways you can multiply your time each day is to spend it more effectively. An hour of focused time on a meaningful task is nearly 8X as effective as a full day spent scattered between meaningless emails, lingering calls, and status update meetings.
While there are tons of time management strategies that promise to make you more effective, it all starts with doing the right things.
Prioritization is the original time multiplier. Yet while the basics of how to prioritize tasks are simple (know what tasks need to be done and rank them accordingly), it’s far from a simple exercise.
So let’s make it easy. Look at your to-do list and ask these four questions:
1. Can you eliminate this task?
One of the most powerful ways to make more time is to learn how to say no. Saying no opens up time for work that matters. While saying yes to tasks you know don’t matter means you’re saying no to better options.
However, this isn’t always easy. We’re all presented with tasks we know we shouldn’t do, but can’t bring ourselves to turn down. But if you want to use more time multipliers, you need to resist this urge.
2. If you can’t eliminate it, can you automate it?
There are more tools than ever now that can help you automate ineffective tasks and free up space for focused work. Yet most of us ignore this and repeat ourselves over and over.
Automation is a time multiplier but it doesn’t work for everything. Zapier’s Kim Kadiyala says there are three criteria your tasks or workflows need to meet in order to be good candidates for automation:
- The task doesn’t need your attention to get done (i.e. you could do it in your sleep)
- It is time-consuming and/or annoying
- The process doesn’t require too much personalization or finesse
3. Can it be delegated (or can you teach someone else how to do it?)
While simple tasks can be eliminated or automated, it’s hard to let go of the ones we feel need our attention. In fact, a recent study from the London School of Business found that most knowledge workers spend up to 41% of their time on jobs that could easily be passed off to others.
The truth is that offloading these tasks is a massive time multiplier.
Let’s say you have a task that takes you just 5 minutes to complete. Even if you budgeted 30X that time to teach someone else (150 minutes), you’d end up saving yourself 1100 minutes a year. (5 minutes a day X 250 annual working days = 1250 minutes spent doing that task.)
Whenever possible, look for situations where you can delegate and offload your time-consuming work to someone else.
4. Does this task need to be done now?
Finally, if you’re unsure of how to handle a task, ask if it’s urgent enough to need your attention today. Author Rory Vaden calls this procrastinating on purpose:
“There’s a difference in waiting to do something that we know we should be doing … versus waiting to do something because we’re deciding that now is not the right time.”
Habits and motivation: Use rapid feedback to multiply your efforts and build better routines
The right habits are powerful time multipliers. With studies showing that 40% or more of our day is powered by habits, they can either make you more focused and productive or more distracted.
Yet building new habits is hard. By their very definition, habits are unconscious behaviors. They’re automatic. And this makes them hard to change. But, as Atomic Habits author James Clear explains, the most foundational aspect of building a new habit is feedback:
“If you’re not aware of your habits, how can you expect to change them? This is why feedback is so important. Faster feedback leads to faster results.”
Rapid feedback loops—immediate information about what you’re doing—are the quickest way to build habits that give you more time. Not only does rapid feedback help you change your habits, but it also increases motivation and is a key part of getting into a state of flow.
Unfortunately, it’s often hard to get rapid feedback on the habits we want to change. However, that’s where a time-tracking tool like RescueTime can become a multiplier for you.
RescueTime works in the background to track, categorize, and give you in-depth reports on how you spend your time each day. This makes it a powerful tool for building the kind of feedback loops necessary to change your habits.
Here’s a great example. I know that I have a bad habit of checking social media first thing in the morning. This habit gets in the way of my most productive hours and can even ruin my mood for the day (depending on what fresh hell Twitter is serving up that day).
To get rapid feedback and also change my habits, I’ve set up a RescueTime Alert to notify me when I’ve spent more than 15 minutes on social media in the morning.
This not only gives me quick feedback and reminds me to focus on more important work, but I also have it trigger a 30-minute FocusTime session where all distracting sites are blocked. This helps reinforce my new habit and rebuild my focus.
Environment: Multiply your focus by removing distractions
While these last few tips were quite tactical, a simpler way to multiply your time is to give yourself the right conditions to be productive.
From what’s in our immediate vision to how cluttered our desktop is (both physical and digital), our work environment impacts us more than we know.
While we’ve written a full guide on how to set up the ultimate work environment, it all boils down to one piece of advice. You need to create an environment that supports what you want to do and makes it harder to do the things you don’t.
Even the basic things you keep nearby—phone, to-do list, notes—are hard to block out and can become massive distractions. (In fact, one study found that the mere presence of your phone can significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.)
Instead, follow what Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls “designing for laziness.” Make time sucks like social media, news, your phone, and other things harder to access. And make time multipliers like focused work sessions easier.
If you need help blocking distractions while you work, try RescueTime’s FocusTime feature. Personally, I like to schedule a FocusTime session first thing in the morning and right after lunch to help me stay focused when I’m more likely to get distracted.
Efficiency only matters if you’re doing the right things
If you want to free yourself from the tyranny of the 9–5 and do real, meaningful work, you need to be in control of your time. That means knowing what deserves our attention and focus today that will free up more time for us tomorrow.
As management expert Peter Drucker said:
“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”
Time multipliers help you do both. When you choose the right tasks, build better habits, and optimize your work environment you get a huge return on your investment. And just like any smart investment, the more you multiply your time, the more that return compounds.
What do you use to multiply your time? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.