Smarter living
© Getty
September 2021

Smarter living

By Andrea Neumeyer
Thanks to digitalization many things that used to take hours can now be taken care of with just a few clicks. Even so, we have – at least subjectively – less and less time. Yet with a few simple tricks for work and leisure we can make more time for ourselves again.
Fighting time sinks digitally

In his book “Digital Working für Manager” (“Digital Working for Managers”), digitalization expert Thorsten Jekel advises readers to use sensible technical tools: smart filing systems – preferably in a cloud – avoid version conflicts when sending documents with a large distribution list back and forth. Eliminating time sinks is another step: with address management, to-do lists and calendars that are synchronized on all mobile devices, and to which all team members have access, unnecessary emails and further questions can be avoided, and meetings planned more effectively.

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Outwitting procrastination

Procrastination, the term for postponing things that should not be postponed, derives from the Latin word “crastinum,” which means tomorrow. To avoid procrastination, we should heed Benjamin Franklin’s advice: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” The following two “minute-rules” can be of help in this context.

The two-minute rule advises us to tackle a simple task that can be done in two minutes on the spot and on our own – for instance, entering an address in a database. Delegating this task would take more time than doing it ourselves right away.

The ten-minute rule in turn targets those of us who tend to put off unpleasant jobs: Starting a task and allocating a limited period of time to it, and subsequently re-evaluating it, helps fight habitual procrastination. The advantage is that after ten minutes we may have already finished the task or at least found a beginning that will boost our motivation to pick up later where we left of.

Effective need not be efficient

We’re effective when the result achieved matches or at least comes very close to the desired result. Here’s an example: If I want to get from A to B walking may be effective. However, the time spent on a walk may be very long, depending on the distance, so driving would be more efficient. If only the time invested mattered, the fastest car would be the most efficient way to go. If the financial or energetic investment mattered more than time, a bicycle could be the better choice. However, all vehicles would be effective.

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Prioritizing tasks

Former World War II General and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower would sort tasks into four groups by applying the criteria “important” and “urgent.” A-tasks (important and urgent) he’d handle immediately. B-tasks (important, but not urgent) he’d put on his calendar. C-tasks (urgent, but not important) he’d delegate. D-tasks (neither important nor urgent) he’d occasionally just drop. The Eisenhower Matrix still works today. Ideally, it cuts our own to-do lists in half in next to no time.

Smart working does not mean working more, but doing the right things and using new technologies so that work is practically like a product that flies off the shelf

Thorsten Jekel in his book
“Digital Working für Manager”
Motivation with a countdown

Having problems getting started? Motivational speaker Mel Robbins recommends to outsmart ourselves with a little trick. Just do a simple countdown: 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … the psychological push triggered on zero can be reinforced by a physical act like reaching for a tool or putting on a pair of sneakers. It’s worth a try!

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The 80/20 rule – or when is “good” good enough?

Sometimes it’s worth asking ourselves how much work we should invest in a project before we’re satisfied with the result. Using the Pareto method (achieving 80 percent of the result with a 20-percent investment) can definitely save time. Here’s a case in point: When painting a room, the large walls are finished quickly thanks to wide rollers and thick brushes. 80 percent of the work is done in 30 minutes. All that’s missing is the clean edge and some touching up that’s still required in a few places due to lacking opacity – these final touches take another two hours. And then the wall will disappear behind a closet. We could have saved the 80 percent for the remaining 20 percent. Needless to say, there are exceptions. Or would you like to fly with an airline that performs maintenance of its aircraft according to this principle?

33 %

of our productive time – according to experts – is lost due to poorly prepared meetings, floods of unnecessary emails, badly organized processes, and distractions of all kinds.

Decluttering life

A very important step toward leading an efficient life is to declutter it. Decluttering has become a global trend word. Japanese author Marie Kondo is the guru of the decluttering community. Her book “Magic Cleaning” has been sold in millions of copies around the world and translated into 30 ­languages. The most important rule of her KonMari method is to ask yourself: Does this thing spark joy? Because it’s useful, or simply because you feel it’s beautiful. If it does, it can stay. If it doesn’t, it gets ditched. Perhaps we should use this rule for entries on our calendar – at least our social ones – as well. By replacing “sparks joy” with “important for work” we can also apply this method to our own desk or the whole office.

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Learning properly

As far back as in the late 19th century, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus described correlations between learning and retaining. His most important finding for efficient learning: We can remember things for longer periods of time by taking breaks during our learning processes. Ebbinghausen called this the spacing effect. Although we’d expect exactly the opposite to be true, the brain keeps using new nerve cells during consecutive learning phases. But when we expand the spaces between learning phases nerve cells previously used for them will be reactivated. This causes them to increasingly interlink and boosts their capacities. Many neuroscientists have confirmed the spacing effect, although the exact reasons why slow learning is the better form of learning still remain a mystery to them.

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Assessing risks properly

You’re susceptible to Murphy’s law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) cramping your style? Then you might try using the premortem method like, for instance, Google’s employees do. Prior to launching a new project, they usually meet for a “brainstorming session of doom” where, in an informal setting, they discuss potential scenarios that could impede or prevent a successful outcome, followed by analyzing the risks: which ones are improbable, and which relevant ones could be minimized and how? With that, all the demons have been named and stopped from haunting the project. Even if Murphy’s law should materialize, the premortem method prepares us for and enables us to counteract negatives. In other words, even after making wrong choices we can take corrective action to minimize the resulting damage. Knowing this helps overcome obstructions to decision-making.

Higher efficiency = more free time: field trial in Iceland

A large-scale trial in Iceland has shown how much potential there is in eliminating waste of time and energy on the job. Between 2015 and 2019 the working hours of 2,900 public sector employees were reduced from 40 to 35 or 36 per week – with no reduction in pay. The results were positive across the board: Productivity remained at the same level as before or even increased. Team members and supervisors reported that they were enjoying a better work-life balance due to having more time for family and hobbies. At the same time, a range of actions were taken to compensate for the shorter working hours: Tasks were organized more efficiently or delegated, meetings were held in shorter and more compact formats or even replaced entirely by emails.

Going forward, Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, said, “We should continue on this journey, and I believe the next step is to reduce working hours to 30 hours per week.” Like the Icelandic government various companies have been testing new working hour models. At Microsoft in Japan, for instance, productivity increased by around 40 percent after the corporation had introduced the four-day work week.