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Stealing Time: How Highly Productive People Get More Done

You can get discouraged by all the things that take minutes here and there from your day--or you can steal some of that time back.
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Time is a precious and tricky resource. You only get so much, and when it's gone, it's gone for good. You can start the day with the best of intentions to cram in as much as possible. But then you wind up having to deal with all those things--phone calls, an urgent request from customers, computer outage, a delay running necessary errands--that steal some of that time out of your day.

But while there isn't a way to change the nature of reality, you can improve your productivity. Instead of being purely a victim, steal some of that time right back.

Think Differently

Rarely do things you need to accomplish happen in one continuous block like a video game, where if you don't get through the next start, you start over at a previous point. Instead, your day is filled with what are much shorter segments of small tasks that either exist on their own or are part of bigger undertakings.

Instead of being like a video game, your day is more like how a computer multitasks. There are many jobs that have to be done. The computer gives each a turn, performing some work on one, then putting it on hold and moving to the next.

Start Stealing

To steal time back, you need to learn how to make use of the periods in which you're left waiting for something else to happen. For example, you're on hold, waiting for a vendor customer service person to get on the phone and handle a problem you're having. Instead of just listening to terrible music, scan through some emails or skim an article you've been meaning to read.

Perhaps you're paying a call on a prospect and will be waiting for five minutes. Sounds like a good time to pull out a tablet loaded with some work (you did bring it along, didn't you?) and make some progress on a response to an RFP. At a restaurant in that time between placing an order and receiving your food? Do some productive day dreaming, with notebook at hand, about new product or service ideas. Or write that birthday card to your Aunt Zelda.

The bad news is that we all waste enormous amounts of time. The good news is that even without giving up some guilty pleasures such as watching "Downton Abbey"--you do need breaks from work and personal life expectations--there are many opportunities to snatch back a few minutes here and there to take care of small tasks that would otherwise nag or never get done.

IMAGE: pimousse3000/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 4, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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