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The Secret to Time Management? Focus. Focus. Focus.

The Secret to Time Management? Focus. Focus. Focus.
Published July 8, 2015 by Laura Vanderkam
When I first interviewed Jessie Neville, an intellectual property attorney, she had recently returned to work after having her third child. She was trying to figure out how to achieve the right balance.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Unsure when she could do errands without three kids in tow, she’d do them before going to work. Since she wasn’t sure if she could preserve her evenings for family activities, she’d do “mom work,” such as scheduling, during the workday. That made sense, except all these things cut into billable time. She’d be gone from home for full time hours, but on the Tuesday of the January week she tracked for me, she worked just 5 hours, and billed 3.3. Indeed, she told me, work ended up “in last place, behind pretty much everything else.”

While that would be fine if she were on the way out the door, around this time she had a realization: “I do like the work,” she reminded herself. Having taken 18 months off, she had the opportunity to rebuild her portfolio doing work that really excited her. She wanted to succeed. But could she really work more with three little kids?

The answer was yes. When I circled back nine months later, I learned that she had ramped up, scheduling her days to be in the office on time and asking for her husband’s support. She logged another Tuesday, during which she worked 9 hours and billed 7.5.

Yet despite this near doubling of work, she still played with her kids in the morning, had family dinner, took some personal time for a hair appointment, and read before bed. Working more didn’t require shortchanging her family or herself. It just required focusing on what she did best.

Working more didn’t require shortchanging her family or herself. It just required focusing on what she did best.

Neville’s situation is not unique. As I’ve studied schedules, including 1001 days in the lives of professional women (such as Neville) for my recent book I Know How She Does It, I’ve found that many of us have space to lean deeper into our careers if we like. The good news? We don’t even need to work around the clock. We simply need to allocate the hours we choose to work to our highest value activities, rather than filling hours with things that just expand to fill the available space. Here’s how:

1. Identify your highest value activities, and do them first.

Lawyers know to prioritize billable work, but many of us do work where it’s less clear. Making money is good, but sometimes it’s wise to trade off money now for long-term career advancement. I tell people to pretend you’re giving yourself next year’s performance review now. What three to five things would you like to accomplish by the end of the next calendar year? Any steps moving you toward those goals deserve space in your calendar.

Pretend you’re giving yourself next year’s performance review now.

Then you need to block in these things first. When it comes to time management people often seek time saving strategies like how to spend less time on email (more on that in a minute) or write memos more efficiently. Those are great ideas, but time is highly elastic. When you’re deeply absorbed in a project at work, you’re more motivated to stay out of your inbox. Cultivate the habit of doing deep work first. Come in a little early if you need to, so the office will be quieter.

Of course, you do need to play defense too. The easiest way to buy yourself an hour a day is find one meeting where you don’t think you add enough value to justify the investment. Try to extricate yourself.

2. Beware of “fake breaks”

The human brain can only concentrate for so long. When we don’t take real breaks, we take fake ones, cruising around on the web following click-bait links. Paradoxically, you can work more hours (that is, real hours) by taking a purposeful break every few hours or so. Go outside. Call a loved one. You’ll return to your desk recharged and ready to go.

Finally, accept this: you will never reach the bottom of your inbox. Rather than staying late hacking through it, perform a 4 p.m. triage. What absolutely has to get answered by tomorrow? Most things don’t. You can make a note of “for later” items and respond to them all during a low-value period when it’s hard to start much else (e.g. Friday afternoon).


Employ these strategies during the workday and soon you’ll be spending a higher proportion of your hours on what you do best. You won’t be trading anything off, except the things that weren’t important to you in the first place. It’s possible to succeed at work and have a great life too. That’s what Neville learned. “All I can say is that right now, this is working,” she told me.

More about Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children.

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