7 life-changing tactics to reclaim your time in 2023

As we enter the new year, how do we make the most effective use of our time and energy? I share seven scientifically-backed ways that have worked for me.

Every time I start the year I get into an extra reflective mood.

Over the years, I’ve found that I need this end-of-year ‘circuit breaker’ to gain clarity, rejuvenate my energy, and set intention for the following year.

So I dive into research, writings, and books from people I respect, and carve out nuggets to try for myself in the coming months.

This article condenses hundreds of hours of research and testing into 7 things that busy leaders can immediately do to reclaim your time in 2023.

When you’re a leader, your decisions have important downstream impact on everyone who executes them. The many times I have failed, and had my teams waste weeks or months of work, was usually down to simple failures in my own operating system, resulting in judgement errors or hasty conclusions.

Can we actually achieve the nirvana of perfectly balanced time?

The starting point we take is that most of our time is actually spent by default. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, Americans spent most of their time sleeping (8.95 hours on average), working (5.25 hours), and watching television (3.1 hours!!).

Source: American Time Use Survey 2021

If you’re reading this, you’re likely to spend more time working, and less sleeping (not sure about TV watching habits though!)

As we approach every new year with a greater sense of intention and meaning, here are some tactics that have worked for me. Applying them helped me not only recapture some of my time, but also improved my decision-making and leadership in ways that helped my teams spend their time more productively and effectively too.

Hopefully this saves you the hundreds of hours of research and practical application (read: mistakes) that I had to go through to make this list!

1. Focus: making the main thing the main thing

This is the Big Kahuna: without this, everything else would just be tactics and noise. The concept of focus extends from five-year plans to as granular as what we need to do every day.

Michael Hyatt is a proponent of boiling this down to the “Big 3” things that need to be done - you can have a Big 3 for year, and cascade that down to the quarter, month, week and day.

For something so fundamental, this is actually really hard to do. I find myself agonizing each morning about what is most important that needs to get done for the day.

Recently I’ve really liked the way Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky in their book Make Time: How to focus on what matters every day outlined their choice of the daily “highlight”. There are three things to consider in choosing your focus for the day:

  • What is the most pressing thing I have to do today?

  • At the end of the day, which activity would bring me the most satisfaction?

  • When I reflect on today, what will bring me the most joy?

Since adopting this simple framework, I’ve actually found it much easier to select my “highlight” for each day.

2. Hack away time sinks

Back to the idea that most of our time is actually spent by default, I’ve found that there are certain activities that just make it more likely that I’d spend time unconsciously.

Swiping through notifications and apps on my phone, iPad and Macbook are key culprits. Newsreaders and email are also right up there on the list.

Messrs Knapp and Zeratsky call these “infinity pools” where there are literally never-ending streams of content / distractions for us to get sucked into.

Shutting off almost all notifications on my phone has helped. Also, Tim Ferriss and others have written about a “low information diet” where we deliberately limit the amount of news we receive. While I’m not as knowledgeable about the minutiae of current events, I find that by engaging with people who are knowledgeable gives me all the context I need.

I also appreciate the ‘slow news’ of publications like The Economist that digest insights from current events weekly or monthly without succumbing to the 24/7 pressures of the news cycle.

If Instagram is the way that you stay up to date with your friends and family, by all means continue using it! But schedule time for it and be clear about what you’re using the app for.

Or you can do it the old fashioned way and pick up the phone and call someone to chat.

3. Done is better than perfect

Perfect is the enemy of good.

I often find myself (writing this post included!) putting off doing something because I don’t think I have enough time to do it well.

The tool I’ve found that’s worked well on this is the good old Pomodoro technique (named after kitchen timers shaped like a tomato, there’s tons written about it so I won’t go into detail here), and the reminder to myself “don’t be a superhero”.

The Pomodoro technique sizes down the commitment I need to make to just 25 minutes each time. And at the end of 25 minutes, whatever I’ve set out to do I’ll have done.

If it isn’t done, I rework my estimates and adjust the number of Pomodoros I need. Take a break, and start over.

The “don’t be a superhero” hack covers little reminders to myself to take small, meaningful steps:

  • Don’t try to write a 2,500 word post in one sitting. Just write 250 per day, and stop.

  • If you can’t do the run you want to do, do the run you can do. Some days it’s a win just to lace up those trainers and get out of the house.

It’s more important sometimes to build good habits and a system, which eventually adds up to something great.

4. Timebox your to-do list

This next item is related to the previous one.

Nir Eyal and his superb book Indistractible has inspired me to convert my to-do list into slots on my calendar.

What I do now is

  • Identify my “Highlight” for the day

  • Flag it in Apple Reminders

  • Schedule it in Fantastical (which has an awesome Apple Reminders integration - but you could use Todoist or others too)

This way, I know that at least for my Highlight, I have a realistic chance of getting to it every day.

Nir and others recommend doing this for your whole to-do list: personally I’ve found that difficult maybe due to the way I record tasks.

Besides just ensuring I have a realistic chance of getting to my Highlight each day, it also allows me to timebox my efforts on it.

So I set out on the work knowing that I have a finite amount of time to do it, and get it done the best I can within that time.

A friend once assured me that “if you work at the last minute, you only have to work for a minute.” While it was said with tongue firmly in cheek (he’s one of the hardest working guys I know), the idea of timeboxing forces the time pressure of the last minute in a productive way that allows you to ship and move things along without necessarily facing the negative consequences of last-minute work.

This technique also helps tremendously with batching similar tasks: answering email / chat messages, replying to social media, writing and scheduling LinkedIn posts etc. I’ve been working on setting aside the following each day:

  • Three 30-min timeslots to reply to email and Slack/Teams messages

  • One 30-min timeslot to write 250 words of this blog or a LinkedIn post

  • One 20-min timeslot to reply to comments on LinkedIn

5. Get good at saying no

Every ‘yes’ to an invitation is a ‘no’ to many others.

Sometimes the best way to do everything we need is to limit what we decide we need to do.

This is often uncomfortable, but as an entrepreneur and someone who has become used to sales, saying ‘no’ to someone is a lot less traumatic than it may seem. And in fact, it’s better that the other party knows definitively rather than the all-too-common tactic of ‘ghosting’ without a reply.

If you still find you need a way to say no to requests, Kristen Brillantes shares what she calls the Sour Patch Kid method in the Make Time book. These responses are sour at first, but sweet at the end, for example “Unfortunately, my team won’t be able to participate. But you might ask Team X; they’d be perfect for this kind of event.”

Perhaps the harder thing is to say ‘no’ to your own ideas. There are so many interests, so many opportunities to pursue, which can all feel like they’re once-in-a-lifetime and cannot be missed.

In these cases, I find myself turning back to item 1. What matters most to you over the next week, month, year, or five?

6. Sort everything else

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD as it has become popularly known) productivity system has gotten a little long in the tooth, but some fundamentals continue to remain relevant.

My issue with GTD is that the processing effort required for keeping the system running is non-trivial. I can be a sucker for confusing my efforts to improve my productivity with actually improving my productivity.

But the fundamental idea of getting things out of my head and into somewhere that can be organized is sound.

I often find myself remembering things while driving, walking through hallways, or otherwise preoccupied.

Using Siri on my watch has helped to capture these items into my Reminders app, for me to then process on a daily basis.

Unlike the GTD system however, I am not a fan of organizing tasks into multiple folders, labels, tags and projects. Search functions within todo, email and calendar apps have become powerful enough to quickly pull out information when needed, so the task of sorting information pre-retrieval into overly defined categories has become quite pointless for me.

However, sorting the tasks into what has come to be known as the 4D system is something I continue to find useful. The four areas are:

  • Delete (Drop): See previous section on saying “no”

  • Delegate: Some things can be delegated to others (which comes with its own system of having to keep track and hold that person accountable)

  • Defer: Some items can be scheduled for a later time or date, or just batched (see section 4)

  • Do: Buckle down and do items that are either pre-scheduled for the time, or that are small enough that they can be completed within two minutes

7. Set aside time for reflection

Whatever the system or tactics I use, I’ve found that it always evolves based on the season of life I’m in, or the nature of work, or the needs of the people I serve (my team, customers, stakeholders, partners, and my family included).

So it’s always been important for me that I reflect on how I’ve used my time and energy during each period, and assess whether I’ve been successful in what I’ve set out to do.

This intentionality has the additional side benefit for me of increasing my mental wellbeing that comes from feeling in control of what’s going on in my life - however busy or stressful.

I do this through journaling daily in just 5 minutes in the evening, as part of my routine before going to bed.

According to experts like Adam Grant, reflection and journaling can help to 3-5X the learnings from your experience to turn them into wisdom:

I just ask myself 3 questions for each of my attempts at the highlight for each day:

  • What was the outcome? (Energy, focus, etc)

  • What tactics did you try?

  • How did it go?

Now it’s your turn

Maybe these are tactics new to you, but for most I’d imagine them to be familiar reminders of what you’ve come across in other research.

These have worked very well for me, and have stood the test of 6 years of entrepreneurship and have been refined through many attempts to stay on top of my mental state and tasks through a career spanning almost two decades.

Don’t take these as gospel though, feel free to experiment with them. I’d say the most critical of these tips would be sections 1 and 7: if there’s nothing else that you take away from this post, those two would stand you in good stead for a solid 2023 ahead.

What has worked well for you?