Like most people, I made more than a few mistakes in my twenties. I dated some loser guys, rented an apartment in Manhattan without realizing until I moved in that there was no sink in the bathroom, and accepted my first big job for a sucky salary when I definitely could have negotiated for more. But one of my biggest doozies, which I still regret, is that I developed into a horrible procrastinator back then. I constantly postponed everything from writing assignments to thank you notes–and then was tormented by the deadlines hanging over my head.
Eventually I defeated the problem with some serious professional help. No, I didn’t see a shrink. Rather, I started writing articles about time management so that I could interview the top experts and learn everything I could on the subject. The tricks I picked up (and I created a few of my own) changed the way I did everything. They not only cured my procrastination but they also made me far more efficient. In the fourteen years I ran Cosmopolitan magazine, keeping it number one on the newsstand all that time, I also raised two kids with my husband and wrote eight mysteries—without murdering anyone in the process.
Here are ten of the best tricks I learned:
1. Pinpoint when you’re most in the zone. I’m a night owl at heart but after some trial and error, I discovered that I’m most creative early in the morning. So I switched from writing my novels in the evenings to early mornings. Yeah, it was brutal at first, and I nearly bitchslapped my alarm clock a couple of times, but I was definitely more productive when I started penning words at 7:00 a.m. So experiment. When do your best ideas bubble up? When do projects seem almost effortless? If you work in the zone, you get a lot more done.
2. Regularly ask yourself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” And if the answer is, “I have no freaking clue,” stop doing it. The wonderful time management expert Alan Lakein, author of “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life,” wrote that activities should be assigned a value–A, B, or C. You want to focus mainly on your priorities, the A stuff. B activities might need to be done at some point but not right this second. And the C stuff? Those are the activities you shouldn’t waste your pretty little time on. Delegate them to someone else or just throw them overboard and don’t look back.
3. Figure out your “no” phrase. In order not to get stuck doing a lot of C stuff that other people try to suck you into on the personal front, perfect the art of saying no. Your response should be concise, polite, slightly vague (so they can’t offer an alternative), and unequivocal. A phrase I like is, “Thanks for thinking of me, but unfortunately I won’t be able to.” Do not elaborate.
4. Handle a piece of paper—or an email–only once. A lot of time management experts recommend this and it’s great advice. Every time you pick up a piece of paper from your in-box (or look at something on your computer) and then set it aside, promising yourself you’ll deal with it later, you use up seconds that eventually add up to minutes. Vow to deal with something the first time you look at it. If it needs an answer, reply now. If it needs to be filed, do it now. What this means, though, is that you must go through your inbox only during parts of your day when you’ve allotted yourself enough time to fully deal with each item.
5. Speaking of email, only look at it four or five times a day: I learned this from productivity expert Julie Morgenstern. As you can imagine, it takes some practice, but it’s life changing. Rather than constantly checking, checking, checking—which not only eats up so much of your life but drives people insane—respond to email at only specially designated times during the day.
6. Schedule stuff you’d never think to schedule. Sure, some of the greatest moments in life happen spontaneously and you don’t want to eliminate that kind of magic. But one of the best ways to make sure certain things happen in your life—like your Pimsleur Spanish lessons or researching your dream vacation—is to put them on your daily calendar. And as the former editor in chief of Cosmo, I will tell there’s nothing wrong or unsexy about even scheduling sex.
7. Do the math. Periodically you should figure out how much time certain activities actually take up. Add up the minutes and hours. Consider, for instance, surfing the web. Thirty minutes a day equals three and a half hours a week equals a 182 hours a year, which is seven and a half days a year!
8. Slice the salami. Okay, if I had to thank one person for the fact that I was able to write eight mysteries and thrillers while I had a full time job, it would probably be time-management expert Edwin Bliss. In one of his books he pointed out that we often fail to tackle important tasks not because we aren’t capable of doing them but because they seem so big and unappealing—like a huge hunk of salami. Bliss recommended slicing big project into thin, appetizing pieces. Rather than vowing to write for a full morning, which I often did and then failed miserably at, I tackled my first novel by initially only writing for fifteen minutes each day. Little by little, pages accumulated.
This principle works with so many things—projects, hobbies you hope to start, exercise. My trainer told me that clients who sign up for one session a week following the Christmas holidays are far more likely to still be doing it by summer compared to those who sign up for two or more sessions a week.
9. Instead of multi-tasking, try maximizing your time. Multi-tasking has been shown to be ineffective—you don’t do either task as well as possible. I happen to love the notion of maximizing time. Rather than doing two things at once, do one thing that serves several good purposes. Example: As a working mom, I gave up most hobbies in order to use free time to focus on my kids, but, boy, I missed not having any pleasures like that. So eventually I started introducing my kids to stuff I thought we both would love. I turned my son into an avid bird watcher when he was nine years old, something we still share today. And when my daughter was young, we became indie movie aficionados together.
10. Constantly learn from time masters. I’m always observing successful people and noting any tricks they use. And of course I love it when someone says that they’ve benefited from one of my tricks. The amazing author Daniel Pink told me that after he read that I always carried a play in my purse (because I both wanted to learn more about theater and have something to read in long lines), he followed suit, tucking his into his jacket pocket.
Kate White is the author of the new book, “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girls Should Know” (Harper Business 2012). She has been the editor in chief of five magazines, including Cosmopolitan, and is New York Times bestselling author of two thrillers, “Hush” and “The Sixes,” and the Bailey Weggins mystery series. White is also the author of the popular career books for women, including the bestseller “Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead…but Gutsy Girls Do.”