Laura Vanderkam has built her career on time management. But nothing could have prepared the author, podcast host, and productivity expert for knowing how wildly different the average workday would look at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, her new book, The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home (July 21, Portfolio/Penguin Random House), has arrived just in time. Drawing on her own 18 years of experience working remotely, Vanderkam lays down specific, no-nonsense strategies that are like manna from heaven for all of us hunkered at home.
For many white collar workers, she says, stay-at-home directives offer an opportunity to abandon the traditional 9 to 5, and focus, simply, on what needs to be done.
Here are her top tips for doing more with less time — and squeezing a bigger paycheck out of the hours you put in.
It’s about the task, not the time
“We’re so accustomed to thinking of ‘productivity’ in terms of how many hours we’re putting into something,” Vanderkam says.
Try managing by task instead, she advises. In other words, if you have 10 things you need to get done, when they’re done, so are you, at least for the day.
Working at home can actually help here. “You can do things in fewer hours,” she says. “There’s a lot of very distracting things that happen in offices. Time getting to and from places. Uncomfortable things, whether it’s the temperature or noise.”
All those distractions get in the way of the real work, and costs the company—and, consequently, you—money.
You won’t always conquer your most important tasks in eight hours, so don’t fret when that happens. But creating an optimal environment geared toward what should get done rather than how many hours you’re putting in is a helpful reorientation.
Work the hours that work for you
Not all time is created equal, as anyone who’s barreling through a project on hour 12 knows. Vanderkam is a big believer in slotting the right tasks into the right hours, no matter what’s going on around you.
The small stuff, like answering administrative emails or dealing with low-level questions on a project, should never absorb your most generative hours. Know when you work most clearly and skillfully, and get the high-level idea stuff—like interaction with top clients or brainstorming for long into the future—completed then.
“It’s really about managing your energy,” she says. “Put the most important work at the time when you’re best able to do it.”
If you use all your best brain juice on minor endeavors, it’s going to be hard to accelerate to a place where you’re maximizing profit, for your company or yourself.
Work and play go hand-in-hand
It’s easy to imagine your work tasks walled off from the other—more fun—parts of your life, but that’s never quite the case, according to Vanderkam.
“They’re all related. Exercising and getting enough sleep means you’ll have more energy. You’ll be a better friend, relative, and worker,” she says. “If you’re happy at work and achieve things you want to, you’ll be in a better mood with loved ones, and vice versa.”
To fulfill on all fronts, she recommends a weekly planning time to think more broadly about your life. “What would be the highest-impact activities personally and professionally? I like Friday afternoons since most people aren’t doing anything else except waiting for the weekend.”
Put a handful of items in three buckets—professional, relationships, and self—to accomplish in the next week, she recommends. “Do this every Friday and check in on the past week to see, ‘Well, did I do these things? If so, great, but if not, why not? What can I do differently next time?’”
This can reframe what might seem like long-shot goals as more doable. If you want to switch into a different, higher-paying career, it’s almost never going to happen overnight. But if every week you nudge yourself along in the right direction, you may very well be surprised by how far you get.
Always be looking at the bigger prize
Wherever and however you work, it’s natural to want to move up the ladder in a way that fits your ambitions, but also gives you some extra cushion in your wallet. We’re accustomed to thinking about that in terms of office politics, but it’s time for a fresh look.
“A lot of times people just do whatever’s in front of them without asking whether it’s important for their organization,” Vanderkam says. “If you’re trying to get promoted and get a raise, that’s not doled out just because. Identify what brings in revenue or what saves your company money. Can you spend time on those things?”
Or, let’s say, you want to tackle a side hustle. Sure, it seems daunting, but breaking up the work helps a lot.
“A lot of people reach their peak when they start putting in at least 5 to 10 hours a week [on a side gig],” Vanderkam says. “Start thinking in a different mindset. Instead of ‘Am I putting 10 hours a week into my side hustle?’ say, ‘Where could those 5 side tasks go in my schedule?’”
Know your time’s worth, and spend on it
The cliche that “time is money” is tossed around much more than it’s sensibly applied. So Vanderkam’s last piece of advice is to actually USE some of those hard-earned dollars.
“You can invest in yourself, and over time, that will help your earning potential,” she says.
Now that you’re working from home, you may also want to invest in childcare for a few hours a week. Or, if you’re chained to that home office, your literal comfort.
Spending money on a new monitor might seem like a frivolous expense, Vanderkam says. “But if you’re working less and are unhappy because your neck is cramped and you’re hunched over a little laptop, it’s probably worth the extra $200,” she says. “You’ll earn it back.”