You Don't Need to Burn the Midnight Oil. Use These 5 Productivity Hacks Instead

When leaving the office on Friday at 4 p.m. feels like a high-stakes undertaking, something’s wrong. Many honor the 40-hour workweek as sacred, to the point that anything less induces guilt and a skipping-school mentality. Yet experimentation by a New Zealand firm shows it’s possible to cut back on-the-job hours without missing a beat.

When the company Perpetual Guardian temporarily moved everyone from five work days per week to four, employee productivity and engagement shot up and stress levels plummeted. The experience was so positive that the firm has instituted the change permanently.

While a scaled-back workweek may not be easily implemented in all fields–emergency medicine and manufacturing come to mind–it’s worth investigating. Even billionaire Richard Branson is on the cutting-back bandwagon; he asserts that a healthy relationship with technology will allow people to work fewer hours.

Consequently, I’m concentrating the next few months on how to hack my own to-do list as an entrepreneur–not by working more hours, but by working less to get bigger wins. Want to join me? Use these five tactics to do more in less time.

1. Make smarter to-do lists.

I used to have a love-hate relationship with to-do lists. Writing them made me feel organized, but they never made a big enough difference in my productivity. What I realize now is that I was treating every item with the same urgency, which didn’t help at all.

Rather than putting everything on one to-do list, arrange all your must-do essentials. Which are high-impact tasks? Which bite-sized ones will move you toward the completion of big-picture goals? See which items consistently get overlooked. The problem might be the way they’re worded or that they’re too broadly defined. Or perhaps these tasks belong on an employee’s to-do list and not yours.

2. Hack your inbox.

Every entrepreneur has an inbox whose clutter can inhibit efficiency. To sort the important stuff from the rest, use Gmail’s label function. This allows you to better determine what’s need-to-do versus good-to-do. Remember that your email program probably has a ton of useful features that you haven’t considered.

You can also use your email in tandem with your must-do planning. I use ActiveInbox for my to-do list management inside Gmail. Have an item to add? I email myself. I check my emails and new to-dos once or twice daily, marking them as needed and then knocking them out. In David Allen’s Getting Things Done style, if a task will take two minutes or less, I do it right away.

3. De-tether from digital.

Your devices are a godsend. They’re also chewing up your precious minutes and distracting you from having a balanced life. Believe me, I know: Two bad habits I have are using my phone at dinnertime and checking it first thing when I wake up.

The obvious answer is to store your phone out of sight. Take a break from it and other devices to initiate a real-life refresh button. For instance, I put the phone on “do not disturb” for a few hours each evening. This helps me get out of firefighting mode so I can begin the next day with a clear head and renewed focus.

4. Stay single-minded.

You may believe that multitasking is the entrepreneur’s M.O., but author Daniel Levitin says it’s really a delusion. He suggests that multi-taskers are addicted to the idea that they’re getting tons done, but it actually hurts their productivity.

I’ve begun focusing on one task at a time because switching tasks midstream doesn’t produce results. I block out time to work on projects and then avoid looking at anything else until the work is finished. I even silence my Slack notifications. Unnerving at first, it becomes automatic when you get accustomed to taking back control.

5. Don’t waste your meeting minutes.

My staff meetings used to be a wash, especially in terms of product development. When we first adopted an agile methodology, each meeting added more stress due to unreasonable deadlines and a lack of purposeful communication.

I’ve since started exercising my prerogative to decline meetings, heeding Jeff Bezos’s two-pizza rule: Essentially, only key stakeholders should be present. And to maximize meeting productivity, I’m trying out the three-meeting approach. Pioneered by Tony Scherba, president and founding partner at product development studio Yeti, this “applied agile” strategy enables new product versioning in a week.

For each project, Scherba’s team meets only to plan the product, prototype it, and report progress to stakeholders. With no wasted meetings, his “team feels less burnt out, more productive, and more heard.”

I haven’t fully embraced a four-day work week, but I’m certainly learning to do more in less time. You, too, can look for areas of improvement and hack your way, bit by bit, to maximum effectiveness.