Reclaiming My Time: The Work Resolution for 2018


Don't let emails, chatty co-workers and social media distract you from important 'deep work.'

Last summer, a rallying cry went out from the nation's capital. Tired of the stalling tactics employed during a congressional hearing, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., invoked a procedural rule and asserted that she was "reclaiming my time."

The phrase, simultaneously radical and reasonable, resonated instantly. Evolving quickly from mere meme into philosophy, these three words appealed to so many people whose working hours are plagued by endless meetings, email chains and co-worker interruptions.

So as 2018 dawns, it seems natural to consider a new resolution: reclaiming your time at work. Make this the year you discard distractions. Work smarter. Devote your 40 hours to the tasks that really matter.

Here's how to make Maxine's maxim your guiding principle at the office.

Focus Where It Counts

Job duties can be divided into two categories: "shallow work" and "deep work." That's the theory of Cal Newport, author and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

He defines deep work as that which draws on knowledge, requires intense concentration and produces real value for you and your organization. Examples include writing, coding and learning a new skill. In contrast, shallow work is "the logistical grease that keeps the wheels on the bus," such as checking email and communicating via message systems like Slack.

To make significant progress toward their goals, people should prioritize deep work, Newport says, yet "many of the popular trends in business culture right now seem to be actively antagonistic to the ability to concentrate deeply without distraction."

To combat these trends, first identify what counts as your deep work. Then devise a strategy for getting it done. Some people devote a few hours to deep work each morning. Others schedule blocks of time in advance each week. And others "drop off the radar" for a few days when they have big projects to complete.

The underlying principle is to plan ahead and develop a consistent strategy, Newport says: "I've never met an expert deep worker who says, 'I just wait 'til I feel like I'm in the mood.'"

If spending prolonged periods in deep concentration sounds like torture to you, rest assured that it gets easier with practice. Set a timer for 20 minutes and resolve not to divert your attention from your work for the duration. Once that feels normal, increase the time by 10 minutes. Eventually, you should be able to sustain a state of focus for more than an hour.

"People who are great at it systematically train their ability to concentrate," Newport says.

Track Your Time

To take back control of your workday hours and make room for the endeavors that matter, run a time audit, suggests Peggy Duncan, personal productivity consultant at the Digital Breakthroughs Institute training firm. Keep a simple log of everything you do at the office, including activities that are not part of your job responsibilities. You may discover that you spend hours on Facebook, take lengthy phone calls from your family members or endure frequent interruptions from a colleague who wants to gossip.

Once you have a clear sense of how you're spending your day, you can assess what habits to change.

Do you spend more time than you should socializing with co-workers? Apportion yourself a daily "chat budget" of perhaps 40 minutes, recommends Carson Tate, productivity consultant and managing partner at Working Simply, a management consulting firm. If a conversation starts to run long, excuse yourself politely by saying your chat budget is running low and you'd better return to work. "It creates some humor and makes it about you," Tate says.

If social media is your vice, log out of your accounts and hide your phone, Tate says. When the temptation proves too strong to resist, disconnect your work computer from the internet.

When you actively seek distractions in order to procrastinate on those tasks you simply don't enjoy, like filling out your monthly expense report, "crank up the pleasure" instead, Tate says. She recommends pairing those tasks with enjoyable activities like listening to your favorite music or eating a snack.

If your job routine is so saddled with shallow tasks that you don't have time to accomplish more meaningful projects, talk with your manager about how to shift your ratio of deep to shallow work. That might mean working remotely one day a week so you can concentrate or skipping some meetings that aren't relevant to your responsibilities.

People who have asked their bosses for support doing more deep work are "often surprised how quickly work cultures they thought were deeply entrenched become malleable," Newport says. "Just having this conversation with those around you can unlock lots of innovation and experiments."

Improve Efficiency

Working more efficiently can help you save time and frustration at the office. The first step is getting organized, Duncan says. This requires an upfront investment of time, but you can bet it will pay dividends in the future.

Start by devising a categorized filing system for your papers rather than allowing them to pile up. Do the same thing for the applications on your cell phone and the emails in your inbox.

Next, assess the processes you use to accomplish your work, Duncan advises. Ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing, and whether you're doing it the best way each time.

"If you do something more than three times, you need a process," she says.

Processes often can be improved with appropriate technology. But too many workers don't have the training they need to adequately use tools to do their jobs, Duncan says. If you don't understand how to make the most of your software, hardware or other systems, ask for proper training.

"The more you learn about the technology you touch every day, the quicker you're going to finish your work," she says.

Maintain Good Health

Just as athletes require appropriate fuel and training to compete in sporting events, employees need the right physical conditions to use their work hours wisely.

That starts with sufficient sleep. Caffeine may help you power through fatigue for a while, Tate says, but eventually its effects decline. Getting enough rest at night is essential to maintaining focus during the day.

When it comes to food, don't skip breakfast or lunch, and seek energy from healthy sources such as lean protein, fruit and vegetables, not from candy or sugary beverages like soda and juice, advises Laurie Mitchell, assistant vice president of global wellbeing and health management at Colonial Life insurance company.

"Having healthy, balanced meals and snacks goes a long way toward promoting overall health and managing energy," she says.

And although Newport recommends building your stamina to support extended periods of focus, taking a break for physical activity in between work sessions may improve your concentration when you get back to business, Mitchell says. You might stand up for five minutes every hour, exercise in the office gym during lunch or take a "walking meeting" instead of sitting in a conference room.

When it comes to accomplishing good work, Tate says, don't underestimate "the power of a tiny break."