4 Simple Steps to Taming Your Work

by Haider on June 24, 2010 · 7 comments

in Productivity

Taming the Big Beast

One of (if not the) biggest obstacle to life balance comes from our Professional life area. More often than not, our work goes on a rampage, destroying all the precious time we set aside for family and fun. The most common approach to handling work is throwing more hours at it, in the hope of satisfying its insatiable appetite.

But spending more time doing work doesn’t translate to getting more and better results. In fact, the more time we spend working, the less efficient we become and the greater the damage we cause to our lives, our well-being and, paradoxically, our work.

The idea that you need more time to get more things done makes sense in theory, but performs terribly in practice. It’s best to abandon this worn-out idea and look for a better theory that truly reflects the reality we live in.

Below are 4 very simple steps that can help you tame your work and get more done at the same time!

Yes, life is good. :D

1- Set a limit to the number of hours you work a day

How many hours do you currently spend working?

Now, I want you to take a deep breath and set your daily limit 1 or 2 hours less than the time you currently spend working.

Sounds insane? Well, it gets even weirder as you progress through the steps below.

In her fabulous book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam points out that the time we spend “working” isn’t fully packed with actual work. A great deal of our work day is wasted doing things inefficiently. I’m willing to bet that your approach to work can be improved, and shaving an hour or two from your work day will force you to consider ways you can improve your approach, rather than default to the ineffective approach of working more hours. (I’m doing Laura’s book a grave disservice by mentioning it briefly in this post, but I’ll be offering a full review of the book once I finish reading it!)

Do you have to attend every meeting you’re asked to attend? Do you have to check your email account every 3 minutes? Can you limit the distractions that pull you away from your work and out of your “zone”?

Once you set a daily limit to the number of hours you will work, use a stopwatch to record how long you spend working each day. When you reach your daily limit, you must stop working and tend to any of your other life areas.

It may feel painful at first, but you’ll adjust to it. After all, spending more hours working is a losing strategy. There’s no need to cling to it any further.

2- Set realistic daily goals

The reason why work doesn’t seem to finish is because it never does!

There will always be things for you to do. You cross off a couple of items from your to-do list, and 5 new items make their way to the list. That’s a fact you’ll have to accept and fully embrace. There’s no need to fight against it, in the same way you wouldn’t stand on the shore and demand that the tides change their direction. Fighting against facts of nature is another losing strategy.

So what’s the solution?

You set realistic daily goals for you to achieve. Once your daily goals are met, you can call it a (work) day.

You can choose to do more work if you still haven’t reached your daily work limit. But even if you leave those extra tasks incomplete, you have succeeded in completing the tasks you set out to complete for the day.

Without setting daily goals, you may feel that there’s more to be done, and you won’t feel satisfied with your work, no matter how much you do and how long you work. That’s because you’re trying to fit an unlimited amount of work into a finite number of hours a day. A losing strategy, indeed.

3- Break work time to short sessions of focused work

Having an 8-hour chunk of time a day will go to waste if you don’t break it down to shorter sessions of focused work. You can’t remain focused for 8 straight hours without risking brain damage or physical exhaustion. To make the most of your work time, set a specific task to work on, then focus on it completely for 25 to 30 minutes, without any distractions. Have a short break that takes your mind off the task for a bit (2 to 5 minutes), then continue working on your task if it’s not completed, or work on a different task if it is.

If you want to do a few tasks that won’t take you more than 10 minutes, make sure you set a time limit for them, so that you don’t spend more time than you need to, and you can learn to do things more efficiently, without succumbing to distractions or mental numbness (where you stare blankly at your computer screen or papers, not knowing what to do next).

4- Redefine “work” time

OK, this deserves another deep breath and an open mind.

Now that you’ve set your daily work limit, your daily goals, and are tackling your tasks in short bursts of focused work, you need to be aware of what constitutes “work” time where you keep your stopwatch running, and when to stop it.

You took that deep breath, right?

I think another deep breath is in order.

You keep the stopwatch running during your work sessions, while you plan what to work on, in the breaks between work sessions, when you’re distracted, during your commute to work and whenever you think and worry about work!

Take another deep breath if you have to!

It sounds crazy, I know. But it makes sense.


Because when we consider how we spend our days, we don’t realize how much time is wasted without us making the most out of it. What do you do during your commute to work? And if you were to consider it as part of your work time, how will you make the most of it to advance your career?

We tolerate distractions because we think we can take time to compensate for them. If we get distracted for 20 minutes, we’ll just add another 20 minutes to our work day.

We can prepare a cup of coffee in 5 minutes, but we choose to spend 20 minutes walking to the kitchen in slow motion.

We spend time with family, but we’ve kept our attention on our work. How does that make you feel, knowing that you can’t do your work because you’re with your family? How does it make your family feel, knowing that you’re not truly present with them?

We allow ourselves to worry about work, when there’s absolutely no reason to (it doesn’t help our work progress, does it?). But by considering “worry” time as part of “work” time, we will be forced to stop worrying, or else we’ll run out of hours to work in!

You need to be realistic about the time you’re spending at work and the time you spend getting to work. What can you do to reduce the amount of time you spend commuting? Can you negotiate days where you work from home? Can you spend the time commuting more constructively, by listening to an audiobook, for example?

If you can genuinely spend your commute on a recreational activity (e.g. reading/listening to a novel) or to strengthen social bonds (e.g. if you commute with a family member, friend, or colleague) or to keep fit (e.g. you cycle to work), then you don’t need to keep the stopwatch running. Otherwise, it forms part of your work time and comes out of your daily limit.

The steps above are simple, but they’re not necessarily easy, because they demand that we break out of an ineffective mold that’s preventing us from leading a balanced life and making the most out of the time we have. It forces us to think of creative ways to make the most use of our time. It’s uncomfortable to walk outside the safe confines of that mold we’ve grown so accustomed to, but it’s worth it.

Set your daily work limit, begin to define daily goals, work through them in focused sessions, and account for all the time you spend on work, so that you can realize where your time goes, and what you can do about it.

Photo credit: Manish Bansal

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dia June 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Great post Haider! For me personally, the best way to accomplish work in less time is by focus. By being focused in a specified time, I tend to accomplish so much. The key is focus!
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2 Abubakar Jamil June 24, 2010 at 11:48 pm

I think this is really a great approach and the steps you outline really do work because I had to take these steps myself to keep the “work” from being “WORK”.

Another excellent article Haider.

3 Haider June 25, 2010 at 1:03 am

Dia, I couldn’t possibly allow myself to write a list without including focus in it. It’s that important. Thank you for highlighting the importance of focus. :D

Abubakar, I can safely say that I spent the greater part of my adult life allowing my studies, and then my work, to dominate my days, when there was really no reason for them to do so. I used to stay at university till 10pm (sometimes even 2am) because I didn’t set boundaries to my study time.

Hmmm, maybe that should’ve gone in my list of things I wish I learned earlier in life. :P

4 Chris Edgar June 25, 2010 at 4:31 am

Hi Haider — I like what you say about the effect of defining the time you’re in the office, or wherever you usually are, as “work time” — the word “work” itself can create resistance inside. If someone says “you’re going to have to do a lot of work,” I think almost anyone would find their shoulders tensing up. Ideally we can let go of the “work” label and find more ease in what we do, I think.

5 Haider June 25, 2010 at 11:42 am

Hi Chris, that’s an excellent point about the “work” label, which I didn’t consider while writing this post.

I personally have a positive association with the word “work” because I see it as doing something productive (and in the context of this post, doing it for money, i.e. a professional endeavor), in the same way that I like the word “problem” because I see “problem-solving” as an enjoyable pursuit (so I’m not too sensitive about substituting it for the word “challenge”).

I’m not a big fan of “I have so much work to do” or “you’re going to have to do a lot of work” because it doesn’t specify what the “work” is and how it’s to be done, which leads to overwhelm and lack of focus. Besides, we sometimes romanticize the idea of being too busy because it makes us look noble in our willingness to make sacrifices, when most of these sacrifices are really unnecessary!

It’s very important to know how we respond to different labels, so thank you for pointing it out. :D

6 nemo September 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Great Post! Thanks!
on another note, what to-do list app do you recommend?
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7 Haider September 8, 2010 at 2:56 am

Hi Nemo,

I currently don’t use a dedicated “to-do list” app. I use TextMate (the Mac text editor) and mostly paper.

I’m gonna refine my “meta-work” system, and will be writing about it, and the decisions that have gone behind it. For me it’s very important to get my thoughts out of my head, then pick out the actionable items to do. Otherwise, I’d sense a lot of mental noise that can be very distracting (and I think a lot, which makes it more important :P ).

Before you pick an app, I think it’s best to determine what your needs are, and to pick a solution you’re comfortable with (which might not be technologically advanced, or tree-friendly).

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