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What would you do if you had an hour all to yourself tonight? Read a book? Soak in the tub? Take a leisurely stroll? I’d shave my legs. With a full-time job, seven kids, two cats and a neurotic dog to take care of, by the time I even think to shave my legs, I need a weedwacker. Turns out a lot of women are run ragged these days. According to University of Maryland researchers, women are working 36 percent more hours than their mothers did—on top of logging 18 hours of household chores each week. Not surprisingly, at least 60 percent of them admit that they’d love to have a little time just for themselves. That’s what I craved, too. So I talked to some of the country’s leading time management experts, and gave myself one week to put their suggestions into effect. Their advice...
Saturday...Shorten the paper trail
Americans spend up to three hours every month shuffling through papers and paying bills—and their homes are flooded with up to 1,000 pieces of unsolicited mail every year. Being surrounded by this stuff can chip away at your productivity, plus people never use 80 percent of what they decide to keep, says Barbara Hemphill, founder of the Productive Environment Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Your best defense? Choose one spot where you’ll always do paperwork—near your computer, if you bank online—and stock it with stamps, envelopes, pens, ‘In,’ ‘Out’ and ‘File It’ folders, and a big wastebasket, so you can work at top speed. Then subject every piece of paper to the wastebasket test: “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t keep this?” says Hemphill, author of Organizing Paper @ Home. “If you’re willing to live with the result, then toss it so you can get to the important paperwork more quickly.”
Tip: To stop the flood of junk mail, log onto dmachoice.org.
At Hemphill’s prodding, I cleaned out my over-stuffed cabinet to make filing faster. That meant tossing all but the last three years’ worth of credit card receipts and bank statements, plus—what was I thinking?—arranties for long-gone equipment, and insurance policies for cars and homes we no longer owned. Then I attacked the mountain of mail on my kitchen table. Hemphill’s advice was to toss anything that wasn’t important—instead of reading it out of morbid curiosity. It helped me plow through two weeks’ worth of junk mail and bills in 15 minutes instead of the hour it usually takes.
Sunday...Make time for Zzzs
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 67 percent of women aren’t getting enough sleep each night to feel well-rested during the day. “And that chronic sleep deprivation has a huge impact on memory, creativity, concentration and problem solving skills—and it can double the length of time it takes you to accomplish tough mental tasks!” says life coach Cheryl Richardson, author of The Art of Extreme Self-Care. “If you want to be productive tomorrow, getting eight hours of sleep tonight needs to be way more important than folding that last load of laundry.”
If I’m not working late at the computer, I’m washing dishes, mopping up crumbs or, yes, folding that last load of laundry. How could I possibly gain an hour of free time by going to bed earlier? Very easily. After a full eight hours of sleep, I felt alert for the first time in months. I quickly did the dishes, swept the kitchen and folded the laundry before work—a feat I never could have accomplished in my usual morning stupor.
Monday...Go gung-ho at work
Is staying late at the office—or dragging work home with you—eating into your free time? Surprisingly, people spend less than 60 percent of an eight-hour work day being productive—distractions, interruptions and unnecessary tasks chew up the other 40 percent, say researchers at The Breathing Space Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“To really boost productivity, I tell my clients to ‘Eat the frog, first,’” says Linda D. Henman, Ph.D., president of the Henman Performance Group in Chesterfield, Missouri. “That means pick the toughest, most unpleasant task you need to accomplish, and knock that off your list while you’re still fresh, focused and working at top speed—everything else will seem easy by comparison, and that will give you the oomph to stay on track all day long.”
Procrastination is my downfall—if I have no plausible excuse for putting off a big project, I’ll add paper to my printer, check that my stapler has staples, and sharpen my pencils to the point where they could perform brain surgery. Oh, and I like to start my day with the easiest job and work my way up to the nasty stuff—I’ve always eaten the frog last. So I wasn’t looking forward to turning on the computer and starting my Monday by diving into the day’s toughest task. Yet, I finished my biggest job by noon—a new record, since I usually start it so late I have to work all evening to finish up.
Tuesday and, um, Wednesday...Shackle social media
E-mail, Facebook, Twitter...according to Mayo Clinic researchers, women spend at least one out of every seven minutes at work checking, and responding to, social media messages. And going online dozens of times daily can cut your productivity 25 percent or more, their studies suggest. To protect yourself, schedule specific times that you’ll log on -- and limit how long you’ll stay online when you do, suggests Suzanne Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
I failed miserably the first day I tried this -- the second day was no picnic, either. I usually check my e-mail, Facebook and Twitter twice (okay, maybe three times) every hour, all day long. I’m addicted. But, after my intervention, I’ve cut myself down to four checks daily and, yes, I am getting a lot more done—but weaning myself off espresso was easier than this.
Thursday...Trim the to-do list
People spend at least 75 percent of their day doing tasks they feel are important though they could have delegated, put off or simply ignored most of them, Canadian researchers say.
Rx: Each morning, divide your day’s to-do list into two categories—things you could do, and things you must do. “Be ruthless and put as much as possible into that easily-ignored could do list,” says Val Wright, leadership growth expert and president of Val Wright Consulting in Seattle, Washington. “Then tackle your tasks in reverse order, so you start with the must-do’s, first, and only bother with the could-do’s if you have time—you’ll be shocked at how productive you are.”
My original to-do list for the day: Tidy the living room, clean both bathrooms, mend my ripped shirt…oh, and work all day. My wallet-sized list of must do’s: Work and take 10 minutes to scrub the bathroom—the one my kids had spackled with dazzling blue toothpaste. The mending? I have lots of shirts, so I used the ripped one as a rag when I was washing the bathroom.
Friday...Prune your home
There’s no question it takes time to clean out overflowing closets, drawers, attics and basements, yet you could lose even more precious time if you don’t. According to a British research team, women spend up to 188 hours every year looking for things they’ve misplaced—like keys, remote controls, passports, and matching shoes.
The good news: Your home doesn’t have to be perfectly organized to prevent this frustration. Start by getting rid of the things you no longer use or value, so you’ll have easier access to what you truly need, suggest UCLA researchers. Then sort through what’s remaining, and get a sense of where important items are stored, so you can find them fast when you need them, suggests Henman.
A small house fire might have made this job easier. I waded through the closets, junk drawers, trunks and other nooks and crannies, tossing anything I don’t use into bags and boxes for Goodwill. By bedtime, I’d filled seven big garbage bags and five boxes with stuff I wasn’t going to miss. My own cramped closet had lost one-third of its cargo. Who had I been kidding? Pants that were snug before I had babies weren’t going to fit again unless I had liposuction.
Saturday...Let your errands list grow
Do you run to the grocery store two or three times every week, plus make quick trips to other shops? You could save at least one hour every week just by combining your errands into one big trip, say researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And, instead of writing what you need on a scrap of paper (or two), create a blank grocery list—with headings like fresh produce, frozen foods, canned goods and dairy—organized according to the layout of your supermarket. “Photocopy it and stick a fresh copy on the fridge each week,” suggests Jeff Davidson, director of The Breathing Space Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “You could save 30 minutes in the store, because you won’t be backtracking to find all the items you missed.”
I hadn’t even considered it before, but when I did the math, I realized I was spending over six hours every week en route to the grocery store, farmer’s market, Walmart, etc. When I combined everything into a Saturday-morning shopping blitz, and used my spiffy new grocery list, I was home in 3-1/2 hours. It was almost embarrassing to realize how much time I’d been wasting running errands.
Sunday...Buy time, not things
Housework, hedge trimming, lawn mowing, car repairs...what chores soak up your time, despite the fact that you don’t enjoy doing them? Here’s a solution: “People spend well over $300 every year on gadgets they don’t truly need,” says Davidson, author of Simpler Living. Skip a few unnecessary purchases, and use the money you save to hire someone to do the jobs you find draining. ”You’ll never miss the $20 it costs to get a teenager to mow your lawn,” says Davidson. “And you’ll win back something irreplaceable—your time.”
The job I dislike the most? Cleaning the house Sunday night. I called a family meeting and we made a compromise—two meals out each month, instead of four. That was enough of a savings to pay a house cleaner to come in once each week to scour the place for us. One quick chat with my kids, and I’d shrugged off my biggest weekly aggravation. By 9:00 pm Sunday, my kids were happy, fed and in bed. I had no rugs to vacuum, no floors to wash, and no dusting to do. The evening was truly mine. I finally shaved my legs.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.